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Sneaky Thinking: Glenn Adamson’s “The Invention of Craft”

Glenn Adamson’s new book of craft theory, “The Invention of Craft,” purports to be a revisionist history about the origins of contemporary craft. Presumably, he intends to upset the familiar story of craft under the threat of industrialization, with Ruskin providing the theory and Morris providing the practice. He proposes a new story, in which craft was never under threat after all, and all that heavy breathing about craft preserving old ways of making is a foolish fiction.

All revisionists need an existing history to refute. The standard story is that craft was either a relentlessly nostalgic or a sharply critical response to industrialization. It’s well known that both Ruskin and Morris hated many of the modern inventions of their age, particularly sweated factory labor and shoddy goods. Some critics seize on Morris’s early Gothic Revival tendencies (and some of his silly fantasies about the Gothic age) to demonstrate that he was essentially backwards. In turn, the Arts and Crafts Movement that depended on both men must have been similarly backwards-looking. Craft is then painted with the brush of anti-modernism: the refusal to embrace new materials (like steel), new technologies (like mass-production), and new styles. This condemnation of craft is then used to suggest that craft always was, and continues to be, opposed to the contemporary in all things. Craft is the fuddy-duddy of the art world, forever yearning for a return to some sweet imaginary past.

So the intention of Adamson’s book is to change the story. He wants to depict craft as working hand-in-hand with industry, enthusiastically accepting new materials and technologies, and by implication, embracing the new styles of the 20th century. It’s a laudable intention.

Does it work? No.

I have always found Adamson to be a sneaky writer. He’s evasive when he needs to be precise. His evasions undermine his arguments. That’s precisely what happens in this book.

How is that, you ask? Well, the evasion begins in Adamson’s very elastic definition of craft. Basically, he defines craft as any kind of skilled handwork. Elsewhere he defines craft as an attitude. Either definition is expansive, even when he limits craft to handwork. Why? Because handwork includes trades and hobbies along with studio craft. Does that matter? You bet.

Adamson’s thesis depends entirely on including trades as a form of craft. He cites numerous examples in the book, from locksmithing to the making of papier-maché furniture. In this expansive view, craft was very much a handmaiden to industry. In fact, industry couldn’t have gotten along without tradecraft. Good machinists, good locksmiths, good diesinkers, and many others: all were necessary to the progress of mass-production. For nearly 150 years, highly skilled men stood behind the machines.

But we’re talking about studio craft here. That’s the real subject of Adamson’s book. Studio craft was, indeed, a 19th century invention. It has been in flux ever since. But studio craft still has certain irrefutable characteristics. One is a supporting ideology, a set of ideals and criticisms and statements of faith that was first formulated in England starting in the 1850s. Another is a requirement that the work be creative in some way, that the work must have its “share of invention,” in Ruskin’s words. And finally, studio craft is shaped by an aesthetic gloss, an effort to make the work artful in a significant way.

These characteristics mark the boundaries between studio craft and trade craft. Think about it. Do we seriously think that drywalling and plumbing are studio crafts? Like many trades, they rely extensively on handwork. But they are not studio crafts. Why? Partly because trade labor is highly prescribed, defined by a set of rules that describe the best practices. Furthermore, the tradesman’s work is strictly utilitarian, bounded on all sides by the requirements of the job. The drywaller’s job is to put up and smooth over the sheetrock as efficiently as possible. It’s a job with very clear standards. The labor has no space for creativity or aesthetics. Drywalling is NOT a studio craft because there is NO room for invention, and no space for aesthetics. A flat, smooth wall: that’s all that is wanted. Make no mistake, those guys are highly skilled. They perform a craft. But it is emphatically not a studio craft, in the sense of throwing a pot with some measure of creativity, or making a blown glass installation, or utilizing knitting as a protest against globalism. Trade craft is usually devoid of three crucial aspects of studio craft: invention, aesthetic intent, and ideology.

There are exceptions, of course. Studio jewelry and trade jewelry can come very close. (Or not.) But it remains significant that most creative tradecraft – like, say, French Art deco jewelry _- was almost always the product of a division of labor, in which the real creative work was done by a designer, and the tradesman was left to execute the designer’s instructions. Most of the aesthetics and invention was relegated to the designer, not the maker.

Adamson’s whole argument depends on believing that tradecraft and studio craft are the same thing. They are not. Since he rests his case on tradecraft, any conclusions regarding studio craft are invalid. Thus, as revisionist history, “The Invention of Craft” fails.

Curiously, Adamson never provides a clear definition of studio craft. I suspect this is because he thinks that studio craft is amorphous, incapable of supporting a definition. I disagree completely. (See my writings elsewhere for my definition.) Obviously, craft cannot be any one thing. Craft does not even need to be made by hand any more. But there are very clear aspects of studio craft that set up a sliding scale of definition: the more aspects an object manifests, the more craft-like the thing must be. It is also clear that there are other aspects that studio craft cannot be; rote labor being one of them.

In any case, the idea that craft skills and bodies of knowledge were not under threat in the late 19th century is utter baloney. Industrialization nearly killed all kinds of crafts, from potting to hand spinning. The same time I was reading Adamson’s book, I read Linda Parry’s new book, “William Morris : Textiles.” Parry’s book was an interesting counter-argument to Adamson’s. Morris personally revived a number of dying craft technologies, from tapestry weaving to dyeing with natural materials. In Morris’s day, only a few people knew how to dye with indigo, for instance, because most dyeing in Victorian England was done with synthetic analine dyes. Morris spent several years with his arms stained blue from his indigo vats, as he reinvented a technology that was almost lost. Even in the United States, similar stories can be told. When Dard Hunter started his paper-making business in around 1913, there was not a single place in the country where handmade paper was still produced.

In other words, craft skill and knowledge was most certainly under threat from industrialization. Adamson misstates.

Ironically, Adamson didn’t have to prove that craft has been part of the modern enterprise. Anybody who knows the actual history of studio craft (as opposed to just the myths) knows that some studio crafts practitioners were quite up-to-date. Even Morris embraced new technologies. He designed a linoleum in 1875, when the technology was only a few years old. Later, when he was designing his own typefaces for the Kelmscott Press, he made extensive use of photography. Many of his carpets were mass-produced on Jacquard looms. When it served his purposes, Morris used new industrial technologies. He was not the Luddite he is often thought to be. And he certain was not trying to “systematically forget the present,” as Adamson suggests on page 213.

In the 20th century, we can cite any number of practicing studio craftsmen who embraced new styles and new technologies. In the 1920s, Henry Varnum Poor successfully adapted his avant-garde painting style to his ceramics. In the 1930s, Walter von Nessen hand fabricated metal furniture that was as progressive as anything that came from the Bauhaus. In the 1940s, Dorothy Liebes produced hand-woven (and designed machine-woven) fabrics that were as fashionable as any in the world. Studio craft does have its advocates for looking backwards, like Mary Meigs Atwater reviving overshot weaving. But studio crafts also had a substantial number of makers who fully embraced the modern moment.

Despite my criticisms of “The Invention of Craft,” the book has value. The last chapter is intriguing. Here, Adamson introduces the idea that craft is a form of “memory work” to allay the traumas of modern life. There some truth to this idea, particularly as applied to those craftsmen whose fondest desire was to relive the past. It’s an interesting thesis, one worth considering. Of course, its value depends on whether or not you think present conditions are traumatic or not. I can see it either way.

Adamson also provide many intriguing digressions about handwork and technology. He tells tales about lockpicking, representations of craft, vulcanized rubber, and many other topics besides. They may not be particularly germane, but they sure are interesting.

Read this book with plenty of skepticism, and keep Adamson’s substitution of one kind of craft for another in mind. It’s not the intellectual landmark work he hoped it would be, but it’s still worth the read.

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