Transcript for Craft, Reconsidered - Glenn Adamson

Jim Fleming: You know craft when you see it, right? Those unique, felt hats at the holiday sale, the delicate porcelain bowls at the gallery store? The worn, wooden jewelry box the your grandfather made, by hand. Crafts, about the object, about the wool or the wood or clay from which it's made. It's about the tradition of the making.


But there is more to it, says Glenn Adamson. He's head of research at London's Victorian Albert museum. Anne Strainchamps sat down to talk with him about the future, the past, and the philosophy of craft.


Anne Strainchamps: Well Glenn let's start with the basics, and talk a bit about what we mean when we use the label craft these days. I think you mention it to a lot of people, if you say craft they think you mean scrapbooking or knitting or cake decorating. Somebody else might think of fine furniture making or museum-quality Japanese vases.


Glenn Adamson: Yes, I think the interesting thing about craft is that it is in fact all of those things at once. It covers a very, very wide range of human endeavor. Anytime you have skill and you have process and knowledge of materials, you have craft. For example, cake decorating, might seem like kind of an amateur, marginal pursuit. Whereas fine furniture, or indeed carving marble to make a sculpture, could be considered to be quite an elevated occupation.


Then you could ask, Why is that? Why don't we respect cake decorators as much as we respect sculptors? It's that kind of ability to rethink existing hierarchies, that I think makes it really attractive as a subject.


Strainchamps: Is that what you do as a curator? You look for the absolute best examples of cake decorating or weaving or whatever and then that's what goes in exhibition that you're curating?


Adamson: Yeah, it could be the absolute best example. At the Viene, where I work there was an exhibition called "Power of Making" a couple of years ago. That was really about the most extraordinary skilled makers that you could find in these various areas. In fact, there was a sugar decoration specialist. But you can do it other ways too. You don't have to say Who's the best? You could also say, Who's the most interesting? Who's putting the most of their own personal story into it?


I recently did a show about repair, for example. That looked at repair of all different kinds. Some of it very shoddy and fast, and therefore quite expressive, in fact, and interesting to look at. Some of it so skilled that you could scarcely tell what had been done because the repair was so complete, so perfect that it had erased itself.


Strainchamps: Wow, that's just fascinating! Tell me more about the things that were repaired.


Adamson: They come in all shapes in sizes. There's a wonderful tradition in Japan where they'll take a broken tea bowl and, instead of making the old crack invisible, they'll actually fill it with lacquer and cover the lacquer with gold leaf. It looks like the crack has actually been repaired with molten gold. What they've done there is to draw attention to the accidental beauty of this cracked line.


Strainchamps: That's such an interesting example that you bring up because it strikes me that one of the things that adds to the beauty of that particular object is that there's a powerful idea behind it. What matters more: the actual object, or the idea that informs it?


Adamson: I'm glad you asked that question. I think often, craft is opposed to other forms of creativity that seem initially to be more conceptual. You'll often have this opposition that's made between, let's say tasit and bodily knowledge, which is something a crafts-person would have..


Strainchamps: What do you mean?


Adamson: Like knowing something in your hands, but in a way that you could scarcely explain. Everyone has that feeling of, if they're good at something. Whether it's a craft, or playing a musical instrument, or playing a sport. You have this feeling of being able to do something, almost without being aware of doing it as you're doing it. A kind of out-of-body experience, that's also very intensely bodily at the same time. For that reason, craft has this reputation, I guess, of being unthinking, or unconscious, let's say anti-intellectual. The way I think about it is that craft is actually a way of showing your commitment to an idea. Let's say you have that idea about the broken pot being an accidental, beautiful object in it's own right and you want to draw attention to that. You do that by filling it with lacquer and then painstakingly putting that gold leaf there as a way of almost doing tribute to the idea. As I say, showing kind of care and commitment to the idea.


Strainchamps: So, if you go way back in Western history, there were guilds and master craftsmen. Like a gorgeous, silver salt cellar made by a seventeenth century master might have been prized by, owned by kings. Then somewhere along the way, as you were saying, craft came to be considered second-rate. Kind of like fine art's poor cousin. What happened?


Adamson: For me, it really happens in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century. We have the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly there's another way to make things, you know. You don't have to make them by hand. Until you have industry, you don't really have craft in the way that we talk about it. That's really where this idea of it being inferior comes along. From that point on, craft is sort of fighting to prove its value.  


Strainchamps: Are you talking about the period when William Morris and some of the other artists, craftspeople, and some of the political activists in England came together and created the Arts and Crafts movement?


Adamson: Yes, I think that's really the next part of the story. Craft seems to have emerged as this thing that seems threatened, seems older, seems valuable. That's when have these people like William Morris who emerge as part of what we call the Arts and Crafts movement. To try to save these crafts, and also to revive them in cases where they seem to have disappeared already. At the same time, I feel like looking back, there's a degree of idealization there.


Strainchamps: It's interesting, you pointed out the first crafts movement that kind of came about in response to the Industrial Revolution. I'm wondering about where craft is going right now. There does seem to be a hunger these days for artisanal products. People want small-batch vinegar and handmade chefs' knives. They also want to learn how to make things for themselves. Do you things are changing about the way we think about craft?


Adamson: Yes, I think that is an obvious thing to say. I think it's important that the more time we spend online, the more we want to go to a garage or go to a studio and make something by hand. I think it's also important to say that this can be a bit of a cliche. There's a lot of companies now that are producing artisanal makeup. I even saw a car ad, recently, where a brand was presenting its most recent SUV as being a completely handcrafted project. I look at that and think, Well, that just shows you how powerful it is. It has this reputation, craft does, for being marginal, and being the kind of weaker cousin of industry. In fact, its something people run back to again and again.


Strainchamps: Is there a way to bring these two different worlds together, manufacturing and handmade, crafted?


Adamson: Yes, this is something I'm very interested in. I think a lot of makers are today, as well. There's a feeling that, the opposition between craft and industry doesn't really make sense any longer because of the degree of the spoke. Making that new technology that we're always offering. There's a phrase that people often use, which is "Mass customization". Where you have the economies of scale, the mass production give you. You also have the specificity, the personalization, that craft gives you.


Think about a 3-D object where every aspect of it can be customized so that your entire house, everything you live with, can be completely customized at any time. Or you walk you walk down the street, and every car that goes by you looks completely different from the one that came before it. In fact, Audi is looking into this at the moment. Where the company produces just the platform, so the guts of the car, what everything else rides on. All of the parts that you see, the body of the car, is completely customized and made in local shops.


Strainchamps: It wouldn't just be me designing my own car, I might have, the local Picasso has designed my car. 


Adamson: Yeah, precisely. It's going to be a massively collaborative project to reshape our environment. If everybody pitches in, then you get this incredible result that speaks of both individual preoccupations and knowledge, and also the sense of a kind of social responsibility. What we should all know, and ideally that's the relationship that we would have to our environment, and you're going to get that through a combination of craft and technology.


Strainchamps: It just seems like it going to be a wonderful, new world for artists and craftspeople.


Adamson: Yes, and I think the more freedom we can grant artists and craftspeople and designers and technologists and inventors in that new set of possibilities, the better off we'll be. There needs to be a moment of letting a thousand flowers bloom. Sort of, not try to control the process too much and see what happens. I think the results could be magical.


Strainchamps: Spoken like a curator. Thank you.


Adamson: Pleasure. It's been a pleasure.


Fleming: Glenn Adamson, head of research at London's Victorian Albert museum. His latest book is called, "The Invention of Craft". I'm Jim Fleming, it's To the Best of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRI, Public Radio International

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