Tuesday, March 18, 2008

On Craft and Security

While working on a freelance research project tonight, I came across an article in this month’s Museum News titled “Memorial Mania.” I started reading to see if it was relevant to my project, and ended up reading the whole thing.

The article is an analysis of public feeling surrounding terrorism memorials in post-9/11 America. Very well written and full of fascinating examples, it investigates our collective obsession with memorials at this socio-psychological moment.

This moment happens to correspond with the most recent craft movement and the perceived resurgence in interest in craft, which many, including myself, would probably say started with the post-9/11 kitting craze. But more on that in a minute.

To try to understand the current "memorial mania,” author Erika Doss considers the predominant notion informing our era’s memorials, “that trauma can be represented and must be cured, hence the affirmation of hope, healing, renewal and closure in design elements such as reflecting pools, waterfalls, manicured lawns, clusters of trees and ‘beacons of hope.’”

Doss continues,

"Sigmund Freud defined anxiety as a reaction to danger, a fear of ‘being abandoned by the protecting super ego.’ Manifested in nervousness and confusion, anxiety is an untenable state of insecurity. It is often abated, or controlled, in comforting and safe spaces—in the familiar setting of the home, for example, or in the routine and order of the workplace. The anxious insecurity generated by the violation of these safe spaces is then especially jarring, and efforts to restore them are quick: Less than a month after Sept. 11, for example, the Department of Homeland Security was created to “coordinate the executive branch’s efforts to detect, prepare for, prevent, protect against, respond to and recover from terrorist attacks within the United States.”

Here I paused and the thought emerged, not to give too much credit to Freud, but is my long-time interest in topics of memory and home (both personally and academically) a reflection of my own occasional-to-persistent state of anxiety and insecurity? Is my involvement most recently with craft—which may be indelibly linked to the safe realm of home—a reflection of my own attempts to feel safe?

Then further thoughts…

- Knitting was a huge reaction to September 11. And the resurgence in craft has been happening ever since. Are we all just trying to make ourselves feel safe?

- If craft is about security and safety (at its core, even if it’s trying to be subversive), then how do you challenge it? If craft is associatively a realm of security, being somehow related to the home and to tradition, at least the American mind, what happens when someone rocks the boat? What happens when our homes, or our countries, are violated, when our security is breached? How do we react? Is it the same with craft?

- And if craft IS about security and safety, then what are the economic implications of that? Is it possible to make a living by making, selling, and promoting… safety? (Is that what we want to be doing…?)

Maybe not for everyone, but I’d wager that for many people craft is about safety, whether the craft-related person is aware of it or not. And maybe that is the source of the enormous resistance to change and critique characteristic to the field.

Take the response to the rise of “indie craft” and the recent changes to American Craft Magazine. While many are embracing the new and taking on the challenge to established norms, many others in the craft world seem not only disinterested in being challenged, but get dramatically provoked and lash out against the new. Their reaction is as though challenge itself threatens to destroy people and their world.

Another example is the recent firestorm over a talk given by Bruce Metcalf and Andrew Wagner at last month's SNAG conference, which has sparked an impressive debate online over essentially these issues. (I haven’t read it all to respond directly to it yet, but it starts here and here.)

In a recent email exchange about this debate, a colleague suggested something about fear being the biggest thing holding craft back. I responded that I couldn’t agree more: fear its boundaries will be breached, fear that the past will disappear, fear that criticism and new ideas will bring down the house, fear of the new, fear of questions, etc.

Jae and I have often wondered if craft simply doesn't want to be shaken up. If craft is the realm of the safe in the same way that art is the realm of risk. (And design looks risky because it's obsessed with the new, but is really about safety...?)

There I go again, parsing the differences. But there ARE differences, and I think understanding them can help us to better understand craft, what's holding craft back, and how to help craft evolve.

There are differences too in the way craft perceived in the U.S. compared with places like Australia, Japan, the UK, Germany, and Scandinavia where it seems craft is a much broader, more dynamic, and more highly-appreciated field.

What is it about the American psyche that it is so dismissive of craft? Part of the reason I think it's so cool (although many vehemently do not) that American Craft Magazine is now covering international craft is because it allows us, as Americans, a glimpse into how other countries perceive craft. Which might be instructive for those of us interested in making American craft truly thrive.

Which brings me back to the current socio-psychological moment. We are living in a time where we can hardly escape from the narrative of safety. It is on the news, in car commercials, in museum exhibitions and public policy debates.

At this same moment we are experiencing a resurgence in craft, and its affect on the narrative of craft has become hotly contested.

Why must craft be kept so safe? What do people feel is at stake?

The established craft world need not abandon the nest. But it must be willing to stretch its comfort zone and evolve as a field and a market, or it will forfeit its cultural relevance and fade away.

If on the other hand we allow craft to take some risks, and take risks ourselves, we might find that a rising tide lifts all ships, and that abundance lies beyond the harbor, out in the wide open sea.

Posted by Amy Shaw, Greenjeans.
Image: Tank cozy by Danish artist Marianne Joergensen


melania said...

when i was in zürich over the holidays i was shocked at the vast amount of amazing, delicious home baked cookies, as well as the beautiful hand-knit baby and some adult sweaters, socks, etc. around. in the US i felt very special to know how to knit and bake. but over there, it is not a big deal.

also, i noticed that kids and their parents actually work on projects together - they make paper and then stamp it to turn into a lovely xmas card, they make xmas tree ornaments, there is an active education in crafting. it starts in school and continues in the home.

there is a different rhythm. also, the swiss are not as wasteful. it was my impression they are not as big shoppers as the americans. it was a great change of pace for me.

Stephanie said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Amy.
As a fiber artist I frequently find that the workshops and classes i'm interested in are being offered in the UK, or Australia, or in the Netherlands. Why is the U.S. almost backwards compared to the often more cutting edge work that is being done across the pond? When I look for embroidery magazines here I find the traditional, staid, cross stitch patterns that made me yawn when as a teen I started experimenting with crafts and went in search of inspiration in my local crafts shop. When I flip through the pages of of embroidery magazine, a publication of the British Embroiderers Guild, I see work that truly pushes the limits of stitchery and fiber arts. On one page an artist/craftsperson works with what looks like human hair. On another the fanciful stitchery covering the wall brings to mind insects and other natural, organic elements. Not that there aren't brilliant, creative quilters, knitters, and
stitchers in the US, there are; it's just harder to find them. The work that's front and center seems to be your standard fare needlework. Why are Americans seemingly afraid to stray from the comofort of the middle ground? It's worth exploring why we trail behind Europeans in their practice of crafts and needlework. Americans like to portray the British, for example, as staid compared to our more open, contemporary style, but it is just not so when it comes to crafts and design. Why is this? How can we challenge and change this? There are no easy answers. Thanks for beginning this important discussion.

Sandi said...

I was reading the New York Times Magazine this morning, "The Patroness" and found a quote from artist John Baldessari (p.40) about the relationship between art and fashion but can apply to the relationship between art and craft: "I'm interested in the fusion between high art and culture, and fashion and art" (He refers to the art-fashion nexus.). How about a movement called the art-craft nexus - which leaves space for everyone. Crafters can be crafters without artists stigmatizing them. I write the wearable art blog which profiles unique handmade wearable art that draws from the worlds of art, fashion and craft. According to today's "Patroness" article, art movements that have been ignored are now gaining prominence. The same could be said for the work of crafters, thanks in no small part to the Internet.