The Art and Design of Craft

Rebecca Medel’s “The One” is a work in the “Craft Spoken Here” exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Craft Spoken Here, an exhibition of work by 39 craft artists from 11 different countries recently opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Fundamentally, this is an exhibition of the handmade that implicitly asks viewers to ponder the continuum on which both art and craft lie. When does craft become art?

Craft, Art and Design

In order to begin to contemplate this, we must first ask, “What is craft?” and “What is art?” And then, because I am an individual who was trained in printmaking, which vacillates on the craft/ art/ design spectrum, I am also going to ask, “What is design?” Crafting is making: to craft something is to make something. Craft is knitting, knotting, sewing, weaving, glass blowing, ceramics, wood carving– it’s the application of a technical skill to create an object, usually by hand. Craft is fundamentally about material and process.

Now, “What is art?” By “art,” I mean to define what is often referred to as “fine art.” Traditionally, that included painting, sculpture, music and poetry. More broadly, I would also include installation, performance, and socially-engaged participatory projects. Art is the expression of an idea, and is fundamentally about concept.

And finally, “What is design?” Design is functional. It’s communication; a system for delivering information; a product that impacts anthropomorphic processes. Design is fundamentally a solution.

Polly Apfelbaum’s “Feelies”

Craft, art and design are all on a continuum; none these terms is entirely exclusive or inclusive. The creation of art can involve craft, or not. A craft can be a work of art, or not. A design can be a craft. A design can be art. A design can be neither, or both. There are many artists, designers and craftspersons that are employing language from more than one of these disciplines: Polly Apfelbaum’s “Feelies” made from Sculpey;  Ghada Amer’s embroidered paintings; Natalie Jeremijenko’s experimental design; Jessie Hemmon’s yarn bombing.

I’d like to return to printmaking, because printmaking is one of those media that moves between each of these worlds. In fact, as a graduate student at Tyler, I was a part of the Graphic Art and Design (GAD) department, which held the printmaking, photography and graphic design programs. Printmaking has often been grouped with design, because the process is often part of a graphic design solution: a screen printed title wall announcing an exhibition; offset litho posters; screen printed bags.

Printmaking includes etching, woodcut, engraving,  lithography, linocut, screen printing, digital printing and even xeroxing. For the most part, there’s a degree of technical skill involved, be it by hand or computer, or a combination of both. There are specific tools– etching needles, burnishers, gouges, and programs– Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign. Printmaking is largely about material and process, and so in that sense it is a craft.

Craftsman v Crafter; CRAFT v craft

In fact, many people’s first exposure to printmaking is as a child at camp making linocuts or potato prints. This is craft in the crafter sense– kits for kids, or projects in Real Simple. Within the craft community, there is tension between the crafter and the craftsperson. A craftsperson is an artisan, with a high degree of technical skill, while a crafter is a hobbyist, yet still invested in a particular material or process. As an undergraduate at Columbia, I was making very technically difficult intaglio and stone lithograph prints. I remember being insulted when Kara Walker suggested to me that I make some potato prints. I realize now that she was encouraging me to find a way to loosen up, to not be so invested in the (capital c) CRAFT, and instead to try to experiment with some of the same concepts I was exploring using (lowercase c) craft. My investment in the technical skill and rules, in creating a precious object, was keeping me from conceptualizing art.

Craft as Populism

Craft as hobby has had a fairly recent resurgence in popularity, a part of a larger DIY movement. You can grow your own vegetables, can your own food, knit your own hats, sew your own cloths, make your own paper, hand stamp your own stationary, the list goes on. There’s a populist ideology to this sort of craft: anyone can do it. It’s appealingly empowering: you can impact the world by making something with your hands. There’s even a craft activism movement, craftivism, that seeks to use craft to build community. And this is a moment where it all comes together– craft, art and design, process, concept and solution.


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Filed under Art, Controversial Art, Museum

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