For pieces of contemporary art which are produced using techniques such as sewing face an on going battle as to which box they should be placed by society, should they be defined as craft or art? But how do we reach our conclusions on these definitions and how have they been reached?
‘Much has been made of the need to erase false distinctions between art and craft, “fine” art and the “minor” arts, “high” art and “low” art…’(Lippard, 1995).
Here Lucy Lippard raises the question of the boundary between both art and craft by defining them as “high” and “low” forms of production. To gain an understanding of why craft has often been distinguished as a “low” form of creativity we need to look at how craft has progressed from needlecraft and embroidery in the home and how socio-political changes have influenced its move into a popular form of expression. The first major turning point for craft in Britain was the production of textiles in the Industrial Revolution. Pawson, E. (1979) explains the increase in consumer demand for textiles as, ‘People were beginning to ask for- and were able to pay for- more than just the bare essentials, the necessities of life.’ This change in appeal and demand for textiles led to its industrialisation and took the art of weaving and sewing out of the home and into factories where fabrics could be produced on a larger loom and at a greater pace. Enabling this mass production meant there were more jobs readily available, and although women were wanted in the factories due to their higher knowledge of the production of textiles they were still expected to carry out their roles in the home. The workplace was not an even playing field for men and women and this was reflected in both job roles and pay.
‘Supervisory roles were almost exclusively taken by men, and men also came to operate the most expensive and sophisticated machinery and to monopolise the high status and higher paid jobs even in textiles.’(BBC, 2011).
It is this move of women’s labour out of the home and into the public sphere, which is a turning point to defining craft as a skill and craft which is viewed as an art form.
The development of an ideology of femininity coincided historically with the emergences of a clearly defined separation of art and craft…The art/ craft hierarchy suggests that art made with thread and art made with paint are intrinsically unequal: that the former is artistically less significant. But the real differences between the two are in terms of where they are made and who makes them. Embroidery, by the time of the art/ craft divide, was made in the domestic sphere, usually by women, for ‘love’. Painting was produced predominantly, though not only, by men, in the public sphere, for money. The professional branch of embroidery, unlike that of painting, was, from the end of the seventeenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, largely in the hands of working class women, or disadvantaged middle-class women (Parker, 1984).
In this extract by Rozsika Parker she raises the key issues of how art and craft have come to be seen as two separate entities. Right up until the late 20 Century crafts such as needle work were seen as something which should be kept private and in the shadows, it is the idea of class and money which caused this secrecy. Up until when needlework became fashionable it was seen as something done by the lower and middle classes, who simply couldn’t afford to buy new, ready-made items, so instead took on the philosophy of ‘Make do and mend’. It comes down to the availability of materials and the history behind society, women who, were from upper class families would never have learnt nor been expected to make do and mend, they were the ultimate consumer who would pay others to make new items to replace those damaged or out of season. However for the lower classes it was a necessity to repair and patch things up, lower and middle class women would have worked to make ends meet unlike those of the upper classes who would not dare be seen to be doing such things (Parker, 1984).
Both Lippard and Parker raise key issues and questions about domesticity and the movement of craft skills from private to public. Parker reflects more upon the history of craft pre Renaissance whilst Lippard takes more of an interest in the more recent industrial revolution and how this enabled women to begin to make their move into the public sphere from their private homes where, Parker points out they have been pushed from due to class. Pawson also allows us to understand that the industrial revolution was a turning point where by men started to interact with textiles. Lippard shows how the change in women’s roles has caused us to question if craft works can really be classed as “hobby art” (Lippard, 1995). However, it is important to define how I choose to differentiate between needlework, embroidery and hobby art. Hobby art is something which remains in the home, whilst needlework and embroidery could fall under the same title, but as Parker makes clear in the above quotation, embroidery also took place in the home, by women for love. So really it is the more general area of needlework I am considering, although the works of contemporary artists who use craft may be referred to as hobby art, it has clearly advanced to more than this.
The journal article, ‘ A stitch in Time: Third-Wave Feminist Reclamation of Needled Imagery.’ By Ricia Chansky (2010) raised many interesting and new avenues. Chansky questions why feminist artists choose to use needlecraft to carry their message, considering whether it is perhaps ironic, or just ingrained in the, or indeed to do with reclamation.
Chansky goes on to point out that their foremothers fought so hard for their rights to equality not only in the work place but the home and society. There was a time when their foremothers were expected to sew and be homemakers, in fighting for their rights many of the skills of the home were left behind; perhaps this is about reclaiming them once more, declaring victory in the on going battle for equality. Chansky also suggests it could be about having a sense of ownership over these skills. Chansky (2010) states in her article, ‘The needle is an appropriate material representation of women who are balancing both their anger over oppression and pride in their gender.’ Though Chansky’s article only considers feminist art works and possibilities for their choice to respond in this medium, her writing could still be applied compared to why male artists might wish to claim a stake on crafted works. With ongoing battles for equality in society it is possible to consider that through making a claim on craft men are breaking the age old stereotype of a woman’s role is to be the keeper of the house.