09 May 2006

Crafters of the world unite.....

Karl Marx was perhaps the original prophet of the Pro-Am economy. In The German Ideology, written between 1845 and 1847, Marx maintained that labour – forced, unspontaneous and waged work – would be superseded by self-activity. He evoked a communist society in which: ‘. . . nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes . . . to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.’ By the mid-1850s Marx had already modified this utopian vision and instead looked forward to a time when ‘material production leaves every person surplus time for other activities’.

The Pro-Am Revolution: how enthusiasts are changing our economy and society
is a book by Charles Leadbeater and Paul Miller published by Demos. Available as a download from here, the book describes the rise of "amateurs who work to professional standards", and who are transforming all fields from music through to software, business and astronomy: "The Pro-Ams are knowledgeable, educated, committed and networked, by new technology. The twentieth century was shaped by large hierarchical organisations with professionals at the top. Pro-Ams are creating new, distributed organisational models that will be innovative, adaptive and low-cost." In the passage at the top of this post, the authors are making the point that technological and cultural changes are moving us very close to Marx's ideal of how a communist society would actually work. A more recent article in Fortune suggests the significance of the DIY economy. DIY is thus a mash-up of the post-industrial enterprise economy and good old unreconstructed communism.

Today I received an email from the ever-perceptive John Marshall who was trying to link together some of the issues I've been raising in this blog with issues that he too has been exploring. Links he provided led me, somewhat accidently, to the Leadbeater book and the Pro-Am thesis, which strikes me as one way of framing some of this stuff. To quote from John:

I was reading your posts at www.craftresearch.blogspot.com when I made a mental connection to something I was reading at Anne Galloway’s blog:

“In the past I would have considered these things amongst the ill effects of capitalism, but now I think it's a bit more complicated than that. After all, some of this labour is actually being done for free. Out of love even, like with Flickr or any number of mod communities. The DIY ethic, in fact, is based on the power of creative re-use and re-appropriation. But these terms are now being tossed around in software and hardware development like organisations and companies only care about democratic participation, and not profitability. Jean Burgess knows much more about mass amateurisation and vernacular creativity than I do…”

There are some interesting posts at Jean Burgess’s blog creativity/machine on vernacular creativity (see under categories in her sidebar). I think that is a great academic term to describe this type of activity.

I agree with John that Vernacular Creativity is a useful term to describe these emergent activities which focus around craft and making. The digital culture that manifests VC appears to be growing rapidly: there is HobbyPrincess and her Craft Manifesto, there's the Make blog, from which is arising Craft Magazine. Then we have Readymademag, and the making things blog. Taking an interesting and explicit political position is Craftism. I am trying to document as many of these as I come across on my del.icio.us page.

I have thrown all of this down, not to make a point, but rather to pose some questions:

What implications does all this have for "fine craft", and how does it change the culture of consuming such craft?

How should we regard the rise of vernacular creativity?

How should we curate and critically comment on the digitally connected vernacular crafts?

What are the political implications of this new culture?

1 comment:

  1. Whew. Those are some big questions but it does draw out an interesting conversation which is mighty complex. I am going to attempt to briefly summarize a few ideas that pop into my mind after reading this.

    First off, conjuring Karl Marx takes us into a foray of topics that I think are quite relevant to this exploration of redefining craft, namely, the socialistic ideal of making art accessible to all people, which is what “craft” has aspired to be… art for the people, which can be traced back through Ruskin and Morris to Yanagi's The Unknown Craftsman.

    Secondly, the very notion of Marxist/ Materialist art history inspires one to question how the conditions of social and economic power shape art practice, particularly the need for artistic validation.

    Thirdly, within this analysis/approach you can easily branch into a feminist art historical approach which is intricately tied to the history of craft production, as you all know, both positively and negatively; but that is an entirely another post altogether.

    I think the term “vernacular creativity” is a great description, albeit, it is subject to a broad interpretation that could include fine craft, DIY craft but also other alt.art phenomenon such as folk art.

    In terms of curating and critically commenting on the digitally connected vernacular crafts, I am big fan of using the epistemological context of material culture as a framework, as it offers an all inclusive methodologies for classifying the products of human creativity, whereas Western Art History has its limits.

    Additionally, the social and economic biases, which Marxist/Materialist art history attempts to reveal, are also looked at objectively within the study of Material Culture, whereas Western Art History, well, let’s just say it doesn’t have a strong record on this line of inquiry...

    This notion of the Pro-Am revolution is quite interesting. On the surface, it appears tangentially related to the concept of communities of practice (Lave, et al, 1991), which when applied to craft as a community of practice, I think this view can be further extrapolated to the study of knowledge management within communities of practice (Wenger, et al 2002), which outlines how explicit knowledge is transferred and shared online. Granted, the crafts are concerned primarily with tacit knowledge but there is a lot of explicit knowledge mixed in there.

    Anyway, ithout going on and on, I would like to conjure Marx one last time and comment that your approach here appears to be applying social constructionism (Berger, P., et al., 1966), which I agree with wholeheartedly… in short, I am excited about your work here and I look forward to reading more.

    ~ Dennis

    Berger, P. L. and T. Luckmann (1966), The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Anchor Books, Garden City, NY.

    Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

    Wenger, E. (1999) Communities of Practice. Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Wenger, E. McDermott, R. and Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.