Labour in craft and art

The plaster pictures were really the most beautiful things I had ever seen, but they weren’t Art. One can’t respect them all. Actually one should really have despised them. It was a terrible thing to do make such pictures in Daddy’s studio and, what’s more, whilst a plaster cast was being made.” (Jansson. 2006: 116)

This quote from a short story in The Winter Book by Tove Jansson is told from the point of view of a young girl, the daughter of a sculptor. She is entranced by pictures made from plaster and magazine cuttings but despite saying that they are the “most beautiful things” she’s ever seen she states that they aren’t Art and worse than that, that they should be “despised”. This quote talks about two objects, both crafted by hand, both items for display rather than use; what makes one Art and the other not? The sculptor would require years of training in the craft, the sculpture would require more time and precision to create; in contrast, the plaster pictures would require little planning and little previous experience. Speed of product equates to a lower value in the little girl’s eyes, reflecting a historical value on skill and craft in art. However, in relation to today’s contemporary art, a “lack of evident skill somehow implies the presence of concept” (Adamson. 2010: 38). Craft is premised on skill and time investment; contemporary art on concept and intellect. The importance of meticulous and, most likely, laborious crafting is considered to be intrinsic to the craft objects commercial value: “Skill commands respect. We value the integrity of the well-made object, the time and care it demands”. (Adamson. 2010: 38)

Some artists have been challenging this idea by meticulously crafting objects that near-perfectly mimic reality, reminiscent of trompe l’oeil, tricking us into thinking what we see is real. Both the work of Yoshihiro Suda and Susan Collis explores the realm of making the ordinary extraordinary. “The very banality of their chosen content- drips and weeds- allows the act of presentation to take centre stage. Tremendous skill is here worn so lightly that it nearly disappears from view. But of course this makes the skill seem all the more impressive.” (Adamson. 2007)

In contrast, the work of artists operating under the title of ‘sloppy craft’ utilises craft in a seemingly haphazard way, the work appearing to be lacking in skill and refinement. The perceived ease of construction and “lack of evident skill [in sloppy craft] somehow implies the presence of concept” (Adamson. 2010: 38). Regardless of appearances, making sloppy craft look sloppy but not inept or amateurish will involve a great deal of skill: “This is, perhaps, the dirty secret of sloppy craft: there may be nothing so difficult to pull it off convincingly” (Adamson. 2010: 40.)

Jonathon Hoskins discussing Susan Collis’s view that ‘production’ is art’s dirty secret, argues that in fact ‘labour’ is the dirty secret. To have nothing to do with the process of production emphasises the role of the artist as the originator of the idea. “The Cartesian separation between mind and body remains very deeply culturally embedded”. “Labour is toil and how can something that toils be anything approaching genius?” (Hoskins, J. 2007: 75) .


Adamson, G. (2007) in Britton Newell, L. (2007) Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft. London: V&A Publications.

Adamson, G. (2010) ‘When Craft Gets Sloppy’. Crafts, January/February. Pp. 36-40.

Hoskins, J. (2007) in Britton Newell, L. (2007) Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft. London: V&A Publications. Pp.75.

Jansson, T. (2006). A Winter Book. London: Sort of Books. Pp.116.


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