Thursday, February 20, 2014

Copycats and craft

I came across a provocative article on the American Craft Council's website recently by Harriete Estel Berman.  Here are a few choice bits:

"Our [the craft community's] collective reluctance to mention or openly discuss the issue [intellectual property infringement] emboldens a thriving pirate industry and weakens any individual resolve to expose copycats or to protest copycat practices. With globalization, the craft market is being exploited by opportunistic international manufacturers through online exchanges like Profit-minded companies, unfettered by any respect for IP rights, overtly copy work shown by makers at major shows or on personal websites. Corporations with large distribution channels pirate ideas from isolated artists and makers.

The wonders of the Internet have also fostered a culture of copying where less creative individuals copy and sell work based on tutorials, instructional materials, or Pinterest images. Let’s be truly honest: Ethical boundaries are crossed when amateur and casual makers rationalize copying with na├»ve compliments like, “I love your work so I made my own copy” or “I want to make something just like this.”

I respect her frustration.  Must be hard to see your novel idea mass produced by foreign industrialists for their profit.  But I don't agree with her.

Intellectual property law pretty plainly states that "styles" and "ideas" can't be copyrighted.  Here are a few examples of things that you can't copyright (according to page three of this pdf from the US Copyright Office):

Also, there is an amazing renaissance in green woodworking going on now that is in large part due to the internet.  I got my start looking at videos of Robin Wood turning bowls, of Dave Fisher carving amazing vessels, of Peter Follansbee carving spoons.  I have learned a ton from the Bodgers site and from the Spoon Carving, Green Woodworking and Sloyd facebook group.  The whole "makers" movement in general is beholden to the connectivity of the internet, the sharing of ideas and how-to manuals and advice.  Just the other day Jarrod StoneDahl promoted a new hashtag: #woodculturerenaissance.  Inspiration found on the internet is driving craft in some pretty exciting directions. (Still, I might change my tune if I was making a living with craft...)

What I find more interesting is that Ms. Berman's comments point back to the art/craft divide.  For her, copycats are stealing "ideas" unfairly, but what role do "ideas" really play in craft?  Craft, as I have written elsewhere, tends to privilege skill over ideas.  If I copied one of Wille Sundqvist's spoons, I KNOW it would not be of the same quality as one he might produce.  His skill far outstrips mine, and it would show, even if the spoon had the same style or "idea."  So skill counts a lot in craft, maybe more than style or ideas.  Craft also relies on replication, whereas art tends to privilege a singular execution.  As Barn proclaims, "I believe in replication."  Making copies again and again is how we build craft skill, and copying the best examples is a great way to develop that skill and appreciation for certain styles. Finally, craft tends to follow traditional forms passed down by a whole culture, whereas art tends to value innovation.  Isn't "traditional" another way of saying that everyone is copying everyone else?

In the end, I wonder if Ms. Berman's definition of craft isn't really conflating craft with art.

Or, maybe, she is really on to something.

Maybe craftspeople need to stop thinking of themselves as making "craft," because that definition is not serving their interests well at all.  Maybe the craft/art divide is a sort of hegemony, where the "oppressed" buy into their own inferiority and therefore serve as their own oppressors.  Just as colonizers established cultures that valued whiteness over color in their colonies, just as women are convinced that they look good in clothes and high heels that in truth sexually objectify them, have craftspeople been convinced of a definition of their work that is in truth hurting them?   If "craft" is by nature repeatable and not unique, are craftspeople really saying that anyone can do what they do, that they can't "own" their innovation, and that they can't claim "authorship/artistanship?"  Do craftspeople hold onto a definition of their work that in the end is hurting them?  Are they inadvertently supporting a system that oppresses them and in turn elevates artists?

I don't know.  Honestly, that hegemony idea above feels a bit bullshitty.  But I do think craftspeople should lay claim to their well-crafted crafts and sign them with their makers marks, showing everyone what their skills are, even if the styles are "traditional."


  1. good food fro thought. But I personally disagree with a few points, one is of signing the work. I will not sign my work for the simple reason that what I make is a simple craft object. It doesn't need to be mine or claimed by me. the designs are inspired by other work. It is a misconception that someone could make a spoon like mine. I see spoon inspired from my work, but I see the difference, and that's fine. Until someone can carve a spoon exactly like mine, and I could not tell the difference than I would complain about copyright issues. But I'd say that would be near impossible. Craft objects are bound to different reasons for being than art objects. I think that the duplication is part of craft in it's nature. I do think that the word 'craft' has been highjacked by studio or contemporary artists making art objects. That world seems to think that just because an art object is made from a craft object that it is 'craft'. but oh well. that seems to be the way it going. It's a tough one to sort out. You know I could go on and on with this one....great thoughts and that's what we need. Folks thinking and talking about these ideas.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, Jarrod. I agree that there is a major difference between a copy of an expertly crafted spoon and one made by an expert. Even if the forms/styles are the same/similar/traditional, the subtle proportions, the finish, the long knife strokes, etc... are going to be different, because of the skill that the master craftsman has. I guess by signing work I mean that a craftsman can claim the _skill_ that went into that piece, without laying claim to the "designs ... inspired by other work." Should craftspeople sign their work to say, "These are MY mad skills!"

      But I think I understand your point: if craft is a cultural production (to use art history-speak) its forms really can't be claimed by any one craftsperson, so why sign your work when you are really just continuing a long cultural tradition of, say, Swedish-style spoons?

      I think Robin Wood wrote on why he decided to sign his bowls. I wanna go look that up now...

      Again, thanks for your feedback, and much respect.

  2. I am glad you think that Jarrod as I have been using one of your spoons to improve my skills. Only one of the seven or eight I made had all the correct angles and proportions but it was a great learning system. Incidentally I sold that spoon to another spoon carver (with an explanation that it was the best of several attempts) who wanted to improve the crank on his spoons. With regard to artistic innovation, very few artists are truly innovative and many artists earn a living by reproducing existing works or using old styles.
    Thank you for a very thoughtful blog.

    1. I gotta get myself some expertly made spoons! I turn bowls, and I did purchase one of Robin Wood's pieces, and man has it taught me a lot. Thanks for joining the conversation, Alex.