What I would like to address in this post is the problematic nature of qualitative assessment in the field of craft. I make no secret of the fact that I believe that craft has an inherent egalitarian responsibility and that part of respecting and honoring our own history is to acknowledge our roots as a field steeped in socially conscious (sometimes even subversive) production.
To bring you up to speed, it has become evident to me that a representative cross-section of participants at The Language of Craft conference found the term crafter to be a derogatory term in relation to their own practice, while the term craftsperson (also craftsman or craftswoman) should be reserved for makers who subscribe to and strive for standards of excellence in the physical creation of their work. In other words, crafters just make things without care, perhaps with a hot glue gun, while craftspeople execute works of technical virtuosity, thus elevating them to a status worthy of the term craftsperson.
I find this standard of technical accomplishment to be troublesome for several reasons. This first of which is that I do not feel a successful work can be judged on technical accomplishment alone. To paraphrase a previous post, The Importance of Synesthesia, Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran is neuroscience researcher who, through the evidence of his research, suggests that cross-sensory perception, or synesthesia, is the basis for creative thought. In other words, it is our ability to engage in metaphorical thinking that makes us artists, rather than any other trait. I find this to be most applicable in the context of this discussion. I believe, though you are welcome to disagree, that at least part of a work’s value lies in its ability to relay creative thought or metaphorical thinking. Therefore the precondition of technical proficiency is not a valid method of assessment in and of itself because tacit (or how-to) knowledge is only a means to express metaphorical thinking.
To illustrate this, I would like to relay an anecdote (originally from a 2002 oral history interview by Robert Silberman) from Glenn Adamson’s Thinking Through Craft in which Warren MacKenzie tells a story about his time in St. Ives as an apprentice to Bernard Leach, undoubtedly one of the most important ceramicists of the 20th Century.
By making a qualitative assessment of a work as either good or bad based on the prerequisite of technical proficiency we are indeed judging work on only one superficial criteria, rather than objectively evaluating the successfulness of a work. In addition, the aim of many works is not technical proficiency alone. By excluding works from the field of craft (or its maker the status of craftsperson) that are deemed sub-proficient we are in essence discriminating against alternate modes of evaluation. By desperately adhering to qualitative technical standards we are reinforcing the exclusivity of our own status and stalwartly resisting change thus limiting the parameters of our field. The result of this practice can only be stagnation and regression.
This is discrimination, and it is discrimination in the truest sense of the word, I find to be repulsive. Should makers who do not exercise a base level of technical proficiency sit in the back of the proverbial bus? Use separate bathrooms and water fountains? Granted this is an extreme comparison, but in essence it plays. By not being like us (using qualitative technical standards) crafters are less than us, and should not receive the same status, benefits, and rights accorded to us. It just smacks of insecurity. Are we really concerned that by inviting crafters or non-technically proficient makers to our table we will in some way be harmed? I sincerely doubt that mixing with crafters would in anyway degrade craft as a field. On the contrary, I think it will only enrich the field and widen the spectrum and power of the word Craft. What I believe to be the chief concern of those who use the term crafter in a pejorative manner is the loss of hard fought credibility in the eyes of the public at large. Yet for all of craft’s hard won status, craft fairs (even the big selective ones) are often populated by booths filled with absolute dreck.
So this is where it comes back to the Art vs. Craft debate. Is the perceived discrimination and differentiation of craft from art not the same impulse as craftspeople attempting to differentiate and venerate themselves above crafters? It strikes me as hypocritical that the same minds who lament craft’s second class status are the same as the minds that are so eager to differentiate themselves from crafters. I think we should not be so eager to pass judgment on fellow makers.
Craft is big enough to incorporate both technically proficient and technically deficient makers. I have to believe that craft is about more than just how many skills you have. Though skilled labor is inherently part of what we do, it is by no means everything. And it is for this reason that we must keep an open mind and be egalitarian and inclusive in our field, our community, and about our passion.