We have not had themed issues as yet in Journal of Modern Craft, and this latest edition was certainly not planned under the rubric ‘politics’. Serendipitously, however, much of its content addresses craft’s fortunes under various political structures. Under the conditions of industrialism craft finds it hard to make a niche for itself – whether within a command economy in communist China or in the apparently lush pastures of neo-liberal North America. Small wonder that in early twentieth-century Britain, as studio craft was defining itself as something more individualistic and even more ‘handmade’ than the Arts and Crafts Movement, the hunt was on for viable craft politics. By the time of the 1930s, makers were paying close attention to the Soviet model, in which local councils of workers organized their own production. British craftspeople such as T. S. (Sam) Haile and Michael Cardew were inspired by the rhetoric of figures like the poet Stephen Spender who argued in his Forward From Liberalism (1937) that “the aim of communism is, as Lenin wrote, to create multiformity.” Home-grown movements like guild socialism, social credit and, for Roman Catholics, distributism (based upon the neo-Thomist argument for “just price”) all appeared to offer a place for the small-scale production that was studio craft. That was, and is, one problem – how to find a space for craft within overarching political and economic frameworks.
It is of equal interest to reflect on craft’s relationship to differing ideologies. Do craft objects, along with other works of art, offer visual evidence of a specific political moment? Yes and no. While our historical and critical understanding of craft would be greatly diminished if we did not ground it in its ambient ideologies, craft objects (more perhaps than other kinds of art work) can look exactly the same even as they are embraced or co-opted by very different political values. Tradition is the most potent of the political valences of craft, which can embody cultural continuity during times of drastic social transformation. This quality has been exploited by progressive and reactionary regimes alike—a fact often forgotten by advocates who see craft as essentially anti-authoritarian. It is therefore chastening to be reminded, in our review section, of the political history of mingei. This Japanese handcraft revival started as a fringe avant-garde movement, and was subsequently co-opted as a component of Japan’s plans for an imperial ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere,’ only to be reconfigured after the Second World War as part of the visual culture of a peaceful democracy with strong Anglo-American affiliations.
Craft’s chameleon-like properties are also seen in Juliet Kinchin’s article about three potters who were trained in Hungary, more or less simultaneously. From that point their careers diverged. Eva Zeisel, the best known of the three, experienced a disastrous foray into the brave new world of Soviet production, only to become one of the friendly faces of American capitalism promoted in the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design program. Margit Kovács stayed in Hungary and found success producing work that was ideologically correct within that Socialist context. Lili Márkus, however, slipped quietly into obscurity after she came to Britain—where perhaps the Cold War was not so closely fought as to require potters to be its standard bearers.
Elsewhere in the journal are further examples of craft’s course being set by the waves of politics. The Yixing potters described by anthropologist Geoffrey Gowlland have successfully adapted their working habits, and their understanding of skill, to the successive circumstances of pre-war, Communist, and now market-driven China. Jonathan Clancy gives us the turn-of-the-century example of Elbert Hubbard, who made the Arts and Crafts Movement safe for capitalist enterprise (or is it vice versa?) through an appeal to the individualistic ethos of Transcendentalism. And Jennifer Mikulay analyzes contemporary performance artist Alison Smith (also discussed by Julia Bryan-Wilson in the previous issue of the JMC), who weaves together political strands from the nineteenth century with those of the present day. In Smith’s work The Donkey, The Jackass, and The Mule, disparate ideological material is assembled in a way that would be incomprehensible, Mikulay argues, without the use of craft to make the associations.
Smith’s example suggests that craft’s flexibility as a common political language can be a strength as well as a weakness. This idea finds confirmation in Gabriela Gusmão’s Statement of Practice, a moving account of her investigations into the improvisatory crafts of the Brazilian streetscape. Gusmão’s images and words capture the irrepressible workings of human spirit in a city without an effective social safety net. She reminds us that craft happens not only from the top down at the behest of political powers that be, but from the bottom up as a form of the political vernacular. The inventive but fragile street crafts of Rio may be the most conclusive evidence offered in this issue that politics and experience are impossible to pull apart—a law equally applicable to craftspeople and their products. As Gusmão puts it, “the lifecycle of inanimate things should not be dismissed.”