Probably influenced by my role at 108|Contemporary and thinking about how my own art fits within the broader context, I’ve been curious to learn more about the history of craft and the changing associations with terms such as “art” and “craft.” As a part of the Oklahoma Art Writing and Curatorial Fellowship, I wrote an article published in Art Focus Oklahoma that grazes the surface of these topics. I’m hoping this will be only the beginning a larger and longer conversation about contemporary craft, what defines it, and why it is relevant in a world of ever changing technology.
What defines “craft,” exactly? The term has been used variously by artists, scholars, curators, schoolteachers, and laypeople to refer to artwork made from particular materials or hand-made functional objects. When I recently asked this question to 6th-grade students on a tour at 108|Contemporary, a contemporary non-profit fine craft gallery in Tulsa, they responded, “Craft is made of stuff and art is like a drawing or painting.” While 6th graders surely aren’t the authority on the topic, I think their distinction based on “stuff” is significant and relevant. The terms art, craft, fine craft, and arts and crafts have each had many points in history when both artists and art critics redefined them, and the terms oscillate between being celebrated and denounced.
One common definition is utility. If an object has a function outside of cerebral or visual content, such as a vessel, then it receives the label of “craft.” Another common consideration for an object’s status as craft is its materials, or “stuff.” One can reserve the craft label for only artworks made from certain materials, such as wood, glass, clay, fiber, leather, or metal, while one could also say craft is anything other than painting, drawing, or photography, with printmaking teetering on the fence established between the two. The history of the term and the set of practices that have been established around it suggest a position in between these two camps, overlapping both. Regardless of materials or utility, craft comes from an acute interest in the relationship between aesthetics and form, in the way that an object’s form is inherently tied to its craftsmanship. In the work of numerous artists we see that the timeless practice of craftsmanship is as relevant as ever.
While humans have been shaping pots from clay and carving figures from wood and stone since our earliest civilizations, the discourse about craft really begins around the Industrial Revolution. As Glenn Adamson argues in The Invention of Craft, this modern moment was in fact craft’s origin. Prior to the complex machines developed in this period of industrialization, there was nothing from which to separate craft from fine art, as everything was handmade. With the development of machine-made objects, the distinction between hand-made and industrially produced objects emerged. It is this new separation of machine-made and hand-made that emphasizes and favors the artist-made object. As mass production increased and prices for generic items were low enough for most to afford, the reputation of craft increased and handmade items became a luxury, as fine art had been since the Renaissance. In response to mass production, the Arts and Crafts Movement centered on the handmade object and the philosophy of l’art pour l’art, or art for art’s sake, took shape.
An understanding, even if extremely brief, of craft’s history can provide context of how we might envision its role in the future. At a time of art made of various new media and 3D printing, how can craft remain contemporary and relevant? One key way artists are doing this is by engaging with tradition while remaining contemporary in their present time, either using traditional materials in a contemporary way, or using contemporary materials in a traditional way (or by using both traditional materials and processes to new aesthetic ends).
One example of this is found in the part-weaving, part-quilt tapestries of Arturo Sandoval. Rather than weaving natural fibers, his work is composed of materials such as microfiche and holographic film. From a distance Sandoval’s geometric abstracted tapestries appear to be computer motherboards, but a closer look reveals thousands of film frames stitched together with colored threads. The microfiche contains images of past print periodicals that are so small only the headlines can be read. This dual view provides a complex layering as the piece literally stitches inaccessible stories together while showing the containment of data in a computer. These quilts thus connect a process dating back to the first dynasty of Egypt to the technologies of the last century in a new contemporary composition.
In her series Broken Things, Livia Martin incorporates the concept of utility within craft by using vessels, such as teacups and bowls, but alters their forms in order to remove their functions. The works consist of highly polished plaster to mimic the more traditional surfaces of glazed porcelain; the result is that the forms appear as if they are melting, while the patterns remain unaltered. In this body of work, Martin questions the requirement of utility in craft as well as creates a visual dialogue to past craft practices.
Using both traditional craft materials and processes but in a contemporary aesthetic, the “wearable art” jewelry pieces of Hillarey Dees combine both fiber and metal in her necklaces, which are inspired by nature. Dees’ work focuses on the craftsmanship, materials, and function of body adornment while exploring natural imagery of pods and cocoons to evoke the wonder of birth and death.
Each of these artists demonstrates ways that craft and its practices are still vibrant in the art of today. The use of materials and the question of functionality remain integral aspects of the art of craft, but it is the attention given to detail and craftsmanship, and ultimately the artistic intention, that allows craft to go beyond these simplistic constraints. Given the long history of craft and its various definitions over time, artists will continue to redefine and re-contextualize the meaning of craft in the future. However, as long as humans and stuff exist, the need for artists to manipulate this stuff into beautiful and interesting objects will persist.
 Glenn Adamson, The Invention of Craft (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), xvi.