By Loui Conway
In the post-industrial society it would appear Marx’s predictions of the separation of labourer from their means of production rings true. However, in the hidden corners of British society exists the small-scale craft businesses who continue to maintain their creative means of production. The challenge that now faces such groups is negotiating the path between business survival and creative production. Neither fitting neatly into the capitalist machine nor the utopian socialist notions of creativity, crafters appear to be alone in the world. Nevertheless, what they have achieved is a new space, an indefinable abstract one carefully avoiding the homogenising forces of competing ideologies. But how can such spaces be explored? The answer may lie in the post-structuralist work of Gilles Deleuze and his concept of the ‘body without organs’. This piece is not about defining crafting space but opening the potentials of chaos within them.
Can we define crafting spaces? Or more specifically, should we define crafting spaces? Craft is experiencing a resurgence in Britain. As such, academics have swiftly followed. Unfortunately, much of the work has remained far from revolutionary, especially as theorists have been engaging with craft for the past 200 years. Specifically, the works of Marx, Ruskin and Morris were the pioneers of thinking about craft in their criticisms of capitalist production. Given the continued rise of neoliberalism, it is no surprise that anti-capitalist sentiments have resurfaced in recent discussions of crafting. However, little has been done to address the ideological tendencies of their utopian images of society. As proved during the 20th century, utopian ideology often came at the expense of individual freedoms in favour of a homogenised system. As such, individual creativity was sacrificed in favour of the universal systems. This was especially the case with political art which threatened the hierarchy of the state structure in the likes of the USSR. Although craft exists as an abstract space rather than a physical state structure, the ability to establish fixed rules surrounding the ideals of craft can still come at cost to creativity. This has been the case with the incessant focus directed towards the ethical sourcing of materials. Although done with the best intentions for social good, distancing craft from the economic realities of a capitalist society risks restricting the creativity of craft for individuals without the financial support to source the ethical materials promoted by crafting ideology. However, this blog post is by no means chasing the ‘joys’ of capitalist development. There is no denying that the general trend of the capitalist system since the industrial revolution has been to separate the labourer from their means of production and the fruits of their labour. Unfortunately, it would now appear craft is trapped between the two opposing ideologies of utopian socialism, which tends to romanticise the creativity of craft, and late capitalism under which craft’s ‘authenticity’ is an opportunity for maximising profit. Or is it? Given the rise of the post-structuralist movement from the likes of French Philosopher Gilles Deleuze, we now find paths outside the dialectic views of society which offer new potentials for exploring craft spaces.
Image: Handwoven wrap by Jan Beadle (photo by Jan Beadle 2019).
Before addressing crafting spaces, we must ask, what is it about craft that we like so much? It was Karl Marx who initially brought to the fore the ideals of craft in his critique of capitalism. Specifically, he claimed that labour should be the true source of value in society (Marx, 1974). This was because labour was the source of social interactions leading to a society based on communal equality (ibid). However, it was the dispossession of the means of production under capitalism which led to individualistic agendas forming unequal hierarchies (ibid). Such ideas are now synonymous in the social sciences. Unfortunately, Marx’s interpretations of craft mainly remained in the sphere of economic analysis. John Ruskin and William Morris believed that craft was more than this. Specifically, they claimed it was the creative process which remained crucial. Morris believed self-expression enabled happy, empowered communities to endure (Gauntlett, 2018). Despite the differences, the two approaches coincide appropriately in craft spaces. For example, the dichotomisation of art and craft into two separate entities was perceived as a process of alienating workers from the means of production. This rings true with the increased economic value of ‘art’ and the decreased value of craft production. Ruskin claimed this resulted in the suffocation of man’s creativity and intelligence with repetitive machine work (ibid). There has been increasing debate in recent literature suggesting art can never be separated from creation as craft is always in a process of becoming. Unfortunately, such debates remain for another day. However, the sentiment of Ruskin and Morris remains. For this reason, they called for societal change and a universal crafting space (ibid).
Unfortunately, although we can sympathise with the intentions of the early writers in craft, this blog post has already discussed the failings of ideology, especially the restrictive nature they have for creativity. Therefore, how can the creativity Ruskin and Morris called for in crafting spaces be maintained?
Although, Marx, Ruskin and Morris’ criticisms of capitalism are fair, we would be speaking with haste to suggest their ideals have disappeared under capitalism. Unfortunately, such sentiments remain, especially as Marx’s work continues to be examined with regards to a society fully driven by market orientation. Thankfully, it is far from a viable assertion to claim this is how society operates and specifically how craft businesses function. This was highlighted in Tregear’s (2003) study of a food craft business in North West England. In this it was discovered that alongside market orientations required for business survival was an emotive desire for creativity, inner-beliefs and lifestyle (ibid). What this example indicates is the way craft has been reduced to a dialectic vision of capitalism vs socialist utopia. In reality, craft exists in an indefinable complex web of relationships. The problem now is how to navigate the chaos of the crafting space.
The solution to the chaos may be found in Deleuze’s concept of the ‘body without organs’. Less concerned with the body’s biological composition, Deleuze was interested in perceiving the body as an entity without organisation. Specifically, he argues that the body without organs is a process in which “a wave flows through it and traces levels upon it; a sensation is produced when the wave encounters the forces acting on the body” (Deleuze, 2003:40). In this process the sensation is linked to the body in a way that it no longer acts as representative and becomes real (ibid). What Deleuze is trying to indicate here is the complex way in which we actualise the virtual. Specifically, how we interpret the wide range of influences on our body and the relation between this and the decision-making process for our actions. For Deleuze, this process is driven by a sensation. If this was applied to small-scale craft businesses, they must make a wide array of decisions between the desire for creative expression and the need for business survival in the capitalist society. However, given that this sensation cannot be qualitative or quantified (ibid), how can the body without organs be used to explore crafting spaces?
It was the ideal of Marx, Ruskin and Morris to create sustainable communities of creative meaning through craft. However, in doing so they established a fixed set of guidelines for society. However, the body without organs indicates that craft should instead be viewed as an abstract virtual space. In this crafting space exists a complex myriad of sensations in which only a proportion is actualised in a process of becoming. Therefore, crafting space cannot be modelled, but only exhibited in relation to craft in practice. It is in this acceptance that creativity is enabled to thrive without the restriction of ideological tendencies.
However, as the process of examining crafting spaces indicates, it would be irrational to accept that the concept of the body without organs frees craft spaces from the capitalist fields of representation. With the growth of global media, capitalism increasingly operates by controlling the representation of both the actual and virtual worlds. However, as with any form of production there is some form of embodied representation for the subject. This is especially highlighted by Dewsbury:
The doing of any occupation, and its link to the development of our character, speaks not just to the way our actions fill and take up space and time, but how, in relation to time, we have our attention occupied by the milieu around us. (Dewsbury, 2015: 30)
However, capitalism operates by rigidifying representations in a means to capitalise on identity. This is even the case with socialist ideals of craft. In Tregear’s (2003) study, he discovered the main aim of crafting businesses was to achieve social good. Such agendas are all part of the creative development of craft businesses. However, part of such became the adoption of the ‘craftsperson’ identity. Unfortunately, this remains vulnerable to capitalist structures which aim to exploit identity for economic gain. As Deleuze (2003:73) points out “reaction against clichés are creating clichés”. The consequence of such is the evolution of craft towards a rigidified model controlled by capitalist machines. However, it would be falling back into the socialist utopian ideals to claim crafters are excluded from having representation in their work. It is from such representations that platforms are provided to explore new potentials of creativity (Dewsbury, 2015). The problem, however, is ensuring the crafter is always moving towards new forms of creation.
It is with this that we arrive at the crux of the issue surrounding crafting space. How do we ensure new creation if we cannot define the crafting space? The answer does not lie in modelling new creation but observing. Specifically, observing crafting space in action. It is for this reason that the work of Morris remains crucial. Despite his advocacy for revolution, his secondary agenda was to thwart the capitalist machine by encouraging grassroots movements to adopt the ideals of craft based on creativity and community (Gauntlett, 2018). By highlighting the potentials of these grassroots movements, we can examine the constant state of becoming as the organisations navigate between economics and creative potential. This is the new anti-dialectic vision for craft.
Deleuze, G. (2003). Francis Bacon: the logic of sensation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Dewsbury, J. (2015). Non-Representational Landscapes and the Performative affective forces of habit: from ‘live’ to ‘blank’. Cultural Geographies, 22(1), pp.29-47.
Gauntlett, D. (2018). Making is connecting. Medford: Polity Press.
Marx, K. (1974). Capital. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Tregear, A. (2003). Market orientation and the craftsperson. European Journal of Marketing, 37(11/12), pp.1621-1635.