Craft, art, making, being
One thing that’s going to be important for us is the distinction between art & craft.
In a lot of senses, it’s an entirely false distinction, but it’s a good practical one when dealing with industries, funding agencies, and career paths. Art is; craft does. Which, as with almost all glib aphorisms, is both entirely meaningless and quite useful once you get down to it.
A great many hands have been waved about trying to explain what art is and why we do it, so I’m not going to recapitulate any of that here. As for what craft is, it’s nearly everything. Anything you use involved craft skills, somewhere. If you’re a purist, you could say that only handcrafted work counts, and if you used a printer or a laser cutter or a CNC milling machine then it’s somehow cheating. I don’t have much patience with that, though I do really admire people who can reliably get that kind of precision entirely by hand.
I’m going to take the opposite tack, and say that “craft” is something you get from the person who made or designed it. There’s something almost indescribably special—and rare these days—in being handed something by the maker. Rationally, we know that things we get in neat plastic packages from High Street shops, or in the post from the Internet, were still touched & packed & designed by human hand, but it’s very hard sometimes to feel that, and we generally have no idea whose it was.
(There’s a whole ‘nother long discussion here, about artists & designers who take the lead or do concept work, farming out the physical design to subordinates, and whose name ends up on what, but it’s probably just easiest if you search for Damien Hirst and read up on it that way.)
I didn’t start this post intending to take a retail-centric approach to the definition, but it seems to fit—partly because it emphasizes doing your thing in public, exposing it to other people. I’m not entirely wedded to it, though, so feel free to argue!
One thing I did want to avoid in this definition is any threshold of skill or education. There’s a strong tendency in all of us to look at the best and ignore the rest, and I don’t think it’s a good one—no matter how good you aren’t, you’ll improve. In fact, you won’t be able to help it, if you keep doing it. And formal education (art degree, apprenticeship, training) is useful, but not necessary. I might be biased against the beaten track, not having walked that way myself, but I’m a big fan of unorthodox approaches and research-led making.
“Maker” is a word I’ve had a lot of doubts about in the past, but I’ve grown to like its raw-edged Anglo-Saxon uncompromisingness, like a wedge driven crosswise into industrialised consumerism. It’s a lot more personal than “producer” or “manufacturer” (and the latter’s entirely lost its original hand-made resonance) and doesn’t have the unfortunate elitist connotations of “artist”. I know, and you know, that it isn’t elitist, but it’s perceived that way, and the media feeds that.
Of course, the vast majority of art is also sold or given directly by the artist, so we need another component to the definition as well. For me, that’s usefulness. Craft objects can be used for something, whether that’s wearing, sitting on, eating with, or stopping your books hitting the floor.
So, there we are: useful, and direct to you. No middlemen, no snake-oil salesmanship, no dustcatchers.