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.

Journal of Modern Craft 4.1

The first issue of 2011 is now out, with writerly reflections on the nature of utopianism in craft.


Editorial introduction

Sustainable Socialism: William Morris on Waste by Elizabeth C. Miller

The Craft of Industrial Patternmaking by Sarah Fayen Scarlett

Speculative Artisanry: The Expanding Scale of Craft within Architecture by Joshua G. Stein

Statement of Practice

Interview with A.S. Byatt including Tanya Harrod and Glenn Adamson (PDF)

Commentary by Glenn Adamson

“The Artisan,” from The Mirror of Production by Jean Baudrillard

Exhibition Reviews

The Art of Gaman: Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942–1946 reviewed by Bibiana Obler

Japanese Sashiko Textiles reviewed by Moira Vincentelli

Book Reviews

Made in Newark: Cultivating Industrial Arts and Civic Identity in the Progressive Era reviewed by Ellen Paul Denker

KnitKnit: Profiles and Projects from Knitting’s New Wave reviewed by Sue Green

Craftivism: A Special Issue of Utopian Studies

Guest editors, Maria Elena Buszek (University of Colorado Denver)
and Kirsty Robertson (University of Western Ontario)

Coined by artists and collectives in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, the term “craftivism” relates to creative, traditional handcraft (often, assisted by high-tech means of community-building, skill-sharing, and action) directed toward political and social causes. For this special issue of Utopian Studies, we invite practitioners, scholars, and curators to submit work related to the history, criticism, and myriad practices of craftivism. Subjects and strategies might include: historical or present examples of activist practice that uses craft; issues of production, manufacture or use that might intersect with craftivism; discussions of the successes or limits of craftivist practice; considerations of feminist craft practice that traverse (or are collapsed into) wider social issues and movements. Papers might also take a wider frame, looking at craft and economic globalization, NGO work or the use of craft in cultural brokering. Please note that this issue’s editors are interested in praxis as well as scholarship, and encourage makers to submit statements, manifestos, and/or imagery for consideration.

Utopian Studies is a biannual, peer-reviewed journal publishing scholarly articles on a wide range of subjects related to utopias, utopianism, utopian literature, utopian theory, and intentional communities. All submissions must be sent by JANUARY 17TH 2011 via the journal’s online editorial manager at: Utopian Studies’ submission guidelines are also available online:

Queries concerning the issue’s theme and guidelines may be directed to the guest editors via e-mail: Maria Elena Buszek: [email protected] and Kirsty Robertson: [email protected]