Listening to craft in dialogue

I would like to thank everyone on Facebook’s Critical Craft Forum for so many thoughtful, useful contributions on my last set of, and expand upon some of my remarks.

My concerns have to do with the fact that craft and material culture histories have only VERY recently (last ten years or so) been taken up by critically-oriented scholars and curators. Much of our field’s history is mired in a half-century of connoisseurship and object-driven analysis. Now, I may get people jumping down my throat regarding this last—object-driven analysis, but I would like to point out that singular objects—seemingly the raison-d’etre for craft history—are no longer driving the field.

Wendell Castle Music Rack, 1964, photo: John Ferrari

Wendell Castle Music Rack, 1964, photo: John Ferrari

Let’s take, for example, a classic object like Wendell Castle’s music stand, or even Garth’s rhapsodic commentary on a singular Peter Voulkos stack. I too could go on and on about the significance of the music stand, its biomorphic punning, its significant melding of form and function, etc etc., what I would be missing is the object’s circulation in the wider world of ideas. How, for instance, the music stand is made of stack-laminated wood, circa 1964. Castle’s essential plasticking of wood and his later coated fiberglass pieces are sculptural, exploratory, and reject traditional techniques, opting for new and clever materialities alongside a more well-known and more lavishly celebrated, but lesser craftsman, Donald Judd. As an art historian, it is this comparison that is much more important to make, than a stand-alone interpretation. Further, Castle’s music stands have never been put in dialogue with the avant-garde or experiments in electronica, atonality, and avant-garde music that was so prominent throughout the 1960s in the Northeast (where Castle was located) and Western Europe, ie, John Cage, Pierre Boulez, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Alvin Lucier.

What I am getting at, is that Castle’s music stand reconsidered within this context is so much more interesting than its hand feel and its shape alone. Castle—and a host of other craftspeople-have never been complexly or richly re-situated in their own place and time. This is the work to which I am referring—the serious, scholarly pursuit of relational situations, ideas, zeitgeists, and circles of influence. This is the kind of work I mean, when I say that the writing in our field has not yet caught up to the sophisticated conceptual work being made now, in 2011.

More than ever, I believe, artists are invested in their current conception of place and time, because they continually evolve forward in their own trajectories and oeuvres. But good scholarship and brave writing traces a path less backward than sideways, making multiple footpaths alongside each other, so that there isn’t just one path with two directions, but infinite concurrent and disparate routes—some more direct, others more circuitous, and still others dead-end. But this is the spirit of research—process. Who but an artist could relate?