The pleasures of craft work are often said to reside in its immediacy: the direct access to materials, the handling of tools, and the sense of accomplishment. Even watching a demonstration in person can be an absorbing experience. Yet texts about craft, including this journal, must necessarily present secondhand the process of making. Language alone simply cannot account for craft’s scope of experience. Drawings, paintings, photographs, films, and virtual simulations, all in their own ways, would seem to fill this evident gap, transmitting the reality of skilled work in something closer to its fullness. However, they usually fall short. In the representation of process, such images create a new, different level of material reality, one that needs to be analyzed in its own right.
In this issue we concentrate on the phenomenon of “showing making,” a phrase proposed by Dutch scholar Ann-Sophie Lehmann. When welded together, these two verbs suggest the complexity of craft-in-representation, which always involves a dynamic interplay between artisan, artifact, tool, and image. Each of our contributors examines instances of such convergence. Three articles are drawn from a conference held in 2009, which was organized by Lehmann with Nico de Klerk at the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam (EYE), supported by the Meertens Institute (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences). Lehmann’s own theoretical overview presents a methodology for the study of “showing making,” and then applies it to the example of hand-colored Japanese photographs. She demonstrates the recursive logic of these images, which offer a kinaesthetic pleasure to the viewer while also constructing a self-referential impression of a craft formed at the intersection of traditional painterly skills and new technology.
The papers by Victoria Cain and Irene Steng, also drawn from the 2009 conference, illuminate two other contexts in which photographic images extend and transform the meaning of craft. Cain focuses on an intriguing case study: the preparators who made dioramas at the Natural History Museum in New York City in the earlier 1900s, especially in the 1920s and 1930s. These workers’ skills recall those of taxidermists, propmakers, and scientists, but had a specificity and theatricality of their own, which were exploited enthusiastically by the museum in its programmatic and promotional activities. Cain situates staged photographs of the preparators within a broader range of images of craft process circulating in the interwar period. Her argument is that these decades—often thought of as a period fascinated with machines and technology, to the exclusion of handwork—were in fact saturated with such pictures. This widely shared “craftsmanship aesthetic,” she writes, offered an ameliorative or reassuring counterpoint to narratives of technological progress that were equally current at the time. Cain’s article can be set alongside Ezra Shales’s analysis of the Empire State Building (published in our July 2011 issue) as a major contribution to the understanding of modern craft in interwar America, outside the boundaries of the incipient studio movement.
At first, Stengs’s article, on the representation of kingship in Thailand, could not seem more different. She shows how the carvers and gilders who make sculptures of the Thai rulers operate in relation to popular photographs. Another example of “showing making” arises in her discussion of live demonstrations that are conducted in markets and temple complexes. This performance of craft takes its place within a diverse image-scape which has as its goal the consolidation of national identity. Perhaps it is only through the unstated relation of these various representational registers that such an impression of unity could be achieved. Henrietta Lidchi’s discussion of Native American jewelers also involves the analysis of a single craft from multiple angles. Historic photographs and live demonstrations again play a role in her account, as do written texts, oral history interviews, and Lidchi’s firsthand observations of the Southwestern markets in which iconic silver and turquoise jewelry is displayed and sold. The article is exemplary in its juxtaposition of past and present, showing how the tools of anthropology can be brought to bear on both history and the present day.
In her manifesto on “showing making,” Lehmann alludes to the oft-used phrase “the social life of things,” originally formulated by Arjun Appadurai. She insists that this biographical model needs to be extended to include the making of objects, and to this we might add historical precedents—the crafts of the past that make present endeavors possible. A biological or familial metaphor is at the heart of this issue’s Statement of Practice by boatmaker Gail McGarva. She has dedicated her life to the replication of open-sea working vessels, vernacular designs carrying strong associations with particular stretches of the British shoreline. McGarva refers to her lovingly made copies as “daughterboats,” a way of capturing the generational rhythms of craft succession. Given her interest in such legacies as the taproot of contemporary communities, it is perhaps no surprise that she makes her boats in public and invites others to watch, and even participate in the building process. This is another example of “showing making,” this time to the same community that developed and supported the regional product in the first place.
Finally, we include a primary text that is not a description of craft process, but rather a spectator’s response. The author is the indomitable Margaret M. Patch, who, despite her relatively advanced years, went on an extraordinary, round-the-world-ineighty- days-style tour (though it took her a bit longer than that) in the early 1960s.
Her mission was to compile a list of the leading contemporary craft reformers, activists, and developers in advance of the inaugural conference of the World Crafts Council, held in New York City in 1964. As she traveled, Patch paid close attention to cultural differences in practice and attitudes to skill. The previously unpublished text we include here was written early in her journey, and compares the craft cultures of Japan and India. Patch had a high regard for the artisans she found in both places, but was dismayed at the low status of those she encountered in India. This prompted her to reflect on questions of aspiration and recognition that had implications for craft anywhere, including back home in the United States. This is one example of the way that “showing making” can be an invitation to consider one’s own act of looking, and hence position in the politics of skill.
The Journal of Modern Craft