and Contemporary Art
Edited by Maria Elena Buszek
Duke University Press, $25
"Looking back, it wasn't probably the best idea, releasing a new word and seeing what happened." So writes Betsy Greer in her contribution to Extra/Ordinary, a new collection of essays edited by art historian and feminist critic Maria Elena Buszek. The word in question is craftivism, and well might Greer pause and ponder. Though it is not the exclusive topic of this anthology - essays range widely, from pure theory to quilting, bookmaking, and boatbuilding - about half of the contents are devoted to craft-based activism. The implication, given the subtitle, is that the DIY scene is now the principal meeting ground between craft and fine art.
Even before Greer coined the term in 2003, 20-somethings were turning to knitting, screenprinting, embroidery, and other small-scale crafts to express political dissent. Often this work is presented in fine-art contexts, but it also inhabits the less exalted realms of online commerce and everyday hobbyism. So craftivism is not only an art movement, but also a subculture. And in Extra/Ordinary we have a scholarly collection that documents it in sensitive detail.
In addition to activists like Greer, there are contributions from critics sympathetic to craftivism (such as Dennis Stevens and Louise Mazanti), historians who trace its precedents (including Elissa Auther), and an interview with one of its leading lights: Margaret
Wertheim, co-inventor, with her sister Christine, of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project, which invites crafters of all ages to participate in making a huge, topologically accurate model of one of the earth's endangered environments.
The jury is still out on craftivism. As several authors in this book concede, it's hard to claim it has had wide political impact. But it has changed lives. Many young crafters derive both income and identity from the handmade. And as Greer suggests, DIY has achieved an aesthetic and economic diversity that scarcely could have been imagined a decade ago. Buszek's book is a carefully assembled, and fittingly textured, report from the front lines of this still-developing movement.
Glenn Adamson is head of graduate studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft.