The Language of Craft
Most craft artists have grown weary of the long running conversation about art vs. craft. As far as CERF+ is concerned, that conversation ended long ago. The work of craft artists is art, as valid as any other art form. Its special qualities – the transformation of materials into objects of great beauty, its connection to tradition even in contemporary forms, and the skills that it requires – distinguish craft from other art forms.
CERF+ is very much a part of, and has grown up in the craft field. While CERF+ is committed to providing all artists with tools and education programs to help them lessen the impact of emergencies, its direct financial assistance is still focused on craft artists. Consequently, the changing landscape of craft, how the artists CERF+ serves view the word “craft,” and even what these artists call themselves, are of great interest to this organization.
In the third in a series of data snapshots from CERF+’s national research about the status of craft artists in the U.S., we focus on identification with the word “craft” and the naming preferences of craft artists. For this study, we collected data from over 3,500 craft artists from every state in the U.S. who responded to our 2013 survey. The survey was distributed by CERF+ and by 46 organizations who helped distribute it to their artist members.
Following this data snapshot below, we invite you to add your own comments about this topic, and join in this discussion.
Identification with the Word “Craft”
Fifty-eight percent of respondents with an opinion identified with “craft” as a good way to describe their work. Responding to a different, but similar, question, a slightly narrower group (54%) felt that the word “craft” is still an effective way to communicate what they do to buyers, collectors, and the public. The degree of agreement or disagreement was similar for both questions. Five percent (5%) of respondents had no opinion. The table below shows responses to both questions:
Comments on the use of the word “Craft”
607 respondents to the previous question entered comments about the use of the word “Craft” to describe their work or as an effective word to communicate to others.
“‘Craft’ is a beautiful word that intimates something that is ‘finely made.’ The use of the term ‘crafters’ to ‘anyone who makes anything’ has lowered the connotation of expertise that ‘craft’ once conveyed.”
“It’s pretentious to avoid the word craft. Craft is a fine word with a rich history, and defines humankind.”
“As much as I hate to admit it, we’ve lost the fight on this one. I’m tired of that look on people’s faces when I tell them I am a craftsperson.
Comments on the use of the word “Craft”
- “’Craft devalues our work: we need to educate the public into thinking of it as ‘art.’”
- “I think people hear ‘crafts’ and think of church fairs. The customer from the 70’s who understood the ‘craft’ movement better are no longer reliable customers.”
- “‘Craft’ as a descriptor is overly broad and fails to signify any information to buyers, collectors, and the public.”
- “The term fails to distinguish between hobby and art. Public respect for ‘craft’ does not seem high.”
- “The word Craft has come to mean ‘crap’…and part of that is our fault as artists for not helping people understand what real ‘Craft’ is.”
- “The romantic idea of craft no longer is an effective way to create interest and excitement about the work. It is a trend or fashion that has passed.”
- “The art world never got over ‘craft’ as meaning homemade hokey/less valuable.”
- “’Craft’ doesn’t stand on its own very well. ‘Fine Craft’ is more specific to what I do, but many people still want to ghettoize it and make it ‘less than’ other forms of art.”
- “I just saw the word ‘Craftivism’ which morphs crafts with activism. Maybe we need a new word like that as some people think the word craft has lost its allure (The American Craft Museum has become The Museum of [Art] & Design, for example)…I think it would be better to reclaim the word and define its meaning rather than dump it, but the trend has been going the other way.”
- “I market myself as an ‘Artist’ and not a ‘crafter’ because I see so much of the ‘crafts’ sold out there in the marketplace as a lot of garbage. Personally, I use the term ‘craft’ only when describing my rather finicky requirements of good ‘craftsmanship’ or in sentences where I describe myself as ‘practicing my craft.’ Some might say this is snobbery on my part, and I respect others’ opinions, but don’t let them bother me overly much. I am a Jewelry artist, a Goldsmith, Metalsmith, Silversmith, etc. I am a ‘Craftsman,’ yes. But, I am NOT a ‘Crafter.’ With so many websites out on the internet like ‘Etsy,’ where everyone calls themselves a ‘crafter’ and there is so much total CRAP available, I felt it is important to separate myself.”
Preferred Terms of Description
The misgivings about the word “craft” expressed by a significant percentage of respondents were reinforced by the responses to a variety of terms used to describe craft practitioners. Survey respondents most often “strongly preferred” to be referred to as artist. Overall 96% were positive about the name “artist.”
Next most preferred are: the craft medium followed by artist, e.g. ceramic artist, or a name specific to a medium such as woodworker, metalsmith, or potter with a positive response to each of about 90%. Artisan, Designer, Craftsman, Craftsperson, Craft Artist and Maker garnered positive responses, although craft artist and maker received a surprisingly high number of negative responses. The only term strongly disliked by most is crafter (75% negative perceptions).
Discourse on The Topic of Craft
There has been much discussion recently about the relevance and changing use of the word “Craft” in contemporary practice. While some craft museums, organizations, and artists have been distancing themselves from the word, others have embraced it. “Craft” is the new buzzword for everything from the practice of architecture to cheese, beer, and coffee. Here are some links to recent discourse on this topic.
- The Victoria and Albert Museum in a gesture to celebrate its partnership with the British Crafts Council asked a number of leading figures “What is Craft?”
- Jewelry artist and critic, Bruce Metcalf’s has discussed this topic on his blog, and has recently published critiques of books on craft theory:
- Glenn Adamson, former director of the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, talks about being in a “post-disciplinary” phase in which craft applies to a variety of pursuits but is no longer a pursuit in itself. Glenn Adamson’s Twitter feed: @GlennAdamson .
- Curator Namita Gupta Wiggers discusses the place of craft in contemporary society in an article in The Brooklyn Rail in What Craft is Missing: Conversation to Continue.
- In the fall of 2013 the American Craft Council led a think tank with the Center for Craft Creativity and Design and Crafthaus resulting in a draft Craft Identity Statement.
What Does This Mean to CERF+?
About half of CERF+’s programming, information on emergency preparedness and response (such as www.studioprotector.org ) is designed to be used by all artists. However, CERF+ direct financial assistance is currently available only to craft artists. Given the responses on this survey, should CERF+ be looking for a collective term that describes those artists in a way that accommodates their preferences, and if so, what would that term be?
Discussion on the grants and loans committee has revolved around placing the word artist first, as in: artists working in craft disciplines. That is more of a description, however, than a concise, useful name. So far, a more elegant term has yet to emerge. There has been much discussion in the field about what constitutes “craft” and the current use of that term.
For more in-depth information on this and other topics covered in the study, download the full report: Sustaining Careers: A Study of U.S. Craft Artists.