Above: Essay illustration by Laurie White
Craft and its Writing as Collectivized Outsider
In March of 2022, Warren Wilson College in western North Carolina announced the pending closure of its MA in Critical Craft Studies.1 This came after only a handful of years since its founding in 2017, which, despite its relatively short lifespan, was felt by many in the craft world with a sense of overwhelming “loss.”2 It echoes the recent closing of the much older but similarly aligned Oregon College of Art & Craft in 2019,3 which sent the same waves of concern through the craft world as Warren Wilson’s announcement has now.
These degree-offering schools and programs are not alone either, as many other academic departments across the country or independent programs with a scholastic interest in craft4 have been either shuttered or restructured to sideline craft in recent years, along with countless museums and art spaces that have done the same.5 It’s understandable to look at all of this from a distance and feel worried, especially when considering the many individuals put in professional or financial jeopardy as a consequence. It also seems clear that solely engaging craft through academia and museum structures is, for now, quite perilous, but what does the difficulty of this say about craft today as a distinct entity from art? If organized knowledge production on craft is to continue to exist, what exactly does it need to look like to survive? And who would these new understandings of craft need to serve?
To start, what exactly do we mean by “craft?” This is a question that has many answers for many different people, but here, “craft” will refer to the interconnected array of schools, galleries, publications, councils, and other organizations in this country that self-describe craft as their purpose. For this, think of sites like Penland School of Craft in North Carolina, Haystack Mountain School of Craft in Maine, The American Craft Council in Minneapolis, or the Center for Craft in Asheville, to name only a few. In this sense, craft is not an action (as in, to craft with skill), or defined by material (clay, fibers, glass, paper, and so on), but instead, craft is simply a series of places and people who feel themselves to belong to a group called “craft”, of which there are a great many.
This way of seeing craft, as a real-time collection of self-organizing and self-defining entities, for now, centers not so much a set of romanticized ideals, but instead simply how craft already functions in this country. It not only acknowledges craft’s different histories, goals, and governing structures but activates them. Moreover, it shifts the question away from what is craft? toward what does craft do? And, still, more importantly, what should craft be doing that it isn’t already? If this ecosystem of sites feels like an unnatural way to consider craft, remember that the art world works in much the same way: it too is comprised of schools, galleries, publications, and councils, and without needing to coordinate any further than in name alone—much like a religious doctrine—produces a complex, tangible, and coherent social object. And this comparison to the art world is appropriate, because in craft’s enduring outsider status to the art world lies its most important quality and potential, and precisely where craft must pick up what remains of its scholastic strategy.
If you happen to agree with writers such as Gene Ray that the art world is “a social sub-system of capitalism,” and that, like all capitalist systems, it only really manages to “neutralize”6 the desire to enact social change,7 then the specter of an alternative world such as craft—imperfect as it may be—should interest you greatly. Craft has its own economy, set of sites, significant figures, history, rules, trends, and goals. The discrete space created and kept by craft, relatively unburdened by the demands of the larger art world, make it an ideal place for building and launching new social strategies. However, if you still agree that the art world, again, as an extension of capitalism, will take every chance it has to absorb all messages of dissent into its own aesthetic landscape and power-sustaining logic8 (i.e. bringing all would-be opposition over to its own side like a generation-spanning game of Red Rover), then alternative forces like craft should be very intentional about the way it interfaces with art.9
This absorption is what has already been happening for the last several decades, as the art world has steadily opened its doors to the idea of craft. Art programs across the country now widely advertise courses that include the materials and techniques of what is either remembered as or still considered “craft” and encourage students to follow the logical conclusion of 20th-century conceptualism by using whatever technique and material is necessary to execute an idea.10 In some ways, this is a good thing, as the art world begins to grapple with all that it has forcibly left out of its own cannon over the last several hundred years—most notably, women, queers, and BIPOC creators. To throw open the floodgates of material and process in art has, at least in certain circumstances, allowed for new work and people to come within its own borders.11
Maria Elena Buszek characterizes this trajectory in the following way: “Emerging artists in today’s art world enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom in exploring such craft media—so much so, in fact, that one might argue that art students today often take this freedom for granted as they develop their studio practice.”12 Again, this should largely be heralded as a good thing, as for generations prior, artists with craft associations were ignored by the art world and art market. Furthermore, individuals—whether they identify an allegiance with art or craft, or both—should be at liberty to occupy and access multiple spheres at once. So what’s the problem?
Simply put, a focused study of craft in American academics by way of stand-alone programs and degrees-conferred is now obsolete. There is no need, as, on paper, the authority on craft now falls under the auspices of art. Yes, individuals have more freedom to make art objects as they see fit, and public interest in craft could be said to be at an all-time high,13 and in these ways, craft could be seen as the come-back-kid of the now-historic art/craft divide. But in the intellectual and academic arms race between art and craft—who shapes how we understand and value these things and as an extension, who holds the real power—art is the undeniable winner. The risk here, of art fully absorbing craft, is that tangible, practical knowledge of craft skill and history will be lost over time because the art world really only cares about the idea of, and reference to, craft, not its actual knowledge. Perhaps even more importantly, art’s annexing of craft will take away the power it has as an autonomous, outsider space where new ideas can be generated and deployed against the hegemony of art.
Despite the complexity of craft’s present identity and position, what must happen next, thankfully, is simple: the craft world collectively (rather than its individual practitioners) must ignore the temptation to make craft in the image of art and to pursue what Ray would call “a resolute break with this system.”14 It is craft’s position as an outsider that gives it strength in the first place, and in fact, sustains its presence. This circumstantial role as an alternative to “Art Under Capitalism”15 is what, in part, continuously draws newcomers to it. This is why it comes as no surprise that craft’s ongoing integration into spheres of American academia and contemporary art manages (mostly) to weaken its position within this system. Moreover, this trade space between art and craft is an uneven one to begin with: the burden of risk falling disproportionately on craft. In the best case, perhaps, art and craft both strengthen the other, but any less than this, art will colonize the strengths and public affinities of craft and leave the alternative space potential of craft destitute.
Many parts of this art/craft dynamic have already been approached by other thinkers,16 who have either mapped out or summarized these same relationships and, occasionally, gained critical reception for it. But what then is keeping these ideas from really taking root in the form of strategy and public messaging? The simplest answer, aside perhaps from a wide mixture of individual motivations and actionable conclusions, is just that the writing has yet to really target the working class directly, and functionalize itself with any real purpose. This is why new craft writing should concern itself less with what craft is and where it has been and instead should act instructively about where craft could lead us and who craft is for.
Still, what would this realignment and intellectual “break” from past systems look like? Here, the craft world should continue, in part, what it already does very well—to exist as a long-form project of alternative educational and creative spaces in this country but to layer on top of its current ambitions a focused, class conscious scholarship that is developed and circulated in-house. Craft's most urgent responsibilities are to communicate and convince both itself and working-class people that it can offer tools of resistance to capitalism (and the art world) that nothing else can.
Organizational messaging and mission statements should move away from the neoliberal focus on the growth of individuals (their skills and singular practical well beings) and move briskly towards the development and fostering of shared radical knowledges: to know and actively speak on why it matters to continue teaching new generations how to literally, non metaphorically, rebuild the world. There is an extraordinary, revolutionary potential in the knowledge to make clothes, to build dwellings, to fabricate tools, and to grow food. This is not to preclude the artistic and poetic potential of these skills as well, but to never forget what makes them truly unique in the first place. It can and should become commonplace for craft’s constituents to ask “why?” and commonplace for craft’s institutions to offer answers.
This radical course change, however, will be easier said than done. Currently, contemporary craft’s Achilles' heel—its desire to resemble contemporary art and envy of its social position—is on full display when what currently passes for its journalism now takes the form of feature articles on the work of seemingly heroic individuals (past and present) and placid trends in its own myopic aesthetics. This implied goal post to become-as-art-is is similarly telegraphed when programs like the ones at Oregon College of Art and Craft and Warren Wilson both open and close. But craft does not need to wait for academia or the art world to make room. With the structures it already has in place—its tight network of known entities, brick and mortar buildings, and active publication subscribers—the craft world can choose to pivot towards new and robust oppositional dialogues immediately.
To be clear, craft should not emulate a system of semesters or official degrees and certifications, it merely needs to express to its own present and future constituents—through books, lectures, writing residencies, podcasts, mission statements, and whatever other means are necessary—the simple message that contemporary art as it is will never be fully accessible to, or fully serve, everyone. Craft, however, could approach much closer to that role, as a potent anti-hegemonic project and long-term threat, but only if it is willing to shed an all-too-obvious desire to become like art, or worse, a desire to replace art altogether as the leading authoritarian structure on aesthetics and the decoration of power itself.
For those of us invested in the writing on, and the knowledge production surrounding craft, from here, let us consider this alternative path: to let the sleeping dog of Art Under Capitalism lie, and to do a 180 back towards—not a romanticized past which never was—but instead to a future that celebrates craft as the collectivized outsider; the failure.17 Let’s continuously position craft as the threat of the ever-waiting alternative to things as they are and craft as an essential tool for intersectional class struggle. To seek not the unification of some perfect, single, craft-encompassing art world (an impossible, authoritarian fiction) but to further splinter these spheres into finer and finer parts, so that they may better reflect things as they are, and to better serve the people as they are.
- American Craft Council’s journal, American Craft Inquiry, for instance (https://www.craftcouncil.org/programs/journal)
- KMAC Museum in Louisville, KY or the Museum of Art and Design in NYC, for instance.
- Originally spelled, “neutralise”
- Ray, G. (2007). Avant gardes as anti capitalist vector. Third Text, 21(3), 241-255. doi:10.1080/09528820701360443
- Ibid - ”Whatever aims at gallery, magazine cover, biennale, museum, art history, indeed whatever finally conforms to the minimal conventions of exhibition and performance and seeks an understanding reception within those conventions: all this certainly will be absorbed and will end by reinforcing the paradigm and the world system this paradigm serves and subtends.”
- Think also of the controversial AOC dress from the 2021 Met Gala (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/15/style/aoc-met-gala-dress.html) which read “TAX THE RICH” in all caps.
- Sol LeWitt famously called all decisions after the generation of concept “a perfunctory affair.”
- Exhibitions like the Whitney’s Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950–2019 showcase this well.
- Buszek, M. E. (2011). Extra/ordinary: Craft and contemporary art. Duke University Press.
- Think of popular television shows like The Great Pottery Throw Down, or, Blown Away.
- Ray, G. (2007). Avant gardes as anti capitalist vector. Third Text, 21(3), 241-255. doi:10.1080/09528820701360443
- Hardly an exhaustive list but Theodor Adorno, Glenn Adamson, or Louise Mazanti come to mind.
- Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv11sn283.
L (they/them) is an artist and writer based in Philadelphia, PA and is an editor for Ruckus.
Essay dictation by Josiah Knight: