Listening to craft in dialogue

I would like to thank everyone on Facebook’s Critical Craft Forum for so many thoughtful, useful contributions on my last set of, and expand upon some of my remarks.

My concerns have to do with the fact that craft and material culture histories have only VERY recently (last ten years or so) been taken up by critically-oriented scholars and curators. Much of our field’s history is mired in a half-century of connoisseurship and object-driven analysis. Now, I may get people jumping down my throat regarding this last—object-driven analysis, but I would like to point out that singular objects—seemingly the raison-d’etre for craft history—are no longer driving the field.

Wendell Castle Music Rack, 1964, photo: John Ferrari

Wendell Castle Music Rack, 1964, photo: John Ferrari

Let’s take, for example, a classic object like Wendell Castle’s music stand, or even Garth’s rhapsodic commentary on a singular Peter Voulkos stack. I too could go on and on about the significance of the music stand, its biomorphic punning, its significant melding of form and function, etc etc., what I would be missing is the object’s circulation in the wider world of ideas. How, for instance, the music stand is made of stack-laminated wood, circa 1964. Castle’s essential plasticking of wood and his later coated fiberglass pieces are sculptural, exploratory, and reject traditional techniques, opting for new and clever materialities alongside a more well-known and more lavishly celebrated, but lesser craftsman, Donald Judd. As an art historian, it is this comparison that is much more important to make, than a stand-alone interpretation. Further, Castle’s music stands have never been put in dialogue with the avant-garde or experiments in electronica, atonality, and avant-garde music that was so prominent throughout the 1960s in the Northeast (where Castle was located) and Western Europe, ie, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier.

What I am getting at, is that Castle’s music stand reconsidered within this context is so much more interesting than its hand feel and its shape alone. Castle—and a host of other craftspeople-have never been complexly or richly re-situated in their own place and time. This is the work to which I am referring—the serious, scholarly pursuit of relational situations, ideas, zeitgeists, and circles of influence. This is the kind of work I mean, when I say that the writing in our field has not yet caught up to the sophisticated conceptual work being made now, in 2011.

More than ever, I believe, artists are invested in their current conception of place and time, because they continually evolve forward in their own trajectories and oeuvres. But good scholarship and brave writing traces a path less backward than sideways, making multiple footpaths alongside each other, so that there isn’t just one path with two directions, but infinite concurrent and disparate routes—some more direct, others more circuitous, and still others dead-end. But this is the spirit of research—process. Who but an artist could relate?

Being a craft writer beyond the academy

For this blog post, Kevin asked me to consider the query: Are there ways of being a craft writer beyond the academy?

My honest answer is that there are not. While criticism itself exists somewhere between journalism and theory, the sad fact is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make a living as a freelance critic of any sort: art, music, dance, theater, and yes, craft as well. Blogs are all good and well, and call attention to individual practices, but criticism doesn’t really pay the bills. As well, I think there is a real dearth of serious readers in our field. This is mainly because the scholarship and inquiry lags far behind the high quality of artistic practice. That is, there are too many people making, and not enough people writing.

Also, while craft has moved away from an object-only sensibility, its marketplace has not. SOFA and other large-scale craft shows here in the States privilege the individual maker, and have not yet found a way to expand vis-à-vis contemporary art, where the group show model is more prevalent. The world of craft magazines is highly dependent upon gallery-based advertising, which is dependent upon supporting the one-artist model, which, in turn, are featured as singular impressarios.

I do not enjoy reading monographic, single-artist feature articles, I find them horrendously trite: usually full of clichés, and without the comparative analysis or historical context that the craft historian/theorist can provide. But the problem is less the writer than the structure: contemporary craft doesn’t yet have a platform for supporting true analysis. It is almost hard to remember that American Craft, with its anti-intellectual, faux-mainstream content, is the poor relation of Craft Horizons: a discursive and controversial forum that ran from 1941 until 1979, during the so-called “golden era” of post-war craft.

Making things–beyond the art/craft wedge

Reading Glenn Adamson’s and Tanya Harrod’s joint interview with novelist A.S. Byatt (or Dame Antonia Byatt, as she is known in her home context—to my American tastebuds, Dame, I must confess, feels funny on the tongue), I was struck by the nationalism of her project, and the utter Englishness with which she is grappling: the difficulties and aftereffects of modernization, and the audiences, personalities, and social roles made manifest in the material culture in fin de siècle British culture. Put another way, Byatt’s book magnifies the twin ideologies of modernism and capitalism. The myriad descriptions of paintings, pots, glazes, wrought iron, skirted sewing tables, and whale-bone corseted women offer a stupefying collection of stuff: the Edwardian domestic possessions that have now become coveted antiques and collectibles, their well-conceived forms, colors and intensities spawning an assortment of Victoriana kitsch that continues to proliferate well into the present day—just attend any Victorian Studies Association conference, or save yourself the trouble and invest in a pair of patent leather granny boots, dye your hair black (with a center part), and knit yourself a tea cozy (or cell phone cozy).

Nationalism seems to be a consistent issue in craft practices, one we can’t really easily get away from. Why is this? Because craft processes are not only linked with “tradition,” but also, intertwined with production: labor practice, economic recovery, and collective pride. No matter that craft is still, more often than not, inefficient and expensive, and a touch utopian. Hand-dyed, hand-spun cotton and wool from a knitting store—you know, those lovely ones, independently owned and run—often go for $9 or $11 a skein, versus the yucky acrylic stuff sold at chain craft stores that sell for $3 or so. Much like farmer’s market produce versus the conventional supermarket, there is no comparison, of course, in terms of quality, but the small, independent stores more often than not end up belly-up. The intent is there: to ignite a revival, a community of like-minded souls who turn up for knit class, or collective quilting sessions altogether, but such publics are usually made, and not found.

Adamson asks pointed questions about whether or not there is a utopian imperative inherent in craft. Byatt redirects her answer, positing that utopianism is “…actually dangerous. Certainly in the 1960s it was. I decided that a kind of rather flat skepticism, and making things, making things well, is better than a utopian attempt to reform society.” I found Byatt’s statement a very useful correlative in re-thinking the de-skilled artistic practice that exists broadly throughout visual art training—the idea that one acquires skill based upon the sorts of projects one decides to execute. This is an anathema to traditional craft practice, of course, but now that the two are mostly merged—I don’t really make a distinction between contemporary art, per say, and contemporary craft, they are one and the same—that is, both camps are working conceptually. Furthermore, craft-based processes have been co-opted by visual artists of all stripes invested in issues of design, labor, and community. Yet, when Byatt says, “I believe in making things,” she hits on a tender nerve in our community, the seeming wedge between conceptual art and craft practices, which no longer exists. All artists believe in making things, it is just that the definition of “thing” is imprecise, and always in flux. That is also the beauty of artistic practice, in that there are so many kinds of “things” to make, be it a book, a tea cozy, an installation, or a You Tube video.