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 naïve 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.

  3. Nice post - it has me thinking about so many things - very thoughtfully done. I would like to say that I think the division between art and craft isn't as important to define as it once may have been (say, prior to the industrial revolution). I actually see the art/craft divide as more of a continuum. I think it is a wonderful thing when art and craft get all mixed up together and the line between them becomes a moving target. It ends up being a good thing for artists and a good thing for craftspeople when that happens. I think every creative individual needs to figure out the balance between them for themselves - the trouble only starts if someone takes their own personal definition and then tries to apply that to other folks work. Craft says "here are the rules" (skill) and Art says "rules are meant to be broken" (style) - there are an endless number of possibilities of how much of each of those things work together to influence someone's work, and that is where you see the individuality of the maker come through. I personally don't ever want to make the same spoon (or bowl, or carving) twice - but that doesn't necessarily make me any less of a craftsperson. Conversely, if someone is all about replicating the same spoon each time, that doesn't meant that it can't be an artful process.

    1. Thanks for your reply. Glad it got you thinking. I agree with your point on the art/craft continuum not being as important as it once was. And I believe in the idea that innovation in craft is a good thing, and hope not to be too slavish to traditional forms. I too like exploring different spoon and bowl forms. Would not want to just make the same form over and over...
      One thing I wonder about is, I see many craftspeople who want their craft to be used, and get upset when it goes up on a shelf because it is too precious. In my case, I feel like saying, "Mom, will you please use that spoon I gave you and stop trying to preserve it?" But I also sense that that impulse causes craftspeople to reinforce the craft/art divide, to say this stuff is craft and should be used, unlike art which is meant to be admired. And when we take that step, I fear we are creating two worlds, and that divide doesn't serve the craft community very well. Are we shooting ourselves in the foot when we push back against the public's impulse to admire the artfulness of our work? I don't know. It all still confuses me.

  4. But that's just it: the beauty of the craft is that it becomes part of the fabric of everyday life. By demanding that it not be precious and elevated, we set the stage for that object to actually have a MORE meaningful connection with somebody.
    I used to bind notebooks and give them to friends, and then I found nobody was using them because they felt intimidated, like what was written had to be worthy or something. Now I carve spoons, and I feel like the antidote to that reaction is not just a reasonable (think non-art) price: it's also making an object that is so much BETTER than what is commonly used for the same purpose that someone would WANT to use it.

    I bought a spoon from Robin Wood, and it was the best purchase I've made in learning how to do this. And the most important thing was that it showed me what eating with a wooden spoon could be like. Not the romance of it, but the actual thing itself. The thing itself. That is what matters.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts and joining the conversation. I appreciate it. I see your point about craft as being seen as too precious to use. That makes me crazy, when people put the spoons on a shelf... Makes me want to take them down and stick them in a jar of grape jam and mess them up a little, give them some character. I have pine floors in my home, and love them for the character they take. I like old leather for the same reason: the story the wear tells. And I like the idea that we need to take some of the romance out of our work and get people focusing on the thing and how it is used and how great it is to use. In the same instance, though, the pleasure of using craft is that it comes with a story, a "meaningful connection with somebody," which makes them precious, which makes us not want to use them hard... Thanks again for your thoughts on this. Helps me sort things out.

  5. A friend emailed me his thoughts on this issue, so I have reposted them here, in two different posts...

    Hi, Eric,

    I met you at Greenwood fest last June (2017). I was just back on your blog, where I bumped into your post about copycats and craft. I tried to put in my $0.02, but then I don't know what happened, but my reply wouldn't go thru. So I'm sending it here, by email. It's a good discussion! But I think we might be trying to fight a monster that feeds on fighting...

    Meanwhile, I hope all's well w/you and yours as you enter into the new year.

    Best wishes from OR...

    -- Kiko Denzer

    the $0.02 starts with a story about the house I just finished building for my family:

    A visitor came by to see, and looked appreciatively at what is a fairly conventional structure. But when he saw the cuts in my rafter tails and support brackets he said, “why are you spending all this time cutting fancy shapes when you have a house to build?” Then he said, almost to himself, “Oh, you’re an artist,” as if that explained behavior that was (like a disease), somehow aberrant. By the laws of production and profit, all parts must contribute a benefit measurable in cash. No measure, no value; unmeasured work adds only unnecessary costs, cuts into profits, reduces value.

    I have taken offense at such slights and judgements against “flaky” artists whose output can’t be standardized, much less measured. But as I have gone deeper into traditional hand-work and their associated arts I have begun to internalize what I now know to be an ancient truth* — that beauty tells a universal story of gratitude for the gifts of life and nature, stories w/out straight edges or square corners — that come to us dressed in curves and colors; where everything fits, the way leaves fit trees. In all the work of our hands, for hundreds of thousands of years, individually and communally, humans have responded to beauty with beauty.

    To my guest I said, “A house is not just a box with a roof — it also tells a story. It can tell the story of industrial production: pillages and plunder for profit, faster and bigger, empire and greed — or it can tell the story of the beauties that feed us, shelter us, and give us life. And that turn the flesh of our bodies into food for worms and for the soil our bodies will become. If we don’t tell that story, how can we even remember, much less repay the debt we incur at every step? Curves, beauty, life and death -- and their stories -- allow us to participate. You may as well say it's not worth teaching kids to say thank you.”

    My guest didn't reply. I think he was uncomfortable. My comments didn't fit a perspective shaped almost wholly by consumer capitalism's idea that all value can be reduced to a quantity measurable in dollars; a perspective that divorces beauty from meaning, story from object, art from artisan, maker from market, and craftsman from community. Such a fragmented world promises no wholeness, no sincerity, no love, no health and thus, no future.

    I don't think we can heal such fragmentation by claiming "copyright" to any beauties we may be able to create. Contention can't create unity. Money can't make meaning. Meaning comes by sharing, and can't be converted to cash. Neither Alibaba, Amazon, the internet, nor any part of the capitalist economy can create meaning. Meaning comes from stories -- it comes from a personal exchange between one person and another -- it can't be copyrighted, because the meaning I take from an exchange will be different than what you take.

  6. So it seems to me that the real threat to craft is not copyright violation, or cheap imitation goods, but the ongoing destruction of community. It's impossible to live by art and craft without a community to provide materials and meaning; law and love; commerce and community; barter in consumable bling and traditions built on common ground.

    It seems to me that the challenge we face is to tell — and hear -- the story. It takes time. Most of the craftspeople and artists I know are happy to live on less money because they value the time to spend on listening -- and sometimes telling -- about their work, their materials, their inspiration, teachers, sources -- fact and fiction, inspiration and illusion. What's important, again, is not the "truth", but the telling, the giving and taking of the gift, which can never be repaid except by passing it on. (Craft markets and internet commerce may be good, but I think craft classes and customer comments may be better...) Thanks for making space!

    [*sources: Lewis Hyde, Wendell Berry, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Martín Prechtel...]