Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Etymology of Arts and Crafts

What does the term "Arts and Crafts" mean to you? This has been on my mind for awhile - it started several Project Runway seasons ago when Nina Garcia criticized a look as being too "arts and crafts". Then last season during the newspaper challenge everyone told Johnny his dress looked "arts and crafts". At least Tim Gunn only said it "looks like a craft project gone awry".

Don't worry - this isn't a post about Project Runway. What I really want to examine is the derisive use of this term. When did arts and crafts come to mean unprofessional, unpolished and poorly constructed?

Certainly not in the late 1800s when the movement began as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and eclectic Victorian rehashes of historic styles. Arts and Crafts began as an attempt to return to authenticity and truth to materials. It was a return to handcrafted work, a love of labor that resulted in the production of un-ornamented goods that reveled in the beauty of their material or subject. It was a revolt against distracting, superfluous details that overwhelmed a piece and often hid it's flaws.

It was also a reemergence of the master craftsman. Honoring skill, labor and ability. Though some argued against machines, many found good reason to incorporate modern technology into their craft, as long as the craftsman was not a "slave to the machine".

So what happened? When did this term become derogatory? How did we get here? Have we forgotten the history of this movement - do those using this term to deride others not know its rich and impressive origins? I would think many people have seen this style, who hasn't flipped through a Crate&Barrel or Pottery Barn catalog? This style is not only beautiful, it's expensive! We've all coveted those gorgeous wooden beds, those huge dining sets with it's tall back chairs set around like soldiers - for cripes sake, who hasn't heard of Frank Lloyd Wright??

I have heard the term used on message boards to criticize others, to imply a certain lack of style and workmanship. I've even heard it as a nasty generalization of the products of stay at home Moms. As if we're home, covered in baby vomit and sequins, chugging out poorly made, bejeweled art.

I reject this usage. I am taking the term back. I demand it's richness and history be restored to everyday vernacular. But it will only work if you're with me. The Arts and Crafts movement is a brilliant representation of art and craftsmanship - let's try to remember where it came from and how it can inspire us today.