Good-Enough Objects: On Craft

Good-Enough Objects: On Craft

How did craft become a calling that dare not speak its name?


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 To identify oneself with craft rather than with art or design is to associate oneself with things that are corny and outdated; it is to accept greater limits on access to social and cultural capital than come with the designation "art."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.

As many of the writers whose words are collected in The Craft Reader are at pains to emphasize, the boundaries between "craft" and neighboring fields such as "art" or "design" are extremely porous, and sometimes seem almost entirely capricious. The art world in particular has a way of ring-fencing itself off as exclusive territory in ways that turn out to be self-contradictory. It wasn’t so long ago that photography could not be shown in a gallery that exhibited serious painting and sculpture. The likes of Lee Friedlander and William Eggleston were not seen to have anything in common with contemporaries like Brice Marden and Richard Serra; they were part of a different market and a different critical discourse. Then, in the 1980s, artists like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince began using photography in ways that made new sense to the art world—but in ways that seemed to contradict the aesthetics of the photography world. The result was an invidious distinction between "artists who use photography" and "photographers." But eventually it became clear that artists who use photography use it in so many different ways that artists who use photography like photographers and just plain photographers could no longer be kept apart. Now Friedlander and Eggleston are OK. And yet the art world remains suspicious of photographers whose "art" credentials seem insufficient.

The barriers between art and craft are still more strongly policed than those between art and photography. As art historian Tanya Harrod points out, already in the era of early modernism "there was a disjunction between a desire to experiment and the capacity of the art world to take in craft genres. Ceramics could synthesize painting and sculpture but this very hybridity proved problematic." Although, most notably, Gauguin and Picasso did important work in ceramics and other craft media, these works are marginalized in museums and written histories even though the resort to craft techniques was an important resource for many artists in their resistance to the aesthetic status quo. "While we have histories of the role of the ‘ready-made’ as an avant-garde challenge to accepted art practice," Harrod points out, "the more complex, messier and less conceptually transparent world of the ‘hand-made’ remains under-documented." More recently, the art world has made grudging space for crossovers from the realm of crafts, such as the ceramists Betty Woodman and Andrew Lord, but for the most part it wants no more to do with such figures than it did with Friedlander or Eggleston twenty-five years ago. There’s greater receptivity when an artist using such mediums has clearly emerged from an art context rather than from the crafts world. The ceramic sculpture of Sterling Ruby, for instance, is more readily received because it comes from someone who also practices painting and video; should more of his ilk emerge, the art world may have to begin a more thoroughgoing revision of its biases, but so far Ruby seems an exceptional case.

Where does crafts’ tangential relation to contemporary art leave those who aspire to devote themselves to a craft medium like ceramics, weaving or glass with the same single-mindedness that Marden has pursued painting, Serra sculpture or Eggleston photography? For Garth Clark, a leading historian of and dealer in ceramics, it has been an "inferiority complex" with respect to art that gave impetus to the crafts movement; it began with William Morris and eventually "grew from an annoying neurosis to a full-blown pathological obsession" that finally destroyed the movement. Crafts became increasingly influenced by fine art, but the influence was one-way—or if crafts did have an influence on art, it was underground and unrecognized. The American Craft Museum may have rebranded itself as the Museum of Arts and Design, but "behind the scenes," Clark insists, it "was becoming the laughing stock of New York’s arts" realm and could not hide the fact that crafts were becoming more nostalgic, regressive and academic rather than less. Clark’s solution is a new strategic alignment with design, on the model of the Dutch Droog Design group.

Clark has a point. Designers never fail to emphasize that industrial production could not exist without handwork. When it comes to furniture and similar products, according to Andrea Branzi, "Often, in fact, the adjective ‘industrial’ is intended as an indication more of a style than of a genuine mass-production of models…. The new handicrafts accept the positive side of this somewhat ambiguous situation, at least from the stylistic point of view, and turn it to advantage in a production that is free from the problems of mass scale and involves a high degree of experimentation and research." Again and again, not only designers but historians, sociologists and craftsmen emphasize that the commonplace idea that industrial production has replaced handicrafts is mistaken; the two exist alongside each other, and to a great extent industry is dependent on craft and has subsumed it.

But if they are seen to be in competition, craft cannot win. Between Pye’s claim that "the best possible workmanship…allied to the best possible design" cannot be mass-produced economically, and the view of the philosopher Gilbert Simondon that only "at the industrial level" has "the object acquired its coherence," and this because of an internal necessity ("It is not the assembly line that produces standardization, but intrinsic standardization that permits the assembly line to exist"), we would reluctantly have to judge the latter to be closer to the truth. But both Pye and Simondon are victims of their own idealism, the belief that there is a single "best" or "most coherent" way of fulfilling a function that creates the greatest mischief. Every function exists with respect to a need, and industrial culture produces new and ever more finely differentiated needs even more prodigiously than it produces new objects. Perhaps we should take a cue from the psychologist D.W. Winnicott’s idea of the "good-enough mother" and speak of the good-enough object. Just as the good-enough mother is not necessarily the one that fulfills all her child’s needs but the one who enables the child to handle her failures, the good-enough object might be one that overshoots the need it aims to satisfy and thereby gives its user a new sense of his or her own spontaneous potential.

Of course, my idea of the good-enough object won’t help any craftsman (or designer, or artist) with the choice of what to make, or how. Neither will most of the suggestive concepts found throughout this anthology—not Pye’s distinction between workmanship of risk and workmanship of certainty, nor Heidegger’s between a thing and a mere object, nor Johanna Drucker’s between affectivity and entropy. Still less will it be obvious how to "use" the many essays by anthropologists, which examine the place of craft in unexpected fields or distant cultures—though these are among the book’s most fascinating pages. Tales of car mechanics in Nigeria, a ball bearing factory in Russia at the close of the Soviet period or even Parisian confectioners of upmarket bonbons may seem to have little to say to a budding glass blower or weaver wondering whether to think of himself as an artist. But that very mismatch may help get him thinking about how his place in the world might not be the one he thinks it is—that things might be otherwise. In that sense, The Craft Reader is a good-enough book. Those coming to it hoping to find evidence that the crafts possess a coherent and fully developed critical discourse are likely to come away disappointed. Actually, it seems, they will encounter something that might be better—the scattered pieces of what are now still perhaps too many critical discourses, waiting for someone to put just enough order into them to shake things up, but not enough to nail them down.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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