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Craft vs. Fine Art: How is Crochet Blurring the Lines



I was awakening to the world of crochet in 1972,a time of immense artistic expression through fiber arts; and crochet was not the “ugly stepchild” at the time. In fact, Ferne Cone Gellar who I admire as a successful fiber artist said in “Knitting: The Stepchild of the Fiber Arts?” (Fibercraft Newsletter 1978), “Has knitting been slighted among the areas of the fiber arts? The very word ‘knitting’ evokes images of the little old lady in tennis shoes. Over the years, I’ve learned to ignore all those jokes.” Cone Gellar went on to publish Crazy Crocheting in 1981 and encouraged her readers to create more than bedspreads, providing ideas such as “things to play with or to display on a shelf or hang on a wall.” A photo of single crochet from bread wrappers served as inspiration. 


In 1972 in her book, Creating Art from Fibers & Fabrics, Dona Meilach wrote:

“Why are fibers and fabrics becoming increasingly appealing to artists? Most artists agree that because the materials are so varied, the expressive and decorative possibilities are unlimited. Soft and flexible materials allow you to create a new kind of sculpture, one that you can’t achieve with wood, stone, or metal. Because we all are so familiar with fabrics in our daily lives, we react to them personally, through their appeal to our visual and tactile senses.”

The forward to Maximum Coverage – Wearables by Contemporary American Artists, an exhibit at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Sept. 7-Nov. 9, 1980: “From the first fig leaf, wearing apparel has concealed and protected the human body. Furthermore it has given man a unique vehicle for self-expression and individualization. As the industrial age emerged, however, clothing became more utilitarian and conventional, and personal taste and style were increasingly subjugated to passing fashion and conformity. Then, in the 1960s, the counterculture “flower children,” reveling in an atmosphere free of social inhibition, used clothing as a badge of their newly won freedom. The human body, either unclothed or cloaked in elaborate fabric collages, became a stage upon which the drama of social upheaval took place. Out of this period of transition sprang the wearable art movement. The metamorphosis from simply experimental and self-expressive clothing to an exciting and important new art form was a natural one.”

Sharron Hedges: Woman’s Vest, 1974-75; crocheted, knit fabric lining, hand-stitches; glass bead buttons 
A group of crocheters including Jean Williams Cacicedo, Sharron Hedges and Norma Minkowitz from the Pratt Institute in Manhattan figured prominently in the Art-to-Wear movement when Julie Shafler Dale opened Julie: Artisan’s Gallery in 1973. She earned a permanent place of honor in the world of contemporary crochet with her beautiful coffee table book, Art to Wear in 1986.
Art to Wear by Julie Schafler Dale
In the nineties, there was a hesitancy to validate crochet as an artistic medium. How did we revert to such timidity? Our attention was drawn to the growing computer age and we were less willing to sit and relax and do handwork when there was a new cyber-world to explore! With the advent of the new millennium, stitchers and the interest in handwork re-emerged.  It was the age of D-Y-I (Do It Yourself), which reached a fever pitch that was considered radical. In my article, “Craftivism”, written in December 2008 for Crochet Insider, research found that there was “a need to step back from the sterile, plasticized environment we have all succumbed to in the last decade. Steadily, we have watched our economy decline and now in uncertain times, young people may need to push away from their computers and grab something soft and cuddly to cling to.”

Betsy Greer, the found of Craftivism.com, writes about the role craft can play in activism. “If there is one place where traditional country crafters and urban hipsters can find common ground it may be in Craftivism.”  Jean Railla, a co-founder of GetCrafty.com, says “Women who embrace what I call the new domesticity are not traditional women. Most of them consider themselves third wave feminists. They’re independent, earn their own living, but they also have come to appreciate doing things by hand, taking care of their home, knitting and embroidering as a way to find meaning and create a haven.”

Elizabeth, aka sardenta who frequently comments on the Art-Knitters group on Ravelry, has this to say about the perceived hierarchy into which art and fiber arts seem to fall: “I wonder how many people are thinking of art and craft as belonging to a hierarchy in which art is ranked higher than craft and that art status is something to be achieved.
Because in my view (heavily influenced by my thesis research), art, craft, and design are not in a hierarchy, one above the other, but parallel columns representing a range of functions1 and intentions. For me, this avoids the unintended consequence of the most rudimentary 1st-year-BFA artwork being ranked higher than the finest work of a master weaver or potter.
Function meaning “what something does”, not limited to utilitarian purposes, but including signifying facts, communicating cultural ideas and stories, commercial viability, representing shared aesthetic values, dealing with the physical environment, representing community-specific values, etc.
Many have tried to define the differences between art and craft and for years we’ve argued about those perceived differences.

Gwendolyn McGee (1943-2011) hosted the informative, creative and instructional blog, Textile Arts Resource GuideIt is there that she lists some “Notable Quotes that endeavor to answer the question Art VS Craft:

“A Man who works with his hands is a laborer,
A man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman,
A man who works with his hand and his brain and his hear is an artist.” - Louis Nizer

“Some people feel the rain. Others just get wet.” - Bob Dylan

In an article on her website, McGee answers the frequently asked question about her quilt art works, “How long does it take?”

“This is difficult to answer because a very labor intensive and time consuming process is involved. Additionally:
  1. I usually work on more than one piece at a time and alternate between them depending on my mood, degree of difficulty, and need to fulfill obligations such as preparing for presentations; 
  2. The conceptualization process alone can take several months to crystallize before the first piece of fabric is cut because many things have to be decided including, among others:
    • What is my objective for creating the piece?
    •  Is there any specific inspiration or concept that's guiding the vision? If so, how important is it that I stay "true" to it?
    • What should immediately and/or primarily engage the viewer's interest - subject matter, coloration, dimension, shape, texture? 
    •  Is there something specific that I want to communicate (a feeling, a mood, an idea or point of view)? 
    •  From what viewpoint is the viewer to be engaged - outside the scene (as an onlooker) or as one of the characters in the scene? 
    • Will there be one or several points or areas of emphasis? To what extent should symbolism be incorporated? Should it be subtle or "in your face"? 
    • Should any special techniques and/or materials be used?
    •   Many other decisions (such as finalizing which fabrics, textiles and threads will be used) have to be made before the piece is begun; and
  3.   Size and complexity also are critical and determining factors. 
  4. In answering the question of why her work rarely comes up for sale: 

“The art flows through me, but does not belong to me alone. It speaks for those who have no voices, whose voices have been ignored, whose voices have been silenced. It relates history and circumstances that must not be forgotten. It is meant to be shared, and therefore the work is most often on exhibit. That being said, some of the art does become available occasionally.” 

Fiberarts magazine started as a black and white newsletter by Rob Pullyn in 1973 became a full color magazine in 1978 and continued to publish through the summer 2011 issue and by then, was owned by Interweave Press. In 1978, Sharron Hedges was interviewed by Pat Malarcher in the newsletter.  “She strongly believes that things made with yarn aren’t by definition ‘lightweight.’ Sharron sees herself as an artist rather than a craftsperson. The difference? ‘I don’t even know…’ But she suggests that it has to do with what is received by the viewer ‘Some things have the ability to move people. It’s a lot more personal than what happens when something is just a commodity.”

Lucky for us, the void created by the cancellation of Fiberarts lasted only a short while! Marcia Young, editor of the online magazine Valley Fiber Life realized that she had outgrown her web presence after two years and there was a need for a print magazine. In fall 2011, she launched Fiber Art Now which is dedicated to “the mission of inspiring and connecting the bier arts community.”

The summer 2013 issue of Fiber Art Now re-visits the topic of art to wear which author Elena Rosenberg describes as “the most intimate art form.” Rosenberg looks back, “With its contemporary roots in a subset of the Studio Craft Movement of the 1960s, the art of wearable fiber is thriving today, sustained by our enduring desire to express ourselves through cloth and adornment, refueled by a renaissance in slow fashion, and propelled by experimentation with material and technique. “ Still writing, Patricia Malarcher offers a profile in the same issue on the decades-long career of Nancy Konigsberg. Young crochet artist, Jo Hamilton is featured in an article about her new approach to seeing and interpreting the world around her by “coupling her background in illustration with her inspiration to crochet.”

In 1978, Ellen Appel wrote in The Fibercraft Sampler:

“Today, we appreciate fiber works as much as the traditional fine arts. We find fiber constructions in galleries and homes. Modern architects are also sensitive to the fiber-crafts, increasingly choosing fiber works in addition to, and sometimes instead of, painting and sculptures for building interiors.

Today, fiber is a medium of expression for artists and craftspeople alike. Some call fiber works art; others use the word craft. Personally, I do not know which label is best. In truth, when the controversy is settled, the result will be the same: fibercrafts or fiberarts will be responsible for some of the most beautiful pieces of creative expression today.”

In August 2007 an article by Mary Sullivan Holdgrafer, Craft VS Art was featured on Gwen McGee’s blog:

“I know that by choosing to work with fabrics, that I will not be universally recognized as an "artist". I also know that by pushing the edges of traditional textile work I will not be universally accepted as a quilter. If recognition or acceptance is what I am seeking, then I have set myself up for failure and a pretty unhappy life. But if my goal is to learn about myself through the creative process, I cannot fail. If I assume that others are trying to do the same, then I can be generous and curious about them and their work.

I want to hold on to the "Big Picture" where I can acknowledge the perspectives of others and be curious about them. I want to hold an intention to learn about myself, to test my own limits.
If we are able to view craft and art as a part of a continuum, and if we can allow self-placement on the continuum, then we will take ourselves out of the power struggle. Staying curious will automatically create opportunities for learning and for resonance with others. It will not matter if we are artists or craftsmen. After all, our creativity comes from the same source, doesn't it?”

1. Function: meaning “what something does”, not limited to utilitarian purposes, but including signifying facts, communicating cultural ideas and stories, commercial viability, representing shared aesthetic values, dealing with the physical environment, representing community-specific values, etc. 
Mary can be found blogging at www.exploringcreativity.com I found more quotable quotes there:

“Art is when you hear a knocking from your soul – and you answer.” Terri Guillemets

“Art vs. Craft – eye candy vs. hand and eye candy with purpose.” Wayne MacKensie

Crocheters interested in art-crochet come together on Ravelry.com to “expand the awareness and possibilities of crochet as art.” Several artists there who are crocheters offered their insight for this article.

Deb from Tennessee, aka Cerdeb:
“I have always believed that one of the main differences between art and craft, is that while craft may be done with artistic flair, it’s more about repeatedly, consistently, recreating or replicating the idea or vision of another. Art, on the other hand, while it does require the skills of the craft, is more about giving visible or tangible expression to an original idea-- the basic form may have been done before, but a work of art is ‘new’ somehow, springing from the mind and imagination of the artist, rather than from plans, pattern, or example provided by others.
I know that in the art world, there has been a long and raging debate over the comparative value of high art’ vs. ‘applied art’. In this dichotomy, any item, no matter how beautifully or imaginatively created, that can be used for an actual function other than pure decoration of a space, is considered applied art  and that’s the category that is often mashed together with craft. To me, it’s sort of like the ‘all crows are black birds; but not all black birds are crows’ construct.  All applied art contains the skills of craft; some applied art is also original and gives tangible form to the unique creative vision of the artist; hence it’s art rather than craft.
[Here is where] crochet has been growing in evidence as an art form. As there are more and more examples of non-applied, ‘pure’ or ‘high art,’ pieces (those with no practical function) made in the medium of crochet, the art world has had to acknowledge that yes, this is a medium that can be used for art, rather than merely to skillfully replicate the practical objects designed by others. More sculptors are using crochet as their method and fiber as their medium, as are ‘painters’. That has led to the beginnings of understanding that even the applied art examples of original ideas expressed in crochet are still art, and perhaps not merely craft.”
Jude from Ontario, Canada, aka Jude45:
“I think that the acknowledgement that art can be wearable has done a lot to blur the lines between art and craft. There are also many examples now of crochet work that make you see things in a new light, that make you think. My daughter, Miranda, thinks that it is not so much that crochet is blurring the lines more these days but that people are more accepting of it as an art form. Ravelry has contributed to this by allowing us who are more interested in elevating our own work to gather together and discuss what we do and to inspire and encourage each other. It is not the materials or technique used but the vision and hands of the creator that make it art.”
Kristine aka Valkira from Lavtia who currently resides in Germany:

“Regarding the question, ‘What is Art?’: The question is as hard as ‘What is love?’ … almost impossible to answer.”

Elizabeth from Austin, Texas, aka Sardenta:
“I wonder how many people are thinking of art and craft as belonging to a hierarchy in which art is ranked higher than craft and that art status is something to be achieved. In my view, art, craft, and design are not in a hierarchy, one above the other, but parallel columns representing a range of functions1 and intentions. For me, this avoids the unintended consequence of the most rudimentary 1st-year-BFA artwork being ranked higher than the finest work of a master weaver or potter.”
In an article written for Ezine Articles, professional artist and jewelry producer, Julie Teeples writes,

“If someone is able to sell what they produce or crafted does it make them an artist? Maybe the word ‘art’ does hold a bit more credibility than ‘craft.’ We've all seen it while attending craft shows vs. art shows. [It] seems the art shows serve wine and cheese and demand higher end priced items. Craft shows are where granny sells her crocheted toilet paper roll covers; you know, the one with the half Barbie doll on top of it or where you see all those wooden country craft signs that say something cute and corny on them. [You] won't find any of those at an art show.

[I’ve written this article] with the hopes that people start thinking differently. A craft may be an expression of art. Being an artist is a craft. You must have the ability to craft something to be an artist. The old cliché, ’Art is in the eye of the beholder,’ stands true. Whether you're into crafting or you're an artist, you are here to communicate your skills and hopefully someone will appreciate your creations.”

If we must place crochet and fiber art on the hierarchal continuum, then we must also “focus on the awesome acceptance of crochet in the new millennium. Artists, crocheters and crafters are in abundance today; creating for fun and as professionals. Inspired by materials, process, and the wonder in their lives, poignant stores surround the marvelous and giving individuals who crochet. The art of crochet gives them a voice; anything flexible enough to be pulled by the hook serves them and births the most inventive of results. The works represent diverse styles, unusual shapes, and exquisite textures that characterize crocheted art today. Perhaps most importantly, each artist approaches crochet with wonder and the desire to explore its full potential.”


Meanwhile, I’ve decided that enough debate is enough; and I want to spend my time creating not defining or debating!


References:

Appel, Ellen. The Fibercraft Sampler. Radnor, Pennsylvania: Chilton Book Company, 1978.
Blakley Kinsler, Gwen. “Craftivism.” The Crochet Insider
Cone Gellar, Fran. Crazy Crocheting. New York: Atheneum, 1981. Pgs 3-4.
DeYoung Kohler, Ruth. “Foreword and Acknowledgements” Maximum Coverage Wearables by Contemporary American Artists; 1980.
Meilach, Dona Z. Creating Art from Fibers & Fabrics. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1972.
Sullivan Holdgrafer, Mary. Craft Versus Art: http://creativityjourney.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Art%20versus%20Craft August 21, 2007
Schafler Dale, Julie. New York: Art to Wear. Abbeville Press, 1986.
“Profile: Sharron Hedges.” Special Issue: Knit and Crochet. Fiberarts Newsletter. Volume 5, no. 3, 1978; p.57
Sharron Hedges art image: Maximum Coverage p. 33, Courtesy Julie Artisan’s Gallery

Comments

Deb Burger said…
Love the article! What a great compilation of thought, Gwen! Thanks for the opportunity to be part of the process!

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