this blog is essentially an online diary of my little creative projects - if you can't fix it, throw some glitter over it and add a lacy edge and everything will be alright.

Friday, 18 January 2013

GUEST POST: "the highbrow and underbelly of crafts"

"The Three Fates" - cutter, measurer, and spinner - 
by Anon (Flemish c.1515)

[Guest post from 'technicalities' of that verbose blog just over there]

"Craft, from the Old English cræft: 'power'; 'skill'; 'trade'..."
- Wiktionary
I broke my wind-up torch in Africa. This was bad, cos our toilets were outdoors, and theoretical hippos and puff-adders could have lain in wait between me and my nocturnal squat. I spent a week or so brushing my path with a stick before Sharif, one of my brothers, laughed and asked to see my torch. Five minutes with a screwdriver later, hooking together two little bits of pulley, it was working fine. This is not remarkable as a feat except that it just did not occur to me that this was an action open to me - and that it did to him, a thirteen-year old boy with four years of schooling. I'm going to save face by blaming my upbringing in a mass culture of mass disposal. I'm going to claim I'm mentally blocked from moulding my trappings, owing to my moulding by the forces of Global Production.

I do not have to fix things; so I do not; and so do not know how; and I think myself improved. (But one longs to be a handyman of one's own soul. To be cræfty.)
From the Renaissance on, we have held craft talents to be beneath 'Artistic' or literary ones. This is pure classism, except where it is also sexism. Consider the radicalism implicit in these genteel arts. When one is crafty, one is just more connected to the ordinary objects one encounters; one can manipulate, combine, and repurpose things. You thereby include yourself in the history of the object; you live among possibilities. This object-agency is clearly a closer relationship to the world than the mere possession link. And since much of most people's lives today are constituted by a stream of encounters with artefacts, it's not excessive to call the life of the renarrating craftsperson an Authentic one - even when lived wholly inside urbane consumerist modernity. 

In this sense, one can be free only in proportion to one's craftiness.

(There's also the obvious individualism of the process; things one makes oneself are really yours: they're unique, individuating, copyright-free.)
By this measure Hobbycraft is a Very Bad Thing. By prepackaging thousands of identikit crafts and spelling out direct instructions, it co-opts the agent-based thing described above. Just the same old late-capitalist passivity; life-by-numbers. Less melodramatically: It also supplies people with 50000 cheap components to form millions of potentially Authentic objects. Similarly unreasonably, one might complain about Etsy as the ultimate commercialisation of the personal crafts form - but then, like few jobs, it's completely unexploitative, and it is allowing a growing number of people (75-95% women) to supplement themselves off their creativity.

It's counterintuitive but easy to see Punk and DIY movements as cræfts, what with the shared emphasis on authenticity, idiosyncracy, and independence. Though punk and DIY are obviously more consciously oppositional - with Arts and Crafts, as a movement, not really having an Other to match punk's rejection of Society or Taste or Capitalism - and DIY is much more theoretical - they're actually about as radical as granny always was in terms of Authentic self-determination.

It's a stretch, but say that (Greek-style) philosophy is one too - being just the least material cræft.
"The stay-at-home-daughters movement, which is promoted by Vision Forum, encourages young girls and single women to forgo college and outside employment in favor of training as “keepers at home” until they marry. Young women pursuing their own ambitions and goals are viewed as selfish and antifamily; marriage is not a choice or one piece of a larger life plan, but the ultimate goal. Stay-at-home daughters spend their days learning “advanced homemaking” skills, such as cooking and sewing, and other skills that at one time were a necessity - knitting, crocheting, soap- and candle-making."
- on the 'Christian Patriarchy Movement' movement,
fl. 2010 (!)
However, I'm not John Ruskin. There's no escaping that crafts have served as a gilded stick to keep women down throughout European history: anything to keep them at home, busy, tired, genteel, and not reading. Remember that embroidery takes about an hour per inch; that even little boys, where they are still taught needlework in school, whinge endlessly about the affront to their masculinity that such low-grade women's work represents.
More: crafts (construed as the decorative leisure thing I was going on about, above) have been bourgeois. We see this in the Georgian cult of feminine "accomplishment", where a girl's marriage market value was tied to shit like her skill in needlepoint. And since working class women had little time to craft after their: formal employment, cooking, washing, and less self-actualising helpmeet tasks, like mending and darning. (I'd include home repairs and shed obsessions in "crafts", if only to break down an arbitrary gender wall.)

The mindset is alive and well everywhere, whether in extreme form, as in Wahhabist states and ultra-fundamentalist Christian sects, or the dilute toxin found everywhere, e.g. the less openly psychotic 'family values' talk, or the institution of fashion in general. (Note that the 'Christian Patriarchy Movement' group summarised above self-identify as patriarchal. 'Patriarchy', the word coined to identify atrocities, has absolutely no negative connotation for the men and women of that benighted stripe. Ffs.)
So have things changed? Are crafts still a way of sapping the revolutionary consciousness of womankind? Hardly; again, the Etsy generation are more independent and self-expressing than most of us, and there's a consciously feminist and Queer reclamation of crafts in full flow - owing, I like to think, to the philosophical theme of cræft/DIY as well as the general radical program of makin a bad ting good.
"[Utopian socialist] William Morris wanted to save the world with nice wallpaper."
- Jonathan Meades
Whatever radical story I can tell using crafts can also be obscured by the actual materialism of it all. Even without capitalism muscling in, the love of things might well submerge the love of people, or the regard of people even. (Yes, yes, the existence and nature of craft groups goes a long way in disproving and ridiculing my alarmism.)
"Pretty things make the world a better place"; certainly, certainly. But the decorative arts only act on surfaces; they can have little bearing on the heart of things.

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