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.