The Journal of Modern Craft has made great strides in deploying craft as a fluid concept, as pertinent to the consideration of contemporary art as it is to reading material cultures throughout the globe, statements of artistic practice, and the politics of skilled labor. But let us consider, for a moment, the age-old stereotype embedded in a widespread popular understanding of the word “craft” that refuses to budge: the granny with her knitting needles, spending her free time making (often with considerable dexterity and skill) toys for her family, mittens, or even an itchy Christmas sweater.
Amateur crafts, hobbies, pastimes, and do-it-yourself activities constitute the most widespread type of craft activity in Western economies. Kirstie Allsopp in Britain, like Martha Stewart in the US, urges everyone to have fun on sewing machines. Regularly released “how-to” manuals within a single craft medium probably have a larger circulation than all the academic tomes on the subject combined. Encouraging leisure-time making is one of the big businesses that has shaped our cultural and economic landscape in recent times.
Has our desire to carve out an intelligent disciplinary terrain for craft left the specter of amateur making behind, lurking in a shadowy corner, like so many botched spice racks, half-completed cross-stitch kits, and handmade pots gathering dust? Amateur craft practice has been part of everyday life for the last 150 years, but scholarly treatment of the subject has consistently framed the phenomenon as supplemental and marginal. Karl Marx had no place for the occasional amateur maker within his broad theories of labor, while Thorstein Veblen saw the leisure-time accomplishments of late nineteenth-century America as affections of a former aristocratic ideal of autonomy. As for William Morris, it is not at all clear where amateur craft can be situated in his scale of “useful work and useless toil.”
Twentieth-century scholars—from the era of what Siegfried Kracauer called the “mass ornament” onward—have been slightly more concerned about amateur craft practice. Yes, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and a whole range of thinkers from across a wide political spectrum do marginalize amateur practice (a good recent example is Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur, a polemic bemoaning citizen journalism and crowd-sourcing). But studies from social history and anthropology prove more sympathetic. Among these, Steven Gelber’s Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America sets the tone for a deeper understanding of how the work ethic drawn from professional practice structures freely chosen leisure activities. This interaction between spaces of work and leisure constitutes a major concern for thinkers studying everyday life, such as Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau, Ben Highmore, and Elizabeth Shove, and their work helps inform much-needed critical reception of the recent amateur-led revival of many craft practices.
With the intellectual groundwork laid for a reassessment of this marginalized element of mass material culture, many historians have recently turned their attention toward the late nineteenth-century moment when domestic handicrafts became hugely popular among middle-class women (for example the work of Clive Edwards, Judy Attfield, Emma Ferry, and Talia Schaffer, whose book Novel Craft is reviewed below). Essays by Akiko Yamasaki and Janice Helland in this issue can be aligned with this scholarly trajectory, which considers handicraft as a site of female self-expression within hegemonic patriarchal structures.
Most existing work in this area focuses on Anglo-American geographies, but a translated chapter of Yamasaki’s 2005 work, “Handicrafts” and Gender in Modern Japan [Kindai Nihon no “shugei” to jendaa] attests to the global reach of this phenomenon. Like many accounts of nineteenth-century domestic handicrafts, Yamasaki’s research makes use of advice manuals and journals as historical evidence. She uses these sources to demonstrate the gendering of shugei, a term that simply denoted hand-skill at the start of the Meiji period, but came to describe distinctly feminine activities, such as sewing and cooking. Yamasaki explains how the semantic separation of shugei from associated terms mirrored the wider cultural expectation, advanced by advice literature and educational establishments, that women spend their free time engaged in domestic accomplishments that protected their gender identity.
Helland expands our understanding of domestic handicrafts at the margins of the British Arts and Crafts movement by recalling the early history of the Home Arts and Industry Association (HAIA), an organization that promoted domestic arts through regional education and annual exhibitions from the mid 1880s onward. There has been a tendency to view the HAIA as another example of Victorian philanthropy, with its moralizing instruction dispensed by approved arbiters toward subjects in need of improvement. Yet, Helland probes beyond the organization’s rhetoric of aristocratic cultivation to reveal how domestic handicrafts provided an opportunity for women to market their own skills, both as teachers and as exhibiting artists in many of the annual exhibitions.
Late nineteenth-century domestic handicrafts, often positioned as the answer to the perils of female leisure-time idleness, end up sharing the “undisciplined” qualities Judy Attfield attributes to the “wild things” of material culture. As Yamasaki describes, Japanese handicraft production not only beautified the home, but was sold as a desirable tourist commodity, and like the work of women in the HAIA, raised the prospect that female labor could be profitable, destabilizing traditional gender roles. Activities deemed appropriate to women facilitated self-expression that altered everyday productive realities, an example of what Henri Lefebvre termed “differential space.”
The tension between encouraging artistic expression among women while attempting to prop up existing gender norms is amply demonstrated in the advice books and journals of this era. In this issue’s primary text we publish a particularly flamboyant example, the Frenchman Oscar Edmond Ris-Paquot’s 1884 guide for the amateur enamel painter, which tries to emancipate female creativity with an art well suited to their “lightness of touch.”
Ruti Talmor’s ethnography of the Accra Arts Center in Ghana seems at first glance unrelated to amateur productions of the late nineteenth century. The article explains how the making of djembe drums has proliferated within the Center due to its popularity among tourists as a generic symbol of Africa, and how the proliferation of this craft has adversely affected the diversity of production that existed beforehand. Talmor skillfully explains the division of labor intrinsic to djembe production, and how it encourages de-skilling among young Ghanaian men who focus on learning one skill in the productive chain, rather than becoming multi-skilled through the traditional avenues of apprenticeship learning.
We might bemoan the neoliberal economy that has flattened craft diversity within the Arts Center, but as Talmor describes, many young men find a quick way of acquiring the skills needed to ensure their subsistence by sidestepping apprenticeship learning. Just as was the case for the late nineteenth-century handicraft practitioners, an accessible skill (even if it has to be learnt and honed) has become a means of quickly attaining a foothold within the marketplace, and this accession is both speedy and disruptive.
Stephen Knott, Managing Editor
The Journal of Modern Craft
See contents of 5.3 here.