Back in 2003, Betsy Greer, a young American studying sociology at Goldsmiths College in London, coined the phrase ‘craftivism’. By merging the words craft and activism, Greer helped spawn a movement which has led to such phenomena as guerrilla knitting, counterfeit crocheting and micro-revolt blankets. Who would have thought that a call to needles would rattle the youth of the 2010s?
‘Craftivism’ espouses all that indigenousy, non-wasteful, back-to-earthiness that is now mainstream: handicraft is so old fashioned and old fashioned is so 2012. A new exhibition at the illustrious Liljevalchs art gallery in Stockholm, Sweden makes this clear. Marking the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Swedish handicraft movement – or, to be more precise, the formation of the National Association of Swedish Handicraft Societies (NASHS) – Liljevalchs’ latest show is a celebration of creativity, particularly the collective, non-elitist kind. It’s also a celebration of mending, making from scratch, scrimping and saving. It’s a regressive exhibition which celebrates the pre-industrial, pre-mass consumption, pre-IKEA and pre-H&M age.
NASHS was established a hundred years ago ‘as a kind of protest against the spirit of the time’. The imperative was to preserve folk traditions at a time of rapid industrialisation. Just four years later, in 1916, Liljevalchs opened to the public. But the new art gallery had a distinctly progressive agenda. Conceptually and architecturally, the bright and spacious art hall was a radical initiative. Sweden’s first independent and permanent gallery of contemporary art, Liljevalchs was dedicated to showcasing contemporary art, without patronage from religious or royal institutions. One of the first exhibitions it housed focused on Swedish homes.
A collaboration between artists and industrialists, the aim of that 1917 exhibition was to show that beautiful, practical and affordable homes with modern facilities could be a reality for everyone, not just for the rich. The Swedish Society of Crafts and Design (now called Svensk Form, or Swedish Form) was involved in the exhibition, and it marked a new, more radical direction for the organisation. In 1919 it appropriated the slogan ‘Beautiful Everyday Goods’. Against the backdrop of a world war raging abroad and a housing and supplies crisis at home, the Liljevalchs exhibition showed an ideal that clashed with the lived reality of working-class families. It was about aspirations. It was about making what was only accessible to the elite attainable for all.
Whereas in that 1917 exhibition artists and industrialists joined forces to showcase homes for the masses, in the current Lilijevalchs show, which is simply called Hemslöjd, meaning handicrafts, the participating artists explicitly reject industry and the mass produced, and the curators have sought input from members of the public rather than industrialists. Two thousand people from all over Sweden have participated in the show by decorating giant leaves that form a collage-like forest running through the centre of the exhibition space. The leaves will be auctioned off at the end of the show’s run for the benefit of the Vi Agroforestry Project’s plantation of trees in East Africa. Everything on display at the exhibition is for sale. Visitors are allowed to touch the materials and there is a workshop area where children and adults can try their hand at handicraft-making.
The contrast between the 1917 and 2012 exhibitions – both involving handicraft associations and both showcasing everyday items – shows how the concept of ‘anti-elitism’ has been turned on its head over the past century. Back then, it was about making what were luxuries available to all without compromising on standards or aesthetics. It was about allowing the public to view, and aspire to own, items made my professionals. It was about extending leisure time for the public by mechanising production. Now, anti-elitism means making material comforts equally inaccessible for rich and for poor. It’s about scaling-down and decreasing productivity. It’s about de-valuing the specialist training and knowledge of artists and designers by claiming that everyone can make art and that everyone should have an equal right to display their creations in art galleries.
Today, Svensk Form has also come closer to NASHS’s founding principles of preservation and resisting modernisation. The director of Svensk Form recently wrote an editorial asserting that the handicraft revival is not about nostalgia but a necessity. ‘More and more people want to live off what’s in our surroundings, the forest and nature; to grow vegetables, bake bread and make their own furniture and clothes. A return to small-scale production. Not just as romantic nostalgia, but as a protest against wasting resources. A pure survival strategy.’
In fact, in the West very few people have the time, money or inclination to grow their own food or make their own clothes, while for the poor make-do-and-mend is a necessity rather than a lifestyle choice. As the Liljevachs exhibition shows, handicraft items new and old can be beautiful, ingenious and practical. But mass-production has lifted millions out of drudgery and it has allowed many of us to enjoy more leisure time, when we can do things like visit art galleries or knit a scarf.