Introduction to 4.2

One of the consistent preoccupations of this journal, over the course of its first ten issues, has been the politics of production. One of our guiding principles has been that the frictional qualities of craft – the difficulties that arise in acquiring and applying skill in labor – are an explosive and unpredictable issue within modernity. An important corollary to this idea is that the way skill is represented and discussed can itself be a political question. Much is at stake in the discourse surrounding craft, and one index of this fact is the many conflicting claims that have been made on its behalf.

This issue features three articles that address this theme. Together they tell an interesting story of continuity through the twentieth century. At the early end of the chronological spectrum we have Adam Trexler’s in-depth study of A. R. Orage, a figure who ought to be as well-known as Ruskin and Morris, but who has remained somewhat obscure. It is easy to understand why. Not only did he go in for currently unfashionable theories like Theosophy and Nietzsche’s principle of the superhuman, but his writings depart from (and sometimes attack) the hallowed principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement. To make matters worse, as Trexler writes, his ideas are hard to situate along a familiar left-right political spectrum. Orage’s emphasis on guild structures and higher consciousness can seem bewildering: simultaneously radical and reactionary. Yet precisely because of this unfamiliarity, his ideas feel surprisingly relevant today. To help readers come to grips with this important figure in craft’s historiography, in addition to Trexler’s examination of his intellectual trajectory we offer a reprinted text by Orage, entitled ‘Politics for Craftsmen.’

Ezra Shales’ study of the Empire State Building carries us a few decades on, to the interwar period (often thought of as a depopulated valley in craft historical terms, caught between the twin peaks of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the post-1945 Studio Craft movement). It may be surprising to consider a skyscraper as a handmade object, but as Shales demonstrates, that is exactly how it was presented at the time. A rhetorical appeal to artisanal values was crucially important to the triumphal rhetoric of the Empire State Building’s financial backers and key spokesman, including bricklayer-turned-master-politician Alfred E. Smith.

If Orage were alive today, he might very well love steampunk – not only because that subculture refers back to his own Victorian and Edwardian moment, but also because this contemporary DIY-based subculture operates through precisely the combination of collectivity and hyper-individualism that he favored. Up-and-coming craft theorist Ele Carpenter gives us a report from the front lines of steampunk, showing how artists use its apparently eccentric, science fiction-derived imagery to create persuasively critical works at the intersection of the physical and the digital.

Finally, in this issue we are pleased and honored to feature a Statement of Practice by Robin Wood, the chair of the Heritage Crafts Association. Devoted to the preservation of threatened artisanal skills in Britain, the HCA is politically active in a way that, again, cannot be easily located on a left-right spectrum. It is equally ecumenical in its self-imposed mandate. Wood wants to celebrate the full range of skilled labor: not just pastoral crafts like pole lathe turning (his own craft) but also light industrial trades like blade-making. Though his viewpoint is perhaps closest to Morris’s, one suspects that he would have found much to discuss with Orage, and it is certain that he would have been fascinated by the plumbers, hoist operators, and asbestos handlers who helped erect the Empire State Building. It is just such unexpected discursive connections, over space and time, that this journal aims to foster.

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.

Introduction 4.1

It is an honor to include, in this issue of  The Journal of Modern Craft, an interview with Dame Antonia Byatt.  This statement of practice, transcribed from a conversation that we had with the novelist last year, introduces several themes that run through the other contributions in these pages.  The most obvious link is with Elizabeth C. Miller’s discussion of  “slow print” in the work and thinking of  William Morris. Byatt’s most recent novel,  The Children’s Book, sensitively examines the ethical and personal considerations that attended craft at the end of the nineteenth century. Miller and Byatt alike are interested in the fragility of these hopeful ideals (Morris’s death is briefly noted in The Children’s Book as a symbolic loss of innocence), and also their continuing resonance today.

Yet Byatt is also supremely pragmatic, and suspicious of falling too deeply into an idealized dream state. In the interview she offers a lovely example of utopianism gone astray, on the occasion of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II:  “We were going to have a new Elizabethan age and people were going to write verse plays, Shakespeare was going to come back, and energy and color and beauty were going to return to Britain. Buildings that had been painted green, cream, and a certain dirty brown were suddenly painted a very hopeful pale blue.  This was before the Clean Air Act and they very quickly became dirty.”  This is the sort of observation  —grounded in hard, sometimes unpleasant, material facts—that gives her fiction its grounding.

Sarah Fayen Scarlett’s article on the craft of patternmaking looks at a similar down-to-earth movement. She examines the career of American furniture-maker Charles Rohlfs (who, interestingly, began as a Shakespearean actor), pointing out that he could never have realized his magically ornate chairs and desks without long experience as a carver of patterns for a stove manufacturer—a professional training he later tried to hide. Here is one idealistic Arts and Crafts maker whose skills were nurtured within the context of industry. Fayen Scarlett argues that we should take this lesson to heart, not only paying attention to the craftspeople who work in factories, but also the part that their often-invisible skills play in shaping our mass-produced environment.

Joshua Stein also argues for the relevance of craft in an unexpected production context: computer-assisted architectural design. He applies the theories of David Pye and (a writer perhaps less familiar to our readers) Manuel De Landa to show how architects can shift across vastly different scales—from tabletop models to full-scale buildings—using digitally-fueled craft as a connective tissue. Stein finds in this method a way to invest even indirect operations with “material intimacy.” It is a phrase that Byatt might like. In the interview, she vividly describes the process of inventing her characters with her body:  “I sit there and I think their fingers with my fingers.  And if they get hurt I feel it.” It is a suggestive parallel with Anselm Stern, the beguiling puppet-master in The Children’s Book, and also with Stein’s architects, who try to invest their structures with tactility through remote control.

A final inclusion in this issue of the JMC is worthy of note: our primary text, an excerpt of Jean Baudrillard’s 1973 book The Mirror of Production. Here we have a writer who is definitely not reminiscent of Byatt—her carefully observed, empathic humanism finds little place in his critical theory. Interestingly, however, this passage shows him engaging in his own puppet act, manipulating craft for his own theoretical purposes. Baudrillard presents the artisan as a figure who inhabits a symbolic realm, outside of modern productivity. His target is orthodox Marxist thinking, which treats all work as exchangeable labor—rather than as an irreducible experience unto itself.  Against this conception Baudrillard offers a vision of craft that is completely contained within community and materiality—which are, in fact, two primary concerns of Byatt’s. Readers might be surprised to find some common ground between these two powerful, and very different, thinkers. But then, for both, common ground is what craft is all about.

The Editors
The Journal of Modern Craft

Table of contents 4.1