Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Duke U P)

Extra_Ordinary_Craft_coverBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art
Maria Elena Buszek, editor
Duke University Press, 2011

Critical writing about craft is a booming area of publication. In 2007 Berg published Glenn Adamson’s Thinking through Craft and Princeton Architectural Press published By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art, edited by Shu Hung and Joseph Malgario. The following year Berg launched the academic Journal of Modern Craft and Princeton University Press published Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerl’s Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design. In 2009 The Craft Reader, edited by Adamson, was released by Berg and in 2010 the University of Minnesota Press published Elissa Auther’s String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in America. These publications reflect the range of identities – from academics and curators to staunchly independent makers – laying claim to craft today.

Maria Elena Buszek, the editor of Extra/Ordinary, is an academic, critic and curator, and the tone of this collection of fifteen essays is largely scholarly. Seventeen contributors are spread across four roughly chronological sections: “Redefining Craft: new theory”, “Craft Show: in the realm of ‘fine arts’”, “Craftivism” and “New Functions, New Frontiers”. Unlike some of the outputs that have recently contributed to the gold rush of craft publishing, this book is well produced with professional editing and image research supporting each text. Small exceptions include the misspelling of London’s Hayward Gallery where the “Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef” was exhibited in 2008 and the opening image of “Orange Anemone” by Margaret Wertheim, also from the Institute for Figuring, which is out of focus.

Sections one and two walk well trodden ground around the topics of terminology, curatorial and institutional influences, and nostalgic returns to the thinking of the two giants of craft theory (albeit rife with contradictions) John Ruskin and William Morris. Two broad approaches to craft thinking are present: some chapters focus on a discipline within the crafts – the letterpress or ceramics – while others consider topics shared across the disciplines such as lifestyle and social values. Nicolas Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics” is cited by a number of contributors and even when Bourriaud is not explicitly cited, attention to the social and performance potential of craft – in contrast to a focus on the discrete object – is a recurring theme.

It is the second half of this book that contains some of the most original contributions. The “Craftivism” section begins with Betsy Greer’s forthright reflection on a term some have attributed to her. Greer is disarmingly honest in her reflection of word “ownership” and is quick to acknowledge that she first read the word on the Church of Craft’s website and suggests that “its usage came about thanks to a few phenomena occurring simultaneously, mainly the frustration at the rule of materialism, the continuing quest for the unique, and the rise of the Internet.” Lacey Jane Roberts continues Greer’s tactic of refreshing honesty when she observes, “those who participate in craft circles must realize that they are a largely conservative and homogenous group in comparison to those who participate in other areas of visual and material culture.” Her articulate observations challenge “craft culture” to “come to terms with its insularity, which has contributed to homogenous demographics and precluded the more diverse configurations of identity present in other areas of material and visual culture.”

This appraisal of craft is desperately needed, particularly in the light of the recently garnered, and somewhat indulgent, image of ‘coolness’ craft is currently courting. Other notable contributions include the Canadian academic Kirsty Robertson who often writes, much like Roberts, with an awareness of the big picture firmly in sight. “Current academic and popular interest in craftivism,” Robertson warns, “calls for a discussion of productive strategies to maintain its radical potential.” Robertson and Roberts write with North America in mind and in fact much of this book’s content is North American in emphasis, a fact that may reflect more than simply the editor’s location. There are several notable exceptions, including Andrew Jackson’s discussion of the rise of men working as professional amateurs – often honing craft skills to a high degree of accomplishment, but for minimal financial reward. And the academic Janis Jefferies, known for her writing on textiles, who reflects on a cluster of British craft exhibitions between 1997 and 2007 in which “qualities such as attention to detail, bordering almost on the neurotic, and the obsessive nature of the making process were played out”.

Nonetheless, there is perhaps a missed opportunity here. Are Craftivism and DIY emerging with shared values across North America, Britain and Europe? My instinct is to claim that they differ, particularly in regards to the kitsch-as-cool sentiment that seems to be a more prevalent element to the North American agenda. But this is only a hunch. Extra/Ordinary begins to establish, with refreshing honesty, this thing that has become Craftivism. Time will tell if it sticks.

Surface Design Journal (fall 2011: 66-67)