Editorial Introduction for 5.3

The Journal of Modern Craft has made great strides in deploying craft as a fluid concept, as pertinent to the consideration of contemporary art as it is to reading material cultures throughout the globe, statements of artistic practice, and the politics of skilled labor. But let us consider, for a moment, the age-old stereotype embedded in a widespread popular understanding of the word “craft” that refuses to budge: the granny with her knitting needles, spending her free time making (often with considerable dexterity and skill) toys for her family, mittens, or even an itchy Christmas sweater.

Amateur crafts, hobbies, pastimes, and do-it-yourself activities constitute the most widespread type of craft activity in Western economies. Kirstie Allsopp in Britain, like Martha Stewart in the US, urges everyone to have fun on sewing machines. Regularly released “how-to” manuals within a single craft medium probably have a larger circulation than all the academic tomes on the subject combined. Encouraging leisure-time making is one of the big businesses that has shaped our cultural and economic landscape in recent times.

Has our desire to carve out an intelligent disciplinary terrain for craft left the specter of amateur making behind, lurking in a shadowy corner, like so many botched spice racks, half-completed cross-stitch kits, and handmade pots gathering dust? Amateur craft practice has been part of everyday life for the last 150 years, but scholarly treatment of the subject has consistently framed the phenomenon as supplemental and marginal. Karl Marx had no place for the occasional amateur maker within his broad theories of labor, while Thorstein Veblen saw the leisure-time accomplishments of late nineteenth-century America as affections of a former aristocratic ideal of autonomy. As for William Morris, it is not at all clear where amateur craft can be situated in his scale of “useful work and useless toil.”

Twentieth-century scholars—from the era of what Siegfried Kracauer called the “mass ornament” onward—have been slightly more concerned about amateur craft practice. Yes, Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, and a whole range of thinkers from across a wide political spectrum do marginalize amateur practice (a good recent example is Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur, a polemic bemoaning citizen journalism and crowd-sourcing). But studies from social history and anthropology prove more sympathetic. Among these, Steven Gelber’s Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America sets the tone for a deeper understanding of how the work ethic drawn from professional practice structures freely chosen leisure activities. This interaction between spaces of work and leisure constitutes a major concern for thinkers studying everyday life, such as Henri Lefebvre, Michel de Certeau, Ben Highmore, and Elizabeth Shove, and their work helps inform much-needed critical reception of the recent amateur-led revival of many craft practices.

With the intellectual groundwork laid for a reassessment of this marginalized element of mass material culture, many historians have recently turned their attention toward the late nineteenth-century moment when domestic handicrafts became hugely popular among middle-class women (for example the work of Clive Edwards, Judy Attfield, Emma Ferry, and Talia Schaffer, whose book Novel Craft is reviewed below). Essays by Akiko Yamasaki and Janice Helland in this issue can be aligned with this scholarly trajectory, which considers handicraft as a site of female self-expression within hegemonic patriarchal structures.

Most existing work in this area focuses on Anglo-American geographies, but a translated chapter of Yamasaki’s 2005 work, “Handicrafts” and Gender in Modern Japan [Kindai Nihon no “shugei” to jendaa] attests to the global reach of this phenomenon. Like many accounts of nineteenth-century domestic handicrafts, Yamasaki’s research makes use of advice manuals and journals as historical evidence. She uses these sources to demonstrate the gendering of shugei, a term that simply denoted hand-skill at the start of the Meiji period, but came to describe distinctly feminine activities, such as sewing and cooking. Yamasaki explains how the semantic separation of shugei from associated terms mirrored the wider cultural expectation, advanced by advice literature and educational establishments, that women spend their free time engaged in domestic accomplishments that protected their gender identity.

Helland expands our understanding of domestic handicrafts at the margins of the British Arts and Crafts movement by recalling the early history of the Home Arts and Industry Association (HAIA), an organization that promoted domestic arts through regional education and annual exhibitions from the mid 1880s onward. There has been a tendency to view the HAIA as another example of Victorian philanthropy, with its moralizing instruction dispensed by approved arbiters toward subjects in need of improvement. Yet, Helland probes beyond the organization’s rhetoric of aristocratic cultivation to reveal how domestic handicrafts provided an opportunity for women to market their own skills, both as teachers and as exhibiting artists in many of the annual exhibitions.

Late nineteenth-century domestic handicrafts, often positioned as the answer to the perils of female leisure-time idleness, end up sharing the “undisciplined” qualities Judy Attfield attributes to the “wild things” of material culture. As Yamasaki describes, Japanese handicraft production not only beautified the home, but was sold as a desirable tourist commodity, and like the work of women in the HAIA, raised the prospect that female labor could be profitable, destabilizing traditional gender roles. Activities deemed appropriate to women facilitated self-expression that altered everyday productive realities, an example of what Henri Lefebvre termed “differential space.”

The tension between encouraging artistic expression among women while attempting to prop up existing gender norms is amply demonstrated in the advice books and journals of this era. In this issue’s primary text we publish a particularly flamboyant example, the Frenchman Oscar Edmond Ris-Paquot’s 1884 guide for the amateur enamel painter, which tries to emancipate female creativity with an art well suited to their “lightness of touch.”

Ruti Talmor’s ethnography of the Accra Arts Center in Ghana seems at first glance unrelated to amateur productions of the late nineteenth century. The article explains how the making of djembe drums has proliferated within the Center due to its popularity among tourists as a generic symbol of Africa, and how the proliferation of this craft has adversely affected the diversity of production that existed beforehand. Talmor skillfully explains the division of labor intrinsic to djembe production, and how it encourages de-skilling among young Ghanaian men who focus on learning one skill in the productive chain, rather than becoming multi-skilled through the traditional avenues of apprenticeship learning.

We might bemoan the neoliberal economy that has flattened craft diversity within the Arts Center, but as Talmor describes, many young men find a quick way of acquiring the skills needed to ensure their subsistence by sidestepping apprenticeship learning. Just as was the case for the late nineteenth-century handicraft practitioners, an accessible skill (even if it has to be learnt and honed) has become a means of quickly attaining a foothold within the marketplace, and this accession is both speedy and disruptive.

Stephen Knott, Managing Editor

The Journal of Modern Craft

See contents of 5.3 here.

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