The Big Questions with Glenn Adamson

The Big Questions with Glenn Adamson

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Illustration: Erica Harris

Q: Does the word "craft" still fit the work being done by serious artists in glass, ceramics, metal, fiber, and wood? Mention it to the guy on the street in 2011, and he'll think you're talking about scrapbooking, rubberstamping, or cake decorating. Does that matter?

This is a crucial question today. In about 1945, a studio craft movement came into its own in the United States, based on a set of materials with particularly rich histories and possibilities (glass, ceramics, and the rest). The studio movement was strongly individualistic - it was premised on visionary craftspeople working independently, free to express themselves however they liked. More recently, this framework seems to have given way. On the one hand, we have become more aware of the presence of craft in factories and other large-scale production settings. On the other, activities that in an earlier time would have been considered trivial and don't require a studio - like the paper- and pastry-type crafts you mention - seem to predominate in the public mind. Like macramé and tie-dye in the 1960s, what might be called hobbies command more attention than the exacting disciplines of professional woodworking, metalworking, and so on. These days, the relative ease of a craft seems to correlate quite closely with its popularity.

There is nothing wrong with this democratic state of affairs. The key, however, is to recognize that craft, in its highest form, has power. Skilled practitioners make innovation possible in all fields of making, from the traditional crafts to industry, science, film, and fine art. Though we may not subscribe to the individualistic model that animated studio craft, we must hold on to the movement's basic insight: that craft humanizes this wide world of production. Treating it lightly will result in a diminishment of its cultural contributions. So yes: Scrapbooking and cake decorating are craft, as are ceramics, metalwork, and the rest. For that matter, so are industrial skills like prototyping and welding. We need to welcome all these skills, and others too, and we need to see how they are embedded in many arenas of making. Some DIY enthusiasts see what they do as an escape from contemporary global production, and that's OK as far as it goes. But craft has many economic and political facets. As we expand the definition of the term, we need to remember that it still can be - as it always has been - serious business.

Q: Let's say you were hosting a dinner party, wanted the liveliest possible conversation, and could invite anyone who cares about craft, living or dead. What names would be on your guest list, and how do you think the evening would play out?

The first thing i would do is hand over my hosting duties to Aileen Osborn Webb. The founder of the American Craft Council, she had the means to make a difference, but also the open-mindedness to involve many people - some of whom she didn't necessarily see eye to eye with. She had great credentials to sit at the head of a table full of strong personalities - like Robert Arneson, the bad boy of California funk ceramics.He'd definitely be invited. Also Lenore Tawney, whose artistic vision in textiles is still unsurpassed. And Soetsu Yanagi, the chief theorist of the mingei (folk craft) movement. And Gandhi! I'd be tempted to invite William Morris, of course, but I might not. He'd have a tendency to dominate the conversation. (Maybe I could take him for a drink in the pub instead.) I'd want a few of my own close colleagues with me, too, like my Journal of Modern Craft co-editors Ned Cooke and Tanya Harrod. They'd ask great questions. And while we're in the realm of the imagination, I'd invite whoever is reading this right now - and let them bring a friend - because I wouldn't want to talk entirely about the past. Craft is an ever-changing thing; and what we really want is a brand-new conversation.

Glenn Adamson is head of graduate studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft.