Category Archives: Research

Craft? Art? or Craftivism? A matter of Opinion

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It is hard to distinguish where the boundaries lie between craft and art practices as the determination of this depends on the perception of different constituencies within society and how they respond to cultural materiality and visual elements. The craft and art divide changes its boundaries based on its socio-political surroundings of that place/ time. Drawing back on the Industrial Revolution which saw this transfer of craft from private to public, is something which only occurred due to the development within a society of machinery and an increased need for produce which could be traded. Just because men where predominantly in charge within these factories does not mean however that they gained more respect for the chores faced day to day by women. There was a distinct difference in doing crafts because you had a love for them and because you had to in order to survive. However if in contrast we consider the AIDS quilt and its production it is riddled with key moments of socio- political happenings. The recession saw gay rights and the AIDS epidemic being pushed to one side as society was divided on how to approach these subjects. Yet through the effective use of activism in a street march the idea of the AIDS Memorial quilt was formed and it now stands as the biggest piece of craftivist work to date. This tactile piece of community work raised awareness of the AIDS crisis on a global level and appears to have effectively led to President Reagan stepping forward discussing the growing issue. However the formation of this piece from fabric, using a traditional method of quilting automatically defines it as a piece of craft, but we also have to consider the rich political, historical and social periods the piece continues to adapt in.

Craftivism is a term which only came around at the start of the 21st Century, which was after the beginning of the AIDS quilt. However just because the term was yet to be coined, does not mean the piece cannot be referred to retroactively as craftivism, the quilt has had a major role in allowing craft to be viewed as art in itself and thus bridging the gap between art and craft. With the piece steeped deep in politics and awareness within society the piece could be seen as being of historical context and belonging more so in a museum than a gallery or craft fair. The piece is formed wholly of the traditional American folk art of quilting which is a craft, however the piece draws so many morbid thoughts of how many dead people it represents it could draw similarity to the mass graves of the Holocaust, which is viewed as a horrific happening of historical context. The quilt could also be viewed as a political piece, encouraged by the death and words of a politician, the piece and its number of contributors to convey one message, draws similarities to a union. By all coming together as one voice, they were finally heard when it boiled down to getting noticed through this impressive action. To draw similarities between the quilt and the roles of a union and how this could relate to the politics of the world at its time of production, we must consider the work of Thatcher. Though her political changes occurred in the UK they still impacted on the US as the two countries worked closely together and carried out trade. In the UK Thatcher reduced the power of the unions so significantly that for the most part they simply ceased to exist. In doing this she left people trying to protect themselves and their families as one lone voice. The nature of the scale of how many activists took part in the quilt in order to lobby the government and enforce change quite clearly draws similarities to the models of a union, a group of like-minded people coming together to be one loud voice. So taking all of these aspects of the quilt into consideration, where exactly does the quilt lie in the intersection of art and craft?

The reality of the situation is that the distinction of where the boundaries between art and craft lie cannot be fixed as a predetermined definition. There are too many factors which can come into play. For example in its home town of San Francisco the quilt may be viewed as a piece of activist history as the area is and was so deeply rooted in its awareness of why the quilt was produced in the first place. Therefore if you were to ask a member of this city where they felt the quilt lay on this spectrum they might say nowhere at all, as it could just be viewed a symbolic representation of the deaths of thousands of people. Yet other people, part of the activist movement or not could argue either way for the piece to be classed as craft or art. Those more aware of American Folk art history and who enjoy the visual ad tactile nature of the quilt might be more inclined to refer to it as a piece of craft. As the craft and values of quilting served as a method of bringing people and communities together allowing them to discuss different issues, drawing them together over a calm craft which had pleasing results. Yet another member of the same community might be inclined to view the piece as art rather than craft. This could be because although the piece has a tactile nature, it is of such a vast scale it removes the audience from itself. It essentially forms a gallery of its own as each piece is unique and it can’t physically be viewed all at once. This essentially removes the tactile nature of the piece as the audience can’t interact with it on a personal level as its scale could become overwhelming. This would therefore enable them to view the quilt as a gallery of art.

These differences in judgment and preferences for materiality or visual qualities will vary from person to person based on their social upbringing and their awareness of political happenings as to where they view the piece would belong.

 The realism that that piece cannot be defined into one category actually draws on the triumph of The AIDS Memorial quilt. It was designed by Jones to raise awareness and get communities talking. The fact that it could easily find itself placed not only in both end of the spectrum of craft and art but also find itself considered a historical monument and a pivotal political representation emphasises the success of the quilt.

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The AIDS quilt’s continuing work

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The quilt continues to be added to today as AIDS is still an issue all around the world and was used as recently as July 2012 when the International AIDS conference was in America for the first time since 1990. President Barrack Obama has increased funding into scientific research in an attempt to combat and eradicate AIDS in America with the goal of treating 6 million people by the end of 2013. (Whitehouse, 2012) The quilt was on display at the White House on this very important day to represent those who had lost their lives and with the aim of minimising as many more facing the same fate through better investments in resources. However despite this effort to ensure an AIDS free America in the near future many remain skeptical as to Obama’s commitment after he failed to attend the International conference despite pressure from activist groups. (The Washington Times, 2012) Activist groups are still as prominent in America now as they were prior to the AIDS outbreak, as they not only fight for the end of AIDS but they continue in an ongoing battle for equality and acceptance. LGBT couples face a constant battle regarding the allowance and acceptance of gay marriages across America as well as same sex parenting. In December 2012 there was a turning point when the U.S Supreme Court agreed to hear two gay marriage cases (The Denver Post, 2012), whilst this may not seem like a big deal the Denver post points out the overwhelming rejection of gay marriage in the U.S.

Nine states and the District of Columbia currently allow same-sex marriage, which leaves 41 states that don’t. Of those that do not, 30 have gay marriage bans written into their constitutions, as Colorado does.

This hearing in the Supreme Court makes it clear that LGBT issues are slow to be accepted in the U.S. The Aids Quilt provides a stark reminder not only of the extent of the gay community but to what lengths they are willing to go to through both craftivism and activism to achieve equality.

Bringing AIDS to the attention of Reagan

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Gay men faced particular trials during the years Reagan was in charge, the first ever case of AIDS was in 1981 and rapidly it became clear that it was spreading. ‘Those infected initially with this mysterious disease — all gay men — found themselves targeted with an unprecedented level of mean-spirited hostility.’ This was due to the concerns of this becoming a national health crisis. However, Reagan had caused such a deficit in funds there was no money to give to health care in order to try and stop the spread of the disease although those in medical and scientific positions were deeply concerned at the rate at which it was spreading. As a consequence this led to the deaths of thousands of gay men.

 AIDS casualties multiplied rapidly throughout the 1980s; in 1981, the mortality rate was 225, jumping to 1,400 by 1983, 15,000 by 1985, 40,000 by 1987, and over 100,000 by 1990.6 The great majority of these deaths were young men between the ages 25 and 44.7 The disease spread rapidly within urban centres, most notably New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. After the mid-1980s, however, the disease had made its way to other North American cities and rural areas (Murray, H. 2008).

 The response of Reagan was to do nothing, this clearly took its toll as thousands of men died from the disease due to this lack of funding. It was not until May of 1987 that Reagan first addressed the issue of AIDS in public. As a consequence of this bad political management it is easy to see why so many gay men turned to activist techniques to try and draw attention to the national crisis. The realisation of the AIDS crisis by Jones in 1985, and its large-scale response was provoked by the entire nations concern of issue at hand. This is proof of how a visual and material object brought not just a community together, but the entire nation. As people learnt of the crisis and had it stare them in the face with the AIDS quilt they had no choice but to discuss the problem at hand and how to deal with it, with growing concerns of the disease spreading through blood transfusions people were unsure of where they stood or how to respond. Gay activist groups tried tirelessly to raise the issue of AIDS openly with the government, including trying to smoke Reagan out as it were, by creating posters with the face of Reagan, bearing the slogan “What if your son gets sick?”, (Murray, H, 2008) These were the posters which formed a street protest by an activist group called ACT UP, a street theatre group. Their posters aimed to remind Reagan and others that all those dying from AIDS were someone’s child and would he want to go through that? It was essential for these examples of gay activism to take place in order to provoke a rise in social consciousness about AIDS, ensuring Milk’s ambition of raising awareness to gay issues was fulfilled. The fact that the AIDS quilt occurred at such a crucial point for gay rights suggests that it had a lot to do with Reagan finally discussing the issue publicly, once everyone was so aware and concerned he had no choice. In the October of 1987 the quilt in its entirety to date went on show in Washington D.C. on the National Mall, coinciding with the National march of Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. After a large turnout the quilt went on tour for four moths raising around $500,000 (The NAMES Project Foundation, 2010).

Defining the AIDS quilt as Craftivism

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Regarding the differences between working in paint and working in embroidery to me it is easy to suggest that this gigantic quilt not only draws on traditional American folk arts of quilting but in its tactile, homely nature provokes a stronger response from the viewer. The symbolic nature of a quilt is that of a blanket, one which offers comfort. This community act helps to draw millions of people together over one significant issue of AIDS and the LGBT’s community. The quilt enabled this community to stand as one, representing themselves as one voice to be heard and noticed, fulfilling the speech of Milk where he said they needed to ‘tell the truths about gays’. As the quilt grows and grows it represents something which is completely beyond the capability of one individual, once again emphasising the need to stand together as one voice and one community to be taken notice of. This became the NAMES Project Foundation, as the founders of the project made panels in honor of their friends who had died of AIDS. The project received an overwhelming public response, ‘People in the U.S. cities most affected by AIDS — Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — sent panels to the San Francisco workshop.’ The quilt was drawn together by devoted volunteers who were friends, family and lovers of those who had died.
The success of the quilt is almost undoubtedly down to it’s tactile nature, although it sybolises an epidemic and each section represents some one who has died, essentially drawing similarities to a mass grave each panel is the size of a grave in response to gay people not being buried or handled by funeral homes, it’s tactile nature makes it approachable (The Names Project Foundation, 2010). Not only this but quilting is deeply rooted in American history, moving to America along with colonists from Europe it became a part of American Folk art history, particularly as part of the American Indian community. Hans,B. (2010) tells us that

 Quilting also had a social dimension; women and girls within families worked together on their quilts, but, when possible, they also participated in quilting bees where neighboring women from a usually rural community came together to do the quilting…

 These foundations on which quilting was initially established still hold true today, when the quilt was produced it was designed to bring communities together and force people to socialise and to discuss their views and concerns.

Whilst the quilt was an the result of a series of activist actions it is also defined under the modern day term ‘craftivism’, craft as a form of activism which the website Craftivism.com (2003- 2012) defines with an extract written by Betsy Greer, stating that

Craftivism is the practice of engaged creativity, especially regarding political or social causes. By using their creative energy to help make the world a better place, craftivists help bring about positive change via personalized activism. Craftivism allows practitioners to customize their particular skills to address particular causes.

Defining The AIDS Memorial quilt as craftivism demonstrates how the activist actions of the homosexual community led to this large scale act of drawing attention the Aids epidemic. In discussing folk art and creativity Rogoff (2003) discusses the correlation between production through a guided process, community and perspective. By providing rough guidelines such as size and clearly defined subject area encouraged the community to work together in the production of this memorial, to not forget and raise awareness of those who died. This gain of perspective helped this community to connect with those who were in denial or unaware of the AIDS epidemic, but on a calm grounding as they worked together to produce this large piece using traditional methods of their countries foremothers.

The Beginning of the AIDS quilt and its powerful history

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The AIDS quilt came about through a significant turning point in both politics and society for people who classed themselves as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT) as more and more activists protested for an end to discrimination. Starting in 1977 in America, only 4 years before Reagan came to office, Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man to be elected in to office as a San Francisco City-County Supervisor. (Milk foundation, n.d.) Milk was widely respected and admired as he provided hope and inspiration not only for the LGBT communities but also spoke out on behalf of other segregated communities and groups. A key event during Milk’s upstanding was the defeat of a Californian Ballot Initiative which sort to consent the dismissal of gay teachers in the states public schools. Milk had the bid declined through gay pride marches in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as the LGBT community stood behind him, this is today seen as a key event during the fight for gay rights as at the same time other mandates were being passed, enabling discrimination against gays all around the country. However in 1978, Milk was assassinated along with Mayor George Moscone, by a former city Supervisor. When their assassin was let off with a light sentence for manslaughter the day before what would have been Milk’s birthday mass riots were sparked in what is now known as the White Night Riots, which was a far cry from the silent candle lit march which went through Castro the night of his assassination. The riots saw large-scale violence,

Enraged citizens stormed City Hall and rows of police cars were set on fire. The city suffered property damage and police officers retaliated by raiding the Castro, vandalizing gay businesses and beating people on the street (Milk Foundation, n.d.).

It could be argued that this retaliation by the LGBT citizens of Castro compromised all of Milks hard work, however during one of Milk’s many speeches in his year of being supervisor saw him encourage LGBT’s to stand up for themselves in order to enforce equality around America.

“Gay people, we will not win our rights by staying quietly in our closets. … We are coming out to fight the lies, the myths, the distortions. We are coming out to tell the truths about gays, for I am tired of the conspiracy of silence, so I’m going to talk about it. And I want you to talk about it. You must come out.” (Milk Foundation, n.d.)

Milks activist approach to the government and politics, along with his open views on LGBT matters encouraged this community to pull together and be heard as one loud voice, rather than individual voices which could be ignored by leadership figureheads. Though the White Night Riots may have fueled the governments ability to push for discrimination the words of Milk would not be forgotten and LGBT’s would continue to use activism to push for an end to discrimination (Milk Foundation, n.d.)

Crucially in 1987 San Francisco chronicle journalist Randy Shilts published a book titles ‘And the Band Played on: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic’, which forced the society and politicians to stop and take notice of what was seen as a mysterious and unmentionable disease. Upon reflection of the book after Shilts died of AIDS in 1994 stated, “But Randy’s contribution was so crucial. He broke through society’s denial and was absolutely critical to communicating the reality of AIDS.” (Smith, D 1994) Shilts forced the topic of AIDS upon society, making them understand its severity and consequences.

Between the death of Milk and the publication not only of this book but newspaper articles by Shilts, brought gay rights to the forefront of American politics and paved the way for the AIDS Quilt to be formed. Inspired by the activist actions of these two motivational characters many LGBT’s were encouraged to carry out activist actions in order to be heard and enforce public attention. The Aids quilt defines its purpose, as ‘The mission of the NAMES Project Foundation is to preserve, care for and use the AIDS Memorial Quilt to foster healing, heighten awareness, and inspire action in the age of AIDS.’ (The NAMES Project Foundation, 2010) The quilt was formed as a result of an activist stand by a San Francisco gay rights activist, Cleve Jones, ever since the assassinations of Milk and Moscone Jones has played a role in helping to organize the candlelight march which takes place in honor of these men. Whilst planning the 1985 march he learned that over 1000 San Franciscans had died from AIDS. He responded to this by asking

 ‘each of his fellow marchers to write on placards the names of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS. At the end of the march, Jones and others stood on ladders taping these placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. The wall of names looked like a patchwork quilt.’ (The NAMES Project Foundation, 2010)

After this demonstration of respect, reflection and great sadness the comments that the wall looked like a patchwork quilt thus became the inspiration that would form the start of the quilt. The quilt is still ongoing to the present day and currently consists of more than 48,000 individual panels, which total 1.3 million square feet (The NAMES Project Foundation, 2010).

 

Defining the bridge between Art and Craft

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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.