Thursday, August 25, 2011

Arts & Crafts, Punk & DIY: Movements & Messages

We're back at that place where everyone wants to see the hand. Today, if it's perfect it's too slick or lacks feeling. Punk rock had this aesthetic, too; you didn't have to know how to play an instrument, you just had to have strong feelings, plenty of stamina, and the drive to be heard. But punk had anti-establishment, anti-corporation, anti-racist and anti-sexist politics behind it. The Arts & Crafts Movement, by contrast, promoted fine craft and skill, honoring the maker (anyone could be trained) and was partially in response to the poor working conditions and treatment in the factories. Today we have a mixture in the do-it-yourself (DIY) movement: anyone can make anything and the handmade is praised, but nothing has to look precise. It's about challenges. It's about doing. At least that is what it looks like to me.

The Arts & Crafts movement glorified both the beauty of the object and how it enhanced everyday life as well as the pride of the maker. William Morris, in the 1890s, focused on fine materials in his Kelmscott Press books, which included handmade paper, woodcuts, and hand printing. I don't think beauty or quality is entering into the picture today, though. I think it is the coolness of the act of making the product that is the source of awe. The eyes-open "how'd you do that" or "how'd you think of that" rather than the "how did you learn to do that so well." We've got YouTube so anyone can make a video, no matter how good. We've got MP3 players where the quality of the music isn't what people are after—it's the accessiblity. There has been a renewed interest in LPs, but it is possible people also like the "authentic" pops and skips along with the finer (in general) sound.

Maybe it is actually character that people want. A personalization of a thing that makes it unique and stands alone from others. I think that longing for uniqueness gets confused sometimes with something roughly made. Nobody really ever wanted pops and skips on a record when records were the norm, for example. The disinterest in perfection, or I'd rather call it precision, is also possibly a reaction against big box stores, generic malls, and sameness found in certain areas across the United States.

Each of these "movements" was/is a reaction to the times with punk the most overtly political of the three. In a compilation of essays by Greil Marcus called Ranters and Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92, I found a some interesting examples of progressive sociopolitical views. The Clash incorporated Jamaican reggae into their music and wrote about social problems such as haves and have nots. The Raincoats is fronted by three women who wanted "to put a bit of a distance between what we do and the rock 'n' roll tradition" which was "based in the exclusion of women and the ghettoization of blacks" (113). Gang of Four looks at the corporations, how capitalism affects people's everyday lives, and bases some of the their lyrics on advertising propaganda. Interesting how the street posters for these bands (or bands like them) were the photocopied, disjointed, cut-and-paste variety reminiscent of Italian Futurism founder and pro-Fascist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti who promoted war and technology,  the abolition of galleries and museums, and capturing the feelings of speed, movement and flight in art.

We've been at war for decades now, but there's no big rebellion in the DIY movement (unless you want to count the computer and cell phone hackers…). Perhaps it is about looking for something positive, a reaching out for community, a culture of sharing, collaboration, reusing information and materials. We still have the artist/crafters who take pride in their skill and ability to make beautiful things, as evidenced in magazines like Fiber Arts (final issue: Summer 2011) and Fine Woodworking and there is a little overlap, but the emphases are different, including a devotion of fine crafters (as evidenced in FWs website) to "becoming better" and "excellence."

To become better acquainted with DIY, I hunted through some back issues of Make magazine: most of which had to do with electronics and science and contained great hacks (challenges to be accepted when faced with either a device that won't let you do something or just to see if you can, such as a webcam attached to a vacuum cleaner). I found only one woman listed in the front of each issue (if that). It did include a couple of craft-related things, such as making buttons from fallen tree branches which I immediately had to try. I made nearly a dozen buttons before I remembered I had other work that needed to be finished. The buttons are a bit crude—no wait—I mean rustic and unique. What will I do with them? I don't know. Did I enjoy myself? Oh, yeah!

Craft magazine is the sister magazine, geared primarily to what women have typically been interested in making (knitting, sewing, cooking) and to the current recycle/reuse attitude towards materials. As a printer, however, I can't say I'm happy about the idea of the "Make a Type Cabinet into a Coffee Table" project, even if it does include welding.

Linked to both of these magazines is the Maker Faire, which started in 2006 and contains science, electronics, and crafts. I attended in 2009 & '10 and discovered: conductive thread that could be used to light up books and textiles; the needlefelting group; the steampunk costumes; the craft fair where I bought paper tape and cool stuff from Xylocopa; and the Doggie Diner heads. I took photos of the people—so many people!—that turned up and paid to visit this event. I made some linoleum cuts based on the photos and this summer printed Days Made Strange: a perpetual letterpress haiku calendar. My art was certainly inspired by my visit.

The mainstream craft end of the DIY movement appears to be pushing against the depersonalizing aspect of the digital boom; it's about working with your hands—making something, anything—and joining a community that makes. It's a democratic world where the people are important and equal and individuals are in control. The downside is that some of the aesthetics are actually anti-craft. By anti-craft I mean the excellence that comes from practice and skill. It's more about the process, the curiosity and "what if" rather than the art of expressing oneself and refining a technique.

Change is inevitable. It is possible that this is the beginning, that people will eventually want to refine the craft or have their project mean more to themselves and their viewers. In the late 1990s, just after the spotlight on book structures, people began to ask how they could make more than just interesting objects. They wanted to add content to their work. The content becomes the connector, reaching out to our shared emotions in a more permanent form.

Arts & Crafts wanted to promote beauty in our everyday lives. Punk wanted to free us up as individuals. DIY brings curiosity back into our experience. Each time there has been a desire to make something better: sometimes an object, sometimes the world, sometimes the process, sometimes a little of each.

Bibliography & Sources
Marcus, Greil. Ranters & Crowd Pleasers: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-92. New York: Doubleday, 1993.
Clark, Robert Judson, ed. The Arts and Crafts Movement in America, 1876-1916. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Belsito, Davis, Kester. Street Art: The Punk Poster in San Francisco, 1977-1981. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 1981.
Livingstone, Karen. Essential Arts and Crafts. London: V&A Publications, 2005.
Make magazine articles of note: Vol. 21 (Magic photo cube by Ken Wade, p. 136), Vol. 22 (Tameharu Nagata, Japanese street performer  with storytelling cards [kamishibai] and snacks, p. 23; Brazilian artist Felipe Barbosa who makes sculpture out of recycled materials like soccer balls and firecrackers), Vol. 23 ("Walled Gardens vs. Makers" by Cory Doctorow, an excellent article that says precisely what DIY is about, p. 16, and American artist Theresa Honeywell, who knits over motorcycles, machine guns, handguns, p. 23); Vol. 24 (wooden buttons from tree branches by Kristin Roach p. 126)
Craft magazine
Arts & Crafts history website
MoMA | The Collection | Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. (Italian, 1876-1944)

(all photos by me, as usual, unless otherwise noted)


Mary said...

Very interesting post and I like your crude buttons. Anything that gets popular enough will get commercialized. The commercialization of punk fashion is a perfect example. There are people crafting just to make a buck and it shows in the poor workmanship and lack of passion. It's not radical, green or "indie". An object made well, with thought and skill, has a deeper meaning and creates a connection between the artist and the owner. For me, making things is an outlet for my pent up creativity and frustration. Whether it's cakes and pies or pysanky, it's a distraction from my 40 hour a week job. It makes my life richer. The joy is in the creating - the pride in a job well done.

Laura Tringali Holmes said...

I enjoyed reading this post (came over from Art&Etc's blog). I was with Fine Woodworking/Fine Homebuilding in a run of years through the 1970s and '80s--it was a super-exciting time when many a lively discussion was had on art vs. craft. (The word "artiture," which I have always loved, was coined for art furniture around that time.) You might enjoy reading David Pye's books, if you haven't already. He has interesting things to say about workmanship of risk/workmanship of certainty.

Velma said...

i always cringe inside when some well meaning and enthusiastic person begins to show me their made "object". often the work is so shabby (in every sense) that if i had made it i would have hidden it away. which makes me glad there are teachers like you, working with students to increase students' skills and standards (as well as all the wonderful creative parts of the making of books and by extension, art works).