Too much of a good thing?
Is there a downside to the success of inclusiveness?
After more than a decade of celebrating and championing craft, the unmet challenge for the American Craft community remains-- to provide thought leadership and cultivate critical thinking about craft discourses in relation to other discourses of making within art and design, particularly around attitudes, beliefs, and values in relationship to technology.
In recent years, the American craft community has shifted its discourse inward towards itself. The flow of stories has been expansive, and in terms of broader trends at the highest level, craft narratives have become increasingly diverse.
This move has been positive and, these adjustments have been in response to the demands of our time and, they seem to be in response to the harsh dichotomies in American politics. As authoritarianism, fascism, and arguably, seditious conspiracy, emerged on American soil for the first time in our history, the craft community turned inward and embraced progressivism.
These shifts in the American craft community represent a vital political shift toward social and racial justice. And, to the community's credit, it is clear the United States' political dynamic has not been able to adjust as well.
The communities of craft have changed course over the last decade and the craft community has focused on the importance of inclusiveness. In these dynamic conversations, the American craft community has demonstrated the value of diversity and inclusion.
A decade ago, we discussed the importance of making space for those community members whose voices have been previously underrepresented, and it appears that at least some of the necessary changes have occurred.
Craft's Celebratory Turn
There were several moments in the early 2010s that made it clear to me that the craft leadership was focused on the celebratory and was not going to engage with the critical. Although I didn’t understand the broader implications at the time, I call this craft’s celebratory turn.
On one level, this was a turn back towards tradition but, in retrospect, it seems it was an effort to solidify the community against the broader complexity and confusion in the external world. The marketing effort was led by the American Craft Council and this 2014 thread on Critical Craft Forum captures my frustration.
Craft is a word that stirs up passionate enthusiasm in many people.
It's a vague term that can have a vast range of meanings to different people -- it's a word that means different things to different people with different ideologies; different people have different ideas and different truths about what constitutes craft.
To this end, here's what the American Craft Council established in 2016:
Here’s a summary of some of what was conveyed in the above video:
The word "craft" has been co-opted by marketers worldwide, but in our world, craft is a handmade object that is at that wonderful intersection between art and design pieces that have functional DNA.
What seems to happen now is that the word "craft" describes not necessarily an end product but a means to an end.
Craft is something that demands creativity, problem-solving, attention to detail, diligence, and passion. When people ask what craft is, they're asking about the differences between art and craft.
At the time, the American Craft Magazine stated that they were less interested in parsing differences between art and craft than in continually reminding people of the possibilities that creative living holds for all of us.
The marketing angle was— No matter your creative interests or position, creative living is something that you can do.
At this time, the marketing focus of the American Craft Council was about:
Celebration. Gatherings. Culture. Work. Learning. Sharing. Doing.
In this way, craft can serve all of our desires for lifestyle.
The marketing strategy, promoted through American Craft Magazine and the American Craft Council, was focused on inclusion and celebrating the community. The marketing goal of American Craft Magazine, at the time, was to connect people and places in the global creative journey.
Their pitch was "craft expresses authenticity, the authenticity of the maker, the authenticity of materials and authenticity of the process-- that's what makes it valuable."
In many ways, their idea follows Walter Benjamin's appealing notion that art changes with mechanical reproduction because the authenticity of the work of art is no longer reproducible.
The artwork's authenticity is the essence of everything transmissible, from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history the object has experienced-- people in the craft community like to hear this stuff— it resonates.
In 2015, I wrote a note to myself that I set aside for future reference; it said:
"It is becoming painfully clear that craft institutions cannot maintain the same cloistered "us against the world" mentality that the craft community currently supports. As I have stated previously, there's an enormous gap in craft community discourse between supporting the celebratory and engaging with the critical and mediating this divide has always been the role and responsibility of the American Craft Council.
But, after ten years of celebrating and championing craft-- providing thought leadership, and cultivating critical thinking about craft discourses in relation to other discourses of making within art and design, largely remains an unmet challenge."
I wrote down this note, and then, I stepped away for seven years.
Now, I'm back to look around and evaluate what happened concerning where we started in 2006. If we choose to take a look under the hood of the craft community, we will find a difficult question:
Has the community's expansion towards ensuring diversity and inclusion been entirely positive, or does this focus come with costs? What are these costs and, what are the emergent priorities?
In my view, starting around 2009 or so, the craft community pulled together and situated craft marketing to advance progressive activism and solidify the community. However, craft's well-intended inclusiveness may have had the unintentional impact of further insulating and isolating the craft community from the outside world and further distinguishing craft discourse from the discourses of art and design.
Leadership and the Future of the American Craft Council
I believe that it is critical that we capture what craft means to all of us moving forward. I am not sure of the current state of satisfaction among the national and international craft community, but that survey is a meaningful conversation.
American Craft Magazine and the American Craft Council should provide leadership to create a new marketing language that illustrates the breadth and depth of the craft community's endeavors.
And, the leadership should expand the audience through fluency in aligning broader discourses of making to include art, design, and a deep examination of attitudes, beliefs, and values around technology.
Looking beyond the achievements
Craft's rhetoric of inclusiveness has a strong emotional appeal, it evokes progressive ideals and social justice, and it does an excellent job of positioning craft as a community. But, this has further enabled the community to become even more insular; this communal insularity is craft’s Achilles heel.
I believe it is vitally important to reconcile the community’s attitudes, beliefs, and values in relationship to technology and it is important to parse the related questions around concerns for the authenticity of the handmade object; in order to do this, community building has to connect to the discourses of art and design. This requires transcending external divisions and opening upon the discourse towards the challenge of growth.