Craftier Than Thou

Craftier Than Thou

Published on Monday, March 21, 2011. This article appears in the April/May 2011 issue of American Craft Magazine.
Author Glenn Adamson

Collage by Erica Harris

Whether it's advertisers touting craftmanship, macho mechanics with a superiority complex, or craftivists proclaiming their own virtues, watch out: Craft is a lot more complicated than that.

Why should you be angry, reader, about the TV commercial for the new Jeep Grand Cherokee? After all, it is a paean to American craft. And it's not often that a corporation lavishes praise on "straight stitches and clean welds," or proclaims, "As a people, we do well when we make good things, and not so well when we don't." The advertisement glorifies the value of the handmade, and its return in the form of Jeep's own well-crafted products. "This was once a country where people made things - beautiful things. And so it is again." 

So what's the problem? The moment my jaw dropped was when the vehicle is described as "imagined, drawn, carved, stamped, hewn, and forged here in America." I'll buy imagined, drawn, and even stamped - but carved? Hewn? Forged? You would think the thing was made by lumberjacks and blacksmiths.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The Grand Cherokee is mass-produced in a factory, like everything else created by Jeep and its parent company, Chrysler. This seems not to matter, because in this piece of flag-waving propaganda, we are faced with craft in name only. The artisanal has collapsed into the rhetorical.

Jeep is not alone. The shoe company Camper has adopted a new motto: "Extraordinary Crafts." Jack Daniels has launched a series of ads for its whiskey that emphasizes traditional skills: "There's much more to our handcrafted, white oak barrels than meets the eye." You can get "fresh handmade cosmetics" from a U.K.-based company called Lush. The aesthetic ranges from hipster to old-timer, macho to girly, but the message is much the same: Craft is good for you, and we're selling.

It's no coincidence that these promotional campaigns have come along at the same time as the best-selling book by mechanic and philosopher Matthew Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft, first published in the United States in 2009. (In the U.K., the title was changed to the more prosaic The Case for Working with Your Hands.) Crawford's book is based on his own experience of hating the "corporate doublespeak" he found at a K Street lobbying office, and finding true happiness in a motorcycle repair shop. According to Crawford, today's white-collar worker is asked daily to engage in deception, to "project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning." His remedy is a day's (or better, a life's) honest labor. The sturdy mechanic, unlike the demoralized knowledge worker, grasps his own responsibilities by the scruff of the neck.

Despite Crawford's anti-corporate stance, his understanding of craft is not too far from that of Wieden+Kennedy, the Portland, Oregon-based firm that created the Jeep commercial. In both cases, craft is presented in emphatically masculine terms - the sort of thing "real men" ought to do. Craftsmanship is morally charged, a matter of character. If Crawford ever wants to rename his book again, in fact, he could do a lot worse than the Grand Cherokee ad title: The Things We Make, Make Us.

This tendency to equate craft with public virtue runs right across the political spectrum. We can find it not only in corporate branding and anti-corporate rants, but also in the writings of designer and socialist William Morris, in the hand-woven clothing of hippies (satirically described in Shop Class as Soulcraft as "the official counter-culture"), and in the blog posts of contemporary "craftivists." These positions are all progressive and communitarian, and in this respect are directly opposed to Crawford, who might best be described as a conser­vative libertarian (not far from the demagogues of the Tea Party movement). Left- or right-wing, though, these ideological expressions are all premised on the idea that self-sufficiency is ethically preferable to working for The Man.

There is little doubt that the popularity of Crawford's book, advertising agencies' sudden enthusiasm for craft, and the DIY movement are each, in their own way, symptoms of the recession. When things go spectacularly, complicatedly wrong, there is a temptation to get back to basics. Craft seems to provide a simple solution.

But as the fraudulence of the Jeep ad suggests, we need to admit that craft can be part of the problem, too. We live in a deeply interconnected world, and any fantasy of total freedom is just that - a fantasy - and one easily manipulated by business and political interests alike. So much the worse when craft's name is taken in vain.

Skill does remain a crucial variable within our networked, post-industrial society. It no doubt plays a key role in Chrysler's plants, where tacit knowledge of all kinds is presumably vital. Many of the automotive workers' craft skills will not be applied directly. They'll involve digital tools, not hammers and chisels, and they will likely be involved in the making of prototypes and factory infrastructure, not just finished cars. They will be intimately connected with all other aspects of the production process.

Craft, then, is not a simple matter. It is not a surefire antidote for "corporate doublespeak." Companies use (and abuse) it all the time. Don't let anyone - an advertising executive, an activist knitter, or a motorcycle mechanic - tell you otherwise.

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