A compendium of craft masquerading as art, art masquerading as craft, and craft extending its middle finger.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Handwork



In honor of Labor Day, I settled down with a book on the Arts and Crafts Movement to do some brushing up. To understand the potential held by the current wave of craft mania, I believe that it helps to study previous craft movements. The Grandaddy of them all is the Arts and Crafts movement, which didn't really take hold in America until the early 20th Century. It was amazing to read about how serious the movement was taken by academics, politicians, and rabble-rousers. At the turn of the century, the University of Chicago was the preeminent institution for social theory, most of which leaned waaaaaaaay to the left. Arts and Crafts were seen as an antidote to the Industrial Revolution's assembly line mentality, and offered creative control and a measure of dignity to workers.

Although it left an amazing legacy including Stickley furniture, Rookwood pottery, and architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, the Arts and Crafts movement failed because it couldn't reconcile the theoretical with prevailing market forces. Many of the major proponents of the movement, both in England and America, were wealthy people who made (or inherited fortunes) based on industrialism. Fast forward 100 years and compare the size and scope of corporate influence on modern society. The study of craft is limited mainly to "Decorative" art history, and it is unimaginable that craft would be studied in any institution as a force for change.


After a century which saw the fortunes of craft and handiwork wax and wane, it would seem like we are in quite a valley--schools are increasingly grooming students as information workers, with blue collar work carrying the stigma of being "so last century". Shop and vocational technology programs are being purged, home economics classes are pragmatic rather than analytical, stressing concrete skills and not problem solving. Matthew B. Crawford's article "Shop Class as Soulcraft" in the current issue of the New Atlantis has made a huge splash, defending Shop Class as a fundamental human skill. The rising fortunes of the DIY movement prove that there is a human instinct to understand and tinker with one's surroundings, and technology is being rejiggered as much as machines. Even though institutions are supporting it less and less, a generation of Americans is waking up to the possibilities of working with their own two hands.

In honor of Labor Day, think hard about your own family history and inclinations. There's a reason why humans are inclined to craft. Acknowledge your crafty forbears, and spread the wealth by offering the things your own hands have learned to others.

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