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?