My friend recently wrote a blog post in which she shared what she dreamed it would be like as an artist vs what it’s actually been like.
I was in a pretty serious band for many years and have a background in fine arts (with a focus in painting and sculpture) and I definitely wrestled with some of the same issues while trying to figure out how to actually live out a creative profession* (the ideal vs the reality). There are two aspects of the how-to-be-and-be-happy-and-even-be-successful-as-an-artist issue that I want to address here: art vs craft, feminism, & the cult of the amateur, and the current trend collapsing art/craft & consumerism/consumption.
Your Mom’s a Fiber Artist**
(the art vs craft debate from 3rd wave feminism to the cult of the amateur)
In the past 8-ish years, there has been a huge mainstream resurgence in a category of creative activities traditionally considered more “craft” than Art. Knitting, crochet, sewing, etc are experiencing a post-modern renaissance where it has become cool to play with fiber (and knitting has possibly even jumped the shark since everyone and their mom does it). Outside of the realm of fiber arts, activities like paper/printing arts, jewelry/metal working, home craft, and cooking have gained a degree of legitimacy that even 3rd wave feminism couldn’t have imagined.
[As an aside, it is worth doing some reading about the art vs craft debate (or even just on women and art in general) from the perspective of feminist writers. I am not going to pretend that I am academic enough anymore to do this topic justice, but suffice to say that the association of many crafts (and especially fiber crafts) with women’s work/domesticity has historically relegated them to a lower position in the hierarchy of all-things-aesthetic, whereas fine Art-with-a-capital-A enjoys a legitimized (and historically largely male-dominated) position at the top of the aesthetic pyramid.
Here is a poster by the Guerilla Girls and some links for your aside enjoyment.
- I really can’t believe I found it on the Google, but this is a great article I read in Leslie Fry’s Fiber Arts class at New College.
- A total classic: Why Have There Been No Great Woman Artists by Linda Nochlin
- This book looks interesting. I’m linking to a passage on p. 209 that takes Janson (who indeed wrote one of my art history textbooks from college) to task.
- I also haven’t read this essay by Joanna Frueh in the anthology cited in the Risatti book above but I’m thinking it might be useful.
- Pentney being awesome and academic on feminism & knitting
Back to the explosion of popularity and subsequent mainstream legitimization of the craft-y arts. I am certainly not here to criticize the proliferation of craft-as-art-and-even-Art on the whole, but I do want to point out an unfortunate side effect: much like we have seen with music over the last 10+ years, we are in a period that J sometimes likes to call “the cult of the amateur.” It has become incredibly accessible to become a creator, a maker, someone who concerns themselves with the practice of aesthetics. In a world where you can buy Garageband for you iPad for $4.99, a search for knitting patterns turns up over 8.3 million results, and Urban O*tfitters has a DIY section, how do you determine who is actually Good? What is actually Authentic? How is value/meaning/significance assigned to art now that the angle of participation has widened significantly? I don’t have the answers to these questions (nor am I trying to suggest that we resurrect the cult of Genius). However, I think it is important to acknowledge that as we swing away from the myth of artist-as-special, we risk swinging too far to the other side, where we value the amateur over the professional, the casual over the serious, the mediocre or even crappy over the skilled. And that is not a world that supports and values cultural production by Artists.
(or why Etsy is not all that it’s cracked up to be)
This brings me to my second topic. I have refrained from mentioning Etsy thus far but it is obviously a result of the value of handmade entering our mainstream consciousness. Etsy encourages people to buy items from what they term small-small businesses (“human-scale economies”) and places an emphasis on authorship and provenance in the items marketed there. In theory, Etsy is really, really great and I am wholeheartedly happy that it exists and especially proud of my awesome friends who have shops here, here, and here. But (yes, I just did another “yes, but”).
Here’s my problem with Etsy. It’s cool that it’s rooted in ideas about alternative economies. In practice, though, I see a race to the bottom (after all in capitalism cheapness wins). In an effort to compete (or perhaps out of ignorance about their value as creators or even in spite of their value), sellers must succumb to market pressure and the premium for artisan and handmade gets thinner and thinner. Sara Mosle wrote about the false feminist fantasy peddled by Etsy two years ago. The NYT ran an article questioning the effort required to run an Etsy business as well. Since then, I haven’t exactly seen things get better. Searches turn up a proliferation of listings made with questionable materials (cheap & made in China), questionable authorship (everyone copying everyone else… owls and deer anyone?), and even questionable sellers (is it really a small-small business and is it really handmade if you are clearly outsourcing your labor and production?). I mean, it’s not like all of Etsy is like that, but it’s definitely there as the dark underbelly of the indie commerce machine. At the end of the day, I think that the market pressures you see in play on Etsy might be the undoing of craft-as-Art, and ironically of handmade as a viable creative profession. It’s very disappointing because it’s so tantalizingly Almost.
Finally, let’s not forget that even for the best that Etsy has to offer, it’s still about CONSUMPTION. I’m going to go way out of my league here intellectually and academically and say that my gut reaction is that when Art/art/craft/Craft seeks its validation through consumerism, artists aren’t really coming out ahead.
It’s my bedtime but I plan to read more about this last point (this, this, and some good old marx seem like decent starting points), to make sure I’m not being full of sheep. Please call me out if you disagree, I’d love to have the conversation or some links to read.
*It turns out that I became a UX designer, which was a good fit for me creatively, but trying to figure out how — and whether — I wanted to “make it” as a musician or a fine artist took a lot of soul searching.
** Dear Mom. I don’t mean this as a dig against moms.