Not sure where I will go with these thoughts, but then again, the whole point of this blog (for me) is just to think. At all.
Reading Adrienne Martini's Sweater Quest has had me contemplating what all the fuss about craft is all about. (Sweater Quest is itself a fine rumination on the fuss as well. Here, I am responding less to what Adrienne writes and more to a contemporary American discourse on craft. Like, the fact that apparently it is the thing to do.) I get all the analysis about frugality and practicality and authenticity and so on, which you can see in articles in The New York Times Magazine on backyard chickens and female organic farmers and so on.
As a cultural anthropologist, however, I immediately feel hesitation about "authenticity" as an explanation. (Then again, even terms like frugality and practicality also ought not to be taken for granted. However, "authenticity" seems to be something about which cultural anthropologists are understood to have something to say.) Authenticity is a claim that one makes, not a fact or a reason in itself. So, authenticity seems to me a place to start an examination of craft, not end it. What does it mean now? What has it meant in the past? Who is making the claims about authenticity? Who is validating or invalidating them? What is at stake? How and why do people think about their lives as having or not having authenticity with and without craft?
As an aside, interesting to note the favoring of "craft" over "crafts." Not unlike "culture" versus "cultures." Craft sounds more grown-up, more significant, and like culture, more universal. It is the quality that gives things importance and meaning (and value) and not the things themselves. "Crafts" sounds trivial. Also, craft is dear - that is, expensive. Crafts are cheap: They are commodities. (They are not authentic?)
There is a discourse on "craft" in the social sciences that seems to me born out of claims being made for work and masculinity - I am imagining Richard Sennett's recent work, The Craftsman - but of course so much of the current attention to craft that is evident to me is on crafts associated with women. I think it is not surprising to observe that women now claim what they do as "craft" and not "crafts."
(Of course, this begs the question of which women? How does what looks to me like an educated middle-class woman's movement in parts of Europe and North America connect with other ideas and practices of crafting in other societies? Or is it only crafting under particular kinds of conditions? Do collectives of women sewing embroidered shirts, being paid by the bale, with the shirts being sold at a market, "count" as craft? Why or why not? Ultimately, does not the existence of industrial goods define craft, too?)
So, I will admit this: Part of me is just waiting for the backlash against craft. Because I see a risk of it becoming One More Thing that is being prescribed as Something I Ought to Do.
I am fairly certain that the thought never has crossed StraightMan's mind to learn how to whittle or tinsmith or cobble or scrimshaw.
Like StraightMan, I already am engaged in work from which I derive the satisfactions of continual process and practice and society and even observed results and effects. As much as we kvetch and kvell over the injustices and indignities of working in Higher Ed - in particular, being much underpaid not to mention misunderstood (sniff, sniff) - I think we both still feel the thrill for and from the the craft involved in being a teacher and a scholar. I think we might be in one of the few "good" jobs left in the world in the sense that, at least in the classroom, we enjoy a good deal of autonomy.
So, hear out my Barbara Ehrenreich moment: I think what has helped inspire the current turn to craft is the deterioration in the conditions of work that American men and women have experienced in recent decades.
Or as sociologist Arlie Hochschild suggested: In the late 1980's and early 1990's, when American men and women were spending long hours away from home, it was that work could feel like an "escape" from the pressures of home, where individuals might not feel rewarded or acknowledged as they might at work. When work, however, is not satisfying socially, emotionally, or financially, then home becomes a haven in a heartless world, as the historian Christopher Lasch called the family.
Yet, there are problems, too, with finding reward and acknowledgement in family, esp. in this era of expert-advised and resource-intensive parenting. Children might be part of the motivation to become involved in craft. Directing one's efforts at craft - like decorating a dozen bear-face cupcakes - can contribute to one's parenting. However, I wonder also whether or not craft offers another form of effort that frankly feels more "satisfying"? Unlike children, your craft is under your control. (This is where the issue of autonomy matters.)
So, it seems to me, the current discourse on craft seems worth examining both in terms of its gendered dimensions and especially its political economy. What are the larger conditions that effect this moment of craft? What does it mean for European and North American men to claim "craftsmanship" at a time when it is becoming clear that those "good" manufacturing jobs will not return to where they are - and for women to pursue craft / crafts at a time when females now comprise half the paid workforce?
Here comes my second Barbara Ehrenreich moment: Leaving aside the want and need for some kind of reward and acknowledgement that we expect in domains such as work and family - and now craft - can craft itself do it for everyone? Why do so many of us just expect work to suck so that we see our real, true lives and selves - the authentic - doing something else? Is it not worth trying to change?