The title of Grayson Perry’s new exhibition at the British Museum is misleading to say the least. “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman” certainly does not evoke the image of ‘woman’ – but as the description elaborates, we are to encounter not only men but “an installation of his new works alongside objects made by unknown men and women” (British Museum 2012). But if we are to encounter women also, why are we led to read, hear and picture only ‘craftsmen’?
According to its definition, a ‘craftsman’ is “a worker skilled in a particular craft” (OD 2012). While some might argue this to be a universal term, the dictionary has recognised that it is not and listed ‘craftswoman’ as the female alternative. But even so, others might counter, how could Perry have incorporated this into his resonant title? ‘The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and Craftswoman’ hardly has the same ring to it after all.
The problem goes of course much deeper than Perry’s exhibition theme. As we have not yet (successfully) linguistically revised the historical preference of ‘man’ over ‘woman’, the once exclusive term ‘man’ is today often used as a universal short-hand for ‘man’ and ‘woman’. While this might seem a convenient option for some, it also raises several concerns: firstly, it perpetuates the underlying ideology which considers ‘man’ to be the main/only human, and secondly, it denies the linguistic recognition of women’s achievement. And without such linguistic recognition, we are not only hindered from conceptually picturing women as potential ‘workers skilled in a particular craft’, namely as ‘craftswomen’, but further led to believe that ‘man’, due to his linguistic dominance, must be the main/only ‘craftsman’.
And just as ‘craftswoman’, more neutral alternatives such as ‘craftsperson/craftspeople’ have not caught on. The question is: why is this the case? Why are we still presented with the specific, that is, ‘man’, to stand for all of humanity? Why do we continue to not only linguistically (and conceptually?) prefer ‘man’ over ‘woman’, but also over a more balanced view of humanity?
The lesser familiarity of the terms has been claimed as the root-cause ever since feminist linguistics presented its challenge to the patriarchal nature of language. But is this lack of familiarity still a valid enough reason today? Further, going back to Perry’s exhibition, is it a valid enough reason in art? Is art not meant to present the less familiar, that is, to defamiliarise and make anew? Is art not the one place that could (finally) create “The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsperson”? And if it does not, what does that make ‘art’ if not the exact opposite of its definition: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination” (OD 2012), namely, conservative: “averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values” (OD 2012)?
It seems until art is brave enough to give voice to ‘craftswomen’ and/or ‘craftspeople’, we are stuck with the unlikely image of the female ‘craftsman’. It seems until art is brave enough, we are stuck with our historically singular view of humanity.