What to make of relational craft

I’m currently visiting the Ceramics Department at the Canberra School of Art. As usual, there’s plenty of new ideas and things around. And the ‘Brindabella biter’ that blows in from the west keeps everyone on their toes.

Last week I gave talk on ‘relational ceramics’, which developed partly out of a paper that I wrote for the Jewellers Metalsmiths Group of Australia. The issue was how to judge work that emerges from the relational paradigm in craft. Here’s how I framed it for jewellery:

As relational jewellery becomes more familiar, we are less likely to credit it as good in itself. The fact that jewellery involves others in its production is not per se worthwhile. To support the contribution of relational jewellery to the field as a whole, we need to develop a critical framework for judging its worth. To lay out some basic parameters for criticism, I have identified a number of key qualities that might contribute to meaningful relational jewellery. These parameters are based on the experience of participating in the kinds of gatekeeping discussions that occur regularly throughout the craft sector. This will evolve over time, but here’s a set of qualities to begin:

Originality

While craft as an art form draws more than others on the stock of traditional techniques, it’s institutionalisation in the 20th century has tied it to the tiger of modernism. As such, for a work to succeed as contemporary craft it must demonstrate its originality. In the context of relational jewellery, we would look for evidence of innovation not in the production of an object but in the way a group has been constituted to participate in the work.

Craftedness

Given the significance of broad participation in relational jewellery, we expect that the required skill levels are pitched at the lowest common denominator. Given this, traditional qualities of beauty in jewellery are difficult to translate to the relational domain. However, craftedness is not necessarily made redundant by this collectivisation. Our assessment of how well-made the work is extends from the final product to the process of production. How well has does the participatory method allow for individual expression while maintaining a consistency of form? There is still residual craftedness in the final production, such as printing and displaying of materials such as photographs.

Democracy

Relational art is prey to fake forms of involvement. An artist who coerces others to contributing to their great masterpiece is not seen to be empowering the group in the process. We can often find empirical evidence of this in the documentation or our own witness of the experience of participation. The value of creative agency implies that the participant must have the power to be able to affect the outcome in some way. For obvious reasons, this is quite a challenge to traditional concepts of craftsmanship.

Body

Finally, there is the contentious matter of the work’s relation to jewellery as an adornment of the body. To what extent does the work cause us to reconsider the position of the body in the world? How much does it help to reveal an aspect of the body that has hitherto been overlooked? The question of the body in jewellery has usually been seen as a matter of support: how the ornament sits or hangs on the human form. Relational jewellery opens this up to the question of how the body exists in space, among other bodies.

While much of this could be directly translated to ceramics, the issue of body needed some more thought. Because ceramics is not worn, the relationship to the body is more in the realm of phenomenology.

But I was pleased that someone from the audience suggested that the conceptual basis of the work should also figure in this list of qualities. While that might be located in the criterion of ‘originality’, thinking about it further, it did seem worthwhile to consider that a work needs some kind of argument or story to frame its presence. This doesn’t mean that the work is reduced to the concept, but that it makes a difference in the world. Note that this is specific to the artistic value of ceramics, and is not relevant so much to its use in everyday life.

So an attempt to develop criteria for relational craft has been assisted by participation – how relational!

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