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Towards an Understanding of Fine Craft in the Age of Computers

Craft begins to be a link between ages, customs, habits, and the people who invented them. Craft is loved, preserved, and learned.

by Molly Hankwitz

In art, craft amounts to two major criteria: technique and the understanding of one’s medium. It is the substrate, on the one hand, of the aesthetics of production through which an artist gains and displays mastery of e.g. handling a camera, chiseling a face, or dribbling paint. The idea of “having craft” is simple: the artist in question possesses either skilled mastery or does not. Craftsmanship in the arts also amounts to a skilled understanding of one's medium. In other words, a photographer not only knows how to use her camera’s settings, but she is aware of the frame, the light, the type of film and limitations of the camera she is using as well as a useful visual history which might inform the work.1 A degree of craft would also be part of this understanding of the medium; that is, how to organize her work, make herself known, present her ideas, and use the social skills to achieve some recognition. All of these combined amounts to craftsmanship of the artist, which when funneled and channeled into the photograph turns what is banal (an initial impulse) into the “finely” crafted work of art. To this end, craft has much to do with refinement. We speak all the time of craft; of how well-crafted an argument is, how much craft went into a piece of jewelry, or an animated film. The artist, by becoming more highly skilled, that is to say, in becoming more knowledgeable, becomes capable of greater “craft” with respect to making art.

Past Christmas memories are filled with the satisfying sounds of Northern Californian community radio station KPFA’s annual crafts fair gearing up to make big bucks as a fundraiser, as well as images of my sister-in-law pressing a delicate, fishy mixture into tiny pie shells for baking, crimping different doughs at edges, and basting and re-basting a pan of turkey wings for several hours in order to make gravy for the main feast. In addition to these are faint remembrances of the sparkly and decorative objects ornamenting not only a tree, but also rooms—windows, doors, and doorknobs—which abound during the holidays, when the presence of craft seems to be everywhere from house to supermarket, to hairdo and head; car grills and airport terminals alike. It is holiday tradition year after year which etches related crafts into life, which makes such elaboration possible. Craft is time and materials. It is excess and ability. It is story and convention. When it emerges through history, attaching itself to us through the passage of a technique and an idea passed through time, it takes on even another dimension. Craft begins to be a link between ages, customs, habits, and the people who invented them. Craft is loved, preserved, and learned.

Part of the appeal of craft is its relation to history. There is enormous comfort knowing that what I am doing today, someone else did before me and showed me how to do. Through this trajectory we see life in the craft before us and how it continues into the future precisely because these skills and habits exist. I believe this is why craftspeople are successful, because there is hope and meaning in the fact of their skills. Their craft resembles perfection and gives us pleasure.

Elizabeth Spelman, Smith College lecturer in the Humanities and author of Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World (2002) focuses on individuals’ connection to objects and the role that material culture plays in connecting the person to place and the past. Places, for her, are arenas wherein objects are used and objects, therefore, are “scaffolding” for memory. 2 She suggests that this mediating role of material objects is crucial to the restoration and recovery of one’s place and identity. This argument sheds a curious light on the notion of craft wherein a material culture, made by human hands, possesses the unusual power to connect us. In the example of an annual crafts fair, the craft object purchased has multiple, connected meanings. The first is philanthropic,on the order of a gift. A monetary donation is made to a desired cause directly through the act of purchase. The second is the function of the object in the life of the buyer, now owner, who feels good for making the donation to a favorite cause and for obtaining the object. Years later the object still possesses nostalgic or sentimental value, provoking a memory of when and where and from whom it was bought. Moreover, crafted objects, crafted by others in the same type of community, those with similar political and social commitments ostensibly also possess the meaning attributed to them from within that community. These objects are imbued with a power of place because they exist in a framework of meaning which attaches them to all the other multiple meanings associated with the cause including the cause itself, the annual fair, the fact of their having been made and sold at that fair, memories, and so on and so forth. Lastly, the object’s color, form and material, and other aspects such as its traditional or cultural appearance connect it to a history of objects made with similar intentions, such that crafted objects are linked across borders and cultures by the mere cross-pollination of the craft form itself. This is quite true of craft in music, 3 where methods and techniques for playing, and combinations of chords, are passed among musicians; and in cooking where recipes are shared, or followed or adjusted, but stem from the same source, as in an etymology of cooking.

Finally, about craft and computers, it is something to consider that multitudes of students leaving multimedia and design programs and hoards of youngsters are growing up adept at the use of software products which require considerable craft to be used effectively. At the same time, more conservative thinkers may refuse to qualify computer applications as works of finely-crafted art designed to process information in an effort to render another artist’s desire. This conservative mindset has unfortunately haunted much thought about the role of the computer in the twentieth century. But consider the progress we could make culturally if the extreme finesse and fine art of digital existence were fully embraced? Where would data go and what could it do? Then crafts’ fairs with their allegiance to the “natural” would be even more utopian.4

I frequently observe, as a 21st century parent, my ten-year-old son playing Minecraft which garners much of his attention as his own self-styled and perfected parallel universe, a utopia in which he is the key arbiter of production, social interaction, and taste, and I wonder what the effects of learning skills through 3D “worlds” instead of through objects and networks will have upon the future of artistic culture.


1 The idea of history here might simply refer to insight an artist develops through repetition, not necessarily “art history”—this is to prevent us from limiting our idea of “artist” to one who is necessarily schooled in art. Many of our finest artists received little formal training.

2 From Chapter One in Steinberg and Shields, eds. (2008) What is a City? Rethinking the Urban after Hurricane Katrina and Spelman, E. (2002) Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World.

3 To clarify that craft applies to all artforms, not just object-making.

4 I believe that the Maker Faire tries to cross this utopian bridge; to meld techno culture with innovative craft and craft with innovative technology. However, there is rarely a social cultural revolution in techno-spatial imagination and online communications introduced at a Maker Faire. DIY culture, for instance, is frequently viewed as industry. Even 3D model craft, such as the rapid prototyping machine has brought about a hobby, a cottage industry.

Molly Hankwitz, Ph.D., is an artist and teacher who lives in San Francisco.
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