Craft: A User’s Manual. An essay by Kevin Murray
Craft: A User’s Manual
I collect small objects, whose size often belies their meaning. These are often charms, such as an omamori from Japan. As you can see, this object is a nicely embroidered pouch. As such, we naturally are curious to know what is inside it. If I squeeze it from the outside, I can feel something like a card. But I will never know what’s inside, hopefully.
As a charm, the omamori functions only if it is unopened. Rather than deprive the user of this information, the mystery of its contents can increase its power.
I thought of this object when reading Sharon Peoples’ essay for her Death of a Craft. She notes a distance between the work of the contemporary lace-makers, who marvelled at the traditional works of splendour, and the world that sustained them, when lace was an important manifestation of power. This is partly the paradox of a democracy, which enables the free distribution of power symbols, like crown jewels and palaces, but which in the process kills the host that created them.
The dimension of use is one we often take for granted. One of the sacred tenets of market capitalism is that the consumer is always right. In the supermarket aisle, we take a god-like position scrutinising products for their price, contents and sometimes ethics. Once out of the supermarket, we are free to do with these products as we wish. That organic dishwashing detergent, designed to save the environment, flush it all down the drain! None of the ethical responsibility generalises to the user.
Now, we may not be able to recreate the court or cathedral which honours lace. But there are some actions that we as users may be able to carry out in doing justice to the handmade objects in our possession.
So let’s imagine a User’s Manual for Craft. What instructions would you give the ideal owner of a handmade object? I have three to begin with.
First, the object must be cared for. Breakage should be avoided through extra care during housekeeping, particularly for ceramics. Objects should be dusted to look their best. If metal, it must sometimes be cleaned to prevent tarnish.
Second, we must tell its story. The Māori have a custom of singing and praying to their treasured objects, or taonga, as a mark of respect. While settler Australians don’t share that practice, it should be expected that we can at least name the maker of the object. Furthermore, we should be able to account for the materials and processes, perhaps even the intentions of the maker, and maybe the tradition on which it draws.
Third, we should ensure that we provide for the object in our absence. It is a mark of honour for an object to be an heirloom that is gifted to a special member of the family. In this respect, objects have a being that can surpass our own. In the long run, we are temporary hosts.
I’m sure you can think of other principles that users should consider. In response to Sharon Peoples show, crafts are not kept alive only by the makers, the users play an important role in activating these things. The arrival of these new objects in Emerging Contemporaries focuses our minds. Beyond purchase, which one of this would you like to adopt?
As Arthur Miller once said, “the fish is in the sea, and the sea is in the fish.”
Kevin Murray is editor of Garland Magazine and Senior Vice-President of the World Crafts Council - Asia Pacific.