Broken Promises: if they aren’t going to help – then get out of the way
Back in medieval England a crafts guild may have served a useful purpose but today, in modern economic times, paternal craft councils, barrier to entrance societies and government agencies that want to control the message are often an obstacle to a vibrant artisan economy.
There are many organizations that profess to exist for the benefit of a group of artisans or craftspeople but where is the evidence that they are actually helping those they claim to serve?
Arts and/or crafts councils often give out “awards” including scholarships and cash awards. You might expect that these much needed funds would go to professional artisans to help further their skills and business efforts. To my eyes, this is rarely the case. Awards are often given to what would typically be described as abstract artists, often sycophants. Fine art is not the same as craft or artisanry, although some fine artists are artisans. Fine art today is often “Abstract Art”. An example of this form could be something like “breakfast cereal covered in yarn” or “empty spools of thread covered in rock salt” or “a disastrous raku firing interpreted as sublime”. That type of “Art” is not usually regarded as artisanry by professional artisans. There are, as in all things, exceptions.
We can to-and-fro about the precise definition of craft versus art but that isn’t my point. What is important, very important, is the fact that a council or other government supported organization who’s mandate and funding are intended to support and advocate for artisans – should support and advocate for artisans. If they are using their funds to support and advocate for fine artists then that is what their mandate should instruct them to do. If they support sycophants and political hogs at the trough, they should be called out for that too. Finally, the respective Boards of Directors should largely consist of professional artisans. Board members need to have walked in their shoes; they need to have a deep understanding and appreciation of the trivials of the professional artisan. No doubt Premier Kathleen Wynne would agree.
I realize that committees and councils can easily lose touch with those they are meant to represent – that through the process of developing mission and vision statements, the trees can be lost to the forest but there has to be a limit to the degree of divergence from their founding objective. It’s all fine to talk about the lofty goals of fostering debate and enhancing enjoyment, but on the last day artisans are people who work everyday and have bills to pay, and they rely on the full and complete support of the organizations that are meant to advocate for them.
Artisans (a.k.a. craftspeople) need exposure in the marketplace, they need help reaching their customers, they need grants and awards for tools and materials, and they benefit from interaction with each other to share knowledge, resources and ideas. But none of this works effectively if you are mixing abstract art with craft. They simply are different. They are marketed and promoted differently; they appeal to a different clientele, they serve different purposes.
Much has been said about how to define artisanry or craft but I believe there is some general consensus that artisanry or craft is an applied art that also has to serve some practical function which distinguishes it from fine art which is created primarily for aesthetics and intellectual purposes. Clearly there is art and aesthetic beauty incorporated into many crafts but that does not mean that the craft ever stops being functional or sacrifices its functionality to its beauty – its form will always follow its function however decorated it might be.
Artisans don’t need help fitting into the arts and culture community – they need help building and sustaining a viable artisan business; effectively bringing their products to the marketplace to make sales. It’s not rocket science or philosophy and it isn’t a “cocktail party”. It’s economics, it’s business, it’s practical help and tangible support.
Most artisan/craft organizations have got it all wrong. They behave as though they are “patrons of the arts” bestowing awards to their favourite artists like the kings and wealthy patrons of the past. In reality they are fundamentally civil servants governing the use of funds on behalf of the taxpayers to support the artisan economy – that’s right – an economic system revolving around handmade products, made locally, being produced and sold, providing a livelihood and requiring traditional skills and training.
Economics 101 – know your product and know your customer.