Shop Etsy

Noted: On Innovation and Craft

Oct 3, 2012

by Linzee McCray

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

“Maybe innovation is like pornography — you know it when you see it.” So says David Revere McFadden in a recent interview in American Craft magazine.

The interview follows a talk during which McFadden, the curator of the Museum of Arts and Design and a juror for ArtQuilt Elements at Pennsylvania’s Wayne Art Center, took art quilters to task for their lack of innovation. He spoke about “the value of aesthetic progress in craft mediums, the ‘provocative’ factor that makes work memorable, the need to move beyond tradition (perhaps while still reflecting it), and the challenge of technology for artists who aren’t altogether comfortable with it.” He also told exhibition attendees that he felt he was “in a time warp, looking at pieces that could have been made 30 years ago.”

Not surprisingly, the art quilting community took umbrage. Forums on the websites of the Studio Art Quilt Associates and the Surface Design Association came alive with comments like, “When does innovation become gimmick? Why push to use new materials if it doesn’t say anything?”

McFadden told American Craft, “While I have a limitless respect for all of the traditional craft techniques and deeply admire those who have honed their skills to an extraordinary degree, I am also interested in how new digital technologies, both in design and fabrication, are opening up new possibilities for creating work that has powerful visual appeal and intellectual content.”

There’s no doubt that innovation is a delight. Coming into contact with an innovative chair or clock or vase challenges our expectations, making users think twice before sitting down, telling the time, or plopping flowers into water. And it not only challenges, it captivates.

Today’s crafters embrace innovation in the creation of their products: they employ new tools and materials without thinking twice. Quilters use computerized sewing machines and woodworkers measure the moisture content of their wood with digital meters. Craftspeople of all persuasions use programs like Illustrator and Photoshop to design their products or create prototypes electronically, before diving in with needle and thread or hammers and saws. Though a craft form may be rooted in history, the means of creating it are often thoroughly 21st century.

The question remains: Should a craft provoke and demonstrate “aesthetic progress” — or is it enough to honor its past and work within its time-honored forms?

5 Featured Comments

  • CarpetShopPrincess

    Katie Koshy from carpetshopprincess said 8 years ago Featured

    Sometimes "aesthetic progress" is just that, aesthetic. To use carpet weaving as an example, today there are machines that can create lovely pieces in a fraction of the time. Quality-wise, however, they are not up to par with the rugs woven 10, 20, or 100+ years ago, and they will not stand the test of time. New technologies may help to create more memorable work, but if 100 years from now all you have is the memory and not the actual piece to look at, then what good is it?

  • dorothydomingo

    Dorothy Domingo from dorothydomingo said 8 years ago Featured

    This is the old tired argument of either/or. Craft can be both aesthetically provocative and still be using the time honored techniques and traditions. Innovation for it's own sake can be empty and unappealing. It needs to be connected to an artist's own driving need to solve the conceptual and technical aspects of their own work and not just to give the art critic something new and cool to talk about.

  • rubenbrito

    Ruben Alexander from RubenAlexander said 8 years ago Featured

    I agree with mary. There should always be a sense of discovery - beautiful, moving or striking - happening when you make a piece. The medium or mechanism doesn't matter as much as arriving at a new place that speaks to you and others. There shouldn't be an exclusive discussion of either hand made or computerized, but both sometimes together in varying degrees. If someone is more comfortable leaving out the computer... then good. If another person wants to use it as a tool to augment their listings.. that's fine too. With a goal of have a shop full of variety, one could use a computer, but if the end results is valuable, a computer is an optional tool in the hands of the maker.

  • slathered

    Sharon Moores from slathered said 8 years ago Featured

    Sometimes innovation comes solely from the usage, not the process. Look at letterpress. It was created in the mid-15th century to make newspapers and books. While letterpress did evolve over the centuries, it is considered an antique form of printing in this day and age. But letterpress is alive and well as an art form. In essence, the work of letterpress is still done the same way, but the output -- cards, wedding invitations, prints, art books -- is completely different. Innovation doesn't just have to be about technology.

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth said 8 years ago Featured

    To thine own self be true. That is what art is. An expression of oneself. If you are modern & innovative, do that. If you are traditional & value time-honored technique, do that. If you are both, do that! Instead of looking at art as something to be purchased or "approved" by someone ELSE, take an honest look at WHY you want to make the art. And what it says about you.

51 comments

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 8 years ago

    Interesting!

  • ArtDecoDame

    Desiree from ArtDecoDame said 8 years ago

    Good read!

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 8 years ago

    Great post! Thanks!

  • CarpetShopPrincess

    Katie Koshy from carpetshopprincess said 8 years ago Featured

    Sometimes "aesthetic progress" is just that, aesthetic. To use carpet weaving as an example, today there are machines that can create lovely pieces in a fraction of the time. Quality-wise, however, they are not up to par with the rugs woven 10, 20, or 100+ years ago, and they will not stand the test of time. New technologies may help to create more memorable work, but if 100 years from now all you have is the memory and not the actual piece to look at, then what good is it?

  • pinecone718

    pinecone718 said 8 years ago

    Isn't this the difference between craft and art?

  • AntoinettesWhims

    Antoinette from AntoinettesWhims said 8 years ago

    Nothing wrong with the ages old tradition of taking the scarps life has offered you and making them into something beautiful and heartfelt.

  • secondarycreations

    Trudy Shaw from secondarycreations said 8 years ago

    Makes me think of arts such as writing and music. A current novelist would never get away with Dickensian plot twists. If Handel were alive today, he wouldn't be writing Baroque music. But Dickens is still read and Baroque music is still played. Things don't disappear from the repertoire, but innovation moves on.

  • dorothydomingo

    Dorothy Domingo from dorothydomingo said 8 years ago Featured

    This is the old tired argument of either/or. Craft can be both aesthetically provocative and still be using the time honored techniques and traditions. Innovation for it's own sake can be empty and unappealing. It needs to be connected to an artist's own driving need to solve the conceptual and technical aspects of their own work and not just to give the art critic something new and cool to talk about.

  • janicewd

    janicewd from janicewd said 8 years ago

    New technology can be helpful and a useful tool that can speed the process as well as make it quicker at times. But, when you create from beginning to end and do the steps on your own without technology then it feels more like an art. Its when you finish a project and realize yes now its right and I have accomplished what I intended to do then it becomes so satisfying. Its good technology exists no doubt but I hope we never forget or stop practicing the past traditions of art or craft.

  • QueenofCuffs

    mary from QueenofCuffs said 8 years ago

    If you move and are moved by instinct and love of craft then beauty happens. If innovation is just for the sake of it or is forced - then it just jars. I love innovation that comes about by accident - it is a happy surprise - welcomed and celebrated - a progress meant to be.

  • kgpaintings

    Kirsten Gilmore from PaintingsByKEGilmore said 8 years ago

    I think, as an artist, you have a choice of either. Both are valid pursuits. These new quilts made possible with technology appeal to me because they are different and exciting. A more traditional quilt stirs childhood memories for me (as well as my own anachronistic tendencies as an artist who loves doing things by hand.) I have respect for either approach to quilting or to any other art form.

  • LineaLina

    Susanne Major from LineaLina said 8 years ago

    Hmm, I think I love to see both! It is fantastic that there are some people that use very old techniques, but it can also be amazing to see how things can evolve!

  • rubenbrito

    Ruben Alexander from RubenAlexander said 8 years ago Featured

    I agree with mary. There should always be a sense of discovery - beautiful, moving or striking - happening when you make a piece. The medium or mechanism doesn't matter as much as arriving at a new place that speaks to you and others. There shouldn't be an exclusive discussion of either hand made or computerized, but both sometimes together in varying degrees. If someone is more comfortable leaving out the computer... then good. If another person wants to use it as a tool to augment their listings.. that's fine too. With a goal of have a shop full of variety, one could use a computer, but if the end results is valuable, a computer is an optional tool in the hands of the maker.

  • RomanceCatsAndWhimsy

    Darlene Jones from RomanceCatsAndWhimsy said 8 years ago

    You have to listen to your own heart. There should be room for the old and the new.

  • SkylarkStudio

    Karen Stanford from SkylarkStudio said 8 years ago

    This is SO interesting - I'm involved exhibiting with the PA Guild of Craftsmen, which is a very traditional looking show. Don't get me wrong, all the work is gorgeously made but the style seems stuck. It is really starting to effect their power to bring in a new generation of buyers. It's soooo controversial ...

  • recycledwares

    Nerrissa W from RecycledWares said 8 years ago

    As a vintage collector and seller, I am drawn to the traditional ways of crafting, but I also love to see new ideas and concepts emerge. I don't think it has to be all or nothing. Through time, techniques usually get lost or forgotten, so I praise those who keep them alive.

  • WingedWorld

    Vickie Moore from WingedWorld said 8 years ago

    When I see work that both exemplifies time-honored traditions and expresses new ideas, something just clicks in my brain and I get such a strong sense of satisfaction coupled with intellectual delight.

  • AntwarePottery

    AntwarePottery from AntwarePottery said 8 years ago

    As a ceramic artist/potter I keep claiming that the only new thing in the craft is technology. Everything else was already done. It is a fine line between coming up with yet another variation on a theme and coming up with something new to grab attention. I do not think we will ever agree as to what is too far out, and what is really interesting new direction. But I think there is a room for all of us, even if it is harder at the fringes when one pushes touch too far.

  • OuterKnits

    OuterKnits from OuterKnits said 8 years ago

    Really craft doesn't have to demonstrate anything. It simply is, and we can read into it anything we want. Most crafters don't set out to reinvent the wheel. Some critic takes a provocative position and we're supposed to defend ourselves? Why?

  • lizhutnick

    Liz Hutnick from LizHutnick said 8 years ago

    Good question. I guess it just depends on the audience.

  • KevinInmanArt

    Kevin Inman from KevinInmanArt said 8 years ago

    One person's genius is another person's been there done that. The argument never ends, even though "traditional" and "contemporary" are different by definition- Contemporary art always trying to reinvent the nature of art and its medium, traditional art being more iterative. One isn't better than the other. They are just different animals, and people- including curators- are free to prefer whatever kind of art they prefer.

  • slathered

    Sharon Moores from slathered said 8 years ago Featured

    Sometimes innovation comes solely from the usage, not the process. Look at letterpress. It was created in the mid-15th century to make newspapers and books. While letterpress did evolve over the centuries, it is considered an antique form of printing in this day and age. But letterpress is alive and well as an art form. In essence, the work of letterpress is still done the same way, but the output -- cards, wedding invitations, prints, art books -- is completely different. Innovation doesn't just have to be about technology.

  • leeannasjewerybox

    Leeanna from LeeannasJewelryBox said 8 years ago

    I think it is the quality of the piece that is important. Tried and true methods are important to learn about the history of the craft. Yet, I am always open to new techniques that may take the medium to the next level. What is new today will one day be old.

  • PennyBirchWilliams

    Penny Birch-Williams from PennyBirchWilliams said 8 years ago

    What came to my mind is that you can't force innovation in an artist's creativity. I think you can explore ideas on the outer edges of an art or craft and seek some inspiration from technology's new options, and possibly the flash of innovation (or the slow evolution maybe) will come to you. Or not. But giving yourself orders to come up with something cutting edge in order to get the approval of a critic or whoever.....I don't know how that would be possible, and if it is, does it necessarily have more meaning or value than something done more conventionally? I think this is just another way in which our culture is hooked on looking for the newest, coolest thing to pin online or to send their texts with or whatever. Just because this guy was bored by traditionally crafted quilts doesn't mean "innovative" equals better. How about if we honor and value art and craft as the unique creative process of the artist, in whatever form it takes.

  • foudreblanche

    foudreblanche from foudreblanche said 8 years ago

    It's interesting. I have always felt the art of quilt making had so much more room for experimentation. I think there's great potential there.

  • anotherghostquilts

    Nancy from anotherghostquilts said 8 years ago

    Very thought- provoking, Linzee. As a hand quilter who doesn't even like sitting at a sewing machine, I've thought about this topic quite a bit.

  • furniply

    Ingus Jākobsons from Furniply said 8 years ago

    Craft should go with time and evolve, but never lost past.

  • PrayerNotes

    Prayer Notes by Cynthia from PrayerNotes said 8 years ago

    Crafting is the love of art and creation! Whether you do it in an old-fashioned or new-tech way, you are creating art. You may create like the folks from days of old or the folks from today---Art is in the eye of the beholder! It cannot be defined. You can try to define it, but it will just break its chains and soar! I loved this post! ~Cynthia

  • wheatleypaperworks

    M Wheatley from wheatleypaperworks said 8 years ago

    How irate could quilters get?!? Seriously though, I have nothing really to add as many of the previous comments are really well considered...Great post and lots to chew on, thanks.

  • TheBeautyofBoredom

    Gracie from TheBeautyofBoredom said 8 years ago

    I think people should just make what they want. Everyone is going to have a different opinion. Not everyone is going to like everything. Sometimes old-timey things are nice, sometimes new and innovative things are nice. Variety is the spice of life.

  • MinaMinette

    Jan Penn from MinaMinette said 8 years ago

    True innovation comes from inside the artist. It isn't, or at least shouldn't, be something that is demanded from critics. Every artist will reinvent themselves many times over, pushing themselves in new directions. For some artists that new direction will result in an innovation that can be measured by others. More often, it results in an innovation that can only be recognized by the artist or those who closely follow his work. Innovation should come from a desire to grow, not a desire to please the critics--whoever they may be!

  • iammieCLAYshop

    iammieCLAYshop from iammieCLAYshop said 8 years ago

    Interesting!

  • sarahkdesigns

    Sarah from sarahkdesigns said 8 years ago

    It's the difference between being perfunctory and mechanical and being innovative and outstanding while still demonstrating skill and craftsmanship. Anyone can take a pottery class and learn to throw bowls that weigh more than a tire iron. Honing that craft to airy light pieces is something that takes a level of skill... but making those light airy pieces outstanding in a context is another thing entirely. Others have always tread the road of whatever means of making something it is before all of us. It's having your own voice and surpassing their time, context, skill, or innovation that elevates the thing into being art or contemporary. It's largely the longstanding difference between Art with a capital A and craft with a lowercase c. Anyone can attach pre-stick googley-eyes to something, turning that into an art takes an amount of agency. It's the difference beween being average and being stellar.

  • shuqi

    Emily Lim from shuqi said 8 years ago

    Amazing!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 8 years ago

    To be honest I dont think there's anything wrong with a bit of technological intervention in craft especially if it makes life just that little bit easier. Craft should still be about making things with your hands through rather than totally with a machine

  • minouette

    Ele from minouette said 8 years ago

    The review you cite sounds ungenerous to quilters whose skill I greatly admire. However, I do tend to think that art or craft should engage with contemporary culture which includes science and technology! Some of my art could definitely have been made 30 years ago. I burnish my prints by hand using techniques which have been used for a couple of centuries. But I also use 'smart' materials (like thermochromic ink which changes colour, electrically conductive ink or glow in the dark ink) which simply did not exist 30 years ago. It's also important to me that I use these materials because they are integral to the piece and not as a gimmick. Contemporary science is also often a subject. When I last made a quilt, it involved digitally printed NASA imagery and glow-in-the-dark thread. I love working with my hands and using traditional methods, but maybe because of my background as a scientist, I believe that innovation is never a dirty word and it should definitely be one of our goals as makers.

  • PattiTrostle

    Patti Trostle from PattiTrostle said 8 years ago

    I suppose people will always have thier opinion on what art is. Does it really matter what medium you use to make art. I don't think so.

  • lmouer

    Lynsey from lmouer said 8 years ago

    Interesting post! Thanks!

  • JKistlerStudios

    Jennifer Kistler from JKistlerStudios said 8 years ago

    And here I thought critics who want "real art" would think using modern technology is a "short cut" or "cheating"! (apparently I'm behind the times, LOL!) Anyway, it's all in the eye of the beholder. And it depends on what the artist is going for. Neither traditional nor innovative are right or wrong. And there are good and bad of each. Do what you are inspired to do, and if you're going to care what someone else thinks, it should be your customers (if you're selling), and not some critic!

  • BambuEarth

    Amber from BambuEarth said 8 years ago Featured

    To thine own self be true. That is what art is. An expression of oneself. If you are modern & innovative, do that. If you are traditional & value time-honored technique, do that. If you are both, do that! Instead of looking at art as something to be purchased or "approved" by someone ELSE, take an honest look at WHY you want to make the art. And what it says about you.

  • lkmccray

    Linzee from lkmccray said 8 years ago

    This is a great conversation—so many thoughtful comments, so many points of view. Thanks for taking the time to express them—it's given me a lot to think about, too. That's what I love about Etsy!

  • syednaqvi

    Alexander from VintageLithoArt said 8 years ago

    As it's been said that" beauty is an eye of beholder" so I assumed art is in the heart of artist. As for technology there is nothing wrong to use a bit touch to alter your art . A person can create art by using modern advancement or in a old fashioned way. Regardless what techniques were used , when someone puts his love and passion in creating something then it is priceless.

  • blainedesign

    Karen Brown from blainedesign said 8 years ago

    I don't know whether this is a real dichotomy -- as far as I know, even traditional craftspeople sometimes took great liberties with established forms. Museums often display "unique" pieces, ancient and remarkable artifacts in which the maker clearly asserted his or her personality, or used a non-traditional technique. I have been told that many of the gargoyles on cathedrals were actually modeled on living people. Even the homiest crafts sometimes went off-road. Recently, I learned from a friend of Scandinavian heritage that knitters sometimes knitted little pornographic elements into traditional sweater designs -- something only the maker and the wearer would know about!

  • BourgeoisDesigns

    V Lynn from BourgeoisDesigns said 8 years ago

    Our differences are what make each of us unique beings.

  • sparrowsalvage

    Sparrow from sparrowsalvage said 8 years ago

    With respect, Mr. Mcfadden, I am not doing my craft to be innovative. In fact just the opposite- I do it to experience what thousands of people in the same craft have experienced. I'm not looking to take it to a new level, I'm looking to return to the old level, to reconnect with the heritage of what it is to be a human being, in a civilization- whether that be ancient Mespotamia or modern day London -making something to mark that state of being. I am trying to break into ceramics work, and i want to do it with as little innovation as possible. I don't want a fancy kiln, the latest glazes, the modern techniques. I want mud and water and a hole in the ground filled with fire. Frankly I think craft gives the modern world a dose of what it very much needs- a touchstone for our roots. As to the idea that you can walk into an exhibition and see something that could've been made 30 years ago, I agree. 99% of art galleries I visit contain works that I would not have flinched to see 30 years ago. Perhaps true innovation is honing the skills of tradition in a world where the future sneers at the past.

  • sparrowsalvage

    Sparrow from sparrowsalvage said 8 years ago

    Bah- after I said "99% of art galleries I visit contain works that I would not have flinched to see 30 years ago" I wanted to add that it doesn't matter, - the singular purpose of most craft work made today is not innovation, it's about the person who made it and why they made it and what they're connecting to.

  • CoreandMantle

    Alayna from CoreandMantle said 8 years ago

    I say use whatever technology you want to create. We all have specific visions for our art and sometimes that means using some crazay techno, sometimes it means using an antique butter turner.

  • antiquebeginnings

    Becky Van Loozen McCarty from Antiquebeginnings said 8 years ago

    Art is in many forms. It comes from our souls. We each have it in us. Even those who create machinery to create mass production are artist. Singers and actors have been titled as artist. Some of the great masters of art were inventors. Whatever your description of art is makes you an artist. Art is both a hobby and work, for without work towards perfection, nothing wonderful is produced. I am so happy to participate here on Etsy with all of the wonderful creators.

  • EnterpriseAmericana

    Enterprise Americana from EnterpriseAmericana said 8 years ago

    There's plenty to be said for making something by hand. We have plenty of machines to make our visions come to life quicker. ...but better? Not so much.

  • swampelf42

    Dorothy Kingsley said 8 years ago

    This goes back to age old question is it "Art" or is it a "Quilt" or yet an "Art Quilt?" Whether or not a piece becomes "museum" quality is actually in the eye of the beholder, not in the eye of the maker. I have seen many pieces that are so called "museum" quality. Does one person have the say over how we are to create our art. No, I think that if an artist see's in their mind's eye a vision then they should create it as such

  • jacquedesigns

    Jackie Beck from jacquedesigns said 7 years ago

    You ask the question: The question remains: Should a craft provoke and demonstrate “aesthetic progress” — or is it enough to honor its past and work within its time-honored forms? I think you should incorporate both progress and past traditions of the craft. I create fabric using both new and old processes to create my art fabric.

Sign in to add your own