Supporting Handmade However It’s Made
It’s that time of year when I’ve been thinking about my direction again. As some visitors to my Facebook page will know, autumn seems to do this to me. The chaos of life undoing itself before my eyes makes me look to my own life and question, question, question. It can be unsettling but is part of a natural process and I trust that the other side of this seasonal transition will bring a certain peace. However, this year some of my internal leaf-wrenching is amplified because I am reflecting and trying to make a decision about my own position within a situation that has brought a lot of anguish to a lot of people. It seems the autumn storm has been howling loudly over at a certain art & crafting marketplace recently and while I have held back from getting involved with the heated debate in the forum, I have been watching, incredulously, at some of what has been going on.
For those of you who are reading this with a blank expression on your face, the debate has centred around the marketplace’s definition of the term ‘handmade’ as opposed to ‘assembled’ and the consequent decision, having made that definition in a way that at times has seemed rather inconsistent and arbitrary, to ask certain sellers to either remove items, or in some cases to pack up shop and move on.
I had promised myself I would not get into the rights and wrongs of this – not through lack of feeling for those who have been asked to leave, quite the opposite in fact, I was more worried about how much ranting I might do – but my personal feeling is that quite apart from the apparent randomness of some of these decisions; the fact that fees have been retained despite the recognition that the guidelines had previously been insufficiently clear; the fact that a lack of proactive monitoring had meant that there were clear precedents all over the site that would have encouraged people to think that they were not breaking any rules in their listings; the insensitivity and lack of professionalism of some communications released in relation to these issues, and the abysmal timing on the run up to a major sales period (pausing for breath)…apart from all that it seemed to me that the marketplace had kind of missed the point. While I completely accept and respect the site’s right to run by its own rules and definitions (where these are properly and unambiguously made clear to people who can then decide whether they want to stick around to abide by them before they part with money and build businesses), it has really frustrated me, reminding me of the creative snobbery I witnessed as an art student, something that made me want to stay well away from the ‘art world’ for many years.
As I said, I have kept out of the debate and have no desire to keep hammering the points that have been made a million times elsewhere, but I do feel a need to express what I have been thinking and feeling about this, the debate that has been going on in my own head, the questions it has provoked in me. My own opinion is that saying something is not handmade because the maker didn’t personally make every component of an object is ludicrous. To me, if someone makes an object which has demanded creative decisions and judgements to be made, by hand, on a small scale production, then it is hand made. Otherwise, where do we draw the line? I have heard of people having items turned away because they did not make the materials they were working with such as cardboard. If we take this to its logical conclusion, does that mean that my ceramic work is not hand made because I don’t dig the clay from the earth and process it to be workable myself? Or that a woodturner should have to manage their own forest and act as lumberjack? The problem with this is that I am a clay worker, not a quarry owner, and the woodturner is a woodturner, not in the line of forest management. This might seem like I am being ridiculous now, but this is the problem with creating a wedge and sitting at the thin end of it saying that the rules apply to some materials and craft practices and not others.
Mass produced components on hand made jewellery was one of the biggest areas to come under criticism and the debate raged on about what the phrases ‘handmade’ and ‘original design’ meant. Most people agreed I think that a single mass produced component such as a pendant or charm, threaded in isolation on a mass produced chain or other finding, was perhaps stretching the definition a little. People understood that there needed to be a distinction between this marketplace and more general market & auction sites. However, where something such as a mass produced charm is creatively combined with other beads, where there is consideration of colour, of shape, of placement, of size, of texture and surface; where you can’t find this exact piece with this exact combination in a hundred other stores (even though you might find similar pieces) then there is evidence of design. Confusingly, the marketplace guidelines seem to recognise this too, though many of the decisions about individual items seem not to. A charm is simply another bead at the end of the day. Are we to say that people cannot use beads either because they are also mass produced?
Paints are mass produced too. If I create an abstract painting using blobs of coloured paint is the painting not hand made? Is that not my original design? If someone uses coloured beads to create a necklace, choosing the placement of them, the way they are joined, the interaction of different surfaces and materials, is this not simply an abstract colour painting in another medium? Are we actually back to the ‘art versus craft’ debate under another guise, only with the roles divided out between different craft disciplines? I have been at a loss to understand this apparently random targeting of a single type of component and the apparent disregard at times of the piece that it forms a part of, especially when some of those pieces are so beautiful.
Looking at it from another angle, we can see that artists have been using mass produced items in their work for decades, and causing just as much disagreement! Artists within the Dada movement in the early 20th century such as Marcel Duchamp produced a series of ‘readymades’, taking everyday ‘found’ objects and either simply signing them or working on them to create modifications and new objects. Duchamp’s most famous (and controversial) readymade is ‘Fountain’ (1917) – the signed urinal which sparked fierce debate when he submitted it to his art society to include in their exhibition. While this was partly provocative humour on Duchamp’s part, it raised the question of what makes something ‘art’ and for this reason is now deemed to be one of the most important artworks of the 20th century.
Is it art because an artist says it is? Because it is placed in a museum or gallery? Because it is mass produced or handmade? Because it is not ‘functional’? Because it meets a set of laid out ‘rules’? Because it is not of everyday life? Is it the idea behind the expression that makes it art or the expression itself? Can a mundane object become art because we project a meaning onto it? The debate that Duchamp sparked, continues to the present day (as do the numbers of artists producing work that has grown from the seed that he planted), dividing camps of art lovers into fors and againsts. He and his colleagues created a new aesthetic where the mass produced item was assigned validity as a means and medium of expression. Whether or not we enjoy the expressions of this type of art, we cannot deny the debate and the question mark that it provokes about the use of mass produced components in creative works.
Duchamp’s thinking that the art is in the design or concept and not the physical production, was not a new idea. If we look back to the Italian Renaissance period we find masters who ran studios full of students who were taught to paint or sculpt like their teacher, and then were employed to prepare and/or paint parts of paintings or carve parts of sculptues that we commonly attribute to the master alone. There have been many suggestions that Michaelangelo‘s students painted parts of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome for example. The design is all Michaelangelo’s and yet he did not paint every part of it. This was the case for many artists throughout history to the modern day: Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, among others, all handed over aspects of their artworks to others. We readily recognise these works as creative artworks and even if they are not to our taste we would not, for instance, question Michaelangelo’s being recognised as an artist even though he as an individual did not physically produce every last part of all of his works.
Moving on a little, when I was a student I was trained to design, to do my research, to spend hours working in my sketchbook, striving to find the best possible expression of my ideas. I was told this was ‘design process’ and that it enabled me to justify my work, as if it somehow became an invalid expression if I didn’t create an academic context for it. It was only when I left college that I realised I didn’t have to ‘justify’ my work in this way and that this process was more about satisfying others than anything to do with my own sense of my creativity. I realised that the design process can happen in many different ways and should not be limited to a very narrow definition that might not work for some people. Though I learned how to present what I was taught, it didn’t work for me, I often used to find myself working backwards from my finished idea to try and identify the stages my subconscious had gone through to get from my inspiration to my final piece. I found that I was much more comfortable creating in a way that allowed me to work largely from intuition, maybe turning to a sketchbook if I got stuck. I didn’t need everything on paper before I started work and I often found it was the contact with the clay that helped to kick-start my imagination. Being inspired by the actual materials we work with is part and parcel of the process and sometimes can be the whole process. Whether that inspiration comes from clay or whether it comes from the colours and textures and shapes of beads and charms and clasps is no matter. To me they are just different mediums.
Clay workers will often take a traditional form such as a bowl or a plate or a bottle and make it their own, just as a jewellery maker will take a form such as a necklace or bracelet or earring and make it their own. If we wanted to get really pernickity about this we could say that none of these things can ever be an entirely original design because they use a traditional form. And if someone fails the ‘original design’ test because they used a mass produced charm or bead as part of their design does this mean that if I include a spiral or a dot or a star within the design of my clay piece that this is also unacceptable because these are traditional symbols that have been used on clay pieces and other artefacts for millenia? Of course that is actually why I use them… part of the reason I have such a love of clay is because I am proud to be part of such an ancient tradition. It gives me a sense of roots and a connection to a way of life that wasn’t about mass production.
The first pots I remember falling in love with were African pots that had been hand built through the coiling technique, probably for storing grain, food, water or maybe beer, or perhaps for ritual use. They had been made in a home environment by people who were making in the same way that generations of people before them had made pots. They had learned the forms, the shapes, the patterns, some of which it might be important to preserve as they might identify a tribe or family group, others of which they might be at liberty to embellish through their own creative inspiration. The fact that these pieces drew so heavily on traditional forms and surface patterning did not make them any less ‘hand made’, did not make the skill of the crafts-person any less impressive, or the design any less original as part of an ancestral tradition. These pots have appeared in museums and galleries up and down the country to inspire new generations of clay workers and other artists.
This is one of those subjects I could expand upon for pages, there are so many points to pick up, but I won’t do that as I think I have splurged for long enough here and I’d quite like you all to come back lol :D! I guess this has been sitting in my head and in my heart for a few weeks and I have struggled with seeing a place I loved being part of, simply casting parts of itself to the wind, like discarded leaves. Hand made, as the debate has demonstrated, means many things to many people and that’s okay in my book. I have not presented my thoughts above to say ‘I am right’, or as part of an agenda to pick holes, simply to say there are many ways to look at this, many questions to be asked before laying down rules that are not fully thought through and that consequently have caused a great deal of distress. Of course any marketplace needs a focus, but in my experience, narrow, rigid vision counters growth. Perhaps my priorities are different. I simply love to see people being creative, using that human marvel that we were all born with, getting personal satisfaction from it and sharing that with others. That’s how our world becomes and stays beautiful.
To me, championing handmade crafts means valuing each person’s contribution to a creative community and encouraging them to keep developing and expressing their own unique voice; providing a space that gives people the right to create in the way that they are able, where they can build their confidence through exposure to people working at all levels of development, and where those with more experience share that experience to help others grow. That is what will keep the flame of creativity alive in our society, not the creation of elites. When we set people one against the other, creating hierarchies, it creates walls and defences and divisions. I have seen people say things to each other on forum posts recently that I know I would never have seen a few months ago. It makes me sad and uncertain of my future there. I guess the problem with always telling people what they should be is that it becomes incredibly difficult for them to become what they could be.
This time my gallery features work from craftspeople who have been affected by the changes and have listed at the Supporting Handmade However It’s Made website :