From Applied Art to Craft Art: The Story of an Organization Devoted Solely to Craft Artists

Image from the annual juried exhibition for crafts from Norway in 1979
André Gali writes about the founding of the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts (NK) in 1975, the struggles and the aftermath.

During 1974–78 Norwegian artists who worked with craft pulled out of the applied art movement. This period was filled with conflict, particularly regarding the power to define art and the status of artists who did not work with traditional forms of ‘fine’ art. The rupture between applied art and craft art was highly consequential, leading to the establishment of Norske Kunsthåndverkere (the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts). This organization, devoted solely to the interests of artists who work with crafts, lso distinguished its members as a distinct group of professional artists.

«we were as much artists in our approach to our field as were any other artists»

Yngvild Fagerheim
Kunstneraksjon 74 (Artist Action 1974)
Yngvild Fagerheim

- Sometimes I see it as a miracle that we as a group managed to join Kunstneraksjon -74. That we, with such fanfare, demanded that the state take responsibility for our profession, that we dared to set boundaries and define what we thought a ‘craft artist’ was.[1]

This epigraph is from an interview from 2001 in the journal Kunsthåndverk, published by Norske Kunsthåndverkere (the Norwegian Association for Arts and Craft, henceforth NK).[2] The interview is with the ceramic artist Yngvild Fagerheim, who tells about the series of political demonstrations which in Norwegian are called Kunstneraksjon -74 (Artist Action 1974). Fagerheim in many respects has become a symbol, almost an icon, for craft art’s emancipation from applied art. When she, in 1977, declined to receive the prestigious Jacob Prize – named after the founder of the association for applied art Foreningen Brukskunst (later Landsforeningen Norsk Brukskunst, LNB),[3] a prize which had been awarded annually by the association since 1957 – a wedge was driven between craft artists and the applied art movement, and by the following year the break-up was an established fact. Fagerheim and her momentous act of refusing the prize are awarded a large place in Mette Grieg Toyomasus’s hovedfag thesis (1997),[4] which discusses the rupture between applied art and craft art, and they turn up again in Thomas Tengesdal Nordby’s master thesis (2017) on the ‘swansong’ of the applied art movement.[5] These two art historians’ research papers provide a good background for understanding the period in question and the conflicts which arose between applied artists and craft artists.

Basarhallene, the location of the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts in the 1970s
A drawing depicting the general assembly where the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts was established

«It was through the agency of Kunstneraksjon that the rupture between applied art and craft art became fixed and manifested itself in the establishment of a new organization»

André Gali

FUNCTIONAL QUALITY AND ARTISTIC QUALITY

For Fagerheim and many of her colleagues, it would not do to define themselves as applied artists: they saw themselves as creative artists whose works involved craft materials and/or techniques. They saw themselves as similar to other types of creative artists, and as dissimilar to designers of industrially produced products. Fagerheim expands on this distinction in her interview in the journal Kunsthåndverk:

- There was little or no difference between the problems which ceramic artists faced in their profession and those which graphic artists [artists working with printing techniques and illustration] struggled with. Our ideals for our professional practices were similar; in short, we were as much artists in our approach to our field as were any other artists – and we all experienced that the financial conditions we were working under were insufferable.[6]

One work by Fagerheim which sheds light on some of the problems with the concept of applied art is ‘…inntil døden…’ (‘…until death…’) from 1972. It is made with several materials, among others, stoneware and textiles, and shows a wedding cake topped with flowers. As a work of art, it has no clear function, but it can be read as a political commentary on marriage and the domestic/private sphere. Because this work lacks a clear function, it was, when it was first exhibited, criticized by proponents of the applied arts movement. They based their view on an ideology about creating functional objects, which, for little money, ‘beautified’ people’s everyday lives. This was a means for improving society, the ideologues claimed, whereas society could not be improved through craft-based works that distanced themselves from everyday life.

Craft artists, meanwhile, saw their works as especially well-suited for addressing critical issues in everyday life and for offering new perspectives on the ordinary things with which we surround ourselves.

Yngvild Fagerheim: ...until death..., 1972
Yngvild Fagerheim: Franco and we, 1970
Yngvild Fagerheim: Vietnam, 1972

«craft artists broke away from established norms for beauty at the same time as they prioritized conceptual content over functionality and practical use»

André Gali

THE NEW CRAFT ART

The precursor of the organization Norske Kunsthåndverkere (NK, the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts) was Norske Brukskunstnere (NB, the Norwegian Association for Applied Artists). It was established in 1963, and the conditions for membership were that applicants should have specialist training in craft or design and work professionally in their field of craft. The organization’s registry of members included both designers and craft artists. NB’s mission statement was to serve its members’ ‘ethical, juridical and financial interests’.[7]

From the very start, there was discord between members who produced ‘fine’ art and those who worked commercially with applied art. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the applied art milieu in Norway experienced great changes and became increasingly incohesive, as its members set up boundaries based on their specialized fields. This situation became blatant in the polarization between the disciplines of craft art and industrial design.[8] With regard to aesthetics, the craft artists broke away from established norms for beauty at the same time as they prioritized conceptual content over functionality and practical use.

Thomas Tengesdal Nordby, in his MA thesis on the ‘swansong’ of the applied art movement in Norway, writes about the new craft art:

"In the new craft art, great breadth and variety emerged, and the objects that were made increasingly challenged the established norms for beauty and ugliness. At the same time, several makers also used craft art to communicate ideas and to express themselves in new ways. And parallel to the general increase in social involvement at the time, the new craft art was to a larger extent both politically and socially critical."[9]

THE IDEOLOGY OF APPLIED ART

The organization Landsforbundet Norsk Brukskunst (LNB, National Federation of Norwegian Applied Arts), an umbrella organization of which NB was a part, saw it as a socio-cultural responsibility to create beautiful functional objects that were affordable and accessible to most of Norway’s population. In many respects, LNB’s values built further on the Arts and Crafts Movement and William Morris’s ideas about craft and aesthetics as fundamental values in everyday objects. In the 1960s, LNB had a positive view of craft art, seeing it partly as a driving force for applied art, but as the 1970s progressed, its view became increasingly negative. A representative for this change of perspective was the influential art historian Alf Bøe, who was LNB’s director for a time. Large conflicts arose between NB and LNB over time, as both Toyomasus and Nordby point out in their research.[10] Reading these texts, one gets a strong sense of there being overheated polemics on both sides, also that something crucial is at stake. NB´s participation in Kunstneraksjon -74 also played a significant role in their conflicted relationship, as we shall soon see.

One reason why craft art encountered resistance from the applied art movement was that it was perceived as elitist. This impression was strengthened inasmuch as many craft artists preferred exhibitions and galleries rather than shops as arenas for interacting with the public. Furthermore, some argued that the craft artists’ works were not affordable everyday objects for most people, but fine art that appealed to a moneyed and social elite.

Fredrik Wildhagen, rector of the school for applied art and design in Oslo, Statens Håndverks- og Kunstindustriskole, in an interview in 1974, questioned whether crafts had any reason to be in a gallery. Whether or not something was a good craft object was first determined when someone bought it in a shop, took it home and used it, he said.[11] And in LNB, there was simply no room for ‘craft art’s aesthetic and form-related experimentation’; makers should instead renew the crafts through an increased orientation towards the society.[12]

Eirik Bruvik, double weaving
Nina Malterud, ceramics

«craft artists needed to be in an organization with status equal to that of other artist organizations»

André Gali

KUNSTNERAKSJON -74

Craft art’s development as a distinct field separate from applied art increased in pace during the 1970s. As we noted in the quote from Fagerheim above, craft artists had a creative, conceptually-oriented approach to their works – they were not merely making objects based on predetermined patterns – and they struggled with the same financial and professional challenges as other artists.

When the political demonstrations called Kunstneraksjon -74 started on 12 June 1974, they came as a response to the government’s treatment of art in two white papers from 1973–74: ‘Om organisering og finansiering av kulturarbeid’ (‘About the Organization and Financing of Cultural Work’) and ‘Om ny kulturpolitikk’ (‘About a New Cultural Policy’).[13] In a very short time, 21 artist organizations joined Kunstneraksjon, representing approximately 2,000 artists. NB was one of these organizations. Along with the other participating organizations, it defined the state as its rightful negotiating partner and made three demands:

1. Compensation for any public display / use of artists’ work

2. Increased public use of art

3. A guaranteed minimum income for all working artists when points 1 and 2 do not provide reasonable income

THE ORGANIZATION ‘NORSKE KUNSTHÅNDVERKERE’ IS BORN

Given that NB joined Kunstneraksjon -74 (recall that Yngvild Fagerheim described as a miracle), it became necessary to define ‘craft art’ in a way that could legitimate such works and their makers as a group; the artists needed to be in an organization with status equal to that of other artist organizations. A page was therefore added to the white paper ‘Kunstnere og samfunnet’ (‘Artists and Society’, meant to be published in 1974–75 but delayed until 1976). In it, kunsthåndverk or craft art is described thus:

"Products made of textiles, ceramics, glass, leather, metals and other materials that are formed and completed in the craft artist’s workshop/studio – under conditions whereby the craft artist is responsible for the process extending from raw material to finished product."[14]

This description, which was formulated by NB, contributed to the decision to change the organization’s name and mandate during the annual general meeting on 1 April 1975. The two changes resulted in NB becoming a new organization: Norske Kunsthåndverkere (the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts). It was therefore through the agency of Kunstneraksjon that the rupture between applied art and craft art became fixed and manifested itself in the establishment of a new organization that completely avoided the term ‘applied art’.

To visually demonstrate craft art’s distinctive nature, the Norske Kunsthåndverkeres Formidlingssentral (NKFS, the ‘Mediation Centre for the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts’) was established the following year. One reason for this was that there was a need to develop exhibition opportunities for craft artists. Through public-oriented initiatives, craft art was to be made generally accessible and understandable as an art form, and the concept kunsthåndverk was to become entrenched as a distinct field of art. The increased presentation and use of craft art was necessary for strengthening the working conditions of the artists who made it.

With the establishment of NK and NKFS (now combined in NK), the distance to the applied art movement had become unmanageable. The period was strongly marked by rupture and conflict in the applied art movement, and it was only a matter of time before NK would break free of it entirely.

Bente Sætrang and Konrad Mehus: Scenes from a marriage - repaired bowls
Konrad Mehus, necklace & ring

THE FINAL BREAK UP

As Nordby describes in his ‘swansong’, NK remained a member of LNB up to 1978. In 1977 it withdrew its representative from the board of directors. This was for two reasons. First, Fagerheim’s refusal of the Jacob Prize was seen as representative for NK’s general attitude to LNB. Secondly, there was a festering conflict regarding exhibitionary activity, particularly as it concerned the Brukskunstsenteret (‘Centre for Applied Art’) in Oslo’s Basarhallene (‘the Bazar Halls’). The conflict escalated when NK applied for and received exhibition funding. The funding was sent to LNB, whose administrative personnel had responsibility for sending the funds on to NK. But NK maintained that LNB was withholding some of this funding that rightfully belonged to NK.

Neither was LNB seen as an organization suited to safeguard craft artists’ professional needs. Craft artists tended to be self-employed, while LNB worked in a way that was more focused on industrial production. When NK, in 1978, gained the right to negotiate directly with the state, and when work grants, support schemes and guaranteed minimum income for working artists began taking shape, there was no longer any reason for NK to remain a member of LNB.[15]  

«NK’s annual juried exhibition and journal, both called Kunsthåndverk, have been decisive for presenting and voicing what craft art is and giving it a distinct identity»

André Galli
NK´s juried exhibition of crafts from Norway 2004 (triennale)

EPILOGUE

In the 40 years since Norske Brukskunstnere became Norske Kunsthåndverkere, the term brukskunst, that is, applied art, has become more or less defunct in Norway. Today craft art is a field which enjoys great respect. This is largely thanks to NK’s dedication to negotiating with the government on art policy, its exhibitionary activities and unceasing efforts to facilitate the public’s encounter with and understanding of craft art. NK’s annual juried exhibition and journal, both called Kunsthåndverk, have been decisive for presenting and voicing what craft art is and giving it a distinct identity. That said, makers who work with small-scale production have not had an organization dedicated to promoting their interests and meeting their professional needs. When reviewing NK’s history, one sees an organization that has been continuously growing at the same time as it has worked in goal-oriented ways with public outreach, with building and expanding exhibition arenas, and with negotiating with the government on art policy. Nevertheless, it was never inevitable that the concept of kunsthåndverk would succeed in positioning itself as prominently as it has done in recent years. During certain periods it has been in danger of becoming obsolete, as the focus on specific materials such as textiles, ceramics, metals, glass and so forth has been more important than the umbrella term. One such period was 2002–08, when the annual juried exhibition Kunsthåndverk was exchanged for material-based triennials. The concept has also sometimes been described as ‘dead’, parallel to how theorists have claimed that painting is dead. And it was not many years ago that some makers found it ‘burdensome’ to be called kunsthåndverkere (craft artists), preferring simply to be called kunstnere (artists).

This is not the case today. Designers of small-scale products gladly identify with craft art and work with materials such as ceramics, textiles and wood, paying special attention to handcrafting aspects. Unique collaborative projects have also emerged, for instance Norwegian Presence and Norway Designs Now, which have meant that craft artists and designers have worked together to create exhibitions that present and promote both professional fields. NK and its sister organization Norwegian Crafts (established in 2012) have in fact played key roles and been initiators of these projects. Norwegian Crafts has brought the concept of kunsthåndverk/craft art as it is understood in Norway to the attention of a growing and appreciative international audience. We find it difficult to say anything about the future of craft art in Norway, but just now it seems that the roles played by applied artists and craft artists have been turned upside-down: craft artists are making prototypes for industrial production, and designers are creating unique objects and exhibiting them in galleries. Nevertheless, this situation in no way whatsoever diminishes the significance and of the rupture that occurred in the mid-1970s, for the distinct identity and status which craft artists have built puts them in a position to collaborate on equal footing with other professional fields.

Notes:

[1] Yngvild Fagerheim, ‘Mitt liv som kunsthandverkar – oppbrot og samarbeid’, Kunsthåndverk 1–2,/2001.

[2] Relative to time and context, the Norwegian term kunsthåndverk has been translated as craft art, craft-based art, decorative art, fine craft, studio craft, contemporary craft and conceptual craft, among other things. In some contexts, writers find it more expedient to refer to the material with which works are made, e.g., textile art, fibre art, glass art, ceramic art, and so forth. In this article, it will be referred to as ‘craft art’ for sake of ease. However, in an international context, it may be prudent to call it ‘contemporary craft'.

[3] The goldsmith and applied artist Jacob Tostrup Prytz (1886–1962) established the association for applied artists Foreningen Brukskunst in 1918 and was also the first recipient of the Jacob Prize in 1957. The association’s name changed to Landsforeningen Norsk Brukskunst (LNB) in 1946.

[4] Mette Grieg Toyomasu, ‘Fra brukskunst til kunsthåndverk – en fagpolitisk opprydning. Keramikeren Yngvild Fagerheim som eksponent for en kunstnergruppe’, [‘From Applied Art to Craft Art – An Art-Policy Revision. The Ceramic Artist Yngvild Fagerheim as an Exponent for a Distinct Category of Artists’] hovedfag* thesis in art history (University of Oslo, 1977). *In Norway, the hovedfag degree was awarded up to 2007, whereupon it was replaced with the master degree. It required one more year of study than does the current master degree.

[5] Thomas Tengesdal Nordby, ‘Brukskunstens svanesang – ideologi og utopi i Landsforbundet Norsk Brukskunst 1965–1978’ [‘The Swansong of Applied Art – Ideology and Utopia in the National Federation of Norwegian Applied Arts’], master thesis in art history (Norwegian University of Science and Technology, 2015).

[6] Fagerheim, ‘Mitt liv som kunsthandverkar’.

[7] Toyomasu, ‘Fra brukskunst til kunsthåndverk’, p. 27

[8] Nordby, ‘Brukskunstens svanesang’, p. 1.

[9] Nordby, ‘Brukskunstens svanesang’, p. 75.

[10] Ibid., and Toyomasu, ‘Fra brukskunst til kunsthåndverk’, pp. 55–59.

[11] Ibid., p. 80.

[12] Ibid., p. 81.

[13] https://www.stortinget.no/no/Saker-og-publikasjoner/Stortingsforhandlinger/Lesevisning/?p=1973-74&paid=3&wid=b&psid=DIVL41

[14] At a later point in time, ‘raw material’ was exchanged for ‘idea’.

[15] Nordby, ‘Brukskunstens svanesang’, p. 89.

This text was oroginally published in Norwegian as ´Fra brukskunst til kunsthåndverk´ in the book André Gali (ed): Kampen med materialet - Norske Kunsthåndverkere i 40 år (Oslo, Norske Kunsthåndverkere 2015).

Translation by: Arlyne Moi