Thursday, July 24, 2008

Report from ACC Salon - Old School Meets New Wave

Tonight in the crowded library of the American Craft Council, Bruce Metcalf and Chanel Kennebrew met to represent the "old fogies" and the "young whippersnappers" of the larger craft world and discuss the nature of and differences between the Craft Establishment and the DIY Movement.

It was awesome. I took reams of notes. Here are some highlights. The full recording is available as a podcast right here.

What I noticed off the bat was how several ACC staffers and Chanel were all donning fabulous brooches and neckpieces by Metcalf, while the jeweler himself sported one of Chanel's screen-printed Ts. Practically a potlatch!

Throughout the hour and a half, Bruce and Chanel were both very smart, earnest, and respectful about their questions and responses, challenging each other and sometimes surprising each other. For the most part, Bruce (cast as both rabble-rouser and elder statesman) sort of interviewed Chanel (cast as the free-thinking ingénue) about what makes her and her peers tick, though the discussion definitely went both ways and there was generous time for audience questions.

They talked about Etsy (Is it just chaos? No, it's very supportive. Isn't it all about consumerism? Well, what's wrong with trying to make a living? Is there a dark side to Etsy? (audience laughter) I don't know, if there is let me know!)

They talked about quality, contrasting exclusionary, quality-obsessed craft fairs with the inclusive Etsy scene where anything goes.

Chanel described that after art school she didn't want to go the prescribed route of becoming an unpaid intern, taking a low-paying job, and having to "wait in line" long enough to get a good job as a designer. She figured, why not just start making and selling her work now instead of waiting? Bruce pointed out that while he must teach to supplement the earning he makes from his high-end art jewelry, Chanel does only her work for a living and doesn’t need a “day job.” There was applause. [Note: I got this a little wrong. Bruce does teach but not so much to make a living.]

Later they took a question e-mailed by someone listening to the live podcast: Why are the DIY movement and the old school so divided? Bruce's response was immediate: the old school feels threatened. The old school is "so invested in the idea of the refined object" that they feel threatened by unfamiliar people who are calling their work “craft” yet are perhaps eschewing traditional standards of quality or aesthetics.

Chanel added that DIY is divided from the old school because DIYers don't want to be criticized, they just want to be themselves and make their stuff, even if maybe that closes them off to anything outside.

Bruce capped it off suggesting that the standards set by the craft establishment have created limits to its own evolution.

Another audience member asked both Bruce and Chanel what they see as the sociological impact of their work. I loved Chanel's response that it's about promoting varied perspectives in the world, a point that reminded me of Sonia Clark's passionate words at the Houston conference describing craft as a counterweight against monoculture.

I fully agree with this perspective, which brings me to final analysis: science shows us that the more diverse the ecosystem, the stronger and more fulfilling it will be. So, the broader we conceive of the craft world, the stronger and more fulfilling IT will be.

In terms of the marketplace (which all this is at least partly about, let’s face it), Etsy came out of nowhere and proved that there’s a market for indie craft. Right now there may not be a lot of crossover between this indie marketplace and, say, the market in action at the American Craft Show (in terms of both audiences or vendors). But it is growing year by year. And we’re already seeing that the larger craft world only benefits from more cooperation and cross-fertilization.

There will always be tensions caused by generational gaps and differing points of view on formal training vs. self-teaching. However through respectful conversations and an effort toward understanding, perhaps we can set aside petty squabbles and get busy making things and offering them to the world from a more unified front.

Props to the ACC for, once again, facilitating an important and stimulating conversation about the identity and experience of Craft and providing an opportunity for people from all corners of the craft world to gather and intermix. Props to Etsy, too, for co-sponsoring and live streaming the event. I look forward to more!


Midway through the talk, they paused to give some background as to why this topic was even brought to the Salon. I knew that the panel discussion Bruce and Andrew Wagner did at the SNAG conference had ignited a huge response (which played out in Anne of Imogene's blog comment section). Most of the reaction came from younger crafters attacking Bruce for being (so they perceived) a retrograde, elitist craft world fogie who thinks all DIYers and craftsters are uneducated hacks. There was vitriol from insulted and threatened old schoolers, too. And there was Bruce explaining himself and trying to make sure everyone was hearing each other clearly and not misunderstanding. After 130+ comments, the ACC decided it would hold this Salon so the discussion could continue in person with everyone, even people listening online, could contribute. Actually, this Salon topic was in the works before the SNAG conference and the conversation it sparked. Thanks, Monica, for the clarification! (There have been over 130 comments, though.)

What I didn’t know is that it was a comment made by yours truly at the ACC Houston conference that inspired Bruce to start checking out indie craft and DIY and getting to know more about this next generation. Um, sorry Bruce if something I said led you into the way of all this fire, but thanks for all the work you’re doing to foster broader understanding.

Posted by Amy Shaw for Greenjeans.
Top image by Junnkprints sourced here.
Bottom image by Bruce Metcalf sourced here.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

I was listening via Etsy yesterday and agree that respectful conversations are awesome, and that sparking of more discussion is definitely in order.

I was fascinated with the use of the word revolution ... by Bruce. I've seen DIYers recently back off the use of this word and wonder if it had to do with it’s lack of containment (in other words, that there are so many causes in DIY, it’s hard to blurb it) or is this reflective of the shift in focus to selling handmade things. It’s also interesting to think about how “living your life as if the revolution had already happened” is or isn’t in conflict with DIY’s values – my experience is that DIYers see themselves as agents of change, as if the change is only just beginning or is in the future somewhere.

Thanks so much for this recap (and all the recaps of this series as I missed the first presentation).

Handmade Detroit