Handwerk / Kunsthandwerk


  • Stefan Muthesius




What is the difference between handicraft (Handwerk) and Arts and Crafts (Kunsthandwerk)? Which is better, craft or mass production? Terms should help us create order in the world around us, so it becomes easier for us to orientate ourselves, but terms are nevertheless always particular to a specific time and place. This essay will present a brief outline of the disciplinary patterns that have shaped the terminology relating to the creation of artefacts, as well as describing Muthesius’s own analysis, before discussing the corresponding terms in Estonian with the help of a few examples.

In the present article, Stefan Muthesius has examined the specialised terminology relating to the creation of artefacts that has been used in the German cultural sphere and has explained the semantic field of each of these terms as shown by their etymology and usage. Rather than making clear distinctions, Muthesius’s approach blurs the lines between art, design, and handicraft and concentrates upon their common features. Furthermore, he illustrates how the terminology of a creative sphere (i.e. art) has, amongst other things, been influenced by economic processes, for example by the commercial price and quality of different types of products. The large number of terms used, especially since the nineteenth century, clearly reflects the changes in both material culture and in society in general.

Kunsthandwerk of post-industrial societies has been greatly influenced by the discourse of modernisation and industrialisation. It was nostalgically and ideologically associated with the era preceding industrialisation and mass culture. The need to redefine oneself gave way to modern applied arts (studio craft) which have artistic ambitions, and at the same time make use of traditional materials and techniques to a greater or lesser extent.

In the post-war Estonian context, it is possible to draw a parallel with the term ‘applied arts’ (tarbekunst in Estonian) that rather declaratively replaced the previously used term, rakenduskunst. During the Soviet period, artists specialising in applied arts created unique objects and limited-edition items, as well as mass-produced designs. In the 1960s, ‘decorative arts’ came to be thought of as a subcategory of applied arts. Nowadays, the relevant semantic field in question is almost completely covered by the umbrella term ‘design’.

The term Handwerk (käsitöö in Estonian) has made a fascinating, yet somewhat peculiar comeback. The term no longer refers to a phenomenon that could be described as primitive and related to folk art and peasant culture, but instead it expresses criticism against neoliberal capitalism: a sense of nostalgia for an honest and fair mode of production. This analysis of terminology related to the creation of artefacts graphically demonstrates how various power relations have shaped this field of activity where tradition, creation, and art intersect with institutional frameworks, economics, politics, and national identities.


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Research Article