Monday 21 May 2012

The word CRAFT. What does it mean to you?

The word 'craft' continues to stir debate in New Zealand. In some countries, the use of the word 'craft' has stood the test of time and has maintained its relevance, even evolved. In New Zealand, 'craft' is still a work in progress. Against a backdrop of more modern (some might say trendy) friends such as applied arts, object arts, designer made, or even handmade, it has become a crowded landscape and poor old craft is seen by some influential people as, well, just that - poor, OLD craft. Often relegated to the box of country craft fairs, the kitsch, community craft markets, and associated with objects that are made with perhaps poorer quality construction, or uninspiring design.

Consider the growth of online craft communities though, which has seen the word craft re-emerge in some sort of renaissance. Throughout New Zealand, cyberspace has embraced many new groups that include both dedicated 'crafters' as well as 'craft enthusiasts.' Here is a sample, with a combined total of nearly 5,000 members or 'likes': 

Wellington Craftism Collective
Crafternoon Tea

The word 'craft' is also in Hearts in Crafts, a television series currently showing on TVNZ 7. which opens with the line 'the show for those of us with a passion for craft.'

The process by which something is made
Whereas ‘craft’ is seen by some as applying to both the process of creating something as well as the end result, terms such as applied or object art seem to be associated with the final object produced, without reference to the process that comes before. A slight shift, that seems to have lots of implications, especially for those who strive to make objects, and need to market themselves to a buying public and maybe a fine art world comprised of gallery directors, curators, collectors, and art critics.

If I dust off my linguistics degree hat for a minute, I wonder whether there has been a shift in semantics, that is, a shift in the meaning of the word 'craft', or whether it is merely a shift in context as to how the word is actually applied? A quick canvass of friends over dinner, who are not engaged in making objects resulted in comments such as 'craft is about the process of making something' and 'craft can mean anything from craft beer to craft car manufacturing' and 'a craft item is something handmade.' This in turn led to a discussion about how in the world of advertising, it has suddenly become cool to use the word 'craft' to raise consumer's expectations about quality - everything from cheese, beer, wine, car manufacturing, building companies, you name it really.

This presents a very interesting situation. In the wider New Zealand economy, particularly at a consumer level, the use of the word 'craft' carries some prestige. Why then, does the world of fine art resist it's use, or worse, denigrate it, as one person suggested to me recently? Perhaps the observations of Hamish Coney, who wrote an article for Idealog #4 in 2006 shed some light:  

'When branded as ‘craft’ even the coolest practitioner (like, say, potter—sorry, ceramicist—Len  Castle) won’t get a look in when it came to getting a bit of art cred. Things started to look up a bit when ‘craft’ morphed into ‘Applied Art’ in the mid 80s in a classic case of transitional branding. The momentum really picked up in the 1990s when the phrase ‘Object Art’ entered the art lexicon.'

About this point, I decided to consult Webster's online dictionary for an official explanation of terms. Only craft was searchable. Applied art and object art, being two words each were not a recognised singular concept.  

Craft - art or skill; dexterity in particular manual employment; hence the occupation or employment itself; manual art; a trade AND those engaged in any trade taken collectively; a guild: as the craft of ironmongers.

International Comparisons
If we look to our international colleagues, the word 'craft' does not seem to be relegated to the past. It is actually very current, carries prestige, and has aspirational qualities associated with the skill and craftsmanship (perfected over many years of intense training) needed to craft an object. Perhaps there are some in New Zealand that also subscribe to this school of thought? One wonders what students and graduates think about this terminology dilemma as they embark on their new career path.

Internationally, there are a number of national organisations that have 'craft' in their title, all of which seek to advance public awareness and appreciation for innovative, aesthetically designed objects (that one might find exhibited in public art galleries). For example, Craft Scotland, Craft Northern Ireland, Crafts Council, Craft Australia (in the process of closing its 40 year operations), Craft in America, the Australasian Craft Network, the World Crafts Council, the Cape Craft and Design Institute in South Africa, and more. International publications such as the Crafts magazine or Craft Unbound embrace the word craft too.One person who knows about the inherent challenges around use of terminology, particularly in relation to the marketing of craft objects, is Emma Walker, CEO of Craft Scotland, who states on their website that: "I had spoken to over a hundred makers who were brilliantly talented, highly creative and ambitious for their futures. However, every conversation I had with them was about the long-debated question “What is Craft?” – a question asked time and time again in industry research. I had been in the sector three weeks and I was already frustrated and bored of the debate."

Emma and her team went on to develop the 'C' word marketing campaign, designed to provoke interest and discussion on Scottish craft at a national and international level. This advert was played in cinemas around the UK. (Click on the youtube video below or here for more information. 

The dilemma for Craft Aotearoa
To be on par internationally, there was no question that we needed to include the word 'craft' in our name, and, being a nation with two official languages, we chose the Maori word for New Zealand, 'aotearoa.' (For our international readers, that means land of the long white cloud and if you ever arrive in New Zealand by ship, that will immediately become visible long before you step foot on land.)

Craft Aotearoa has also had to carefully consider the appropriate use of terminology in a legal context, firstly with the drafting of our charitable objectives in our Trust Deed document, and secondly in the context of being asked by the Charities Commission to provide a definition of 'craft' and 'craftsmanship.' One could write a thesis based on that simple question, however we will leave the final word to our government (via Creative New Zealand) who outline what they mean by craft/object art in the 2012 Craft /Object Art funding guide.

Craft / object art includes traditional applied arts and contemporary practice, as well as ceramics, jewellery, glass, textiles, metal, woodwork, and studio-based design.

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