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Daring to Dive Deeply: A Conversation about Craft Writing and Criticism

From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 1, Issue 1

Daring to Dive Deeply: A Conversation about Craft Writing and Criticism

From American Craft Inquiry: Volume 1, Issue 1
Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS

Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring, Crochet Coral Reef: TOXIC SEAS, 2005–ongoing

Courtesy of the Institute For Figuring’ and Museum of Arts and Design

The field of critical writing on craft is radically transitioning – a shift that is at once exciting, potentially overwhelming, and politically urgent.

What makes writing about craft a compelling activity? How has it evolved and how might we envision its possible forms and functions in the future? In the weeks leading up to ACC’s “Present Tense” conference, as session moderator, I met (virtually and in person) with the panelists, critics William Warmus and Sarah Archer, to explore these questions. As a result of these exchanges, we launched our conversation in Omaha with a collective statement:

The field of critical writing on craft is radically transitioning – a shift that is at once exciting, potentially overwhelming, and politically urgent. Craft is criticism no longer obsessed with merely focusing on the virtuosity of medium-specific artists, nor on writing exclusively for a specialized audience. Instead, our current practice as craft critics is better described as a mode of thinking through the multiple ways that craft functions in today’s world, making it relevant to a much broader scope of readers. More often than not, critical writing now aims to explore how craft expresses, enhances, or challenges problematic aspects of our daily lives within a culturally complex, globalized arena.

Recounting our historical positions and evolutionary paths as writers allowed us to contrast how things operated when we first began our careers, and how we work as critics today. William Warmus, who has been writing about glass for more than 40 years, told his story through three aquatic images: a handblown glass octopus made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka from the 1890s that appeared on the cover of Ocean Realm Magazine, a glass whale fabricated by Seattle-based indigenous artist Raven Skyriver, and a hybrid ceramic-glass, human-octopus figure made by Christina Bothwell.

Warmus described how the dominant paradigm of formal analysis prescribed by art critic Clement Greenberg in the 1960s and 1970s had shaped his early writing. As an art history and philosophy student at the University of Chicago, he was trained to think hierarchically. At that time, a critic would use formal analysis to decide whether Blaschka’s glass octopus was “good, better, or best.” If the work’s color, shape, texture, and scale had fooled the eye into believing the octopus was “real,” then its formal aspects merited critical acclaim. Raven Skyriver’s more abstracted whale could also be judged formally, but stopping there would completely disregard the artist’s focus on addressing ecological issues through his glass figures, pointing to the need to preserve the oceanic environment that has so fundamentally shaped his Native American culture. Critiquing this artist’s work meant that Warmus had to expand his narrative to include not only physical considerations of the piece, but also the broader cultural and political context of Skyriver’s artistic practice. With Christina Bothwell’s work, there was a different challenge. The artist is not a material purist: she mixes glass and clay to evoke phenomena that extends beyond the stuff of this world. Aiming to embody both material and conceptual hybridity, her chimeric figures link material, imaginary, and metaphysical worlds.

To address this expansive complexity in the contemporary craft scene, Warmus increasingly recognized that Greenberg’s focus on materiality and form alone no longer seemed viable. Inspired by the kind of embodied knowledge acquired through experiences as a scuba diver, he began to envision a new way of looking at craft – one more akin to viewing the rich underwater world. He described this analytical viewpoint as “reticulate,” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as: “genetic recombination involving diverse interbreeding populations.” There is no judging “good,” “better,” “best” when comparing an octopus, shark, and a coral, so why would you want to impose hierarchical critical criteria to “species” in the craft world rather than seeing them as coexisting or hybridizing within a larger, more intricate ecosystem? Reticulate criticism proposes a more horizontal, weblike, and networked approach to writing about craft, one which recognizes that our field evolves organically over time, in response to specific environmental conditions.

Becoming a reticulate critic requires seeking out a greater diversity of craft practices, ones generated from various sources and communities. While Warmus advocates strongly for continuing to look closely at the formal aspects of a work of art, these larger contexts are often, he says, “complex and messy.” He acknowledged that for a critic of his generation, this critical shift feels both exciting and scary. To be critically open made it “difficult to know how to find your way,” especially since the work’s wider subject matter may extend beyond a craft writer’s scope of professional training and expertise. By 2010, however, he felt so strongly about this need to foster new forms of critical practice that he and artist Tim Tate decided to secede from the studio glass world, founding their Facebook page called Glass Secessionism.

Having studied art history at the University of California, Berkeley, one generation after Warmus was a student, I described how Greenberg’s formalist critical model had already cracked by the 1980s under the force of Marxist, feminist, and postmodernist critical methods. As a young writer, I saw it as my ethical responsibility to connect an artist’s formal material choices to the broader systems of power that were actually shaping them. When I began teaching and publishing regularly in the 1990s, identity politics had challenged progressive writers to acknowledge how race, class, gender, and ethnicity influenced a person’s creative practice and their critical reception. The hierarchical, modernist critical approach that Warmus felt compelled to critique had, after all, excluded many fascinating women, queer artists, artists of color, craftspeople and non-Euro-Americans from gaining critical and historical attention. In response, we tried to tease out the exclusive, often insidious, ideological assumptions that had produced the field’s major blind spots, as well as attempt to fill in its many cultural gaps – even though we called this “revisionist” rather than “reticulate” analysis at that time. Much of the most interesting art writing and curatorial practice today, I believe, still aims to shine a light on what cultural critic Gregory Sholette describes as the aesthetic “dark matter” of the art world, i.e., the very real, diverse creative practices that have always been present but were marginalized and rendered invisible under the blinding glare of art/craft-world “stars.”

Roberto Lugo Century Vase III: American

Roberto Lugo, Century Vase III: American, 2015, porcelain, glaze, china paint

Courtesy of Wexler Gallery and the artist

The early 2000s were precisely the historical moment when Sarah Archer was pursuing her graduate degree at Bard Graduate Center. It’s no wonder, then, that ever since she published her first article roughly 10 years ago, Archer has been persistently “fascinated with how contemporary craft artists are being inspired by, riffing off of, and arguing against historical sources and materials in interesting ways.” She offered the example of ceramic artist Roberto Lugo, whose mash-up of museum and hip-hop culture points to wealth inequality, civil rights struggles, global labor practices, and the rarefied sphere of luxury goods. He mimics the form of traditional ceramic “century vases,” the large vessels originally commissioned for the 1876 World’s Fair to celebrate technological innovations, Gilded Age wonders, and North American heroes. In Lugo’s All About the Benjamins Century Vase (2016), he features Benjamin Franklin with a bandana covering his mouth alongside the logo and acerbic lyrics of the Wu-Tang Clan; in African Refugee Century Vase, he portrays George Washington framed by the Confederate battle flag, while smaller roundels feature portraits of Erykah Badu, Sojourner Truth, Cornel West, Frederick Douglass, and Lugo himself. These works are indictments rather than celebrations of American history, generated from the viewpoint of a contemporary artist whose Puerto Rican parents struggled to raise him in one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods. Lugo’s deliberately provocative work simultaneously pays homage to the country’s exquisite craft legacies, making them a perfect combination for a critical writer like Archer, whose training as a decorative arts historian allows her to decipher these witty and caustic revisions of iconographic traditions. She said Lugo earned her critical respect for being “somebody who has both the intellectual chops and the ability to fabricate something really compelling, but also to weave together a critique of our society through objects in an unbroken chain. That is a very powerful act.”

Lugo has argued that delivering public talks about his history as a graffiti artist, along with teaching ceramics in schools and community centers, are both essential to his professional practice and must operate alongside making pots to sell to collectors. This fact made me inquire whether we as craft critics were prepared to represent the broader spectrum of this artist’s entire cultural practice, rather than focusing on exhibited objects alone. Why not look beyond gallery settings for ways that craftspeople are choosing to work today and write about that? And if Lugo depicts a street sign of a Mexican family running across the US-Mexico border (as in Century Vase III: American, 2015), then how might this all-too-familiar iconography become an opportunity to sharpen our critical understanding of this complex political issue? Do his images provoke us to do extra “homework” on illegal immigration conditions today? Or might we, in the future, consider approaching experts from multiple disciplines to co-author a response to Lugo’s work? Right now we don’t have many models for writing collaboratively, but perhaps we should explore them. Adopting a strategy of cross-disciplinary collaborative writing would certainly deepen critics’ understanding about the kinds of work craft is actually capable of doing out in the world, and would usher in wider audiences to our professional field.

In any case, we all agreed that the globalization of the art world and the launch of the internet has greatly accelerated reticulate critical practices. With the push of a button, we now access an unfathomable range of creative work, as well as new kinds of multidisciplinary writing – which might have otherwise remained unvalued “dark matter.” For example, Warmus noted that he recently discovered both Skywalker’s and Bothwell’s work not from going to an art gallery or skimming through the pages of a craft journal, but rather by surfing the internet and following his nose. He noted that he often used his Facebook page as a forum to test ideas before publishing them more formally in books and journals, not unlike the way an informal group critique might function for an artist. But he was also quick to point out the increasingly popular myth that everything of value has been digitized. We need to remember that there is plenty of “secret knowledge” that exists in libraries, archives, and people’s memory banks that is not yet online – and perhaps never will be unless writers revise their research methodologies. For example, there’s a myth in the glass community that there’s very little critical writing about studio glass, when in fact there are hundreds of articles that have been written. The writings are spread across the world in obscure, specialized publications, and it’s not easy to get to them.

Sarah described how early in her career, she wrote in specialized craft journals with circumscribed audiences such as Ceramics: Art & Perception, but more recently she has been able to publish similar articles for Hyperallergic, a self-described online “forum for serious, playful and radical thinking about art in the world today.” Websites such as Hyperallergic reach people who are broadly interested in culture, but who haven’t sought out ceramics as a medium, so an article about Lugo’s work may be discovered and go viral. She also noted that since 2008, Namita Wiggers’ and Elisabeth Agro’s choice to position Critical Craft Forum as an online forum, podcast, and Facebook destination allowed for an even more robust set of debates to flourish amongst those who identify as “inside” members of the craft community. In 2014, Sarah was inspired by a heated online debate between about 20 people on Critical Craft Forum’s Facebook page regarding the inclusion of so-called “sloppy craft” that Michelle Grabner curated into that year’s Whitney Biennial. Sarah pitched this story to Hyperallergic, seeing it as a critical opportunity to reach out and interview the individuals who were posting online. Her article ultimately presented different viewpoints about what the placement of sloppy craft in a major museum means, and why there seems to be a love of gestural abandon in contemporary art ceramics that technically masterful potters have a tough time recognizing as valuable. From that point forward, much of Sarah’s writing aims to explore shifting critical dialogues between communities as much as it addresses craft objects themselves.

In the remainder of the panel, we looked at recent case studies that challenge craft critics to think more unconventionally: namely, two socially-engaged, craft-based projects that invite the participation of multiple makers who harbor a wide range of technical skills. One was the Wertheim sisters’, Crochet Coral Reef, and the other was Theaster Gates’ Dorchester House Project. Both of these extraordinary projects generated from thinking across multiple disciplines (textile art, mathematics, and ecological sciences in the case of the Wertheims; and ceramics, green carpentry, interior design, music, film, literature, and urban planning in the case of Gates.) Both began modestly and grew into more monumental works that spawned satellites and nonprofit enterprises in multiple cities. And both the Wertheims and Gates continue to invite the ever-expanding participation of much larger groups of collaborators, including multidisciplinary educators, students, and artists who value the experience of crafting things together and sharing different forms of knowledge. They also provide welcoming, safe spaces for people to gather and build coalitions while addressing urgent social and ecological injustice, from the planetary violence of climate change to the violence of racist policies that have historically transformed neighborhoods into ghettos and are now displacing local residents again through gentrification.

Clearly the ambitions of such socially engaged projects extend far beyond the production of beautiful formal objects alone. We agreed with the critical enthusiasm and institutional support that these projects have enjoyed, and yet, as Warmus suggested, “I don’t want to leave today giving the wrong impression that we, as critics, are really nice people and we love everything, because there is room for negative criticism.” We concluded the session by suggesting that craft writers should never lose our critical capacity to rigorously analyze and actively contest overinflated claims being made for craft projects, either by the artists themselves or their champions. This involves doing our due diligence, calling out the lines between facts and so-called “alternative facts,” as well as lived realities vs. fictional desires. While the complexity of critically tackling these differences can seem prohibitive to some, these are wildly exciting times for young writers who are eager to explore reticulate realities.

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