Interesting Ideas


Faces from Popular Craft Art show
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Outside the Lines:
Ordinary Pastimes,
Extraordinary Art

The art
of popular craft:
  1. Beaded baskets
  2. Beaded flowers
  3. Beaded fruit
  4. Beer-can hats and toys
  5. Bird houses
  6. Bottle-cap baskets
  7. Bottle-cap chains
  8. Bottle-cap figures
  9. Bottle-cap furniture
  10. Button pictures
  11. Calligraphy
  12. Ceramics
  13. Christmas ornaments
  14. Church banners
  15. Cigar-band collage
  16. Coconut heads
  17. Crocheted dolls
  18. Cut-out lawn ornaments
See the full list, and further thoughts on the nature of popular crafts

If making art with a capital "A" is inaccessibly ambitious for most people, a whole industry of popular crafts exists to bring them expression with a small "e." The craft chains that dot metropolitan shopping strips, the street-corner ceramics workshops and the blizzard of make-it-yourself magazines all serve people who would never consider themselves artists but feel perfectly comfortable making nice things with a small "t."

The craft industry is not new. Commercial materials with printed instructions have been around for more than a century, as have the fads that drive trends in popular self-expression, whether for quilts or for string art. The school girl crafts of the early 19th century - needlework samplers, still-life theorems and the like - look extremely personal by contemporary standards and are commonly characterized as folk art, but they are barely more original than a Martha Stewart-inspired centerpiece.

Rosey Grier Needlepoint for Men book
Pop Topping book
Trim Your Trash craft guide
Pack O Fun magazine
In the 20th century, even as the spread of mass culture edged actual folk art and its community of creators to near extinction, the increase in leisure time and the subsequent desire for enriching activities brought new opportunities to create. The boom in commercial arts and crafts rarely resulted in much of aesthetic merit, however. Despite wishful thinking about the wide dispersion of creative abilities, untold millions of uninteresting hand-built objects are proof that most people who don't consider themselves artists are right.

But that does not diminish the importance of hobby art. The foundation for this outlet is laid in childhood, reiterated through years at elementary school, summer camp, scouts, 4-H, and other venues. This is the only art that most people are ever encouraged to attempt, and far more people make it than the stuff that is sanctified in museums. Just as important, some invest effort and insight enough to qualify their creations as Art with a capital "A" - the type of work they most likely consider themselves incapable of appreciating, let alone producing.

Appreciation of this work is unlikely to come from other quarters. The mainstream art world has been pounded for decades to recognize the value of high-end art crafts; don't look for it to welcome hobby art any time soon. Theoretically, the self-taught art world is more welcoming, but in practice, "low" crafts have a second-tier status at best, fit for antiquarian interest or gift giving but unsuitable for any canon.

Yet the mere fact that something is made by hand, even if by instruction, sets it apart in a world dominated by machine-made goods. This is a reason for the success of Martha Stewart and her host of imitators. Handicrafts, whether made as one's own household furnishings or as gifts, add personal character to increasingly commodified private lives. They demonstrate the depth of the maker's taste, sincerity, and commitment to doing something special.

Handicraft production persists for other reasons as well. People are still making things to earn a little extra money, a theme ubiquitous in mid-century craft publications like Profitable Hobbies magazine. Diehard 4-Hers are still organized to crank out handmade items for exhibit at county fairs. Scrapbook making is a raging fad, and hipster circles have taken up knitting as a retro indulgence.

But in an era of the Internet, video games, and unlimited television channels, handiwork as a form of self-entertainment to fill idle hours is effectively obsolete outside of prisons and other institutional settings. The motivating force for many crafters today is more a matter of asserting identity or displaying superior taste than filling unstructured time.

It remains to be seen which 21st-century handmade objects and activities will interest future generations. But craft items from the last century now represent a historically distinct - mostly extinct - category, and this adds appeal. Beyond the charm inherent in nostalgia, historical distance brings a certain depth of meaning. The social values embedded in any thing of our own time and place are too obvious to be especially interesting, or even apparent. But an object that encapsulates the tastes and skills of a society that no longer exists is innately expressive. That's why vintage sock monkeys, for example, are interesting as well as cute.

In special cases, the point of interest is more than historical. The hobby kits and instruction sheets constitute raw materials as mechanical skill, highly personal content, or eccentric layering of detail elevate a work beyond the prepackaged concept. The resulting art can be subtle, stunning, even visionary without its creator ever achieving credit as an artist - folk, brut or otherwise.

In short, an object's origin in a mass-produced craft package doesn't prevent its transformation into a unique work of art. The creators who effect that transformation are typically people with no real training but plenty of instructions. Where an excess of artistic schooling often undermines claims that an artist is authentically an outsider, the creative leaps that take craft objects beyond the directions mark their creators as self-taught in all but the most literal sense.

Their output constitutes a true vernacular art - ordinary people working in popular genres with common materials to produce work that communicates in a widely recognizable vocabulary. This is another contrast with the usual case in self-taught art, where highly personal languages are the defining feature. (Widely recognized self-taught artists, call them brut or outsiders, lately are being mislabeled vernacular, but if a vernacular is being used it is the artist's own, a contradiction in terms.)

Unlike outsiders and brut artists, crafters demonstrate how creative ideas spread through the culture and are adapted by individuals of relatively ordinary talent. These efforts enrich the visual landscape even when they don't attain higher aesthetic elevations. The most talented craft artists can turn the inauspiciously unoriginal and accessible into something even greater. This is real artistic power.

Thanks to John Turner, whose many insights found their way into this essay. Also thanks to Cheri Eisenberg and Keith Sadler, who contributed valuable thoughts.


Sock doll ad from Pack-O-Fun Greeting card basket article from 1950 Profitable Hobbies Bottle-cap art suggestions from 1957 Pack-O-Fun Potholder article from 1950 Profitable Hobbies

A version of this article originally appeared in The Outsider magazine, published by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

Outside the Lines: Ordinary Pastimes, Extraordinary Art was curated by Cheri Eisenberg and Bill Swislow. It runs through August 28, 2004 at Intuit, 756 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago.

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