Art and artisans: the debate we had to have

I’ve recently taken up an honorary position as Adjunct Professor at RMIT University in the School of Art. On Wednesday night, I was asked to give a keynote in that capacity at a symposium entitled ‘Art & Globalization: Urban Futures and Aesthetic Relations’, organised in association with the Global Cities Research Institute. The lecture came at the end of a fascinating day—the breadth of papers showing the advantage of the college system at RMIT which enables dialogue between fields such as visual arts, architecture and landscape design. My paper followed a number that  reviewed the field of public art in response to growing democratisation. The very animated discussion at the end was particularly significant, and deserves reflection here.

My paper presented many of the cases featured in Craft Unbound within the context of visual arts. While product development is usually seen as a combination of craft and design, it is increasingly found now in symbolic spaces such as an art galleries.

In modernism, the boundaries that separate art from life are continually tested—from Duchamp’s readymade to more recent relational art that turns an art gallery into a restaurant. In recent times, such boundaries have been seen as increasingly political, particularly the divide between Global South and North that underpins the economic basis of the art world.

When we view such work, we not only judge it according to how it pleases us, but also the meaning it seems to have for those involved. Such work can forge new relationships that test our preconceptions about the possible relationships between North and South.

Danius Kesminas’ Punkasila project, for example, provides an alternative to the conventional path of Western artist who seeks to honour pre-modern traditions. Something as foreign as punk music may be seen to engage local Indonesians in a high-spirited collaboration. Whether we approve of that, or not, it gives us an alternative path to consider. Art gives us this space to experiment.

Some of the discussion that followed the paper expressed scepticism that an Australian artist working with a traditional artisan could ever be in the interests of both. An alternative strategy was raised in the work of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, who exposes power relations through spectacles of humiliation where, for instance, he pays workers to move a heavy rock between A and B without reason. For some, such work is seen as more honest about the power relations—it calls a spade a spade.

This debate was important. It was a rare opportunity to air this scepticism in a public forum. My response was that we need to question our tendency to assume that art which involves the Global South must exclusively be a matter of revealing injustice. This is certainly not to deny that such injustice exists, but to allow for a point of view from the other side that does not want to play the role of victim. This is to assume that an artisan, or artist, might want the opportunity to create new works, get to know a foreigner and earn some money. This reflects the new confident voices from the Global South emerging around the Kyoto Protocol.

So how can we be sure that such collaborations have meaning for both parties? What stops such collaborations being used to gloss over real inequities? In the case of coffee, we have the Fair Trade label to give us confidence that our purchase does good. It would seem very important now to engage in research that found meaningful ways of reflecting the points of view of all involved. This is what’s currently in development with the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations.

The discussion revealed the very important role that an institution like RMIT can play as an academic forum in which to critically discuss trends emerging in cultural production. I am grateful to the audience who raised these issues, and hope we can find ways to inform this dialogue in the future.

As they say in Laos, ‘If you like things easy, you’ll have difficulties; if you like problems, you’ll succeed’.

5 thoughts on “Art and artisans: the debate we had to have”

  1. Muchas gracias por este post … es TAN importante que estos temas estén hablandose en alguna parte del mundo. Ojalá el Código de Práctica sea un buen incentivo para continuar esta discusión en otras partes del sur y del norte.

  2. Hello Kevin,
    Seems there is a lot of talk about Western artists getting work made in third world countries as a way of keeping costs down.
    I have been heading this way for a number of years now. I can’t make a living making ceramics in Australia. I can’t compete with Maxwell and Williams, and Australians do not have an appreciation for the handmade.
    I tried to find a manufacturer in Australia to make my ceramics. I spoke with Bendigo pottery. The product they were prepared to make for me was in mid-fire clay, not porcelain, a poor colour range, chunky and at ten times the price of Asia.
    I’ve finally realised that Australia has never had a strong ceramics manufacturing industry. So, having no success finding someone who could make anything similar to what I want in Australia I decided to look at getting ceramics made in China or the like.
    I’ve settled on Vietnam to have my ceramics made. I was there in 2004 and bought a lovely hand thrown bowl. Made in a small factory in Batrang Village, I liked how it was still a craft in Vietnam. Not mass produced white ware from China.
    My only remaining issue is how to ensure a proper environment/lifestyle/pay for the person making my work. I see something like “Fairtrade” as vital. It not only gives me a peace of mind, but it also conveys that to the end buyer.
    Over the next month I will contact Fairtrade to see if they would cover ceramic production in Vietnam. I know they cover handcrafts from the highlands of Vietnam.
    If you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them.
    P.S. I still plan to make as much as I do now. It’s what I love to do. Having work made overseas will give me the ability to make a living.

  3. Thanks for the comment Andrew. It’s very important that we hear from makers like yourself about the opportunities for out-sourcing. Certainly, there’s a sadness that you are being forced to take this option, due to the lesser value of handmade here (hopefully that will change one day). But at the same time, I can see that you like many find the association with makers in more traditional societies most inspiring. As far as I know, Fair Trade deal mostly with associations, rather than individuals. There is a Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations in development, though that won’t be around for a while. But we’d certainly welcome your thoughts as it evolves.

  4. Hello Kevin,
    Thanks for your reply.
    Please let me know more about, or how I can follow/research “a Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations”.
    Cheers, Andrew.

  5. Thanks Andrew. This site is the best place to keep in touch. But I’ll also put you down for Two Hands, a seasonal newsletter.

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