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Glenn Adamson: Cheerleader for Criticality

I just finished Glenn Adamson’s new book, Thinking Through Craft. It’s an exasperating read, challenging and opaque and annoying in turns.

Adamson is a very smart guy, and this book is his attempt to prove beyond question that he’s the smartest guy in the craft room. He’s very well read – better than I am by a good stretch – and he isn’t shy about displaying his erudition at every opportunity. But like a lot of intellectuals, he presents his basic assumptions as assertions, not as conclusions to a reasoned argument. And assertions must always be regarded with skepticism, especially when they form the foundation for a book-length exposition.

So I’ll lay it out: Adamson is enlarging upon John Bentley Mays’s article in the Dec 1985/Jan 1986 issue of American Craft. Mays claimed that the primary virtue of visual art is criticality, and that the crafts were sadly deficient in it. Adamson’s reworking holds out several possibilities for critical crafts, which would presumably lead to a craft avant-garde. These two terms, “criticality” and “avant-garde,” form Adamson’s twin articles of faith. Criticality is necessary for the avant-garde, and the avant-garde is necessary for truly interesting art… and craft. Got that?

The problem is: Adamson’s position is essentially a 1980s leftist academic view of art. Art MUST stand in a critical relation to the larger society to be valid, and the ONLY position that the avant-garde can assume vis-à-vis the larger society is critical. This twin thesis harks back to tired academic Marxism: capitalism is baaaaaaad, socialism is gooooood, the middle class is inherently corrupt because it stands in the way of revolution. Private property is a crime. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. The crafts represent nostalgia for pre-industrial conditions. All pleasure is suspect because it distracts from revolutionary consciousness… etcetera, ad infinitum. Does anybody really believe that stuff anymore? Does Adamson, now installed in a comfy curatorial position in that old center of empire, London?

Back in the real world, art is resolutely pluralist. Criticality is an interesting option, to be sure, but it is only one option among many. True pluralism trumps the possibility of a single avant-garde, and I don’t know any good art writer who even uses the term anymore. (Well, maybe there’s some retrograde Brit crypto-Marxist, I don’t know.) Why shouldn’t craft be equally pluralist, then?

In a revealing passage, Adamson writes that a Warren MacKenzie pot and an Art Carpenter wishbone chair are his two favorite possessions. But then he says that “they occupy a safe position in the landscape of the visual arts,” and that he does not feel compelled to interpret them. Neither object “creates uncertainty,” which to Adamson is the most interesting thing an artwork can do. Thus, according to Adamson, the highest virtue of craft is to sustain interpretation.

Here is the triumph of discourse – meaning writing – over everything else. It’s no coincidence that most of the artists that Adamson cites approvingly are from the 70s and 80s – Robert Smithson, Robert Morris, Carl Andre – the heroes of the great age of heavy-duty theory and Calvinist righteousness in American art. These men are models for craft to emulate? Huh? Should I point out that there has been a sustained assault on the idea that art exists primarily for written interpretation?

As for pleasure, Adamson dismisses it out of hand. He calls Dale Chihuly’s work hedonist, condemning it for lacking “dialectical interest.” Celebration is condemned in similar terms, as are displays of technical virtuosity. For that matter, most of the conditions of production and reception that the newest generations of craft practitioners find so interesting get no props from Adamson.

Still, Adamson offers an interesting schema for understanding the crafts. He looks at craft through five interpretive lenses: the supplemental, material, skill, the pastoral, and amateurism. Just for the opportunity to contemplate his structure, it’s worth reading the book. And his section on amateurism is fascinating. He compares bodies of work in highly unconventional ways: Robert Arneson, Judy Chicago, Mike Kelley and Tracey Emin are placed in comparison. That must be unique.

Certainly, craft is under-theorized, and Adamson tries mightily to fill the gap. But I always thought that something of the body, of direct experience and intuition and emotion and pleasure must be admitted into any truthful examination of craft. Adamson’s all brain. All words.

So watch out. But for anybody who cares about the creation of a distinct theory about the crafts, this book is required reading. Just reserve some room for your own criticality.

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