Monday, 24 June 2013

Art and Craft - An Essay.

Tomorrow I'm going to be on BBC Radio Nottingham to talk about the business, the lessons I'm teaching at Radford-Lenton Library and I suppose, the 'rise of craft'. Every time I do anything for the radio, tv or newspapers I'm always asked about why knitting is so 'popular right now'. My stock answer is that 'I hope it is, blah blah slow fashion, blah blah Primark, blah blah, grandmothers'. In all honesty there's never enough time or the inclination (on the reporter's part) to actually talk about it in any meaningful way. They might want me to talk about feminism (probably not), or how cheap it is (little do they know), mental illness and stress relief (perhaps) but what they actually want is one or two sentences. I've just been in the shower, and as I often do, I had a little rant to myself so this would be my answer, or perhaps part of it if I start going on and on, if I had all the time in the world...

I've talked about Dee of the Singing Bird Artist Blog before. I love Dee. She's a fabulous friend, a great support to me, a f.a.n.t.a.s.t.i.c. cook and a fibre artist. Note: "fibre artist". It's not very often I hear her describe herself as an "artist" (though I know she thinks of herself that way), she usually qualifies it with "fibre". I hate saying 'qualifies' because it makes the term "fibre artist" seem somehow less than "artist".

Dee went to the Trent Uni Degree shows this year to see what was going on in the Nottingham scene. She she was less than impressed with the Fine Art setup. As an artist she was worried that the work wasn't resolved, as a member of society she was worried that the students hadn't had value for money from their very expensive course and as a human she was physically unable to see some of the work because of the layout. You can read about her experiences here. About two paragraphs are dedicated to those issues and the rest of the blog is about her much easier and more enjoyable experience at the design school.

I went last year and reading through my blog about it I was made to feel similarly at points, I'm thinking the smashed clay plinths. I think I expressed quite well how I mainly felt a bit bemused as we were walking around the art sections - never quite knowing if we were supposed to be there, or if that pickle was supposed to be there, or if that was a piece of art (this year Dee saw a box and some rubber gloves on a moulded plastic chair. Ummm. I still don't think she's quite sure if it was art...). I remember specifically feeling much more at home in the design section (and not just yarn and textiles). It's much less stressful if you know that what you're looking at is supposed to be looked at. I got the distinct impression that the people from the art section wanted you to feel uncomfortable - as if that was part of the art.

Now, if you haven't already - go back to Dee's blog and read the comments. Mostly made my people on the art course you'll note. I think it's brill that they feel that they've got value for money and that they feel protective about their course - that means to me that they were obviously engaged with the content and formed the relationships with staff, students and the uni that are such an important part of uni life. But wow - aren't they rude?! I'll paraphrase: "I'm sorry you feel like that but everybody else said that our work was brill so you're going to have to cocoa and if you don't like that then we don't care because it's all about the art and not about selling it".

See, I see that as - say what you want because I'll do whatever I want to do with no regard for the rest of the world and any practicalities. Well, if you can survive on that philosophy without a student loan then good on you. I highly suspect however, that art without any concept of how it can be used in, intertwined with and combined with real life practicalities is a fast road to flipping burgers. Which brings me to craft.

Ahhhhh craft.

My definition of craft is essentially art that is useful. I suspect I need to revise the definition now that I've thought closely about it - cross stitch is getting in the way (ha). But on the whole I stand by it. It's a very personal definition, one that I've come up with myself and it certainly doesn't match anything that's found in a dictionary but it does sum up for me why I make things and why, as I see it, the majority of you (my customers) make things. To be useful and to be beautiful whilst we're doing it. It's taking art i.e. beautiful, interesting, thought-provoking things and planting them firmly in the real world.

Ganseys. Read up about ganseys. If you're really interested look here, here and here. Every aspect of the gansey is designed with a use in mind - in the round for strength, arms from the top down for reknitting, gussets for movement and on and on. And you cannot tell me that these are not beautiful?

Beautiful AND useful. 

And look at how that knowledge and style has been brought into the modern era:

Now, I come back to the difference between the art and design sections of the degree show. In my humble opinion, the designers were more helpful than the artists because they've spent their degrees thinking about how to make things work in real life for people as well as being visually pleasing. The artists, as they themselves pointed out, don't have to deal with such earthly matters as allowing for wheelchair access, or putting their labels at head height, or not stopping and staring at people looking at the work as if they're bonkers. How Dee was treated is a very stark, and frankly quite hurtful, physical description (for lack of a better term) of the difference between art and craft.

Now, I'm sure there are people who think that an artist's way of looking at things is brill - certainly the Contemporary do (blurgh). I personally don't, I think there's an exquisite beauty in something that's perfectly suited to the job:

Tube map anybody? And that just can't happen if you're pleasing the artist's eye and nobody else's.

Now we come back to why people are knitting. I think humans love beauty. I think we're poorer now than we have been before. I think that radio and tv presenters and journalists think that knitting is cheap. I think what knitting is is a way of expressing creativity whilst at the same time making something useful. I think that we've come to realise that that's a more cost and time effective way of spending our energy. I think that if the artists that I've come across truly understood this concept they'd be much nicer people (said tongue in cheek. Kinda). 

Right, that's all my little brain can cope with. I'm off to finish my nails which truly are a work of art because they serve no other purpose than to make me smile: 

Ha, you get the idea anyway. 

Love Eleanor. 


  1. ooh, good points well presented! i think i'm going to give up defending fine strange, i've been explaining to the people the fine artists are happy to alienate, why not all fine art is like that, the best is very inclusive (anish kapoor's sky mirror anyone?) and i truly hope people can enjoy the pieces i hang in public, whether they want to read the statement or not...but the elitist snobbery of the the art-commenters has really made me take a step back...i spent lots of time on the two classes at the contemporary explaining that fibre and textile art are as sound conceptually as performance etc, you could even argue performance comes from process art which was very influenced by repetition and value (women's work!!)and here are the names of 20 top fibre/art/textile artists whether guerilla knittivists or honored japanese artists who use fibre...but it all fell down a well i think :( but i will continue making my work and ignore the ignorant whatnots...
    anyway, ganseys are amazing, and i find them heartbreaking...each family had their own pattern so a washed up body could be sad...
    go you for being a thinking crafter/craftivist ;)

  2. This is exactly why I like to knit, and why I think craft is important! As well as all your good points, I think craft brings people together in a way that fine art doesn't (in my experience).

    I hope you get chance to say some of this on the radio tomorrow!

  3. If Dee had commented on my fine art degree show i would've given a very different response. I did NOT get value for money! I was put in a room for 3 years and told to make stuff.

    Sounds lovely? It would've been if I wasn't constantly asked to justify it as 'art' because they thought it was 'craft'. I couldn't wait to finish uni so I could just make stuff without having to come up with a load of crap to explain why!

    I'm a maker....doesn't matter whether it's labelled art or craft x

  4. i thought about the cross stitch - it is useful craft,because it's nearly always made as a useful ornamental cover/tablecloth/runner etc, maybe sometimes framed for the wall, but that is house furniture. boom! it's descended from camel and horse harness stitching, so it has a VERY practical history.
    ps to Jem - thank you! making is where it is at...oh for the Japanese values to be accepted here, they value expert resolution in ANY medium.