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Craft in the Current Moment: An Essay by Kirsty Robertson
Professor and scholar Kirsty Roberston contributed an essay regarding craft and its meaning in today's politcal climate for OCAC's 2016-17 BFA thesis catalog. Click here to see a PDF of the essay as it appeared in the catalog, or read the full text below.
Craft In the Current Moment
The word “craft” derives from the Middle English “craft,” and the Old English “cræft,” and refers interchangeably to “physical strength, might, courage, science, skill, art, ability, talent, virtue, excellence, trade, handicraft, calling, work or product of art, hex, trick, fraud, deceit, machine, instrument.”1 Craft is a word extensive in its semantic meaning, and much debated in its disciplinary boundaries.
Perhaps etymology seemed far away when, on January 21, 2017, an estimated 3-4 million people took to the streets as a part of the Women’s March. Many of them were wearing so-called “pussy hats,” pink knitted hats with “ears” that resembled both kitten ears, and perhaps, with a stretch of the imagination (or the wool), a certain piece of female human anatomy. The Women’s March was a key moment of resistance against newly elected President Trump’s political views and statements about women, while also drawing attention to the incoming government’s positions on reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, and other linked issues. But in the days after the march, the euphoria of solidarity was matched with both dismissal (what possible purpose could handmade hats serve?) and with a series of consciousness-raising intersectional critiques: Why were all of the hats pink? Not all women have pink/white skin. And why pink anyway – isn’t the use of pink just a replication of gender norms? Must all women have a “pussy” or was the wearing of the hats trans-exclusionary? In this tense and festive moment, craft was suddenly launched into the spotlight as debates and questions pertinent in many spheres were argued through hundreds of thousands of handmade hats.
On the one hand, those experienced in crafting and craft scholarship were confronted with questions that have an exhausting familiarity to them, so many times have they been asked over the past decades. What is revolutionary about crafting? Aren’t knitting and crocheting the most parochial, the most feminine, the most oppressive of pastimes? The constant dismissals of craft as worthy, of craft as more than a hobby, of craft as active or innovative, remain intractably present, years after they were fiercely unraveled by Roszika Parker, Lucy Lippard, Faith Ringgold, and so many others.2 The enthusiasm with which millions of marchers undertook a massive knitting project clearly demonstrates how dismissal has never dimmed the enthusiasm of crafters, nor their belief in the political potency of the handmade. On the other hand, the intersectional critiques of the hats, both gentle and not, clearly also demonstrate that continued presence does not necessarily mean that erasure is not simultaneously taking place. That such critical questions provoked a great deal of backlash and angst suggests that they hit a nerve – one that deserves further investigation and discussion. Indeed, concerted efforts to decolonize craft curriculum, and to rethink some of the ways that craft intersects with subtle and not-so-subtle forms of ongoing racism are also taking place in lively debates in venues such as the popular Critical Craft Forum Facebook Group. Again, however, the questions and critiques are not new, and for people of colour, who are often given the role of teaching how to recognize racism, these questions can be as exhausting as the art vs. craft chestnut.
Thus it was that as I was preparing this text, I was also getting ready to go to New York to see British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s exhibition Prejudice at Home: A Parlour, a Library, and a Room at the James Cohan Gallery in New York City. The “British Library” installation in the exhibition contains 6,000 books, each hand-bound in Dutch wax fabric and emblazoned with the name of an immigrant or first generation British citizen who has impacted British culture. Now an internationally-recognized art star, Shonibare’s work has, for the last decade plus, used Dutch wax fabric to eloquently draw attention to the tangled histories of Europe and Africa, the ongoing impacts of colonization, and the incredible movement of people and goods around and across the globe. His fiber-based critical installations have also been remarkably well-recognized by the mainstream art world.3 But what this latest work demands, is that we also put our own houses in 3 Although Shonibare is one of my favourite artists, I do not think that his work should be closed off to critique, as the in-folding of gender and the obscuring of labour in his oeuvre are also worth discussion. And indeed, it’s also worth acknowledging his relationship to other fiber-based artists, many of whom struggle to find public venues for their work. order, acknowledging the importance, or indeed the centrality, of marginalized communities. Change, this work suggests, is always full of potential. To purposefully misquote William Morris, what is more beautiful or more useful than an outlook of constant questioning?
The push and pull between presence and critique in the particularly public venue of the march, and in Shonibare’s library, in a time of profound upheaval, hint that we could be at a transitional moment, where craft has the power to draw attention to some of the most pressing issues of the day. Although the old debates and questions are certainly present, craft has continued its expansion into the formerly closed off galleries of the high art world.4 And indeed, this expansion has also made its way into popular culture, from the “slow crafting” seen in the Norwegian “slow TV” movement, where, over the course of twelve hours, a sweater was created from shearing the sheep to casting off the stiches (complete with hours of meditative knitting), to the March, 2017 announcement that Parks and Recreation buddies Leslie and Ron (Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman) have teamed up to host a show titled The Handmade Project, a competition-based reality show for craft-making.
Thus, perhaps this is a moment for pause and reflection. The ecstatic vibrancy and deeply thoughtful nature of a number of recent exhibitions,5 the folding of craftwork into everyday activism,6 the increasingly public performance of craft,7 the ongoing teaching of rigorous skillsets, all coupled with an explosion of texts and critical writing, suggest that the future of craft is nothing if not exciting. I suggest that it is precisely this expansiveness, from downright sloppy to exquisitely detailed, from DiY to machine-honed, from liberal to conservative, and from pink hats to radical intersectionality, that could characterize craft in the present moment. And I additionally propose that this messiness is something to celebrate, for it suggests a generosity and openness that has room both for acceptance and for critique, and an understanding of discipline that has scope for multiple and layered definitions. Returning to the multiplicity of craft present in its etymology, this is a moment to embrace craft’s manifold history and future, in all facets, with skill, talent, and excellence, but also with courage.
~ Kirsty Robertson
1 Wiktionary. Craft. Accessed March 1, 2017.
2 For just two examples among so many, see Lucy Lippard. “Household Images in Art.” In From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (New York: E.P Dutton, 1976). Reprinted from Ms., March 1973; Roszika Parker. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (New York: Routledge, 1989). See also the work of Janis Jefferies.
3 Although Shonibare is one of my favourite artists, I do not think that his work should be closed off to critique, as the in-folding of gender and the obscuring of labour in his oeuvre are also worth discussion. And indeed, it’s also worth acknowledging his relationship to other fiber-based artists, many of whom struggle to find public venues for their work.
4 For example, just as Museum of Contemporary Craft was closed by Pacific Northwest College of Art, there is more craft than ever in the major galleries. At the time of writing, for example, Cauleen Smith’s hand-stitched banners in the 2017 Whitney Biennale were lighting up Instagram.
5 There are too many to mention, but two of my favourites (only the latter of which I was able to see in person) were Ebony G. Patterson’s 2016 Dead Treez exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design, and Brendan Fernades’s Lost Bodies at the Textile Museum of Canada.
6 See the work of Aram Ham Sifuentes, Stephanie Syjuco, The Walking with Our Sisters Project in Canada, and many others.
7 See Kirsty Robertson and Lisa Vinebaum. Special issue of Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture (Crafting Community). 14.1 (2016).
Kirsty Robertson is an Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Museum Studies at Western University, Canada (London, Ontario). Her research focuses on activism, visual culture, and changing economies. She has published widely on these topics and is currently finishing her book Tear Gas Epiphanies: Protest, Museums, and Culture in Canada. Since 2008, Kirsty has been very interested in textiles, the textile industry and textile-based arts. She has written on textiles and technology, on craftivism, and is currently looking closely at petrotextiles (textiles that are made from oil and that disintegrate into plastic microfilaments). Kirsty has an ongoing interest in critical museum studies, and is starting a large-scale project focused on small-scale collections that work against traditional museum formats.