The craft ideal in contemporary work

Theme for 5.2

‘The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations

The lifestyle of a studio craftsperson seems an ideal vision of labour. Work is pursued for its intrinsic pleasure, rather than just the pay-check at the end of the week. Seen in this way, the craftsperson can be put forward as a model for other kinds of work, such as software coding.

To what extent can contemporary craft be read seriously as a space for alternative visions of labour practice?

* Karl Marx, Capital vol. 111 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1972), p. 820 (quoted in John Roberts ‘Labor, Emancipation, and the Critique of Craft-Skill’ Journal of Modern Craft Volume 5—Issue 2 July 2012 pp. 137–148)

Journal of Modern Craft 5.2

Editorial introduction


John Roberts Labor, Emancipation, and the Critique of Craft-Skill

Ulrich Lehmann Making as Knowing: Epistemology and Technique in Craft

Dominic Rahtz Carl Andre, Artisan

James Macgillivray Film Grows Unseen: Gregory Markopoulos, Robert Beavers, and the Tectonics of Film Editing

Joan Key Readymade or Handmade? (free download)

Statement of practice

Zoe Sheehan Saldana  How to Make a Strike-Anywhere Match

Exhibition reviews

  • Jenni Sorkin California Design 19301965: Living in a Modern Way
  • Ezra Shales The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

Book reviews

  • Anne Anderson The Poetic Home: Designing the Nineteenth-century Domestic Interior Stefan Muthesius
  • Andrea Peach On Craftsmanship: Towards a New Bauhaus Christopher Frayling
  • Janis Jefferies Machine Stitch Perspectives Alice Kettle and Jane McKeating

Editorial Introduction 5.2

The means of production: it would be difficult to find a more overdetermined phrase, or one that lies more squarely at the heart of craft studies. In this issue, we take an unapologetic hard left turn into theorization, and the means of production remain at the center of the debate. To a greater or lesser extent, our contributing authors operate in relation to the philosophical tradition of Marxism, which did so much to nurture the Romantic revival of craft in the nineteenth century, but which has been only an intermittent point of reference since. The texts included here, while admittedly dense in their formulations and varied in their approaches, together constitute an important reintegration of Marxist thought into craft discourse.

It is fitting that we should begin with John Roberts, whose 2007 book The Intangibilities of Form proposed a powerful new account of art production as labor, in the process restoring Marxism to a central position in current debates about craft. Roberts’s analysis of a triadic relation between traditional skill, conceptual deskilling (as in the Duchampian readymade), and innovative “reskilling” has been widely influential among craft historians. In his contribution here, Roberts takes a closer look at his third key term, placing reskilling in the contemporary context of digitization, service economy, and other forms of “immaterial” production. Taking issue with the optimistic comments of recent authors like Antonio Negri, who have seen in the fluid relations between productive and nonproductive labor (professional work and private life) a de facto process of liberation, Roberts insists that it would only be through a full “re-temporalization” of experience, not just a permeability of previously distinct categories, that de-alienation can occur. This argument has profound consequences for craft theory. Against those who would follow the Romantic/Arts and Crafts tradition, seeing the artisan as a savior for work as such, or even those who see post-disciplinary flux as a moral good in itself, Roberts reminds us of the intractable problem of “necessary labor,” which is difficult to aestheticize and impossible to escape.

Closely allied to Roberts’s perspective is that of the art historian Dominic Rahtz, who examines the sculptor and self-designated “artisan” Carl Andre. His principal concern is to examine Andre’s own comments on Marx’s Grundrisse, and then judge them against the artist’s work. Of particular interest is Andre’s sense of his own distance from the ideal of “living labor,” on account of his embeddedness in the prevailing conditions of postwar American industry. This discussion of Andre parallels that offered by another former Journal of Modern Craft contributor, Julia Bryan-Wilson, in her recent book Art Workers (2009). To her detailed investigation of the politics of artistic production in the Vietnam era—readers of that book will remember the revelatory moment when she describes flipping over one of the magnesium plates in an Andre floor work, and discovers the mark of the DuPont Corporation, a major military supplier—Rahtz adds a further layer of interpretation, showing for example how Andre’s use of materials established a fixed ground from which he could triangulate his relation to an idealized artisanal past, and the generalized, abstract labor of his own time.

Ulrich Lehmann’s text on techne and episteme seems initially to take us to a much more ancient body of thought. The article has a vertiginous quality, moving from the metaphorical use of textiles in the writings of Plato and Aristotle to examples drawn from recent fashion history. This itinerary would seem to take us well away from the Marxist framework explored by Roberts and Rahtz, but gradually it becomes clear that Lehmann is charting a spiraling motion (a cut perpetually on the bias, one might say) through established theories of dialectical materialism. The question posed by Lehmann is deceptively simple: on what grounds can craft—for example, weaving and tailoring—be legitimately considered an epistemological activity? The claim that making is thinking is routinely made in art schools these days, within the context of “practice-based research,” but it is usually adopted as a sort of slogan rather than being rigorously interrogated. Lehmann’s discussion will hopefully prove useful to those wanting to frame craft as a conceptual activity, as well as a reminder of how deep the roots of such thinking go.

Our final full-length article is also concerned with the question of the cut, but in this case the material is film rather than fabric. James Macgillivray’s study of Robert Beavers and Gregory Markopoulos shows that the physical manipulation of film by hand is not only a technical necessity for independent filmmakers, but also primary content in its own right. In addition to the obvious parallels with Lehmann’s article—the two would be read profitably in one sitting—Macgillivray’s discussion of the transformation of the raw material of celluloid into an experiential light projection recalls some of the issues that arise in Rahtz’s discussion of Andre. Equally, his vivid description of Beavers, hunched over his editing table painstakingly repairing the hundreds of hours’ worth of footage in Markopolous’s avant-garde epic Eniaios might be considered a personalized instance of Roberts’s fundamental opposition between necessary and artistic labor.

Elsewhere in this issue, we restage the opposition between handmade and readymade discussed above. Zoë Sheehan Saldaña’s deadpan Statement of Practice takes the form of a how-to guide for making a “strike anywhere” match. It is unlikely that many of our readers will be moved to follow the instructions, for they are forbiddingly demanding. This is the point, of course. What Sheehan is demonstrating is the byzantine complexity of the simplest objects around us, and hence the difficulty of retaking control of the means of production on an individual basis. That the phrase “strike anywhere” sounds like a sacred principle of organized labor is not a coincidence, but it would be incorrect to read Sheehan’s work as simply politics by other means. She is not so much interested in rekindling the flames of revolution as excavating the truth behind contemporary production through her own hard-won skills.

Finally, this issue features a Primary Text written by the artist and curator Joan Key only fifteen years ago. It is hard to believe, given the preoccupation of the relation between handmade and readymade among artists today (Sheehan being a good example), that Key’s text was virtually unprecedented when it was published as the accompaniment to a moderately sized exhibition (called simply “Craft”) in 1997. But in fact, the relation between the Duchampian tradition and the handmade would not be theorized as robustly until the aforementioned Intangibilities of Form, published a full decade later. In recovering this short critical essay, we hope to both expand the frame of reference for Roberts’s important work, and also to situate Key herself as a contributor to the historiography on the means of production, artistic and otherwise.

The Editors

The Journal of Modern Craft