‘defining’ vernacular creativity

Time to publicly update my working definition of vernacular creativity – for the record. The paragraph below will go in my thesis – either right up front in the abstract or as part of the introduction. It should be read as what we might call a heuristic definition, boiled down as far as possible in order to orient the reader. It isn’t a normative definition (an exercise in drawing boundaries); the ‘real’ vernacular creativity chapter is more like an etymological map, if that makes sense. [a very early sketch of that map is here]

By vernacular creativity I mean a wide range of everyday creative practices (from scrapbooking to family photography to the storytelling that forms part of casual chat). The term ‘vernacular’ – as with language, where it means colloquial – signifies the ways in which everyday creativity is practiced outside the cultural value systems of either high culture (art) or commercial creative practice (television, say). Further, and again as with language, ‘vernacular’ signifies the local specificity of such creative practices, and the need to pay attention to the material, cultural, and geographic contexts in which they occur. Finally, I emphasise the need to remember that vernacular creativity predates any particular innovation in technologies by centuries, and that at the same time its forms and social functions are transformed by cultural and technological shifts.

[live thesis update in response to comments below]

The various ‘others’ of ‘ordinary’ vernacular creativity discussed above – punk-influenced DIY culture, creative activism, fandom, and game cultures – are in different ways very attractive to cultural studies (either for their spectacularly creative uses of mass popular culture, or for their apparent demonstration of an evidential base for spectacular ‘resistance’). This dissertation certainly keeps those fields of vernacular creativity in the frame, recognising the ways in which they are positioned as the seductive leading edge of a potential paradigm shift in the media ecology. However, because it aims to understand whether new media allows the populace ‘at large’ to participate more meaningfully in public culture through vernacular creativity, the study deals most centrally with the most apparently accessible, mainstream and ordinary forms, practices and technologies of ‘consumer-created’ new media.

16 thoughts to “‘defining’ vernacular creativity”

  1. How is vernacular creativity different from folk art? (apart from seven syllables!) I ask cos in my research on appropriation and recombinant media (sampling, mashups, etc.) many practitioners talk in terms of folk art. I’m interested in yr thoughts on this…

  2. Thanks for the link to your discussion John, I’ll have to write something about all the crafty blogs I’ve come across soon.


    Well, when people talk about ‘folk’ art (or punk for that matter) in relation to DIY culture there is usually some antagonistic relationship to popular and/or commercial culture implied. I’m talking about ‘self-made’ culture that may be directly or indirectly responsive to the mass-popular as well – using the term ‘folk culture’ what invoke a whole thing about pure traditions that I’m not really about. Using ‘DIY culture’ would lead me into street-cool avant-garde punk territory, and that’s not where I am either. I guess the whole point of coining the term for use in this context was to sidestep the value systems and politics that are called up by the various ‘others’ of all the available terms (folk, popular, DIY, craft, home-made, grass-roots, citizens’ media, community media, etc etc etc). i also use the term ‘ordinary’ a lot but it’s just as problematic.

  3. Oh, and cos for various reasons i don’t think either domestic digital photography or telling tall tales in the pub would be considered folk art.

  4. Hello – we’ll soon be posting about your research as it dovetails with our practice in many, many ways. We tried to download the pdf file associated with your dissertation, but it was password protected. Is there a way to access it?

    Quick, perhaps obvious or already addressed question: In your response concerning folk and DIY practices you talk about sidestepping their specific cultural trappings, but as we see it, or want to see it, “vernacular creativity” encompasses those arenas rather than sidesteps them – folk and DIY are vc, but vc is not merely folk or DIY. Is this a fair interpretation?

    We got into a similar distinction with neogeography and psychogeography seeing “psycho” as “neo,” but neo as not merely psycho…

  5. It’s interesting to read your thoughts on why DIY doesn’t quite fit — especically given how the concept of DIY has been reclaimed, reinterpreted, depoliticised by the home rennovations movement. I just finished a phd on Australian zines which tried to reposition DIY culture pretty squarely within what you’d call ‘vernacular creativity’, but I thought it was important to hold on to the term DIY, and argue against what I would say is the academy’s investment in limiting DIY within the punk/avant garde/cool frameworks. I argued that you can sidestep the restricting oppositional politics implied by certain usages of DIY without losing the beneficial interpretive lee-way that ‘do it yourself’ gives you. It was important in my work too – because zinesters are very invested in the idea of ‘DIY culture’ and I didn’t think it was fair to give that up.

    Wow… sorry for the long post in my moment of de-lurking.
    Good blog btw, lots to think about.

  6. Wow, thanks both of you for your questions – I’ll answer you properly and invidually when I get the chance, but for now I’ve pasted in a paragraph I’ve just rewritten.

  7. Anna – can I see that PhD, or something you’ve published out of it? V. interested. And ‘leisure arts’: if you shoot me an email I can send you some stuff: jeanjeangenie[at]gmail[dot]com

    As for the definitional stuff – all I can say is that just as would be the case if i were to use the term “folk” or “DIY” or whatever, there is a specific politics of popular culture that I want to invoke when I use the term “vernacular creativity”; sure it encompasses some practices and forms that could also be called (and that call themselves) DIY or amateur or domestic or folk. I don’t exclude those terms from my thesis either; but I want it to carry its own baggage, and not be overburdened by the baggage of any of those specific terms. It’s really just a matter of creating the right prism I guess. Anyway.

  8. Hi
    Am currently researching for an exhibition in the UK on DIY Culture and this is all really useful. Does anyone have an opinion on the following – DIY Culture includes both professional makers, artists etc as well as those not mkaing a living it by it; whereas Folk Art isn’t so likely to include professionals.

    One of the areas the exhibition looks at is the fact that in DIY Culture no distinction is made between the professionals and non-professionals. But is that actually true?

    Be grateful for your thoughts thanks.

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