Ideas

Our Modern Day Leisure is Work/The Meaning of Labor in Craft

Posted by: Elaine Luther

Those of us in Craft-with-a Capital-C care about how it is made (or we used to, this is in flux somewhat).  At a symposium for craftspeople I attended, there was lots of academic pontificating about notions of labor, and craft and art “work” that is unbelievably labor intensive to make, but then all the marks are removed and even the precious material masked and disguised, (such as real silver painted white with paint).

In one panel, someone said that modern blacksmiths introduce “stray” hammer marks, that serve no purpose, but which communicate “hand wrought” to the viewer.  We pondered the ethics and implications of this.  (I think it’s awful, but I can’t really blame the blacksmiths trying to make a living.)

The very next day, my family and I visited an historic re-enactment village.  One of my children was in costume and repeatedly asked, “do you work here?”  Volunteer gardener women, in full 1880s costume with bonnets and periods boots pulled weeds in the hot sun.  My husband pointed out that this is what they chose to do with their leisure time.  Our modern day leisure is work.

Whether you’re in costume or not, many leisure activities are things previously done for work.  things like craft. I hate thinking of my metalsmithing skills as part of this continuum. 

And yet, how can I not?  We, the laborers, making the hand crafted objects, care very much about how things are made.  We have “how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?” discussions and try to one-up each other on how pure our methods are.  While the buying public cares more and more about design and less and less how it’s made, where and by whom.  (Do you still care?  Thank you.)

Watching the gardeners in their bonnets, and the other workers, baking bread in a wood stove (while wearing a corset), I had to ask myself, is my Craft any less ridiculous? 

Related to this is Who Does the Labor?  and how do we feel about that?  As a Capital-C craftsperson, I care about who makes it and how.

While art has long been okay with drawing or describing something and then paying a craftsperson (who gets no credit) to make the object.  So imagine my discomfort when David Clarke, one of our own, a Hollowware Silversmith, the tippy top of the filed, showed us his work, which I liked, and was open and uncaring about the fact that he outsources the actual making to baggage handlers (in the case of badly packed work, intentionally allowed to be damaged), or to master pewter smiths. 

Clarke was refreshingly free of BS or academic speak, which probably helped me to like his work.  Had there been double speak, I would have had a harder time.

See, I’m coming to terms with this myself.  Who am I to throw the first stone?  I had a custom sash made, had a photographer take my picture and declared it art.

Seems like I’m pretty close to David Clarke on the outsourcing continuum.

Where is the labor?  What is the labor?  Is it just the idea?  I don’t like that.

I seem to have this idea that a certain amount of labor is required in order to justify the art.  If the “labor” I perform is pointing, clicking, and paying, I somehow feel that I haven’t earned it.  Yet, the artwork with the sash, “Pockets for Women,” — people connect with it.  They get it, they like it.  One of my goals is to connect with people through art and I’ve done that with this pieces and other pieces.

This is not an academic discussion for me.  This is a real world question of, how can I make art, what kind of art do I want to make and how can I made as much of it as possible in the limited time I have available AND how can I make money without selling out the soul of my artwork and how can I have art to sell without hating myself when I have to make the same piece over and over again (should I be so lucky).

Answers.  (Don’t you hate those articles that ask a bunch of questions and leave you hanging?  Here are my answers.)

There is art I make in collaboration.  I hire photographers and graphic designers and metal casters and I like how that extends my reach, allows me to make more work.

There is also work that I make by hand, by myself in my studio.  It’s made with intuition and not-knowing-why-yet-but trusting.  It’s make with experimenting, then committing.

I am okay with both modes of production.  And it’s blurry.  The pieces from the caster will end up in a one of a kind necklace.

The hand crafted assemblage sculpture will be photographed and available for sale on a T-shirt or greeting card.  Neither one is made by my hand, but each is still a way to connect with people through art.

Another way I fail to handcraft things up to my standard (an idea that no longer serves me) is my use of manufactured objects, ready mades, embroidery hoops, and toys, but assemblage sculpture is what I do.  And in doing it, I create something completely new.

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