Editorial Introduction to 3.1

The replica is, in a way, the realm of pure craft … Its objectness, its materiality, its form absorb the force that would otherwise arise from its “content.”

So wrote Rachel Weiss in the second issue of this journal, in an article on the Cuban contemporary art group Los Carpinteros.[1]

It is a fascinating but contentious idea: What if creativity as such lies outside of the realm of craft? What if the act of copying, which requires skill in an unadulterated state in order to achieve success, is the truest version of this journal’s core subject? What if the notion of a successful copy varies according to culture or context? What are the differences between content and intent?[2]

This issue provides ample opportunity to test this idea, in two very different cultural contexts. First up is a pair of complementary articles about Japan, by Christine Guth and Kida Takuya. The articles bring us from the long-established customs of the tea ceremony (chanoyu) to the delicate politics of the nation’s craft world during the reconstruction period immediately following the Second World War. Together, the two authors show that Japan’s tradition of copying, while very different from the emphasis on individuality in Europe and America, is no less likely to produce confusion and conflict.

Later in the issue, we are off to South Africa where, as Anitra Nettleton shows, there is a more informal but equally widespread practice of imitation and emulation. This is an unsettled (and perhaps unsettling) craft landscape, in which authorship and creativity are difficult to fix with certainty. In the entrepreneurial stalls of Johannesburg’s fleamarkets, tourists are faced with a dizzying array of wares, and geographically rooted traditions are lost in a shuffle of stereotype and repetition. This process of market homogenization is itself of great interest, and Nettleton details its mechanisms at length. As she demonstrates through an ensuing analysis of South African basketry, the only way to combat such erasure is through the specifics of production. In this same spirit, we have commissioned a Statement of Practice in which the potters at Ardmore Ceramic Art (also in South Africa) speak of their experiences at a socially progressive craft enterprise. Here we encounter another form of repetition, as many of the makers voice similar attitudes (gratitude, pride, ambition). How close do we get to these men and women? As the proprietors of Ardmore note in their introduction, it is difficult to capture the “true” voice of a craftsperson who makes within a highly structured entrepreneurial context, even when he or she is sitting directly in front of you. (The statements were originally delivered as oral testimonies in Zulu; Ardmore’s shop manager, Happiness Sibisi, translated them for us. While there are grammatical inaccuracies in these translations, the Ardmore proprietors decided not to make corrections. This appeared controversial to us but we let their decision stand.)

Elsewhere in the issue we explore the linked histories of queer identity and craft-based art practice—a subject first discussed in our pages a year ago by Julia Bryan-Wilson, in her brilliant reading of the rug works of lesbian sculptor Harmony Hammond. Now Australian scholar Sally Gray gives us a glimpse of the elusive aesthetic rites of underground gay New York in the 1980s. Artist David McDiarmid’s leather garments evoke a time and place in which self-fashioning was so important that it became an all-consuming craft in its own right.

Finally, we are pleased to offer our most extensive and important Primary Text to date. Taken from the pages of Overseas Education magazine (an organ of the British colonial administrative establishment) and Arts of West Africa, this set of texts offers a window into interwar modernist attitudes to African craft. The authors were themselves educators, and it is disturbing to imagine them inflicting their combination of paternalism and enthusiasm on young African woodcarvers. Yet these previously unexamined texts have tremendous historical value. As Tanya Harrod notes in her Commentary, “Only in the field of colonial art education was the relationship between modernism and primitivism examined systematically and a dialogue set up between the West and its ‘others.’ It may have been an imperfect, impoverished dialogue, but it did at least take place.” The contents of Overseas Education also resonate uncomfortably with the present day. Imperial rule in Africa may be history, but the tensions between progressivism and tradition (even if we no longer think of it as “primitive”) have certainly not been resolved.


[1] Rachel Weiss, “Between the Material World and the Ghosts of Dreams: An Argument about Craft in Los Carpinteros,” The Journal of Modern Craft 1(2) (2008): 258.

[2] For further consideration of this idea in the context of contemporary art, see Glenn Adamson, “Analogue Practice,” in Mary Jane Jacob and Michelle Grabner, The Studio Reader (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010 [forthcoming]).

Introduction to Issue 2.3

The Arts & Craft connection

Almost two years ago now, the Journal of Modern Craft’s first editorial argued for a broad framing of our subject, one that would go beyond the studio crafts and their discrete disciplines, as well as the tendency to place craft in a series of continuous dialectics with modernity, industrialization, commerce, and fine art aesthetics. Our first Primary Text, by the late Reyner Banham, argued for an authentic species of craft embedded (and buried, out of view) within the routines of the factory. In more recent issues we have continued to seek out scholarship on craft well outside “movement” logic, in contexts such as tourist economies, public art performance, and industrial design. Yet the area of academic study most closely associated with the word “craft” remains, of course, the Arts and Crafts movement.

In that first editorial we expressed the hope that a major study would emerge that tackled the movement’s complexity and paradoxical nature. Gillian Naylor’s The Arts and Crafts Movement: A Study of Its Sources, Ideals and Influence on Design Theory, first published in 1971, set the bar high. It is salutary to consider that although there has been much valuable infilling in the form of newly discovered objects, good international surveys, monographs on individual figures, and detailed regional studies—both in our own pages, and in such exemplary recent publications as Lawrence Kreisman and Glenn Mason’s The Arts and Crafts Movement in the Pacific Northwest—there has been nothing quite as energetic, incisive and politically aware as Naylor’s pioneering contribution, written nearly forty years ago.

The last fresh contextualization of the Arts and Crafts movement was the decisive turn to Romantic Nationalism, a diffusionist approach that informed Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan’s succinct, admirable 1991 The Arts and Crafts Movement in the World of Art series and the papers in Art and the National Dream (1993) edited by Nicola Gordon Bowe. A key moment for reframing Arts and Crafts studies should have been 2005—when two major exhibitions were mounted (at the Victoria and Albert Museum and at Los Angeles County Museum). Both, however, were chiefly informed by Romantic Nationalist scholarship, choosing to explore the international nature of the movement by tracking its dissemination country by country. When nationalist agendas are examined in relative isolation, we miss the opportunities to see what is common to different experiences of craft reform, what hybrids develop, and why. Craft movements do not chart a simple, linear process of influence, but rather a series of asymmetrical and overlapping fits and starts.

Then there is the question of the relationship between the Arts and Crafts movement and later developments within modern craft and design. Alan Crawford’s remarkable, modestly entitled “The Arts and Crafts Movement: A Sketch”—in Alan Crawford (ed.), By Hammer and By Hand: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Birmingham, 1984—showed the way. As Tom Crook argued in our first issue of this year, the Arts and Crafts movement should be viewed as presenting an alternative option within (rather than an escape from) modernity, and its political and aesthetic transformations. A logical corollary is that historians should look beyond the chronological boundaries of the Arts and Crafts movement, finding continuities that might reshape our understanding of early modernism in design and architecture, and uncovering hidden stories of craft hitherto obscured by an interwar rhetoric of progressive technology.

And there are plenty of other possibilities for further research. These might include the investigation of workshop practice and engagement with materials—themes intrinsic to the Arts and Crafts movement’s pedagogy, both informal and formal, and transmitted through permissible tools, and the study of historic and vernacular material. This could tie in with an investigation of time consumption and normative work practices during the high period of the Arts and Crafts movement. John Roberts’s Marxist-infected art historical study, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade, suggests the potential for using a labor theory of culture as a model to investigate Arts and Crafts values. Equally, a history of colonial art education would show Arts and Crafts values being deployed and depleted in strategies of underdevelopment.

The research articles included in this issue suggest the rich possibilities afforded by some of these approaches. Each essay presents craft reform as inextricably bound to modern innovations, whether those occur in the registers of mass production, urban reinvention, or spiritual experimentation. Freyja Hartzell offers a sharply observed account of the stonewares produced in the Westerwald of Germany at the turn of the century. She shows how designers such as Richard Riemerschmid appropriated the völkisch emblems of vernacular ceramic production in the service of a modern German material culture. Jordi Falgàs tracks the transmission of these German ideas to the town of Girona in Spain, where the progressive architect Rafael Masó tried to put similar principles into practice. If Riemerschmid and his colleagues enjoyed success in reframing craft within an ideologically driven reform movement, Masó’s story is fascinating partly because of his failures. In the politically fractured context of Catalonia, artisanal architecture was impossible not because it was mute, but because it spoke all too clearly. Our third article brings us forward in time to the seam between the Arts and Crafts era and the emergence of an individualist studio craft movement. Art historian Roberta Meyer and master woodworker Mark Sifrri place the iconic figure of Wharton Esherick— often described as the first American studio furniture maker—into the surprising context of 1920s international anthroposophy. Meyer and Sfirri show that the motifs and intent of Esherick’s furniture conform closely to the teachings of this modernist spiritualist movement, pioneered by the Austro- Hungarian philosopher Rudolf Steiner.

All three articles attest to the importance of in-depth primary research in the effort to come to grips with the historical craft movement. In this spirit, we offer a Primary Text that takes us further forward in time to the postwar period, but not necessarily away from turn-of-the-century preoccupations. Paul Caffrey introduces us to a fascinating document of 1960s design reform, the so-called “Scandinavian Report,” in which a team of visiting designers frankly appraise the strengths and weaknesses of Irish craft and industrial production. It is fascinating to observe some of the same issues that were at issue in Germany and Spain, c.1900—such as the proper deployment of folk motifs and the ideal organization of workshops—still at issue in this very different chronological and geographical situation. Finally, we have a Statement of Practice by the founders of the Handspring Puppet Company, who are based in South Africa but have taken London by storm recently in the theatrical production War Horse. They argue that the contemporary puppet is a unique form of craft because its “ur-narrative” is a functional commitment to “seeming to be alive.” There are many subtle ways in which this absorbing account of puppet design connects with Arts and Crafts studies—by allying craftedness with radical modernity, through its global references and inspirations, through puppetry’s implicit commentary on individual agency and, not least, in a shared ambition to create a constructed object with a narrative, animate purpose.

Introduction to Issue 2.2

Editorial Introduction

We have not had themed issues as yet in Journal of Modern Craft, and this latest edition was certainly not planned under the rubric ‘politics’. Serendipitously, however, much of its content addresses craft’s fortunes under various political structures. Under the conditions of industrialism craft finds it hard to make a niche for itself – whether within a command economy in communist China or in the apparently lush pastures of neo-liberal North America. Small wonder that in early twentieth-century Britain, as studio craft was defining itself as something more individualistic and even more ‘handmade’ than the Arts and Crafts Movement, the hunt was on for viable craft politics. By the time of the 1930s, makers were paying close attention to the Soviet model, in which local councils of workers organized their own production. British craftspeople such as T. S. (Sam) Haile and Michael Cardew were inspired by the rhetoric of figures like the poet Stephen Spender who argued in his Forward From Liberalism (1937) that “the aim of communism is, as Lenin wrote, to create multiformity.” Home-grown movements like guild socialism, social credit and, for Roman Catholics, distributism (based upon the neo-Thomist argument for “just price”) all appeared to offer a place for the small-scale production that was studio craft. That was, and is, one problem – how to find a space for craft within overarching political and economic frameworks.

It is of equal interest to reflect on craft’s relationship to differing ideologies. Do craft objects, along with other works of art, offer visual evidence of a specific political moment? Yes and no. While our historical and critical understanding of craft would be greatly diminished if we did not ground it in its ambient ideologies, craft objects (more perhaps than other kinds of art work) can look exactly the same even as they are embraced or co-opted by very different political values. Tradition is the most potent of the political valences of craft, which can embody cultural continuity during times of drastic social transformation. This quality has been exploited by progressive and reactionary regimes alike—a fact often forgotten by advocates who see craft as essentially anti-authoritarian. It is therefore chastening to be reminded, in our review section, of the political history of mingei. This Japanese handcraft revival started as a fringe avant-garde movement, and was subsequently co-opted as a component of Japan’s plans for an imperial ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,’ only to be reconfigured after the Second World War as part of the visual culture of a peaceful democracy with strong Anglo-American affiliations.

Craft’s chameleon-like properties are also seen in Juliet Kinchin’s article about three potters who were trained in Hungary, more or less simultaneously. From that point their careers diverged. Eva Zeisel, the best known of the three, experienced a disastrous foray into the brave new world of Soviet production, only to become one of the friendly faces of American capitalism promoted in the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design program. Margit Kovács stayed in Hungary and found success producing work that was ideologically correct within that Socialist context. Lili Márkus, however, slipped quietly into obscurity after she came to Britain—where perhaps the Cold War was not so closely fought as to require potters to be its standard bearers.

Elsewhere in the journal are further examples of craft’s course being set by the waves of politics. The Yixing potters described by anthropologist Geoffrey Gowlland have successfully adapted their working habits, and their understanding of skill, to the successive circumstances of pre-war, Communist, and now market-driven China. Jonathan Clancy gives us the turn-of-the-century example of Elbert Hubbard, who made the Arts and Crafts Movement safe for capitalist enterprise (or is it vice versa?) through an appeal to the individualistic ethos of Transcendentalism. And Jennifer Mikulay analyzes contemporary performance artist Alison Smith (also discussed by Julia Bryan-Wilson in the previous issue of the JMC), who weaves together political strands from the nineteenth century with those of the present day. In Smith’s work The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, disparate ideological material is assembled in a way that would be incomprehensible, Mikulay argues, without the use of craft to make the associations.

Smith’s example suggests that craft’s flexibility as a common political language can be a strength as well as a weakness. This idea finds confirmation in Gabriela Gusmão’s Statement of Practice, a moving account of her investigations into the improvisatory crafts of the Brazilian streetscape. Gusmão’s images and words capture the irrepressible workings of human spirit in a city without an effective social safety net. She reminds us that craft happens not only from the top down at the behest of political powers that be, but from the bottom up as a form of the political vernacular. The inventive but fragile street crafts of Rio may be the most conclusive evidence offered in this issue that politics and experience are impossible to pull apart—a law equally applicable to craftspeople and their products. As Gusmão puts it, “the lifecycle of inanimate things should not be dismissed.”