A Tangled History of Radical Craft
Often there’s one way to define Art that most folks can agree with: visual art, movement, poetry, music, installation, experience, culinary, film… All are ways for an artist to express their own perspectives, feelings or a statement and that others can connect to or perhaps create their own understanding by experiencing. Art is the communication between humans that works on our thoughts, emotions and physical reactions to connect us through creative means.
But what about craft? Can craft express the same way as Art? What’s the difference between craft and Art to begin with?
For Pride month this year, I made an art kit for a local youth library with celebratory embroidery and cross stitch crafts. It was so fun to create patterns and make little pride patches, plus coloring stickers, which are a big thing around here! I also did some research into the history of craft, starting from the concept of “craftivism” and I quickly learned that crafting has a long woven history with political messaging, resistance, resilience and social protest.
What is craft, and how is it different from Art?
Craft and Art are two sides of an art historical debate that has waged for at least the past 150 years, and probably much longer. Both Art and craft are creative practices in special skills that may imply talent and require dedicated practice to develop. The distinction is arguable, really, and is traditionally drawn along lines of use. Works of craft are made with creativity, but with utility— how the crafted object will be used– at the primary center of the object’s function. Works of Fine Arts are made with creativity, asethetics and message as the primary focus of the work. Fine Arts are things like painting, sculpture, collage, music, dance, poetry, culinary arts and we may find ourselves or our art history professors asking us “What is the artist trying to say with this work of art?” We rarely, if ever, aks the question of intent with crafts– things like woodworking, fiber arts, architecture, and foods like baking or beer; the intent of crafted objects seems obvious: to be used or consumed.
This distinction of use-focused v. aesthetics-focus has historically implied hierarchy, generally with the Fine Arts being more prestigious and important than craft. The Fine Arts are also historically much more white male-dominated and public – meant to be SEEN and experienced by the masses, whereas crafts have been thought of as feminine and including works that don’t require as much skill and are therefore underdeveloped, as well as domestic and personal.
In the late 19th Century, in response to industrialization and mechanization of production, the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States and Europe, was lead by artists such as William Morris and John Ruskin, who sought to elevate the practice of designing and creating by hand to the level of Fine Arts. Ruskin and Morris idealized careful craftsmanship and high skill in the making of commonly used objects. The Arts and Crafts movement was overall a multifaceted ideological comment and in some cases rejection of industrialization, and in others a condemnation not of the use of machines, but rather the treatment of workers in factories to mass produce objects for use and disposal. The Arts and Crafts movement produced amazing works and academic study of architecture, furniture, and decorative arts like embroidery, but ultimately failed to “elevate” craft to the level of Fine Arts. Because Arts and crafts are different in important ways.
The British art historian Rozsika Parker writes about the shared history of embroidery and femininity in her book, The Subversive Stitch. In it, she describes works of craft as personal expressions. As crafts like fiber arts were largely handled by women starting in the Victorian era, they became expressions of women’s daily lives in that context: caring for families and domestic concerns. Women were largely excluded from political and public action and so their works were also excluded from commentary on social systems at large, unlike the male-dominated Fine Arts. And it’s because of this exclusion and distinction that craft has a valuable role in subversion and resistance of those systems. Groups like the British Suffragists and the youth counterculture of the 1960’s both used craft, particularly embroidery to make statements against the hegemonic patriarchal systems they struggled against. “[E]mbroidery showed that the personal was the political – that personal and domestic life is as much the product of the institutions and ideologies of our society as is public life.” (Parker, 205)
Parker’s book was published in the mid-1980’s, and she was looking back on the new Women’s Lib movement of the 1970’s, focusing specifically on the experiences of white heteronormative women. Beyond the scope of Parker’s research, crafting has been intricately woven with movements of resistance throughout history.
In the United States, handwork crafts and specifically fiber arts is particularly entangled with slavery, as often enslaved people were highly valued if they had skills in fiber arts, passed down through generations spanning back to communities in Africa. Story quilts with geometrical patterns originated with enslaved people, preserving cultural memory and legacy. White slave owners appropriated quilting practices, which became symbols of white southern domesticity.
Despite this, quilting was used as a tool of resistance against the oppression of slavery to mark safe houses on the Underground railroad, offering beacons of freedom to enslaved people. Ruth Terry, in a 2019 article on Medium, connects research in neuroscience that suggests needlework supports mental health resiliency in coping with trauma, and that enslaved women who would knit and sew together may have experienced these benefits in the midst of generations of slavery and abuse.
A photo of the incredible Sojourner Truth shows her sitting serenely with her knitting laying across her hands, a symbol of skill, patience and calculated precision, the same which she used to defy the atrocious history of slavery in the United States and liberate enslaved people.
Quilting continued its legacy of memory and preservation in the face of certain annihilation into the late 20th century.
In 1987, gay rights activist Cleve Jones created the first panel of the AIDS Memorial quilt in memory of his friend, Marvin Feldman and in response to the devastating AIDS epidemic that had reached its height in the mid-1980’s. The quilt had been conceived as a way to remember the names of the lost, and public response was overwhelming as people throughout the US sent panels to the San Francisco workshop and donors supplied sewing equipment to construct the quilt. The quilt was first displayed in 1988, and has since grown with continued contributions. In 2019, the quilt weighed 54 tons with nearly 50,000 panels, each memorializing a beloved that had been affected by AIDS.
In 2003, while a sociology student at Goldsmiths College in London, Betsy Greer created the term “Craftivist” as she wondered how she could help others with her knitting and fiber arts work.
It was just about connecting the dots that were already there, really, as I had studied conceptual art while doing my undergraduate degree in the late ‘90s and knew that what we make can tackle different issues. When I started knitting, I started looking at the ways in which I could help others with it, which at that time, meant making items and donating them to charities – something my grandmother had done for years, as she made hats for new infants at the local hospital she volunteered for. In that way, what we make has the chance to create changes in the fabric of our world, whether it’s knitting a tiny baby hat or doing something on a larger scale.— Betsy Greer
In 2018, Greer curated an exhibit at the MODA in Atlanta, collecting works by artists and crafters on issues of social and political inequalities.
These objects show how deeply the makers care about the various issues, by the time spent and ideas shared. It is my hope that, shown together, the works help people talk about difficult issues that the show may evoke or get people thinking about how they can express their feelings with what they can make with their hands.— Betsy Greer, describing Making Change at MODA
The Yarn Mission, a community knitting collective, formed in 2014 following the murder of Mike Brown and the protest response in Ferguson, Missouri. The collective is focused on community organizing and providing safe spaces for Black protesters to be together, and support each other, all centered on shared knitting practices.
Knitting kept hands busy, calmed spirits, and created a positive point of connection between complete strangers brought together by the protests. Eventually, Ferguson protestors and residents became like family, working together to keep streets clean, get to cars safely, and ensure everyone had necessities like toilet paper.–Taylor Payne, qtd in Ruth Terry’s article on Medium
This is so far only the beginnings of the research I’ve collected on crafting as expression and resistance. There’s so much more I want to share and write about, and I’ll continue crafting this post with more resources on craft as expression and craftivism in the following weeks throughout Pride month!
- Art and Crafts Movement on Wikipedia
- The Stories Behind African American Quilts on Arts Help
- The Subversive Stitch by Rozsika Parker (1984) on Open Library
- History Runs Deep: Craftivism and Black History Month
- ICYMI BIPOC are the Original Craftivists, Ruth Terry on Medium
- AIDS Memorial Quilt Info
- The Yarn Mission
- Metal Magazine Interview with Betsy Greer on Craftivism
- Making Change at the MODA in Atlanta
- Underground Railroad Quilts (Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage)