Monday, October 6, 2008
By: Jon Sutter, Graduate Student in Wood
At: VCU, Department of Media-based Art and Design
Contrary to what many artists think, I believe that aesthetic choices in art are wholly suffused with the economic circumstances of life. This is nowhere more evident than in the field of contemporary craft. I am a woodworker and a craftsman who has spent many years learning his skills. So it pains me to say this, sort-of. However, craft is pretty much dead. Maybe it’s not all dead. There’s still a little bit kicking around, but, by and large, it’s breathing its last breaths. Contemporary craft has lost its main purpose for being and has devolved into a form of media-based sculpture. Both the recent dropping of the word “crafts” from the name “California College of Arts and Crafts,” as well as the renaming of the “American Craft Museum” to the “Museum of Art and Design,” exemplify recent shifts toward an honest acknowledgement of the state of craft. This is also exemplified in the proliferation of non-functional craft work.
What does it say when a functional item cannot be used? Let’s say we have a chair. The chair is made like a chair, displays the fabrication methods and the skilled labor of a chair, but cannot be used. Is this chair a sculpture? Perhaps it is. However, I would argue that it is also the symbolic and final degeneration of a field of endeavor that has become obsolete. This is craft that embodies its own tragedy, the symbolic death of the craftsman’s relevancy to culture. Because craft’s traditional usefulness has become depleted, the motivations of contemporary craft artists have begun to align with the motivations of fine artists. Because these motivations are nearly identical, the field of contemporary craft has taken up the same preoccupation with concept and theory that typifies the practice of modern fine art. How woeful it is that craft artists need to concern themselves with a “Theory of Craft.” Unfortunately, theory will never resuscitate that which has died by economics.
William Morris complained, more than a century ago, about his work finding an audience only among the well-off. He wouldn’t have been able to make his work if he hadn’t come from a wealthy family. Industrial culture doesn’t need art in the way it needs the things of everyday life. And the things of everyday life are made less expensively (and often better) by the methods of mass production. Granted, mass produced products don’t carry the uniqueness of a handmade item. However, when shopping for value, the cost benefit of manufactured goods far exceeds that of handmade ones. Therefore, the traditional role of the craftsman, someone who provides his/her community with the items needed for everyday life, has nearly ended. Without strong consumer demand for handcrafted items that can compete in the market with manufactured goods, where else but into theory, introspection, and self expression can the virtuosic energies of craft artisans go?
Of course, there are plenty of people who will disagree with me, who will claim that it is their personal vision that drives their creative work. I believe it is their personal vision. However, without very specific economic circumstances, the making of hand-crafted work, functional or nonfunctional, would not be possible. In fact, it is my assertion that the career of most craft artists will end on the day they graduate from their craft program. It will end the day their student loan payments become due. Otherwise, some alternative form of financial support is required. They may hang on for a while, but only a lucky few will find long-term employment in the field of contemporary craft or will be able to develop a viable niche market for their work.
My own graduate study in the field of crafts asks what can be done about these economic circumstances. I am focusing on the niche market. Craft, particularly furniture-making, requires the same space and tools of a regular business. In order to truly survive outside of academia, craft artists need to study the business aspects of what they do. Because of their high price, craft items necessarily serve a luxury market. However, which luxury market they serve could be the difference between losing money and being profitable. I believe that new technologies can make crafts a somewhat profitable endeavor once again. For woodworking, software tools like AutoCAD combined with newly developed low-cost CNC routers may make artisan furniture a viable enterprise. Custom furniture will never compete with low-cost, imported furniture, but it may be possible to develop a niche furniture business that utilizes these newly developed tools and caters to a market that isn’t only “the rich.”
The question for every craft artist who aspires to sell his/her work is this: “How do I create value in the work I make.” This could be work of technical virtuosity, or “green” work, or work that is interesting and unique, or work which steps into the realm of sculpture. However, work which does not find a sufficient niche market and is supported financially by the artist can only be someone’s pet project. The work may be fine art, may be significant in some way to a cultural dialog, but, in the true and traditional sense of craft that serves the utilitarian needs of a culture, its purpose for being is mostly gone. In addition, the traditional skills that exemplify the best work are going as well.
Skill, however, is relative always to the task at hand. As traditional skills die away, others are created. Today’s craft artists, in addition to the “hard” skills needed to make their work, must also master the skills of marketing, sales, and other “soft” skills to gain and maintain a market presence. Those whose success carries them beyond a niche market will inevitably find themselves in the realm of product design and will need to turn to outright manufacturing. Those whose work is celebrated and widely popular, who don’t pursue manufacturing, may find their ideas stolen by the likes of Target or others who are willing to utilize manufacturing to its fullest. Whether craft artisans are willing and able to use manufacturing to their advantage, or whether their livelihood will continue to be destroyed by it, remains a challenge for the field as a whole.