The return of the DCF

A year ago today, I wrote a post about the Degenerate Craft Fair, an alternative art fair co-created by VCS faculty member Amy Wilson and VCS student Shannon Broder. Designed partly as a response to the recession and partly as an acknowledgment of the of the growing impact of traditional craft techniques on fine art, the DCF allowed participating artists to sell inexpensive versions of their work during the holiday season.

This year, the DCF will return to New York, with a much larger group of participating artists and a wider range of works to see and purchase. It will take place at DCTV Firehouse in Manhattan next Saturday and Sunday, December 11th and 12th. (More details are available below, at the end of this post.)

This time around, organization and management of the DCF has been a solo effort on the part of Shannon Broder, who is using it to fulfill her senior thesis requirement (though Wilson is still there to help out with support and advice when needed). In addition to staging the fair itself, she will exhibit DCF-related materials related in Ground Control, the January VCS senior thesis show.

A large pile of stuffed animal pillows that Shannon Broder has made to sell at the DCF.

I have wanted to do a post about craft and art for a long time, because the former has played a large role in the VCS program. VCS students are allowed to explore many techniques in their studio work, and a significant percentage of them have incorporated traditional craft techniques into their art. To put this into a larger context, I asked Amy Wilson to write a piece on the changing role of craft within the art world, her own relationship to it, and the genesis of last year’s DCF. Here is the essay she wrote.

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The “art world” is not a static thing; it is alive, changing, and evolving all the time. In just the past fifteen years, I’ve watched galleries migrate from Soho to Chelsea, the internet grow to become a force to be reckoned with, and art fairs morph from small events to become major exhibitions that now rival international bienniales in importance.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen during that time is the relationship that artists have to craft. When I was a student, if a professor talked to you about your work so as to imply that he or she saw it as being craft, rather than “fine art,” that was a pretty major slap in the face. Craft was a dirty word; use of it meant you weren’t serious as an artist.

Let me define what I mean by craft. On one hand, it refers to a handmade object that is in some way utilitarian, and/or one which is created using a medium that we associate with the production of useable objects (sewing, basketweaving, silversmithing, etc). On the other, it is often used in a derogatory sense towards objects that are “less than” art – less serious, less well-made, less expensive to buy. Somehow by taking an object and associating it with that which is affordable to most and easily incorporated into daily life, the object was thought to lose its status as art. The general public might like and purchase craft items, but real artists simply didn’t make them. We held out instead to make objects so avant-garde that they defied definition other than to be shuttled into the definition of “art.” Meanwhile, the identity of the mysterious strangers who were lining up to buy our one-of-a-kind masterpieces was never revealed, but we were assured that there were plenty of them to go around.

But how things have changed.

Feminist artists have long pointed out that the term “craft” suspiciously seems to be applied to the work of women who are artists at a greater rate than to art made by their male contemporaries. This realization has lead to an exploration and revisiting of many artists, and to a widening definition of what could be considered art.

But probably a more substantial change was forced by economics: the traditional art market foundered around the same time e-commerce really took off. Artists found themselves in a situation where they couldn’t depend on the sales of their “major” works of art to get by; meanwhile, sites like etsy appeared, which offered artists a chance to sell cheaper versions of their work directly to the public without having to give a substantial cut to a gallery.

Suddenly, knowing how to make crafts became an honorable and respectable way to support yourself as an artist. Artists who had long scoffed at the convention of the museum giftshop, the online boutique, or the craft fair now suddenly saw them as the new frontier – a way to circumvent the structure of the art world and sustain their individual practice. (Many brick-and-mortar galleries have also embraced this idea as well, most notably Gagosian, which now has a storefront dedicated to inexpensive artists’ editions aimed at the general public. Of course, Gagosian shies away from any association with the etsys of the world, preferring to think of the work they offer as “limited edition multiples,” but in reality it works out to being much the same.)

With all this as background, I wanted to give crafts a try. Last year, I very timidly started an etsy store and put up a few handmade objects. They sold quickly even in the dead of summer, and I started to see the potential of working like this. So I decided to make a big leap and approach the idea head-on, and – with Shannon Broder – co-organized the Degenerate Craft Fair in December 2009.

This year, Shannon is organizing the fair by herself as part of her senior thesis. Some things remain the same, like the name (a silly joke for you art history nerds) and the premise (artists selling their work to the public in time for holiday gift-giving). Under her guidance, the fair has grown from about twenty vendors last year, to over 50 participants this year. She’s screenprinted hundreds of invitations and dozens of posters as well as producing her own work to be sold at the fair. At the completion of the fair, she will present the documentation of the whole project as her thesis, rendering the whole process into a kind of performance.

Can the business of art be art itself? I think so. As artists have to shed old ways of doing business, why shouldn’t they add their creativity and energy to the new models they come up with? It’s part of the job of an artist to keep up with all the changes happening around us and to realize that the art world never stands still for long.

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One of Alyse Anderson's digitally embroidered element pillows.

The Degenerate Craft Fair will be held at DCTV Firehouse on 87 Lafayette Street (between Walker and White Streets), on Saturday December 11 and Sunday December 12, 2010. To see the fair’s schedule and get subway directions, check out the “about” page on the DCF web site.

Vendors will include SVA alumni Alyse Anderson, Nina Carelli, Renee Delosh, James Farais, Lauren Fatzinger, Peter Hristoff, Yura Osborn, Panayiotis Terzis and Amy Wilson. A complete list of participating artists can be found here. You can also see examples of some of the works that will be available there at the fair’s Flickr photo stream.

An ornament from BioLove, one of this year's DCF participants.

A book by Sarah Vogwill, another DCF participant.

Visual & Critical Studies