I went to see the annual Art Star Craft Bazaar on May 13, 2012 just to see what’s doing in the alt-craft scene these days. I missed the last two, so differences between this show and previous ones were easy to spot.
It was a beautiful day on the Philadelphia waterfront. Some 140 exhibitors were present, including two former students of mine: silk-screen queen Candy DePew and glassblower Christopher Lydon. Most of the exhibitors were in the 20s or early 30s, and the demographic of the crowd was similarly young. (Are you paying attention, ACC? No? Why not???) The vibe was genial. Every exhibitor I spoke to was open and friendly; no surly I-can’t-be-bothered attitude that you sometimes encounter at the big fairs. Everyone seemed to be having a good time.
The most obvious difference from the alt-craft fairs from a few years ago is that the level of professionalism has gone up. There were more than a few booths that would be right at home at a Wendy Rosen or an ACC show. Presentation was uniformly good, if not always slick. No card tables anywhere. The work was more accomplished, too. I saw no dumb bead-stringing of the kind I saw in large volumes five years ago at the Brooklyn Renegade fair. The wares in each booth were more focused, less all-over-the-place. It was obvious that all the exhibitors had done this before. There appeared to be nobody who had taken up a craft a few months ago, and decided to give a show a try. I would say that the level of professionalism was about the same as at an ACC fair from about 1975. Some rough edges, but a level of seriousness that proved that these people weren’t just playing.
The most sophisticated work was graphics. Even the hipster-cute stuff was quite accomplished. It’s clear that most of the graphic artists (who tended to concentrate on printed matter like notecards and illustrations and printed textiles) were comfortable with digital technologies. The best work in the show, I thought, was a series of graphic works that consisted of milky white plastic, cut in a floral pattern, laid over a black cutout of a similar floral pattern, and placed on a white background. The black image was obscured, and the cutout image was subtle. Very nice!
I thought the jewelers could have used a strong dose of this graphic inventiveness. Many of the jewelers were playing with patterns and images, but none of them were as interesting as even the mid-level of the graphic artists. I found this disconnect peculiar. Have these young jewelers already become so blinkered that they can’t see what’s going on around them? If so, they’re just like their elders. Feh.
Other genres are starting to look a tad familiar. The sewn/crocheted/knit cute monster thing hasn’t progressed much in the past few years. Jewelry seemed to plow ground familiar to any experienced pro. The ceramics were nice, but not thrilling.
At Brooklyn Renegade, and even at Art Star a few years ago, I saw a fair amount of fresh and surprising work. Most was made by rank amateurs who had an idea and just got to work. At Art Star I saw a young woman who made jewelry of sawed-up skateboards. At Renegade, I saw a fellow who made painted wooden toy swords. Both interesting, and both completely from out of left field. But that freshness seems to be missing now. I think this is a direct result of creeping professionalism. The really funky stuff, which might be truly inventive, just can’t compete with the more polished work done by more professional crafters. The DIY aesthetic has gone AWOL. Sad.
I have publicly declared that professionalism is poisoning the production craft world. “Standards” are slowly strangling the established craft marketplace. Customers are getting bored, and staying away. New people don’t show up to the established shows. The fact is that hard-won professionalism is stifling innovation, much to the long-term detriment of the market. So it’s a bit weird to see the same process taking place in the alt-craft world. If there’s no place for rank amateurs, there’s no place for bottom-up change.