Podcast: Indie Craft vs. Fine Craft: How Are They Different? with Brian R. Jones

02 Nov 2012


All images in this post from Brian R. Jones, used with permission.

A while back, I was a guest on Brian R. Jones' podcast, where we talked about the differences between the indie craft movement and the fine craft movement. That was a really interesting discussion, and so I invited Brian to come on my show and continue it.

DSC_0090It's not like you can draw firm, universal conclusions about these things, but in this podcast, Brian and I talk about how we think indie craft work differs from fine craft work, and how the internet has helped indie crafters while often hindering fine crafters. We also talked about how these two camps could really help each other, and how fine craft's past looks a lot like indie craft's present.

A little on Brian: he's a ceramicist who also works in drawing and mixed media. He comes to his craft from an academic background, and approaches his work with the kind of deep, conceptual thinking I feel like fine crafters use. And yet, he's intrigued by indie craft – its energy, its community, and the opportunities it's created for many of us.

This is one deep and chewy podcast. Hope you enjoy it!

Some Related Links:

• Visit Brian's website, where you can also find episodes of his podcast, the Brian R. Jonescast. (Or, grab it on iTunes.)

• Here's the episode of Brian's show where he and I began this whole discussion.

• Brian also has an Etsy shop where he sells his pottery.

• Brian talked about Ayumi Horie in this show. She's an interesting "crossover artist," using online tools in a very indie-craft way to sell a fine craft product.



I only now got around to listening to this interview, and I am finding it a bit difficult to distill my thoughts, but here goes - I definitely understand the separation between indie vs fine crafts, but when he says he doesn't really understand indie craft, I think he's right. I found his comment about indie craft being "trinket-y" a bit insulting, and when he says you can spend $35-$40 and buy several items, I think it became clear he doesn't quite understand the breadth of indie craft. I fall within the indie craft category, but I am at a higher price point - people make informed decisions about my product, even though I am not in the thousands of dollars range. They try my pieces on, ask for opinions, put the pieces back, think about it, come back later. Sure, there is a lot of "trinket-y" stuff out there, but even within the world of "indie craft" there is a huge variance in product type and price range. For example, Pansy Maiden is a brilliant self taught seamstress, who sells handbags in the $100-$300 range. I also feel like he is too caught up on "titles" - I may not have a lineage of fancy teachers, but knitting has been passed on from generation to generation - I learned from a woman who learned from someone before her, and so on.

I also wonder if there is a bit of misunderstanding on his part about target audience. The person who is spending $10 on that duct tape wallet probably isn't the person looking to spend $1000 on a fine of fine craft. The feeling that these crafters at lower price points are stealing customers is misguided, because the customers for each product type are extremely different.

I think that's a fair point, Ana - for the most part the two broad genres of craft appeal to a much different audience. Your comment also had me thinking that maybe, just maybe, indie craft just feels more culturally relevant in this digital age to more potential buyers, and this leads to a perception that we're stealing their customer base. After all, so many of us are online, and this is where indie crafts are visible - much, much less so fine crafts.

Thanks so much for listening and sharing your thoughts!

Like so many things we talked about in this interview, I think there's no easy answer there. We indies probably would feel that as restrictive, I agree. But I liked what Brian had to say about deeply studying what came before you and using that as a basis for your creative growth - or, "knowing who you are by who your parents are."

Hi Diane and Brian, I was thrilled to listen to this podcast the second Diane told me about it, and I also enjoyed Brian's interview with Diane some months ago on his own podcast. (Oh, and Brian, we haven't yet met, but I have long admired your work at MoCC, where my PNCA office is located. One day I shall shake your hand and introduce myself.)

Both of your sentiments echo mine, and you have articulated them in ways that are concise and digestible. A few questions/thoughts popped into my mind over the course of the podcast, and I wanted to put them out there for you two:

Academia vs. Joy
Fine craft is so deeply rooted in tradition and academia that I think in today's market it's almost overthought. Yes, lineage is important (I recall the exhibition at MoCC, The Academy is Full of Craft, where everyone was invited to write who taught them ceramics on an enormous genealogy web on a wall), but I feel like there was this Art vs. Craft battle that happened first, and the fine craftspeople got so caught up asserting their work as fine art that they were completely taken aback and caught unprepared when indie craft came into the scene and began to undermine them.

Indie craft, however, seems to be more about the joy of making and in a lot of cases the ability to generate income is a convenient byproduct, and that runs counter to the silos of academia and fine craft. This, however, is also why a lot of indie crafters reach a self-imposed business ceiling—if they pursue more business, the joy of making dissipates and it becomes rote production. And, of course, indie craft tends to drastically undervalue their work.

The Emerging Hybrid Generation
Brian, I feel like you are a solid fine/indie hybrid, not just because you understand the tools that technology today provides for indie business, but also because you have an academic background and you're insisting on having these conversations (having an Etsy shop doesn't hurt, either!).

What of other hybrids? As fine craft quite literally (and pardon my harshness) dies off, what will come of the next generation? Will the guilds dissolve? There will still be academia providing BFAs and MFAs in studio craft subjects, but do the successors to fine craft share sensibilities between the two? Will indie craft see an increase in quality and workmanship? And will fine craft see technological acceptance and a broader sense of community and accessibility? The silos of medium are breaking down as well and new materials are being incorporated into finer craft skills.

We've seen the ACC shows try to bring indie craft into the fold with their "AltCraft" pavilions, but I can't say it's been terribly successful so far. How does one graduate from AltCraft to Fine Craft? Do the lines blur? What's next?

Thanks to you both for a fantastic podcast, and keep up the good work!

Isaac, this is an amazing comment, though I would expect nothing less of you. :-)

I'm sure Brian will have something very thoughtful to say in reply, but let me share the one theme that persistently popped up for me as I was reading your ideas: the changing value of formal education. Here's how I see it: in the era during which the fine craft movement got started (the 70's and 80's, as Brian said), as a society, we placed a pretty universal value on the idea of going to school in order to become a professional at something. And this spawned, of course, a whole hierarchy of universities, and an agreed-upon structure for how careers were started. If you were serious about being an artist, you went to school for it, and that led you to the pertinent opportunities.

...Now, learning can be free and abundant, and universities are beginning to struggle to stay relevant. Huge numbers of people are forging careers with no formal training at all – only efficient tools for connection and communication. And I think this is a key difference between fine craft and indie craft: the indie crowd sees little need for formal education in craft. It's great to use YouTube to figure out how to make a bobble stitch, but to invest years learning the history and traditions of our craft from acknowledged masters? Doesn't compute.

I do maintain that indie craft work may suffer a bit in terms of craftsmanship and lasting value as a result, but Isaac's comment about joy in making is a good one. There has to be room in the craft landscape for silly, disposable projects (that brought with them a few hours of joy) as well as carefully-designed, carefully-made objects.

I really want the two of you to meet in person!

Interesting point Brian makes about lineage, I never really knew that was so important in fine crafts. Wouldn't it feel a bit restrictive? Limiting the creativity of design or ideas in what is made?

Jen and Diane,

I have been thinking a lot about this issue since the interview took place, and I have to say that some of this issue is a generational one. The folks who are working at the end of their careers (boomers) and getting ready to retire see the world very differently than someone my age (33). I feel like the point for them was to be part of a long tradition, and I'm more interested in pulling from different aspects of life. I can see this most clearly when talking to someone 25-40 years my senior and for them to not understand what I'm trying to accomplish in my work because they do not recognize the signals and references. The larger issue of "not liking=not good" quickly follows, and that's when restrictions come into play...Or ridiculous notions: a well respected voice in ceramics told me that she thought my pots looked "feminine." I really wanted to ask her if she thought all dogs were boys and all cats were girls, based on that notion. No one in my generation would've had that opinion because they know better. Dudes can totally wear/glaze with pink now!

Interesting point Brian (or several rather!) My professional background is in history and it sounds a lot like fine crafts - important for the 'older' historians and curators to be part of a long tradition, a lot of referencing to those who have gone before etc. I understand it but it does dampen creative discussion and lead it into dead-ends. Some of the best work is now done by people taking a cross-disciplinary approach which is something both Diane and Brian talked about in the interview on fine crafts - what can indie and fine crafts learn from each?

I have to comment on the your pots being called 'feminine' :-) It made me laugh! How funny is that, so girls can't glaze with blue which is a boy color!?! I like the houses too think they look fantastic!

I haven't listened to the interview yet, but I love those houses!!

I've been trying to get a reply out for the past few days, and I think that some of what Issac wrote is almost too chewy to simply try and get something out here...

I would counter that fine crafters make with as much joy as indie crafters do. And I wouldn't want energy, style or context to be confused for joy. Those who are involved in fine craft make from a deep love of process and material. I think the "professionalization" of the fine craft market in the 1980's has led to a plateau of energy that we see today. Would it be too far to say that fine crafters are more invested in "beauty" whereas indie crafters are more interested in "fun?"(I hate that word as an adjective.) One could also argue that to be successful in the retail market you need to do one of two things: make "pretty" objects or make "cute" objects. Fine and indie craft could be broken down by this idea, which is simple and lazy in its own way...

And to touch on another issue that Issac brought up about indie craft undervaluing itself: there is a certain speed of making that is visible in the finished object. Indy craft can sometimes look too cheap or made too quickly. That is one of the things that can dictate price. Also, it might be important to note that the ACC style shows began much like indie shows are doing now. Artists and audiences came up together in a way, and were able to match price and buying power. I imagine that it won't be long until the indie craft market begins to do the necessary job of editing and upping the ante as far as venues, quality of work, and price points.

I don't think that fine craft is dying off. It is evolving and changing and asking these questions (well...maybe not. I'm asking these questions, as are peers my age) and it is a painful process. It is difficult to look to the future of a business model when you are either: 1. comfortable where you are and don't necessarily need/want to change things up, or 2. just hanging on by a thread and a little myopic in terms of learning and accepting what's coming up around the corner.

Materials and what's acceptable in terms of work and the idea of quality is changing. Higher education will change once the baby boomers are fully retired and more thirtysomethings get those teaching gigs. It's not a matter of if but when. The lines will be blurrier. I think about it like this: in college I was listening to Outkast, Fugazi, Radiohead, Tortoise, the Beatles, Coltrane, Black Star, etc. Multiple genres were (and are) acceptable. It is the way that younger makers look at the world and learn from it. Higher ed will follow the trends as it always has.

In terms of education, I think about the scale of work and the amount of space one needs to do things like make furniture, blow glass and on the other end of the spectrum make wallets, t-shirts, or knit. The grandness of indie craft will never reach that of fine craft until the scale of the ambition is raised. And, there are things that can't and maybe shouldn't be learned online or through youtube. There's a lot to be said for what happens in a workshop setting. The community that is built in the actual world and not online as a craft is being learned and taught is hard to match any other way. Of course, this doesn't have to happen in a university setting that will put you in deep debt.

Lastly, the "altCraft" booths at ACC shows are problematic. Those vendors were not consulted about presentation of their work and themselves, and I feel like ACC was just throwing them in there to attract a younger audience...but in a very haphazard way.