Most craft artists have grown weary of the long-running conversation about art vs. craft. As far as CERF+ is concerned, that conversation ended long ago.
The work of craft artists is art, as valid as any other art form. Its special qualities—the transformation of materials into objects of great beauty, its connection to tradition even in contemporary forms, and the skills that it requires—distinguish craft from other art forms.
CERF+ is very much a part of, and has grown up in, the craft field. While CERF+ is committed to providing all artists with tools and education programs to help them lessen the impact of emergencies, its direct financial assistance is still focused on craft artists. Consequently, the changing landscape of craft, how the artists CERF+ serves view the word “Craft,” and even what these artists call themselves, are of great interest to this organization.
In this, the third in a series of data snapshots from CERF+’s national research about the status of craft artists in the U.S., we focus on identification with the word “Craft” and the naming preferences of craft artists. For this study, we collected data from more than 3,500 craft artists from every state in the U.S. who responded to our 2013 survey. The survey was distributed by CERF+ and by 46 organizations to their artist members.
Fifty-eight percent of respondents with an opinion identified with “Craft” as a good way to describe their work. Responding to a different but similar question, a slightly narrower group (54%) felt that the word “Craft” is still an effective way to communicate what they do to buyers, collectors and the public. The degree of agreement or disagreement was similar for both questions. Five percent (5%) of respondents had no opinion.
Some 607 respondents entered specific comments about the use of the word “Craft” to describe their work or as an effective word to communicate to others.
Many felt that the word “Craft” cheapened or denigrated their work:
” ‘Craft’ devalues our work: we need to educate the public into thinking of it as ‘art.’ “
Others felt that “Craft” has become misunderstood and devalued, and confuses more than it communicates:
“I think people hear ‘crafts’ and think of church fairs. The customers from the ’70s who understood the ‘craft’ movement better are no longer reliable customers.”
” ‘Craft’ as a descriptor is overly broad and fails to signify any information to buyers, collectors, the public.”
“As much as I hate to admit it, we’ve lost the fight on this one. I’m tired of that look on people’s faces when I tell them I am a craftsperson.”
A small but significant number of artists attempt to mitigate the negative connotations of “Craft” by using the term “Fine Craft:”
” ‘Craft’ doesn’t stand on its own very well. ‘Fine Craft’ is more specific to what I do, but many people still want to ghettoize it and make it ‘less than’ other forms of art.”
“A better way to express the quality and sophistication of what I do would be ‘Fine Craft.’ “
A few artists still see value in the term “Craft” and advocate for taking it back:
“It’s pretentious to avoid the word craft. ‘Craft’ is a fine word with a rich history, and defines humankind.”
“I just saw the word ‘Craftivism’ which morphs crafts with activism. Maybe we need a new word like that, as some people think the word craft has lost its allure… It would be better to reclaim the word and define its meaning rather than dump it, but the trend has been going the other way.”
These comments capture the mixed feelings survey respondents had to the word “Craft.” It is notable that 42% of craft practitioners either disagree or strongly disagree that “Craft” is a good way to describe their work and 47% disagree or strongly disagree that “Craft” is a good word to communicate what they do to the public.
The open-ended responses suggested that the negative opinions of the word have more to do with the general public’s negative perception (or misperception) of what craft is than their own understanding of the word. (To read more artists’ comments, see accompanying “Artists Weigh In on ‘Craft’ “ sidebar.)
‘Artists,’ NOT ‘Crafters’
The misgivings about the word “Craft” expressed by a significant percentage of respondents were reinforced by the responses to a variety of terms used to describe craft practitioners.
Survey respondents most often “strongly preferred” to be referred to as artist. Overall, 96% were positive about the name “artist.”
Next most preferred are: the craft medium followed by artist, e.g. ceramic artist, or a name specific to a medium such as woodworker, metalsmith or potter, with a positive response to each of about 90%.
Several terms were nearly equivalent and either acceptable or preferred by most respondents: designer (+78%), craftsperson (+72%), craftsman (+72%), craft artist (+64%), maker (+64%), and artisan (+60%). The only term strongly disliked by most is crafter (75% negative perceptions).
How Important Is This?
There has been much discussion recently about the relevance and changing use of the word “Craft” in contemporary practice. While some craft museums, organizations and artists have been distancing themselves from the word, others have embraced it.
“Craft” seems to have taken over as the new buzzword for everything from the practice of architecture to the making of cheese, beer and coffee. In the arts community, numbers of prominent figures have weighed in:
- The Victoria and Albert Museum, in a gesture to celebrate its partnership with the British Crafts Council, asked a number of leading figures to state their views on what the term craft means to them, including Caroline Roux, acting editor of Crafts magazine (“Craft has never been more important than now as an antidote to mass production and as a practice in which the very time it takes to produce an object becomes part of its value in a world that often moves too fast.”), and practitioner Caroline Broadhead (“What craft means to me is the making part, the how you make, and this is an exchange with materials—what you give to a material, and what it gives back.” (Click here http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/w/what-is-craft/ to read more.)
- Jewelry artist and critic Bruce Metcalf has discussed this topic on his blog http://www.brucemetcalf.com/blog/ and recently published critiques of books on craft theory.
- Glenn Adamson, director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, talks about being in a “post-disciplinary” phase in which craft applies to a variety of pursuits but is no longer a pursuit in itself.
- NICHE magazine publisher and craft show promoter Wendy Rosen talks about the reasons for changing the name of the Buyers Market of American Craft to the American Made Show on the show’s website http://americanmadeshow.com/blog/why-american-made-show/.
What Does This Mean to CERF+?
About half of CERF+’s programming, information on emergency preparedness and response (such as Studio Protector www.studioprotector.org) is designed to be used by all artists. However, CERF+’s direct financial assistance is currently available only to craft artists. Given the responses to this survey, the question is: should CERF+ be looking for a collective term that describes those artists in a way that accommodates their preferences, and if so, what would that term be?
Discussions in CERF+’s grants and loans committee have revolved around placing the word artist first, as in: artists working in craft disciplines. That is more of a description, however, than a concise, useful name. So far, a more elegant term has yet to emerge.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Whether you are an artist, work with artists in gallery settings or sell crafts to consumers in your retail stores, CERF+ is very interested in your responses to these questions:
- How do you feel about the term “craft artists” and is there a better term than “craft artists” to collectively refer to all those artists?
- Is the word “craft” gaining or losing status in America?
- If you are an artist, what is your “elevator speech” that explains your work as an artist? Does it include the word “craft?”
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The survey snapshot is accessible online www.craftemergency.org, and CERF+ invites you to join the conversation. For complete information on all the topics covered in the study, download the full report, “Sustaining Careers: A Study of the Status of U.S. Craft Artists”. “Sustaining Careers” was commissioned by CERF+ and conducted by Dreeszen and Associates with grant support from the Windgate Charitable Foundation.
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This article is a snapshot of survey results about working artists and their identification with the word “Craft.” It was adapted with permission from Sustaining Careers: a Study of the Status of U.S. Craft Artists, written by Craig Dreeszen and released by CERF+ last November.