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The Inherent Classism In The Label Handmade

The Inherent Classism In The Label Handmade

Growing up, my mother used to take me to all of the different Christmas art fairs.  It was a favorite time for me, looking at all of the very beautiful objects.  My favorite place to go was the Pittsburgh Center For The Arts because they had a Christmas tree decorated with beautiful ornaments made by local artists.  We were allowed to c

hoose one each year.  To me, that was the most magical Christmas tree in existence. It was always hard to choose.  

Now, here I am a “fine artist” turned business owner examining the Christmas marketplace with a much more critical eye. I’ve been seeing the label “handmade” bandied about lately. It has made me uncomfortable.  So I did what I always do when I am uncomfortable with something.  I sit with it.  I ask questions.  And I read a lot. 

Handmade evokes a sense of nostalgia.  But, nostalgia for what?  I remember distinctly when I was younger, a 1950’s nostalgia swept the nation.  Caught up in a wave of White cool, my father sat me down and patiently explained that those 1950’s - with which my lil White friends were enamored - were not our 1950’s.  There was nothing back there that we really wanted.  And so here I am, in 2021, having lived through four years of abject governmental lunacy which came to power due to a similar kind of nostalgia that was explained to me in my adolescence.  

When most people think of handmade today, a few images come to mind. For awhile, handmade were cute “ethnic”  items made by exploited  third world artisans.  Then, well, folks talked about that and the fad passed.  Next came the industrious crafty housewife who has so perfected mastered knitting that her sweaters are works of art and the devoted woodworker in his woodshop making toys for his grandchildren. Both of whom are magnificently reclaiming the good old days of yesteryore when life was “simpler.”  

Crafts as opposed to art.  It’s hard to define. As Joyce Lovelace of American Craft Today says, “Ceramics and glass, quilts and weavings and furniture and jewelry, all kinds of beautiful objects. High quality, things... ” (1) that are functional.

In the world of visual arts, crafts have often taken a second seat to art.  Driven primarily by class, art is often considered a higher creative expression because its sole function is to have aesthetic or emotional value.  This has been a long debate in the visual art world that spans decades. So much discussion, to the point of charts being made which distinguish one from the other, as evidenced here at Key Differences. This chart even goes so far as to define art as difficult and craft as easy. 

But, the debate itself boils down to the ways in which classism permeates our society. And the power to define and distinguish, is largely done by owning class, heterosexual, European men. Before the Industrial Revolution, craftspeople were laborers who were either serfs, freedmen or an enslaved class of persons. Their existence was to do the necessary work that the “higher born” persons no longer cared to do for themselves.  The beautiful works they made were in the service of the elite. A craft connoted labor providing functional object, whereas an art connoted an idea displayed for leisure.  This is a classist way to view objects. The divide grew larger with the Industrial Revolution. Beautiful functional objects became the province of the elite, something only they could obtain. 

My grandmother, Maida Springer Kemp, was an international labor union organizer.  She came up in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and had seen the insides of many factories all over the world. When it came to garments, my grandmother never let me forget that skilled craftspeople - usually women - labored to make the clothing I used to callously dump on my bedroom floor.  She told me stories of small girls stuck in dirty factories who had been hired because their little fingers could do the fine stitching so much easier. Little girls, younger than I was, who didn’t go outside and play in the sunlight.  Little girls who had never been to school because their parents couldn’t afford not to have a child working.  

The Industrial Revolution encouraged people to forget the highly skilled human beings behind the objects we consume.  In fact, it made their profits better if we conceived of our t-shirts, dresses and socks as having been made by mindless drones in a factory somewhere nowhere near us.  

If we put a face and a story to our clothes, home goods and pillows, we would not dispose of them so easily.  We would not be so cavalier about getting the next hottest thing. If we remembered that human beings make our things, we would want them to have the same guarantees of safety we expect for ourselves.  We would want them to earn a liveable wage. That’s not good for profits.  

Then again, watching Jeff Bezos use our money to launch himself into space, makes me believe differently. Maybe we only celebrate “handmade” when it is predominantly middle class White women making the functional, decorative items we love to give at Christmas. Maybe we only care about the suburban grandfather (who could afford access to woodworking equipment) who makes those delightful toys.  When we celebrate the nostalgia of handmade, one might think deeply about what that branding is really about. It is about people with access to equipment and materials. It is about people with enough leisure time to be able to make.

The nostalgia of “handmade,” denies that the workers in factories also have hands. I hope people understand that I am an artist who draws patterns by hand into her computer and then collaborates with a manufacturer who uses people I trust. The work goes from my hands to the hands of people who help put it in yours.  

  1. Lovelace, Joyce, “Craft: Seriously, What Does the Word Mean?” American Craft Magaizine, Oct/Nov 2018

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