New Horizons: Craft, Academia, and the 21st Century— A Polemic


The Identity Crisis Begins in School

Craft is at a crossroads. We are at a moment when fields are expanding and constantly in flux, when departments are being defunded or cut entirely, and when academic programs are constantly forced to justify their existence. In the face of these demands, academic craft is in the crosshairs, and craft’s shortcomings must be addressed if it is to continue existing as an academic discipline. Craft created within and bolstered by the academic system straddles a strange divide between conceptual and functional—a liminal field often misunderstood, even by its advocates.

The primary problem with craft in academia is pedagogical. Students are expected to participate in the maintenance and expansion of the field without being given a clear sense of its history, trajectory, or purpose. The general loss of craft history began to take root in the 1940s and 50s, when craft first sought an alliance with the academy. In colleges around the US, a “collective amnesia regarding the history of decorative arts” started to take hold as “craft faculty and students began to think of their field as a type of art rather than as decoration or design.”[1]

Increasingly supported and populated by members of the academic craft realm, studio craft in the United States has tried to make the case that craft is the peer of art, deserving of the same institutions, accolades, and attention. While the question “What is art?” has fallen by the wayside, the question “What is craft?” is still hotly debated. Art is an expansive area of activity, a gulf of possibilities into which craft can easily be absorbed. Yet while craft can easily be claimed as art, the converse is not true—not all art is craft. If it were, there would be no reason for distinct academic programs. We must, therefore, focus on the core principles that loosely bind contemporary craft as an autonomous field, criteria that are different than those that define compelling art.

Cellini’s salt cellar (1543)
Cellini’s salt cellar (1543)

Art has been defined by its antagonistic, and even hostile, relationship to art of the past. Some of the greatest movements of the twentieth century have worked in opposition to generations of artistic thought: Futurism, Dadaism, and pop art to name a few. Artists are encouraged to redefine success in their own image, and they are praised for the revolutionary nature of their ideas: the greater the rift, the greater the artist. Craft cannot exist on this model. It cannot disentangle itself from the arms of the artisans who came before. Skill-based knowledge and cultural history are what anchors craftsmen to their discipline.

The complete conflation of craft with art by its own practitioners has led many academic craft programs to undervalue and under-teach craft history, often replacing it entirely with art history. Supporting evidence can be found in most college course catalogues. There is a notable absence of contextualizing courses for any student studying craft. Even highly respected universities with robust craft programs boasting a wide array of technical studio courses almost always fail to offer history courses focused on craft. There are survey courses detailing thousands of years of art history to be sure, but the sad reality is that it is possible for budding jewelers to go through years of history courses and be exposed to Cellini’s salt cellar (1543) as the only example relevant to their studio practice.

No other academic discipline can be said to suffer from the same affliction, so insecure about its origins that it adopts the narrative of another area of study. Even today, craft history remains neglected, and while the importance of maintaining tradition is widely preached, students are paradoxically deprived of a sense of context that would help them understand why craft is a distinct field in the first place. The lack of craft history puts a new generation of craft artists in a difficult position—that of trying to tear down boundaries that separate craft from art while simultaneously preserving the tradition of craft practices.

The Need for Difference: In Defense of a Reorientation

The rise of academic craft in the United States helped raise generations of craftspeople who were encouraged to treat modernism as a formula to be applied to each material in turn. Rather than investing in what sets craft apart from art, many craft practitioners were essentially aping the discoveries of the art world, a tendency that continues to this day. Craft must let go of its insistence that it is the same thing as art, that a pot can do and say the same things as a painting, or that a necklace can speak the same way as a sculpture. Craft does not need to be art. In conflating art and craft in this way, we fail to recognize craft’s unique strengths. As a distinct area of practice, craft should not burden itself with meeting all of the criteria for a successful work of art.

Craft is earth bound. It is tied to function and use in a way that both limits the scope of its influence and provides it with an invaluable lifeline to the world. Because of this connection to use, craft has always shared an intimacy with the quotidian and the bodily, which has set it apart from art. Unlike art, craft is tied to medium-specific practices. In art, where the idea is paramount, a specific material or process may be easily substituted for another. Failure to understand the distinction between art and craft can result in confusion and mediocrity. Students of craft often try to force ill-fitting ideas onto their chosen medium when another material may better suit their purposes. This is not to say that craft cannot be conceptual, but rather that certain concepts are better suited for craft given its ties to function and tradition.

In considering the limitations and differences of craft as it relates to art, an important distinction begins to arise between artists who create from a craft-centered place and those who do not; those who choose material for the content that it will contribute to a work and those who are dedicated to exploring the latent content within the material itself. Craft is not only a type of object, a process, or a display of skill, but it is also a way of seeing. To create from a craft-centered place necessarily involves listening to the material and allowing ideas to develop in tandem with process and medium. It also involves the loss of some individuality in the pursuit of a greater truth, a combination of millennia-old techniques and modern-day needs.

Craft is in desperate need of an in-depth, independent history. There have been some attempts to provide craft with its own history in recent years. Makers, one of the only textbooks providing a survey of twentieth-century American craft for practitioners, was just published in 2010. But even this laudable book makes every attempt to mirror the format of art-history textbooks, and as such, it attacks the symptoms of the disease rather than its cause. Where art history focuses on individual genius, a comprehensive craft history must have a broader scope, providing an account of the history of objects as well as the development of relevant processes and technologies.

This is where the academy is poised to assist. Craft’s main strengths—namely its connection to history, technique, function, and format—are areas of human activity that have long been studied by anthropology, sociology, geography, and material-culture studies. These fields are dedicated to understanding the phenomena that craft essentially relies on. As such, an alliance with the humanities and social sciences would provide craft with the tools to mine its past, and this rediscovered context could help forge a healthier future for the field.

Toward a New Paradigm

In order to make substantive contributions to this new alliance, craft must also embrace and actively expand its body of independent theory. Important contextualizing information such as history and theory should not be doled out on a whim in studio classes; it should be a required part of any college-level curriculum. If craft is to continue to exist in academia, it must embrace that which defines the academy: knowledge of its own history, of what defines it as a field, and how it relates to society as a whole.

It is thrilling to imagine the possibilities that may result from this mixture of disciplines—students studying early American silversmithing while learning the basics of making a teapot; classes that combine theory, practice, and history. This call for recontextualization of the crafts is aimed at a greater intentionality. To work in the crafts should be an active decision, not a passive one. In seeking an alliance with the humanities and social sciences, makers will no longer feel the need to retroactively pack their work with content. The format, material, and process all have content of their own, and practitioners must learn to embrace this latent content, teasing out its hidden potential.  

Of course, this alliance would require sacrifices. Some of the maker worship would have to be done away with in favor of a closer consideration of the object. Practitioners must also submit to comparisons that may seem demeaning at first glance—contemporary pottery with Styrofoam cups, art jewelry with kitschy costume jewelry. Craft has an intimate relationship to art and design, but it must claim an even more intimate relationship to human cultural history in all its forms.

The desire for such a union is born from the radical notion that contemporary craft may, at times, have more in common with ancient artisanal objects than with modern art, that art jewelry may gain more from a comparison to Bronze Age talismans than to abstract expressionist paintings. A history of adornment from the perspective of art is limited in scope, as it threatens to ignore objects created for political, social, or utilitarian purposes. A history of adornment from the perspective of the humanities and social sciences, on the other hand, casts a wide net, delving into universal issues such as how jewelry has been used cross-culturally to proclaim both unity and difference. The humanities and the social sciences are adept at exposing connections across time and geographic distance. Craft is the physical expression of this connection. It is our shared cultural heritage, a living language of techniques discovered and honed from thousands of years of human innovation and struggle. A closer relationship to the larger field of human cultural history could help craft solve some of its identity crises, providing a framework for a more thoughtful exploration of its past and future.


[1] Janet Koplos, Bruce Metcalf, Makers (The Center for Craft, Creativity and Design: Chapel Hill, 2010), p. 214.


  • Céline Browning

    Céline Browning is an artist living and working in Somerville, Massachusetts. She was recently named the 2012 Emerging Artist at Kingston Gallery in Boston. In 2011, Browning earned her MFA in Metal from SUNY New Paltz.

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