Monday, May 7, 2012

Gothic: The New Arts and Crafts Movement

It seems that there is this belief, mostly amongst non-Goths, that Goth is seen as an identity people take on in order to be visibly rebellious against a middle-class upbringing, and that for Goths past university age that it is a variation on being a "trustafarian". This, I think, misinterprets the motivations of those who become Goth - it is not done as an active rejection or rebellion of anything, simply as the enjoyment of music, fashion and art outside the mainstream. It has become a subculture, but it is not a counterculture in the way of Punk or Hippie - Goth is more concerned with arts than politics, especially music.
One of the ways that Goth is different to the mainstream in terms of values is the importance of self-made cultural signifiers over bought cultural signifiers - Goths tend to value someone sewing their own bustle-skirts and fancy jackets over them being bought, and while judgement may be passed on the quality of the final product by some, the desire to create for oneself will be lauded, not just for the skill required, but because creating emancipates one from having to buy into mass-produced concepts and allows for originality and a heightened level of freedom of expression bound only by courage and skill. Making one's own clothes has often been mocked as either being a forced condition of poverty (strange in a country where it is cheaper to get clothes from a discount retailer such as Primark or from a charity shop than it is to buy materials to make clothes, although this does not necessarily stand for alternative clothes - it is cheaper to buy a t-shirt than to make one, it is cheaper to make a bustle gown than to buy one) or an attempt to be deliberately countercultural - i.e simply doing so because the mainstream isn't - rather than simply as a way to have clothes that fit correctly and look exactly the way the wearer intends, or at least hopefully rather close to that vision.
I think there is also an assumption that in order to have the time to actually ponder concerns like the one I am writing about, or to "indulge" in the arts or music, that one must be at least middle class-because it is assumed that otherwise I would be too busy trying to make a living. At one point I was at college, working in a supermarket, and going to evening classes - I wrote observational poetry in the quiet moments in the supermarket, on the back of discarded receipts. While an active pursuit of the arts, like learning a musical instrument from a teacher, or going to concerts and the sorts of exhibitions where you have to pay, does require financial resources, it is possible to be personally involved and interested in the arts with little in the way of resources. I taught myself to play piano, partly because I could not afford a tutor, and yes, it took a long time, and yes, my technique is highly unorthodox (and probably self-defeating on occasion) but I can now play things with relative competency and musicality, I draw on cheap office paper with the biros that are given away free in banks or with catalogues, I make and modify my fashion out of things I bought in charity shops. A passion for creativity may be bracketed in terms of its final form by resources and circumstance and opportunity, but not in its existence. Goth, as a subculture focused on artistic expression, especially music, is therefore bracketed only in form by resources, not in vision, passion or inclusion. Passion and determination can to a certain degree prevail over circumstance and lack of opportunity.

-- from Domesticated

The blog post quoted above has a point: Goths tend to be crafty and artistic sorts of people; and in general, they are not wealthy. Most of my own goth friends work in retail. And yet, the points made in the article above turned my mind to an old Victorian/Edwardian era art and cultural phenomenon: The Arts and Crafts Movement.

The Arts and Crafts Movement began in England around the 1860s, and flourished until about the 1930s. In the US it is mostly associated with architecture and furniture. Decorative arts were certainly a large part of the movement's concept. It stood for traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often applied medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration. It advocated economic and social reform and has been said to be essentially anti-industrial. By the end of the nineteenth century, Arts and Crafts ideals had influenced architecture, painting, sculpture, graphics, illustration, book making and photography, domestic design and the decorative arts, including furniture and woodwork, stained glass, leatherwork, lacemaking, embroidery, rug making and weaving, jewelry and metalwork, enameling and ceramics.

The notion behind the movement was to create items with a rustic or natural appearance, in contrast to the modernized appearances brought on by the industrial revolution. It was also a reaction against the way that mechanized production eliminated the need for skill and creativity amongst workers: for example, weaving a tapestry in the past would have been a long, personal process which required much training, ability and knowledge. In the industrial age, it was simply a matter of threading a machine pre-set with an already selected pattern and cranking it along. No more creativity or skill was required. Furthermore, the ability to produce items cheaply was degrading the quality of goods overall, since no care or thought needed to be put into them. William Morris, one of the figureheads of the movement, "believed that industrialization alienated labor and created a dehumanizing distance between the designer and manufacturer."

Sites like Gothic Martha Stewart instruct members of the gothic subculture in ways to cheaply handcraft decorative items like decoupaged tables, drawstring bags and stamped candles. Etsy's handmade and vintage market is full of goth crafts for sale. Most goths I know have at least one item in their wardrobe that was handmade or hand-altered by their own selves. Is Gothic the new Arts and Crafts Movement, rejecting the standards of mass production in the name of the individual?

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