One person’s culture is not another culture’s craft

Anna Varendorff

5 December 2016

While the revival of interest in the handmade is welcome, the pervasive use of “crafted” and “artisanal” in marketing threatens its value as a marker of authenticity. It is understandable that those who dedicate their lives to this artistic endeavour, such as Anna Varendorff, feel the need to “recalibrate” our language. Here she offers her critique of the current situation. It’s a challenge to herself as well as others to forge alternative frameworks.

In the face of institutionalised racism that we see condoned by and embedded in the language of government and mainstream media in Australia, craft organisations have the power to redress prejudice via language within their field. Starting with the word itself, it is timely to consider, and to make open a space, where “craft” can be reviewed, beginning with it as a descriptor or title, to move towards a less colonial structure and to work alongside cultures to determine new trajectories of meaning, making and understanding. It is time to review the word, in order not to destroy it, but to re-build its meanings.

What I am positioning here, and in following articles, is neither revolutionary nor are the ideas new. And I must acknowledge that I am not offering any wonderful, inclusive terminologies that transcend the history of (my) Western experience. I can not. But what I hope to do is to provoke a moment of recalibration. It seems to me that despite the common acknowledgement of the reductive potential of language to perpetuate power imbalances on an institutional, social, political and cultural level, there remains an absence of real-world consciousness and energetic correcting of this imbalance by those who know better. Unfortunately for this article, it remains difficult to open the conversation without frequent reference to “the West” and “cultures” non-Western. Whilst I find these phrases problematic and inadequate to describe the many various, wonderful and living communities that exist, for the purposes of this article the need to simplify has forced their employment.

As a conceit of colonial power, labelling objects and skills with a word like “craft” divorces practice from its culture of origin. Colonialism is the process whereby one political power establishes, expands and maintains territory within, and to the exploitation of, another previously settled colony or state. In talking about “craft” here, in the context of a colonial structure, the Western gaze, like the male gaze in gender theory, removes autonomy and power from that which is being considered.

How, then, for this short series of articles, can we define craft practice, crafts people and craft work?

The criteria upon which the word is most often applied finds itself at the nexus of material and technique.

The word “craft” conjures up many things: the skilfully hand made and the considered object; the individual skilled in the use of a material; the craftsperson’s honesty of intention and commitment to a medium, often a single material, and the pursuit of a mastery of its manipulation, or perhaps a conceptual interrogation of the former, materially or otherwise.

One could postulate from a cursory look at various craft organisations online that the field of craft has moved into new realms of material investigation and object fabrication.  It appears to have moved away from the historicised and traditional associations of the past, not only materially but conceptually and technically as well. However, the more conventional and historical understandings of the word “craft” are still pervasive, calling to mind such particulars as a domesticity of scale and use, labor focused construction, etc. These remain the associations that are evoked when the word is applied informally.

Traditional. Historical. These words suggest an avoidance of new realities and a nostalgia for past times. Not only do the objects fabricated within such schools of practice evoke the past, but they show a preference for other constructs of those times. A looking back, and a nod to a time when the world communicated less globally, when those peoples not included within the canon of the West were outsiders.

The effect of defining a practice with a word that does not seamlessly translate across cultures and languages is to absorb via that word, hampered as it is by certain connotations, that which is not “western” into the Western system of meanings. A Western understanding of “craft” practice fails to position the workers/works within the traditions from which they emerge, and instantly categorises and historicises them in different terms.

In some instances, the use of the word “craft” re-positions a practice back in time, to an imagined past, rather than acknowledging the current utility and relevance of that practice today. Furthermore, applying the term from the context of an increasingly post-production society creates a different meaning to applying it within a landscape of fabrication and industry. To assume that the Western world is “beyond” industrial fabrication is in itself a gross misuse of privilege as consumption has not ceased or diminished globally. Rather, the responsibility for the production of the materials used has been delegated to parts of the globe still ready to refine and manufacture for the consumption of everyone.

It feels almost as though the automation and industrialisation of fabrication that is employed to make the excess of products that surround us has left us unable to grasp the idea that fabrication by hand might still be the most efficient, skilful or appropriate method by which to construct objects. Indeed there remain many steps within production processes where the skilled fabricator is not replaceable by a machine. And in some parts of the world where this is still recognised, people continue to find employment and income from the hand production of goods.

Does this render all skilled labourers craftspeople?

Craft evokes and is hampered by a colonial past that has resulted in a conceptual space that goes some way towards glorifying traditions of fabrication from the pre-industrial age. And simultaneously, this conceptual space has absorbed, re-contextualised, and regurgitated traditional practices and material forms from cultures that have maintained traditional modes of productions in tandem with the post-industrial age. Craft often paraphrases technically, materially and aesthetically from cultures still living. Most often this is absorbed without conversation, without full understanding of the cultures from which these vernaculars are borrowed and, most notably, without invitation. It is in this way that other cultures become enmeshed within a Western word-memory of times past where production was by hand. As such, cultures who still employ handmaking techniques risk becoming blurred or absorbed into an historical canon of Western thought, and a failure to recognise that they are living, current and of our time.  

A bind of authorship can be experienced by the craftsperson as the incredible and dynamic space we now live in. Global exchange of conversation and skill opens the maker up to accidentally paraphrasing or borrowing a technique or style, without harmful intention from cultures past and present. But this is at the essence of these articles.

As practitioners or as hobbyists, as those who benefit from a collegiality that a field of practice has to offer, it is a responsibility to remain abreast of the vernacular they employ, with respect to its original cultural landscape and the experience of its original authors.

The word “craft” is consistently employed to describe modes of traditional object making or skill-based production from cultures that may or may not have a linguistic equivalent, where craft is not a field, nor an activity, nor a concept, and where the perception of the process or the object outcome have a different emphasis to that understood by Western consumers. In the process of having one’s skill-made objects described as “craft”, that culture loses the power to define its own practices through appropriate translation. Here, there is no mutual agreement upon the use of the word.

This intersection of describing and labelling practice, materials and use from outside of that which is understood within the context of its production represents a sort of violence against other, non-Western cultures. This is to absorb their practices, their intentions, and their objects into a vernacular canon that does not understand or adequately convey their environment, their traditions, nor their politics.

Institutionally, museums and galleries have long categorised material productions from other cultures as forms of artefact. In so doing, these institutions have laden the displayed objects with the intimated powers of distance of the observer, safety of the spectator, judgement of material handling and results without context, and, ultimately, possession of the displayed object and what it has come to represent.

With these potencies come inferences about the culture from which the objects have been removed and displaced. Cultural superiority, inferred by the institution, its modes of display, the implied “possession” of the objects, and the power of vernacular therein, becomes tied in to observation of the objects. These implications are then transferred subconsciously to the culture that the object displayed represents.

But it is not the right of those who observe other cultures and societies from afar via imagery or institution to act as linguistic colonisers. The linguistic colonisation I refer to is to simplify or to position the practices or objects of another culture as “tradition” or “artefact” via display and/or notation, without conversation, consultation or representation of the subject’s cultural context. Systems of standardising display and notation in order to simplify consumption for the institutions audience occurs regularly in museums and publishing, unquestioned within the authority of the institution. This observer-subject divide is inappropriate and assumes power unfairly, reducing the subject’s powers without consent. Could there be an act of asking, of respectful enquiry as to how a culture perceives and utilises their own practices and objects; a seeking for appropriate description rather than an administering of a label? As craftspeople and craft organisations interested in the making of objects, we must seek a space where an object’s culture and makers can speak for themselves.

In the new economy, where everything is available to everybody, this same strategy of decontextualised understanding is rife.

Outside of the museum in the retail world there lies an assumption that labelling material practice and product as “crafted” is to “elevate” them from the ordinary, to rarefy them in a positive way. It is to impart associations of value to the work, and to draw attention to its special nature.

Applying a label such as “crafted” or “craft” is not always negative, in a time where the commodification of objects and labour, and the economic evaluations that result, are the means by which things are ensured relevance. The word offers some framework from which to gauge the qualities of the object or labour described. Crafts-person, -ship or -work as a form of labelling can provide a qualifiable strategy for understanding the object or labour, albeit one that is bracketed by a singular point of view.

Time and laziness limiting research and understanding lead to what is commonly deemed an acceptable ignorance of context, brushed aside with use of the word “craft” appearing to extol virtue disguising the lack of a more complete cultural understanding.

Is there an inverse position here whereby a culture non-Western is able to access the field of craft to describe their own work in a way that can be quickly understood more globally, but able to encompass more inclusive experiences of method and objecthood? An accessing of the field to facilitate ease of communication and an adaptation of meaning, without a dominating power describing the work from an external position? And can the Western historical and traditional associations that the word carries with it be shed to welcome in broader and more culturally insightful potentials?

To move as a maker in the world, to be open to the wonder of an object, can be to find a special material understanding that opens and facilitates between cultures beyond words. To loosen up the assumption that all making by hand is at its core “craft work”, and to further begin dialogues around skills, materials, intentions and significations may leave open-ended application of the word “craft” that it might be one chosen rather than prescribed, or that it might be rejected. Often there is something lost in translation, but the physical nature of work by hand allows for an insight through experience and, with a reservation of judgement, also allows for a transcendence of boundaries. Objects made by hand can bring a moment of open-minded respectful exchange of insight that is deeper than linguistic descriptions that are laden with intention around function, economy, or meaning.

It is possible to see the encounter with object as one that, given space, usurps the inability of language to translate.

We come back to the word “craft” as a fast means to describe works that can fit a certain category, and in so doing we compress meaning. But surely there is a way to expand the field? To look outwards, not in. Not as a betrayal to the word “craft”, which remains the only way to distinguish a group of activities that are increasingly difficult to justify in a neo-liberal economy, but in order to strengthen and to empower its ability to represent those people and practices who can be recognised as part of its cohort.


_mg_8959Anna Varendorff is a jeweller and artist. Based in Melbourne, Australia, her practice interrogates contemporary jewellery theory, with an emphasis on interaction and co-authored spaces.

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