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Contemporary artists such as Ghada Amer and Clare Twomey have gained international reputations for work that transforms ordinary craft media and processes into extraordinary conceptual art, from Amer’s monumental stitched paintings to Twomey’s large, ceramics-based installations. Despite the amount of attention that curators and gallery owners have paid to these and many other conceptual artists who incorporate craft into their work, few art critics or scholars have explored the historical or conceptual significance of craft in contemporary art. Extra/Ordinary takes up that task. Reflecting on what craft has come to mean in recent decades, artists, critics, curators, and scholars develop theories of craft in relation to art, chronicle how fine-art institutions understand and exhibit craft media, and offer accounts of activist crafting, or craftivism. Some contributors describe generational and institutional changes under way, while others signal new directions for scholarship, considering craft in relation to queer theory, masculinity, and science. Encompassing quilts, ceramics, letterpress books, wallpaper, and textiles, and moving from well-known museums to home workshops and political protests, Extra/Ordinary is an eclectic introduction to the “craft culture” referenced and celebrated by artists promoting new ways of thinking about the role of craft in contemporary art.

Contributors. Elissa Auther, Anthea Black, Betty Bright, Nicole Burisch, Maria Elena Buszek, Jo Dahn, M. Anna Fariello, Betsy Greer, Andrew Jackson, Janis Jefferies, Louise Mazanti, Paula Owen, Karin E. Peterson, Lacey Jane Roberts, Kirsty Robertson, Dennis Stevens, Margaret Wertheim

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822347620
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 03/04/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Maria Elena Buszek is a critic, curator, and Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Colorado, Denver. She is the author of the book Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, Popular Culture, also published by Duke University Press. She has written for magazines and journals including BUST, Art in America, Photography Quarterly, and TDR: The Journal of Performance Studies.

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Craft and Contemporary Art


Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4739-2

Chapter One

M. Anna Fariello


I used to think that it was possible to carry on deeper conversations about craft using the formalized language shared by art history, aesthetics, and criticism. I no longer believe this. Craft as a field to be discussed in depth cannot be shoe-horned into the Cinderella slipper of a language based on principles of what was once called "fine" art. Scholars and writers attempting to apply a language structured on the painted image to volumetric form face frustration. Of this phenomenon, Paul Greenhalgh, as curator of ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum, quipped, "Ceramics is occasionally the subject of art history, but more often it is its victim." The very term fine art negates the historically egalitarian values of craft and its influence on the visual arts in this regard. For such debates to be productive, craft must have its own discipline-specific vocabulary, one grown organically from its own practices.

The essence of craft is bound to the hand, to the process of working, of making. Beginning with imagination and laying out the parameters of design, it is the skill of the hand that results in a thing well made, a thing that rightfully can claim the title of "craft." This essay proposes new ways of considering craft in the context of aesthetics and material culture and serves to broaden the dialogue by tracing a stream of ideological writing that has run parallel to the mainstream but well outside it. And none too soon—in the twenty-first century, craft seems to be on everyone's mind. It is newly intriguing and poses an exciting challenge to established ways of thinking, making, seeing, and classifying objects.


There is no clear line partitioning craft from art, like a highway sign that marks the state line: You are now leaving the world of Art and entering the brave new world of Craft. Rather, notions of what constitutes "craft" and "art" form a fluid continuum as part of the larger spectrum of material culture. But even a view of craft and art along a continuous line does not provide easy answers. One reason for this difficulty is that the issue is too complex to be answered as an either/or question. Is it craft? Is it art? The craft-art continuum is not constructed along a single line but is interwoven from multiple strands of thought, assumptions, and practices. Together, these form the tapestry of our understanding.

There are some who think that "craft" and "art" are a matter of quality, that these terms are not nouns but qualitative adjectives. An art professor colleague once responded, when I argued for a language of craft, that good craft is art anyway. While I agree that good craft is certainly art, I intend to show that the identity of craft embraces more than art. My intention in this essay is to untangle the multiple strands of ideas that inform the identity of craft at a particular point along the continuum of material expression. For want of a better term, I will call this point Studio Craft, where certain assumptions, intentions, characteristics, and practices converge, which I would like to discuss from its earliest manifestation as Arts and Crafts in the late nineteenth century through its institutionalization as defined by the American Craft Council in the 1940s.

Studio Craft is not a new term. Others have used it in their attempt to devise a way to describe a certain approach to making, embracing more than simplistic and superficial definitions. Bernard Leach in A Potter's Book (1940) struggled with a definition in a chapter he titled "Towards a Standard." "A new type of craftsman, called individual, studio, or creative, has emerged, and a new idea of pottery is being worked out by him as a result of an immensely broadened outlook," he wrote. Studio Craft is not the craft of hobby "crafters," nor the mass-production of "craft" retailers. On the other hand, Studio Craft is not the craft of those who have abandoned the term altogether, substituting the misnomer "design" for craft itself. Design is a well-respected intermediary, the working out of problems that stand between concept and execution. Still, design is but a plan and does not necessarily include the skillful making that results in a finely finished piece. Craft departs from its corollaries—art and design—in its embrace of execution, the making of the work (see fig. 1). Design is but one-third of the creative triad that informs craft as a discipline.


The making of an object is a key attribute of Studio Craft. While some would require the hand making of a work as necessary for an object to be called craft, not all craftsmen agree. "'Craft' as you may know, comes from the German word 'Kraft,' meaning 'power' or 'strength'.... We cannot fake craft. It lies in the act." So wrote Mary Caroline Richards in her 1960s-era book Centering, a work that proposed a philosophical and theoretical foundation for craft practice and facilitated the development of craft as a professional field of inquiry. Richards went on to say what she meant about a craftsman not being able to "fake craft" in explaining how "the strains we have put in the clay break open in the fire." Craft objects, beautiful or not, are a record of what went on in the studio between maker and material. If the maker was at odds with the material in the way Richards suggests, the work—at some point—reveals the truth of its making. Each mark—in clay, wood, stone, fiber, glass, pigment, or metal—is the archaeological evidence of an action taken by its maker. Indeed, the object as document embodies a material reenactment of a studio-based craft practice.

On the economic continuum, a work of art generally outpaces a work of craft in most cases. We accept this as a truism of our time, although this circumstance is based on specific notions of art compared to a more vague understanding of what is meant by craft. How fortunate for art that an inherent part of its identity is that it is considered genuine, expressive, and good! Somehow the word art implies good art; if you want to talk about bad art, you had better preface your description accordingly. Art compared to craft seldom includes amateur or hobbyist "art." We seldom think about the mass-produced "art" found on urban streets, the "art" depicted on greeting cards, or the "art" that fills kitschy gift shops. To its credit, "art" insinuates a rarified form, with samples found in museums and history books. Craft, to its detriment, is too often thought of as the smallest trinket, something produced in quantity with little forethought. But what qualities prop up these perceptions? Are they valid? For the sake of this discussion, I make comparisons here using the best of each genre. The best of craft, like the best of art, can be beautiful, inspiring, challenging, intriguing, and compelling.

The roots of a studio-based craft practice can be traced to the methods of making used to produce the earliest human-made aesthetic objects. Much of manual work and all artistic practice fell within what we would call craft process today. Throughout history and up into the Middle Ages, the making of any object was centered in a cottage industry. Whether pottery or painting, or painting on pottery, objects were made in similar ways in terms of the scale of production. Individuals, families, neighbors, clans—small numbers of people—worked together to produce a particular type of object.

With industrialization, craft production changed, not so much as a product but as a way of working. Early in the Industrial Revolution, change was evident in how weavings were made. Weaving moved from the privacy of the home, where a single loom was commonly found beside the home hearth, to undergo the most dramatic changes of any of the crafts at the time. With the invention of the steam-powered loom in the late eighteenth century, followed by the introduction of a wool-combing machine, the meditative and personal environment of the home loom gave way to the cacophony of the factory floor. In contrast to the individual craftsmen working holistically on a product, factory workers were considered "operatives," who completed a single operation in a series, a system that became known as the division of labor.

John Ruskin, social critic and Oxford professor, lamented this situation, creating a pun from the term division of labor. Ruskin wrote, "It is not, truly speaking, the labor that is divided; but the men:—Divided into mere segments of men—broken into small fragments and crumbs of life; so that all ... that is left in a man is not enough to make a pin, or a nail, but exhausts itself in making the point of a pin, or the head of a nail." This division of labor, along with sweatshop conditions and the exploitation of children, was common in the new industrial environment.

On the factory floor, craft process was forced to abandon its traditional roots, leaving behind aesthetic expression, craftsmanship, and control in favor of standardization, efficiency, and quantity. Moreover, industrial process removed the hand—manu—from manufacture, leaving facture (to make) as the root of the word factory. Within this new environment stripped of the human touch, design was moved off the factory floor as well, fracturing holistic craft process while breaking apart the operations of production. Emerging from this situation, however, was a chorus of voices articulating qualitative measures that were to become the evolutionary ancestor of contemporary craft. The most dominant and recognizable philosophical tributary contributing to the future of Studio Craft came in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement. Although "crafts" is not listed first, it remained tightly bound to "arts" in a symbiotic relationship.

In the wake of Ruskin's evangelical pronouncements, in 1861 his fellow Englishman William Morris founded a company with the long subtitle "Fine Art Workmen in Painting, Carving, Furniture, and Metals." Combining "fine art" with "workmen," and "painting" with "carving, furniture, and metals," Morris provided a good example of how naming conveys the intent of craft practice and its evolutionary development. Morris began in earnest to experiment with the goal of producing beautiful objects to transform society into a socialist utopia. Although he succeeded in producing finely crafted objects, these items did not enter into the homes of the ordinary worker as he had hoped. Instead, objects made by Morris and Company were purchased by the upper-middle class. In spite of this failing, Morris succeeded in defining an aesthetic and work ethic that had a profound influence on what would become the Studio Craft movement.

Yet this nineteenth-century union of art and craft as promoted by the English Arts and Crafts movement was immediately eclipsed by the seduction of modernism in the early twentieth century. Modernism, for all its democratic rhetoric, excluded most attributes of the Arts and Crafts movement in its celebration of individual expression. Surrealists defined art as psychological; abstraction deemed it self-referential; Futurists proclaimed it ahistorical; Dadaists claimed it was immaterial; Cubists approached it as analytical. One might go so far as to say that, at this juncture, craft and art stretched to opposite poles along the craft-art continuum.

During the same period, a different set of qualities and intentions revolved around the nucleus of craft. Arts and Crafts, as well as the emerging American Studio Craft movement, remained tactile rather than psychological, functional rather than self-referential, material rather than immaterial, holistic rather than analytical, social rather than individual, and traditional rather than iconoclastic. With the growing dominance of modernism's aesthetic mainstream, craft went underground. Its ideals formed upstream tributaries that flowed into a swelling of interest that remained outside the modernist "art" world.

Despite the growing dominance of modernist hierarchies in the "fine arts" at the start of the twentieth century, the ideas and enthusiasm for craft did not wane. A proliferation of Morris societies, the Craftsman magazine, and a growing community of craft promoters and producers were evidence of the Ruskin/Morris vision everywhere. Gustav Stickley's Morris Chair promised functionality and "honest" construction. The production of Mission furniture, with its hallmarks of heft and exposed construction, was widespread. Louis Comfort Tiffany adapted the quintessential medieval art form of stained glass to domestic application in the American Northeast. The Midwest saw the development of a new kind of factory, such as Cincinnati's Rookwood Pottery Company, which produced a new kind of "art" pottery not subject to a strict division of labor (although, in truth, most pieces were not made wholly by a single individual). Utopian communities, like Rose Valley in Pennsylvania, were founded in pursuit of a holistic lifestyle based on quality craftsmanship. In Philadelphia Samuel Yellin adapted the Gothic style to twentieth-century metalwork to create an imposing sense of significance to the public buildings of a still-young country (see fig. 2). In the mountain South, craft advocates like William Frost and Allen Eaton promoted handwork as evidence of a purely American culture. On the cusp of the twentieth century, Studio Craft remained outside the dominant art historical canon—and certainly outside its history books—to thrive in decentralized pockets of creative activity.


The Arts and Crafts movement grew in Eng land under the reign of Queen Victoria during an era generally perceived to be one of strict morality. Such morality was characterized by prescribed modes of behavior that resulted in a "no-touch" society. This mental state, grafted onto material culture, resulted in homes filled with tasty visuals: things—and lots of them—that seldom measured up in terms of tactile value. How many Victorian settees were visual delights but impossible to sit upon? Part of the growing Arts and Crafts advocacy was an emphasis on product functionality and design education. Hands-on educational programs were proposed for large numbers of people: design education for workers in industry, manual education for school children, and technical education for paraprofessionals. In Eng land, a national system of government-funded design schools was authorized in midcentury, while in America the emphasis was on manual training for children and industrial education for secondary school students.

In America the stimulus for the introduction of crafts into the public school curriculum came from some unexpected places. After the Civil War, "industrial institutes," established to educate former slaves, formed a parallel educational system in which handwork played a central role. Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, established in Alabama in 1881, served as a model for hundreds of public and private African American academies that sprang up throughout the South. Although seldom recognized as part of the craft tradition, schools such as Tuskegee echoed Ruskin in their emphasis on handwork as a significant aspect of the learning experience. Washington promoted "mind-training" as the "logical component of heart-training"; both informed coursework based on a hands-on approach to education. Classes in wood, metal, textiles, and leather were common.

Beginning in 1895, with his speech at the Cotton States Convention in Atlanta, Washington was the most vocal American advocating an education of the hand. He was inspired by his own educational experience at Hampton Institute in Virginia (see fig. 3). In a phrase reverberating from Ruskin, Hampton founder Samuel A. Armstrong championed "training the hand, head, and heart." After Tuskegee was established, the philosophies of Hampton and its offspring intertwined, one echoing the other. "The worth of work with the hands [is] an uplifting power in real education," wrote Washington in an article published in the Craftsman magazine. Well into the twentieth century, industrial institutes promised that their curricula would restore "dignity to labor" and utilized handwork as a means to that end. Washington, in particular, was cited in the Craftsman, linking African American institutions to other craft schools via their common ideological underpinning. The popular head-hands-heart motto adapted from Ruskin was the basis for many independent schools that were established throughout the segregated South. Christiansburg Industrial Institute, an African American Quaker-supported school, was located across the state from Hampton at Virginia's western border, near Blacksburg. Christiansburg promoted its industrial curriculum alongside academic work; its 1899 catalogue placed them "on an equal footing ... by training the hands as well as the head."


Excerpted from EXTRA/ORDINARY Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: The Ordinary Made Extra/Ordinary Maria Elena Buszek 1

Redefining Craft: New Theory

Making and Naming: The Lexicon of Studio Craft M. Anna Fariello 23

Validity Is in the Eye of the Beholder: Mapping Craft Communities of Practice Dennis Stevens 43

Super-Objects: Craft as an Aesthetic Position Louise Mazanti 59

Fabrication and Encounter: When Content Is a Verb Paula Owen 83

Craft Show: In the Realm of "Fine Arts"

How the Ordinary Becomes Extraordinary: The Modern Eye and the Quilt as Art Form Karin E. Peterson 99

Wallpaper, the Decorative, and Contemporary Installation Art Elissa Auther 115

Handwork and Hybrids: Recasting the Craft of Letterpress Printing Betty Bright 135

Elastic/Expanding: Contemporary Conceptual Ceramics Jo Dahn 153


Craftivist History Betsy Greer 175

Rebellious Doilies and Subversive Stitches: Writing a Craftivist History Kirsty Robertson 184

Craft Hard Die Free: Radical Curatorial Strategies for Craftivism Anthea Black Nicole Burisch 204

Loving Attention: An Outburst of Craft in Contemporary Art Janis Jefferies 222

New Functions, New Frontiers

Put Your Thing Down, Flip It, and Reverse It: Reimagining Craft Identities Using Tactics of Queer Theory Lacey Jane Roberts 243

Man Who Make: The "Flow" of the Amateur Designer/Maker Andrew Jackson 260

Crochet and the Cosmos: An Interview with Margaret Wertheim Maria Elena Buszek 276

Contributors 291

Index 295

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