Until I started riffling through The Craft Reader I’d forgotten a rather disorienting experience I had a few years ago. I had been invited to give a lecture and do studio visits at the California College of the Arts and Crafts in San Francisco; I flew to the West Coast the day before the talk, checked into my hotel and got a good night’s sleep. The next morning, when I arrived at the address I’d been given, I was surprised to see a slightly different name above the door: California College of the Arts. Had I shown up at the wrong school? I double-checked the address and found it to be correct. Yes, I’d come to the right place. But why was the school’s name different from the one that had been on all those e-mails over the past few months? Ah, well, I was told, last week the administration suddenly decided to change the school’s name. They no longer wanted to be associated with crafts.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. A few months earlier the American Craft Museum in New York had changed its name to the Museum of Arts and Design. Clearly, at the dawn of the new millennium, craft or crafts had become a calling that dare not speak its name. How did that happen? Historians and sociologists of culture will no doubt eventually have more nuanced answers, but for now the opinion of the British furniture designer and woodworker David Pye that "most people are beginning now to associate the word ‘crafts’ simply with hairy cloth and gritty pots" seems to sum it up. To identify oneself with craft rather than with art or design is to associate oneself with things that are corny and outdated; it is to accept greater limits on access to social and cultural capital than come with the designation "art." "I love and admire craftsmanship," the Turner Prize–winning ceramist Grayson Perry says, "but ‘craft’ has become a concept that I do not always want to be identified with. I fear it has become the domain of ladies in dangly earrings." (Of course, since Perry is a transvestite, he might be one of those ladies himself.)
I don’t want to speak of a pendulum swinging back, but lately I’ve sensed a more widespread desire to question the denigration of craft. Even before the great financial crash of 2008, there was an uneasy feeling in the air that the level of abstraction at work in all areas of culture had gone too far, that the digitalization and virtualization of practically everything—work, sex, money, war, friendship—had somehow torn society from its moorings in nature, and if it were not too late it might be better to stop and reflect, in case it was still possible to get in touch with some bedrock materiality. In 2007 the British Marxist critic John Roberts, in his book The Intangibilities of Form, argued that the "deskilling" of art in the wake of the Duchampian readymade must be dialectically matched by a "reskilling" so that "what separates artistic labor from productive labor is its access to the subjective transformation of materials all the way down." As for the crash itself—the outcome, it seemed, of an uncontrolled and perhaps uncontrollable mannerist spinning off of derivatives of derivatives of derivatives, so that in the end there was only the most tenuously nominal relation to whatever reality they were supposed to have been derived from—it only stoked the nostalgia for a tangible reality. That same year the sociologist Richard Sennett, in his book The Craftsman, nominated the artisan as the lead figure in a hoped-for resistance to what he decried as the "superficiality" of contemporary culture. Last year Matthew Crawford made the same argument in Shop Class as Soulcraft.
This new attention to craft, to work done through some close contact between hand and thing, has been enriched by the publication of The Craft Reader, an imposing compendium edited by Glenn Adamson, an American who is head of graduate studies and deputy head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He has cast his net wide for this anthology, which covers two centuries of thinking by craftsmen, critics, historians, anthropologists and philosophers, including ones you might not have thought would have much to say. Alongside the proper high-class makers like Anni Albers, Bernard Leach and George Nakashima we find Alexis de Tocqueville rubbing shoulders with Karl Marx; Lee Ufan, the Korean-Japanese protagonist of the Mono-ha ("school of things") art movement, with Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics; and Samuel Smiles, the original self-help guru whose very name became a byword for philistine Victorian optimism, with Theodor Adorno, the glowering negative dialectician from Frankfurt. Although the book has been edited with a student readership in mind, its kaleidoscopic mix of materials means it can open fresh perspectives for anyone interested in crafts; and even readers who think they’re not interested in craft will be more engaged than they expected, if they give the anthology half a chance.