Wrestling With Garth Post #6: Sidebar-- Wrestling with Glenn

Forgive me Garth for posting this here, but I have just read a “Big Question” in the Aug/Sep American Craft magazine.  Glenn Adamson is head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft.  


Adamson is asked and responds to the question “could we legitimately refer to a well designed mass-produced object as craft?”  He illustrates his investigation by considering the ubiquitous standard clunky diner mugs that he has bonded with (I think it would be fair to say many of us bonded with these over the years) and prefers to handmade mugs for his morning coffee.  He gets out of these mugs “all the pleasure, intimacy, and warmth that I do from my handmade ceramics – if not more.”  As he points out: “They are well-made, perfectly designed, heavy and sure in the hand.”  He also indicates that these mugs are the result of a collaboration between machines and skilled craftsmen who “finish” them by hand in order to correct for irregularities.  He then refers to a visit with some Kohler factory workers in Wisconsin who efficiently finish each toilet by hand with a single tool.  It is difficult for me to infer anything other than an implication that toilets are “finished” by craftsmen, therefore their products should be called craft.  I don’t dispute that the factory workers are craftsmen, but so are plumbers and electricians, yet we don’t refer to plumbing and wiring as craft.   




I suppose that if a urinal can be re-appropriated by an artist as Art, it stands to reason that a person could argue that mass-produced toilets or diner mugs can be craft.  But are they?


If a mass-produced mug is craft, is an i-phone also craft?  I certainly know people who love their i-phones with immeasurable pleasure.  What is wrong with calling them well designed products?


To be perfectly fair, Glenn doesn’t commit one way or another.  He acknowledges that it is a question of semantics that could be argued either way.  To him the question is more easily resolved if we use craft as a verb rather than a noun.  Mass- produced objects are “crafted” even if they are not “craft” per se.  Categorizing and defining objects rather than the work people do is a problem in his book.  


I had to wonder if this was a pile of vacant intellectual noodles.  What is the point of the discussion?  Perhaps craft is actually dead?  I know critics get paid to provoke and challenge, but do we really have to continue to defend the idea that craft cannot be replaced or reproduced by machines?  Of course I realize the importance of good design, but why should design encroach on the field of craft?


My issue with this argument is not with the affection for mass-produced mugs.  I confess to having fondness for these same mugs he describes (and yes rather intimate relationships with toilets too!).  Nor do I have a problem with a critic elevating the diner mugs by praising them.  Essentially this is what the Japanese tea-masters did with Korean peasant rice bowls in the fifteenth century.  And perhaps these mugs are modern day peasant wares being rarified in a very similar way.  In fact, I like this comparison in that all of the wares are totally unself-conscious (quite literally in the case of the mass-produced mugs and toilets).  In the peasant rice bowls, a perfect economy of potter choreography had been achieved such that the form, function and low price-point aligned to produce something so humble it was beautiful.  Is the modern mass-produced coffee mug the modern heir to peasant rice bowls?  An argument could be constructed, but I would argue against the industrial mug as “craft.”


Sitting next to a rippling peasant rice bowl, the mass-produced diner mug is sedated to the point of oblivion, yet it is seductive and sensually appealing.  There is no ornament or even color to distract you from your own oblivion, that lingering fuzzy dream-state.  In fact it may be the quietness of its simple but purposeful undecorated form which matches it up with the morning coffee ritual so well.  


The toilet is another product that doesn’t benefit from ornamentation or color (remember the awful green or beige toilets of the 1970s?)  These are essentially form and function issues.  It follows that if an object is to be used in an intimate routine that it should be rather sedated and purposeful.


But these mugs are not examples of craft.  They are the sum of good basic design, quality materials and modern fabrication techniques.  The humility of the object lands it very close to craft’s sacred heritage.  The contemporary market has selected strongly against “humility” in craft.  If you don’t believe me look at American Craft magazine or my website.  Unless a craftsman is intensely proud of their humility (an oxymoronic morass) it is very difficult to get a fair trade on.


Historians may eventually look at industrial products as an offshoot of craft.  Industrial mechanization is an extension of the desire to create products faster and cheaper than by hand.  Indeed, the potter’s wheel itself is simply a tool for speedy reproduction.  But industrial mechanization has come with a price.  It has eroded the need for human skill and knowledge and common sense. 


I guess what disturbs me about Adamson’s argument is that what we know in our hearts to be craft has already been pushed toward the margins by industry on one side and intensely self-conscious artists working in craft media (I am guilty) on the other.  If we allow industrial products to be called craft, the word will be diluted even further.  What can a potter be proud of if not his/her craft?


Post # 7: Wrestling with Glenn, part 2: Industry and Craft

My intention here is not to pick on Glenn Adamson, but his willingness to call factory produced objects like slip cast diner mugs and toilets craft has stirred some interesting thoughts in my mind, just as Garth Clark’s “How Art Envy Killed the Craft Movement” did last fall.  


First off, I was very pleased that Glenn posted a comment after my previous post and then posted the whole thing on Critical Craft Forum’s facebook sight.  (If you missed his comment or mine back to him, check them out.)  But as I have pondered the response, I have had to wonder if he understood my post.  His major objection to my post was that it seems stingy and territorialist to exclude factory workers from using the term craft.  Let me share a quote here (interrupted with my own thoughts).


Glenn:  When studio practitioners try to retain proprietary relation to the term craft they are inevitably faced with the fact of high skill levels in non-studio, industrial situations.  


My thought:  Is taking slip cast toilets out of molds and fettling them roughly equivalent to designing and turning a large variety of pots by hand and carefully glazing drying and decorating them, then firing and marketing them.  Yes there is some hand skill in factory manufacture, but most of that skill is directed at speed while the pressures of preparing  the materials, designing, firing, and marketing are handled by other people.


Glenn:  Usually they (studio craftsmen) end up directing attention away from actual skill, process, materials, technique etc., and towards social concerns like satisfaction, independence and aesthetics.  


Me:  My post did none of the above, unless you count my comment that the diner mugs appear subdued compared with peasant rice bowls as an aesthetic criticism. I actually turned that comparison into a form and function compliment that would favor the diner mug as craft.


Glenn:  My feeling is that distinguishing craft from industry on this basis is just not going to work – the opposition between the autonomy of a studio craftsman and the alienation of an industrial worker is not total, and often doesn’t even apply.  Many factory workers are plenty satisfied, precisely as a result of their skill.


Me:  I agree with much of this, and have found in my personal experience that the reverse is sometimes true.  That is to say although I am an autonomous studio craftsman, I feel alienated much of the time.  My independence is a consolation, but it does not solve the problem of being a wage slave; it just means I am entirely responsible for whatever money comes in or does not come in.  Even though I enjoy my work and relationships with customers, I spend a lot of time alone, and there is a lot of anxiety connected with getting the work made and to market on schedule.  Again I agree that this type of anxiety is not a concern in a healthy factory situation, but it should probably be noted that not all factory situations are as happy and healthy as the Kohler plant in Wisconsin (mommy what’s a sweat-shop?).


I know.  All of this seems a bit nit-picky, so lets get to the real issue.  What is craft?  Craft is essentially a summary of humanity’s efforts to provide useful and/or beautiful objects to comfort us both physically and emotionally.  If we stick to this basic definition, both art and industry would be encompassed.  But there are historical reasons why we have drawn lines between them.  In Garth’s “How Art Envy Killed the Craft Movement,” he claims that Craft was born with a twin during the Arts and Craft movement in the mid-nineteenth century.  This twin is Design, which (according to Garth) has flourished over the last fifty years as craft has languished, and together the twins make up the “applied arts.”  The characteristic difference, which has distinguished the twins from one another is that Craft is made by hand while Design is produced by industry.  Of course craft predates industry and design by thirty or forty thousand years, and design for industry was being practiced from the dawn of the industrial revolution (well before William Morris’s reactive arts and crafts movement).  So perhaps Craft and Design were reborn during the arts and crafts movements and together make up the applied arts.  


Certainly our modern understanding of what craft is was deeply influenced by the arts and crafts movement and has continued evolving since then.  And of course the field of design has had its high points and low points, but why not preserve that original distinguishing characteristic?  Glenn Adamson correctly argues that there is skillful hand-work being done in factory settings.  And for Glenn this is grounds to call their efforts craft.  It is worth considering.  One thing that I keep stumbling over as I contemplate craft and industry is that a practitioner of craft (at least in the field of ceramics) actually designs or at the very least interprets the design as he/she makes, while a factory worker simply “finishes” a well designed product after springing it from its mold.  That seems like a pretty substantive difference to me.


Part of Glenn's original argument for including industrial products with craft was that he bonds with the objects in an identical way.  How does that hold up?  Humans are programmed to bond with objects whether they are plastic Barbie dolls or corn-shuck dolls, styrofoam cups, industrial mugs, hand-thrown mugs, wheel barrows or i-pods.  I don’t think i-pods styrofoam cups or Barbie dolls have any human “finishing” labor, but all of these could be called design or applied arts, and will be referred to as "artifacts" in the future.  But only the hand-made mug and hand-made corn-shuck doll meet my understanding of craft.  If we look at craft vs. industry in furniture, the arguments get more complex, as high-end factory made and hand-made to design methods resemble one another pretty closely.  I don’t feel I have the expertise to address this aspect. 


As I mentioned earlier Glenn’s primary objection to withholding the term craft from industrial products and the factory workers who help produce them is that it seems stingy and territorialistic.  I can see what he means, and I am certainly willing to compromise by calling their work "factory-craft" (and i-phones “machine craft” for that matter) or "designer-craft," but to just lump it all together as craft ignores significant substantive issues and the history of each discipline.  Perhaps I am protecting my territory.  Is there anything wrong with that?  I have a dog in this race.  My livelihood depends on people being able to easily understand why my pots cost more than industrially produced products.  My unions are craft organizations like the ACC and the Southern Highland Craft Guild understand the difference and the importance of maintaining a public understanding of the difference.  


I am reminded of one of my favorite zingers from Garth’s “Envy” address.  In noting the inherent conflict in William Morris’s socialist agenda and his production of high-end craft for the wealthy, he said “It wasn’t quite the same as Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess, but it came perilously close.”  How is it that an art/craft scholar and critic with a doctorate working at one of the most prestigious museums in western civilization claims solidarity with factory workers while suggesting a practitioner of craft has no right to define craft narrowly.  This is just an intellectual point for Adamson, not a manifesto, but I confess that it is a little confusing to me.  If he is bored with traditional craft he is certainly free to write about design and factory craft, but why appropriate the word craft which refers to an independent discipline?


Do factory laborers want their work to be called Craft or have their craftsmanship recognized?  I am happy to do the latter.  Labor has a dignity that is separate from craft.  I know this because I regularly cut and stack wood, dig and process clay and glaze materials, etc.  As our society has become more reliant on machinery and technology we have begun to regard manual labor as loathsome or beneath us.  I sympathize strongly with factory workers precisely because I understand hard physical work very well.  But doing a job well is its own reward as the saying goes, and if Americans won’t do it, Mexican immigrants will (Our economy would fall apart without their labor).  But labor and even skill or craftsmanship do not necessarily imply craft is being produced.


There is something Orwellian about calling industrial products craft.  They may have already supplanted craft in many ways, but that doesn’t mean that they have become craft.  A factory has the power of a corporation behind it, and regardless of what the US Supreme Court has decided, most people can readily distinguish between corporations and individuals.  Corporations are not people, war is not peace and industrial products are not craft.  Those things seem obvious to me, but language is a tool that is evolving constantly.  Care and conscientious discussion must accompany the shifting meanings implied by language.  I may well lose this debate but I hope this writing adds to the collective opinion of dissent.


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