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SNAG 2010

I’m just back from the SNAG conference in Houston, still cleaning up loose ends. The conference was one of the best I have attended in recent years: lots of good speakers and at least two excellent exhibitions. Normally I go to SNAG with low expectations, since my interest in provocative discourse is still not widely shared by the membership. So it’s nice to have my expectations blown away.

Caroline Broadhead was the keynote speaker. Her delivery was quiet and understated, and sometimes I couldn’t hear her very well. But her body of work was very interesting, and occasionally quite beautiful. She traced her development from jeweler to installation artist. For her, a dress is a proxy for a person. Over the years, her dresses became increasingly dematerialized, moving from actual garments to shadows to images of shadows. In the end, there was no connection to jewelry at all. I suppose she is a model for turning craft into art. For my money, Broadhead is a better artist than Beverly Semmes, the uber-meister of dress imagery. She explores variations on the body and its trace, never resorting to a single format that exploits the same basic format over and over.

My other favorite lecture was Kristen Beeler’s extended meditation on beauty. (Beauty was a big topic at Houston. Kim Cridler’s exhibit “Extreme Beauty” was a visual exploration of the same theme.) Beeler’s talk was not just a discussion of her own work, with ideas thrown in here and there to illuminate the art. In fact, her speech was the inverse: a discussion of beauty with her work used to illuminate the subject. It seemed far less egotistical than the normal artist’s talk, which was refreshing. I hope Beeler revises her speech for publication someday: I would love to think about it in the way that only text can afford. A speech is like a musical performance. It’s here and then it’s gone, and all you have left is your own memory. Given the overload of information at a typical conference, I cannot recall the detail and density of any one speech. So… Kristen? We’re waiting.

Gabriel Craig’s talk on the moral potential of craft was not a crowd favorite. But I admire the guy’s courage in advancing a position that is usually ridiculed, even in the craftworld. Glenn Adamson scoffs at craft moralism, noting that the Nazis used craft in their volkisch propaganda, and that didn’t prevent Germans from committing all kinds of atrocities. Thus craft is not good for you. I think Adamson’s argument is specious, but it’s tough to argue that craft is, in fact, morally good. In contrast to Adamson, Craig said that certain types of craft practices – craftivism, ethical materials sourcing, the movement against sweated labor, development of local markets – are all forms of moral behavior. His agenda is relentlessly liberal, and certainly would not make points with most Republicans. Since I’m a closet moralist from way back (most college hippies in the 60s were moralists), I’m drawn to Craig’s argument. Like him, I’m a fan of Ruskin and Morris. And like him, I believe craft is an agent of the good.

I’m bothered by Craig’s framing of the issue as a moral imperative. The idea of the imperative goes back to Kant. As defined in Wikipedia (see:, Kant’s categorical imperative “denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that asserts its authority in all circumstances.” I don’t buy Kant’s argument, and the idea of an imperative strikes me as intellectual arm-twisting. So there was something coercive in Craig’s argument, which I think many in the audience sensed. But still, props to Craig for making the effort.

Ana Lopez did a fine job of organizing the Education Dialogue, at which I spoke. (My talk was primarily about the history of craft education in the U.S. before 1945.) The other speakers all focused on the intersection of craft practice and scholarship, which is now an essential part of college-level craft instruction. Lopez’s account of the “object report,” an analytical procedure developed by material culture scholar Jules Prown, was very interesting.

As for entertainment, I modeled a Robert Longyear necklace at the “Exhibition in Motion” at the MFA Houston. Thanks to several ounces of hair product and a pair of vintage sunglasses, I’m told I cut quite the figure out on the floor. Look for a photo on my Facebook page: Bruce Metcalf as wild & crazy guy! Dang!

Anyway, the multitudes who decided not to attend SNAG 2010 missed a very good conference. Congrats to Sandie Zilker and Diane Falkenhagen for their good taste and hard work.

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