In Which I Ponder the Idea of Being a Smothering Mother

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Glenn Adamson, Director of the Museum of Arts and Design, holds an interesting position on the idea of studio craft. He has spent years championing craft but is now ready to retire the mission. He questions the crusade for craft, taking instead the position that promotion of studio craft has run its course. Note that I specify the promotion of studio craft, and not the category of craft itself. On the contrary, Adamson makes it quite clear that he loves craft. It is the idea that it needs special pleading and encouraging that he disdains.

Alongside his writings, I watched part of a recorded lecture he gave on his Goodbye to All That. You can find it on Youtube easily; at the beginning of the lecture he related studio craft to Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. As many of us recall, Charlie Brown finds a pathetic and weak attempt of a Christmas tree, brings it to Linus, and says something about how “it needs him.” Like Charlie Brown, we try to help craft along, build it up, so that it can be pretty and special like fine art is. Yet what Adamson insists is that craft no longer needs our help; it is “real in,” he says, just like Lucy’s doctor character from Peanuts.

Throughout Adamson’s writings in Goodbye to All That, Thinking Through Craft, and Invention of Craft, he attempts to make us see that craft does not need our goading or babysitting. “On one hand,” he writes in Goodbye to All That, “craft has never been more popular. On the other hand, we retain the deep conviction that it needs saving.” Glenn Adamson repeats throughout his publications that it is time to drop this idea, and asks us to allow it to flourish on its own, using the terms “benign neglect” to help us see just how much we are to release our grip. The main argument, or rather encouragement, he is making here is this:  say goodbye to the idea that craft is a campaign we need to promote in order to stay afloat, much less succeed. Then, we may be able to witness studio craft bloom into its next phase or era (I like to imagine this metaphor as a teenager matures into an adult–wiser, more cultured, and altogether better-looking.)

Yet I have a comment to counter Adamson’s craft wisdom, which I think is a very important consideration to take in. Let’s keep things on a smaller, national scale, as that is all I can relate to. I just imagine the nation’s crafters reading these books and articles and responding with a nervous terror. Promoting our craft is all we know. I think we are scared to stop promoting craft; it is a livelihood that (let’s face it) is often looked down upon. We are used to trying to prove the worth of what we do to others, and therefore we are still under the impression that it is a neglected and “subordinate” career. We are scared to trust that the public will sustain this movement after we stop promoting it.

I suppose we can ask ourselves if we are a smothering mother, or if craft is a needy child. We can assess those questions in terms of our own practices. Personally, I never realized that there was a real market for craft until this past year. The more exhibitions I attended and the more I saw the handmade become popular, the more I realized that there is a place in this world for craft. No, it has not shone as a star in art history, but perhaps now is the time that craft makes history. Studio craft is more popular than ever before, and is also made accessible to all through the DIY movement. This concept makes me less nervous to attempt to make a living in the craft world. Still, the thought of ignoring the urge to promote a thing I love, a thing I want to succeed in, and want others to see the merit in as well…it’s a hard bite to swallow.

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