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 Alibaba.com. 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."