Two years ago I began teaching a critical theory seminar at the State University of New York in New Paltz that focused on re-envisioning the role of craft in contemporary society. The Art Department at SUNY New Paltz has a long-standing tradition of excellence, especially in the craft disciplines, and so it should have come as no surprise to encounter graduate students who actively interrogated the texts that we had selected. They were quick to point out that although many of the texts we read contained interesting ideas, they were often mired in an oppositional logic that attempted to either defend the discipline of craft against perceived enemies, or to usurp the seemingly more privileged role of fine art. While these debates served as an important backdrop for our inquiry, we had in mind a more evocative question: What unique potentials existed within the fuzzy boundaries of the craft disciplines? As critical craft practitioners we desired to see the topography of our disciplines expand while, at the same time, becoming more self-reflexive and relevant. There is much craft scholarship focusing on historical origins, the author’s intentionality or the signification of an object and our questions lead in a different direction. What are the affective potentials of the objects and their embedded relations? How can craft be used? What can craft do? For us these questions have deep aesthetic, political and material repercussions that should be taken up in by makers.
In a fit of enthusiastic hubris we decided that we needed to write the (Affective) Craft Manifesto.
Unlike most manifestos, our intent was not to make declarative statements that dismissed practitioners who did follow our logic, but rather to create a document that would provoke a discussion and, hopefully, illuminate new possibilities within the craft disciplines. The result is a patchwork of ideas gleaned from innumerable sources. Our desire is for this document to find a practical resonance that catalyzes divergent potentials, productive debates and unique collaborations. It is in the spirit of curiosity that we offer up this list of thematic statements for comment, interrogation and experimentation; please consider this an invitation to use this document however you see fit.
Matthew Friday, Assistant Professor of Critical Studies and Graduate Coordinator, Art Department, State University of New York at New Paltz (www.matthewfriday.net)
Kerianne Quick, Visiting Assistant Professor of Metal, Art Department, State University of New York at New Paltz
Graduate Students: Martin Anderson, Eun Jae Baek, En Sang Cho, Gale DellaRocco, Maggie Dubler, Douglas Eberhardt, Douglas Fertig, Aran Galligan, Sara Glaberson, Elana Goren-Totino, Jiyoung Hong, Angelia Lane, Joseph Mastroianni, Lacey McKinney, Kathleen Rearick, Regina Ruff, Lesley, Wamsley, Paul John, Celine Browning.
Craft exists within a historically determined space. Frequently positioned as the contingent frontier against which art is defined, craft mobilizes specific material practices, institutions and discourses. Any assessment of craft must confront and, perhaps, confound its discursive boundaries. Craft itself is a slippery word; at once a verb and a noun, craft can connote both a process and a category of object. We suggest that a third avenue exists; craft is a disposition, a mode of self understanding that opens up unique possibilities for making and use.
Unlike the modernist myth of autonomous art, craft has no pretence of standing apart from the world. Through craft’s engagement with everyday use, craft makes the world intelligible. Historically the craft object is indelibly connected to practical uses. While we do not deny this, we feel it necessary to clarify certain terms. We argue that it would be more proper to say we attain uses through practice and that utility is never simply practical. We act as if we owned the uses that craft objects satisfy when, in fact, the reverse is true. The necessary and the ornamental are not simply partitioned by pre-existent needs, but rather emerge as an immanent collaboration between social practice and the material world. Although craft has been conceived as that which addresses function, to think that these functions pre-exists the object’s entry into the world is to miss a valuable opportunity for experimentation. The confusion between function and purpose is one of the more insidious infections spread by capitalism. Purposes are never simply utilitarian, being, as they are, caught in the dynamic of production and consumption. Our habits often mystify and obscure our practices, making them seem necessary, autonomous and pre-determined. To exert care towards craft means addressing the history and contemporary implications of the practices sustained by craft.
Materials are neither silent nor passive; matter has both history and agency. Makers do not give form to content, but rather their skill attunes them to the affordances of their material. Affordances, as a set of possible actions, emerge only through rigorous experimentation and are never solely inherent in the material. Much like evolution, the accrual of enough affordances pushes an object across a threshold, allowing it to link to an adjacent set of meanings, practices and material assemblages. Skill, as the engagement with the exterior world, can only be conceived in opposition to creativity when creativity is positioned as the sole provenance of interiority. Authentic skill is not teleological; it involves an experimental dialogue with the world.
Craft objects have a unique relation to the body; jewelry and clothing can be worn, cups and plates held. Furthermore, craft objects gather up the body for specific purposes, mediating the relationship between self and world. A ceramic mug full of coffee, lifted by the hand to the mouth, is part of a larger apparatus involving geology, ecology and evolution. Craft should revel in the ambiguity it grants to our notions of bodily autonomy and seek to create new human and non-human assemblages.
Beauty and Sensation
The world is irreducible; our language and representations can never exhaust or encompass the world. To experience beauty is to feel the weight of the ineffable pull you into new modes of sensation. Craft objects engender new desires through daily practice, producing radical pleasures that are far more transformative than any simple critique. By freeing sensation from cliché, beauty cultivates wonder and curiosity. To say that beauty exceeds definition is also to acknowledge that it is in dialogue with and delineated by discourse. Thinking about aesthetics means considering both the affective power of beauty and its relation to cultural and material configurations.
Circulation and Community
Within the increasingly globalized scale of economic exchange craft often resonates with a nostalgia for pre-industrial modes of production. This fantasy, common in so-called, “first-world” nations, frequently privileges certain ideas about authenticity and autonomy. Rather than envisioning craft as a retreat from the complexity of contemporary social relations, we argue that its value lies in recognizing and challenging the ways it is entangled with the global flows of capital, materials, meaning and modes of production. Although they are often consumed as commodities, craft objects have a long tradition of existing within the economy of gift exchange. Gifting involves a very different type of transaction, one in which production, distribution and consumption are not broken apart by market forces. We argue that an authentic disposition towards craft means resisting its commodification; something isn’t craft just because it is handmade or done with skill. The exchange of crafts should intensify and multiple the relationships between people. Because gift economies have the power to manifest a community, the various modes of solicitation and conviviality in which craft participates should receive equal consideration.
Responsibility and Preservation
Crafting also entails the creation of a craftsperson. Becoming an authentic craftsperson involves learning to care for one’s craft. This care entails responsibility and preservation towards both the discipline and the materials one takes up. Like ecologies, disciplines thrive on diversity, collaboration and rupture. The most interesting disciplinary history is the one that has yet to be written and the one that has been excluded. Learn to ask the difficult questions. Where do your materials come from? What relations does your consumption of these materials sustain? How can you develop more sustainable and resilient ways of using materials? Who benefits from the current structure of your discipline? Where can you locate leverage points from which to activate change?
The (Affective) Craft Manifesto is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike 3.0 License. Licensees may copy, distribute, and display the work for non-commercial purposes only if they give the author or licensor the credits in the manner specified by these. Licensees may distribute derivative works only under a license identical to the license that governs the original work. For more information please contact Matthew Friday: rodechenko (at) yahoo.com.