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.

Editorial Introduction to 3.2

Craft is local, rooted in place. This powerful assumption has informed a wide variety of discourses: vernacular and folk art studies; turn-of-the-century romantic nationalism; architectural theory (notably Kenneth Frampton’s idea of “critical regionalism”); and the contemporary anti-globalist movement, in which DIY craft serves as an insignia of independence from what is vaguely called “the system.”

The problem is that “place” itself is a constantly shifting term that is not confined merely to static physical geography. Recent scholarship on the concept of the global emphasizes that overarching, transnational movements are built through (and in turn inflect) local cultural agency. To study this mutuality, metaphors such as the network, the narrative, or the imagined community have been proffered. So have distinctive methodologies such as the micro-history, in which a person or object is used as a lens through which large-scale movement can be brought into focus. The writings of the postwar Marxist theorist Henri LeFevbre have been influential in this context. His project was to understand how place was a means through which capitalist modern culture produced and reproduced itself. The seemingly neutral medium that we traverse is, in LeFevbre’s account, always politicized, always filled with ideological content. We cannot help making space into place, and place makes us in turn.

In light of such theoretical accounts, the certainty that one often encounters in discussions of craft’s rootedness seems badly in need of revision. This issue offers several contributions to that effort. We lead off with a short report by our own Digital Editor, Kevin Murray. In past months, he has been building the Journal of Modern Craft website into a lively forum for scholarly exchange. His discussion here, in the same spirit, summarizes the results of a “south–south” conversation held in Chile recently, at which Australian, Asian and Latin American craft specialists convened. Murray’s probing consideration of this debate introduces themes that will reappear throughout this issue. As he suggests, being faithful to tradition is never easy, and sometimes not even preferable as a way of empowering “local” craftspeople.

This issue’s articles by Lily Crowther and Suzette Wolfe Wilson show how the study of craft upsets our geographical instincts. Crowther argues that the early twentieth-century British studio craft movement found its most hospitable milieu not in the traditionrich rural landscape, or the innovative city center, but rather the much-despised suburbs. In her case study of Camberwell, a residential area of South London, the very characteristics for which craft is usually seen as an antidote—homogeneity, consumerism, and institutionalization—were precisely the variables that permitted studio practice to thrive. Wolfe Wilson’s study of contemporary activity in Jamaica shows us that craft is not necessarily compatible with a healthy relationship to an underdeveloped environment. “Traditional” making is not necessarily sustainable, as it exacts too great a toll on the island’s limited timber and mineral resources. She argues that it is only through an informed, globally aware strategy, in which local materials are used in a manner fully cognizant of the possibility of imported substitutes, that Jamaican craft can be rendered truly sensitive to its locality.

Patricia Ribault’s Statement of Practice for this issue offers another method for studying craft and place: the technique of comparison. Though primarily a theorist, Ribault has a background as a glass blower, and has completed residencies around the world. Her article is a prime example of passionate argument drawn from direct experience. She juxtaposes three dramatically different situations in Italy, Afghanistan, Tunisia, all of which present their own challenges for glass production. Like Wolfe Wilson, she argues that even in the most hallowed craft sites, “tradition” cannot be regarded as sacred and inviolable. Curiously it is Sadika Kamoun, an artist and impresario working in Tunisia—where there is no recent history of glass-making to speak of—whom Ribault sees as having achieved the most successful relationship with her surroundings, through a creative mixing of techniques and tools picked up through her own global travels.

The issue also includes several contributions that concern craft’s role within design practice. Often, in collaborations between designers and artisans, the latter are considered to provide local depth and authenticity. (The designer, presumably, provides cosmopolitan sophistication and knowledge of international markets.) Again, our authors suggest it is not always so simple. Both the innovative Droog Collective, who re-branded our concept of Dutch design in the early 1990s, and the contemporary “digital guilds” described by Amanda Parkes and Leonardo Bonnani, center on a more recursive relation between conceptualization and craft skill, in which the latter seems to be the most innovative element within the design process.

This topic is also explored in depth in this issue’s Primary Text, an extensive survey of leading designers’ attitudes to craft circa 1959, taken from the pages of Zodiac magazine (an organ of the Italian product design firm Olivetti). As Catharine Rossi notes in her introduction to the text, “Craft offered both cultural legitimacy and a means of production to designers in the context of a rhetoric of industrialization that fell down when confronted with reality.” As we read the various designers’ views, we cannot help but notice how much geography informed their ideas about “cultural legitimacy.” What Italy or Scandinavia had to offer to international markets, for example, was entirely dependent upon their national skill bases, as much as some designers may have hated the idea. The Zodiac texts were published exactly half a century ago, but the questions they raise have never been more pressing.

Journal of Modern Craft 2.1

The first issue of 2009.

Editorial Introduction.

Response

The Quilts of Gee’s Bend: How Great Art Gets Lost by Bernard L. Herman

Articles

Craft and the Dialogics of Modernity: The Arts and Crafts Movement in Late-Victorian and Edwardian England by Tom Crook

Support/Surface or Sculpture/Craft: Considering Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach by Penelope Curtis

“Traditional—with Contemporary Form”: Craft and Discourses of Modernity in Slovakia Today by Nicolette Makovicky

Queerly Made: Harmony Hammond’s Floorpieces by Julia Bryan-Wilson
Primary Text

The Designer, the Craftsman and the Manufacturer by David Queensberry
Statement of Practice

The Fiction of Form by Alison Britton
Exhibition

Reviews

Des Wahnsinns fette Beute—Schmuck an der Akademie der Bildende Künste München: Die Klasse Künzli By Liesbeth den Besten

M. Lee Fatherree’s Photography: Evidence of the Artist at Work by Meredith Tromble

Book Reviews

Foreign Bodies by James R. Beighton

Thinking through Craft by Love Jönsson

The Silk Weavers of Kyoto: Family and Work in a Changing Traditional Industry by Morgan Pitelka

To order a copy, go here.