Friday, 23 September 2011

William Morris and Craftivism

Was William Morris a Craftivist? and do the writings of Morris and the ideals of Craftivism have something to contribute to the personal philosophy of craftspeople today? That subject forms the basis of a forthcoming PhD for Mila Burcikova, a bit much to cram into one blog post but quite exciting and kept me engaged in conversation all evening in the pub last week, or maybe that was partly the beer.

Let's start with Craftivism. A new word coined in 2003 by Betsy Greer Craft + Activism = Craftivism

This is part of Betsy's Craftivist manifesto "Craftivism is the practice of engaged creativity, especially regarding political or social causes. By using their creative energy to help make the world a better place, craftivists help bring about positive change via personalized activism."

I wholeheartedly support her work and think the craftivist movement is great. It has grown rapidly particularly using traditionally feminine crafts like knitting and crochet reinvented as yarnbombing to give a more edgy 21st century meaning.
Sometimes just the act of making can be a political and ethical statement, sometimes it is just fun. The phone box above was made a group called knit the city Who are a bunch of friends that get together to knit stuff, stick it on things in public then run away giggling.

"We are unashamed to admit that we yarnstorm most simply because unleashing our squishy art on the world makes us and others happy. Put an 8-metre giant knitted squid on a statue of the father of modern biology, or a giant cosy on a phonebox under the paranoid gaze of CCTV, and see how it makes you feel."
Whilst many craftivists have a serious political agenda which tends to be anti war, environmentalist and anti sweat shop, others are simply turning away from being passive consumers of culture to do something active and fun with friends. A bit like making the move from supermarket shopper to allotment gardener these small changes in our own lives are important.

So what would Morris have made of all this? Mila did her MA on Morris she felt that there were some similarities, his key ideals included;
  • happiness in work, 
  • fellowship, 
  • beauty for all, 
He worked to achieve these through his Morris and Co workshops, SPAB and later political socialism.
Perhaps the key difference between Morris and the craftivists is not the ends but the means. Morris saw creativity as closely related to skills, he was keen on people experiencing the pleasure of mastering difficult skills whereas craftivism tends to flourish using skills which are quickly and easily learned and shared. Where Morris's products tended to be beautiful quality, made to last and expensive the products of craftivism tend to be ephemeral or it could be argued that the real product is actually the change in feelings of people not the tangible woolly thing.

Is this a typical male female divide? It was interesting that Crafts Council research presented at the conference last week showed strong gender inbalance in the contemporary crafts with for instance over 75% of gallery/curatorial workers being female. In some traditional crafts such as hand engraving the inbalance is be the other way. Craftivism thus far has been a largely feminist movement using feminine crafts. Perhaps it is time for us all to get together.

When I look at craftivists getting together and having fun making stuff and making a statement I think it is great. There is a bit of me that thinks, all that energy could be used to make something useful too but then I don't think that when I see folk enjoying making music or cooking for friends or any other ephemeral social activity. So is it time we had some more masculine craftivism? what form would that take? making using sustainable technologies in the 21st century is a very political thing to do, it addresses many of the big issues in society from sustainability and climate change to world inequalities and Western over consumption. Is it the nature of soft feminine crafts such as knitting that make craftivism work? Could a bunch of greenwooodworkers get away with whittling spoons in Kings Cross station? or would we have our knives taken away?

1 comment:

  1. Craft used to be what the working class did to earn money to survive, I imagine their craft skills were exploited for profit by those who could afford to employ them. Did Morris believe that the working classes should be allowed the financial space to reap the benefits of their craft? As a craftsman (what ought to be unashamedly called a tradesman) I find it ironic that not only can the working classes not survive through craft skills now, but the only people who get to engage in this work for profit are university educated snobs from wealthy backgrounds who believe everyone else is an idiot.

    I don't mean to be overly negative as I think what you're doing is exciting I just think traditional craft should be understood not as a choice or luxury but as un-romanticised hard labour which it was/is.