On How Modernism and Art-Envy is Bad for Craft


Erin Furimsky passed along to me a certain article by Bruce Metcalf entitled Replacing the Myth of Modernism. It is a fairly long read, but came highly recommended from her as something that might be of interest to me. Essentially, Metcalf has produced a lengthy dissertation on the evils of Modernism in art and how it has grossly affected craft. Apparently there is a theory going around that craft is finally art and you can all go home now. I can’t say I fully disagree; you can all go home but craft is certainly not the same as art.

Metcalf says, “If craft wants entry into the temple of art, it had better change its clothes—and be very polite.” An attempt to become just like art is toxic to craft and craftspeople should stop trying to force it. He says there are some important distinctions between craft and art that should be considered. Firstly, craftspeople and sculptors produce entirely different results. Craft is more decorative and mindful of the material while sculpture is more conceptually tied to history and world art issues. Second, craft has a different set of values, different  kinds of objects, and operates in a different paradigm of history. Lastly, art is limitless and sometimes permissive. Anything can be art (i.e. a urinal), but not everything can be craft.

He also claims that craft has 4 identities. Craft is most always hand made by people. Craft is medium-specific, tried and tested over the ages. Craft is defined by use. And lastly, craft is defined by the past and tradition. He does not consider this a weakness but a strong point, a way of differentiating art from craft. You know the situation has to be pretty bad if the field cannot even define its own practice.

But the brunt of his argument is about Modernism–how it took over the art world after the first World War and things have never been the same since. He says that Modernism demands autonomy in art. That’s why every craft piece in a museum typically seems different from traditional craft. They seek after autonomy. 

“Ultimately, Modernism redefined art… Anything else–the craftness of craft, the social and psychological uses of an object, the meanings that people project upon the things they love–does not fall within the realm of art. And if it’s not art, according to the rules of Modernism, it cannot cause an aesthetic experience, it’s not worth looking at seriously, and it’s not really worth doing.” According to Metcalf, Modernism changed the art world so that craft fit in less—and so it’s no wonder they envy art, as artist-status is what craftspersons long for again. 

“It should be clear that I am no friend of modernism,” he says in the summary of his essay. He thinks it did more damage than good. …objects [that cater to Modernism] have surrendered many of art’s–and craft’s–important purposes: to remind ordinary people of their position in the cosmos; to point to meaning; to be used; to help; to heal; to entertain. Those functions were discarded in the name of the self-rewarding aesthetic experience, and it’s high time craftsmen reclaim them.” I would have to say that I don’t think I have come across an article that blames a movement for craft’s behavior, save the Industrial Revolution and the machine perhaps. It was interesting to read this take on it. Perhaps what is more interesting to me is that he does not apologize for craft’s backward-looking perspective. He deems it the strength of craft and the very characteristic that defines it as a separate thing from art.

The traditional roles of craft offer rich possibilities, if only they can be reshaped to be relevant to social conditions today. What craft has always done is its strength. The challenge is to consciously, carefully build upon tradition.” People sometimes complain that craft does not tie into art history or theory the way it should. Tradition can give us roots and can also bloom into new traditions. Tradition does not always hold us back but gives us history to tie into. This is an interesting take on what craft should do to rid itself of art envy. I think this essay deserves a second, more thorough read in the future. 


“War–what is it good for? Absolutely knitting!”


Knitting is one of those activities that for years has been equated to female hobby work. It falls in line next to other hobbies such as crocheting, embroidery, sewing, etc. These crafts are not only hobbies but also livelihoods; they provide the textiles we use to clothe ourselves, keep warm, keep clean, and so on. For years, that has been their main use. But since the early 2000s, knitting (and other textile crafts) has blown up in popularity. Looking at Betsy Greer’s essay titled Craftivist History, it would appear that one of the main reasons why is because of Activism. Craft can be a vehicle to opening people’s eyes to issues in the world.

“…I began to think more and more about the intrinsic connection between the words craft and activism. Both of the terms tended to produce strong reactions, but what if they melded in such a way that allowed and encouraged people to use imagery and creativity as their activism?…What if they could each use the energy created by the other to take on a new idea?” With craft being the “younger child not taken seriously by art” and activism being a scary word that reminds people of protestation, riots, and law enforcement, it is so far fetched that it just might work. 

I think about other artists we have read about like Sabrina Gschwandtner, Liz Collins, Allison Smith, and Cat Mazza. In short I think I can say that these ladies use craft (typically knit-ware) to address political issues. Everything I read paired knitting with politics, or more correctly, activism. I wonder why this seems to be the only type of knitting that is even remotely taken seriously as art? Any other knitting seems to rank in a very low class of craft, spoken about in hushed tones and usually coupled with whispered words of craft fairs and Etsy. My question is not why other knit-wares are not found in galleries, but rather what is the big deal with knitting (and other textile arts) centering around activism?

Well, I think that the textile arts are something that many people are familiar with. Techniques and knowledge are passed down from one to another through the years. My grandmother taught me how to sew when I was quite young; I still remember her sitting with me in the back room and pulling the needle and thread up through the fabric so far and so quickly (I was scared she would stick her eye or her cheek, every time)! My mother showed me how to push fabric through a sewing machine not long after. Sarah Williamson (my art mentor, 10 years my senior) taught me how to crochet when I was a sophomore in college. So as you can see, textile skills are usually passed from woman to woman and they make us feel as though we are capable of making or fixing something. 

Maybe that is why textiles are frequently used for activism; they darn holes, keep us warm, emanate love and care. I think of Marianne Jorgensen and the Cast Off Knitters with their Pink M.24 Chaffee–an army tank covered with pink squares of knit yarn. Suddenly something used for destruction and intimidation becomes an image of warmth and coziness, even happiness. Betsy Greer wraps it up for me when she says that craftism is the idea that creativity can be a catalyst for change. Craft draws people in communally; it is easily recognizable and familiar. It is something that others can take part in. Because of this, I suppose it makes sense to utilize it in such a way that will draw people in to matters ongoing in the world that might otherwise be forgotten.

Thoughts on the Red Clay Rambler’s interview with Molly Hatch


Did you know that Tales of a Red Clay Rambler provides free podcasts on iTunes? Neither did I, until a couple of weeks ago. A whole list of podcast interviews with ceramic artists are at my disposal. The most recent is an interview with Molly Hatch; I had no hesitations starting there. Molly Hatch’s name had been dropped a couple of months ago in Craft class as an example of an artist who had perhaps “sold out.” Some said she sold out by creating a line of work for a popular company called Anthropologie; instead of making all her own wares and hand painting her intricate designs, she decided to let industry in and in effect, lost some sort of value in the art world. But after hearing her speak about her work, I would argue that something else has happened entirely. We will begin with her work in the High Museum of Art (located in Atlanta, Georgia).

“High Museum of Art–” the very name screams of fine art snobbery, doesn’t it? That is a wholly different argument. Hatch speaks of her new project Physic Garden, which is an ongoing exhibition at the High currently. There are 456 plates hanging on the surface of an entire wall. Each plate is a puzzle piece in the greater picture that spans the mounted tableware. This piece directly references 18th century Chelsea Factory plates–items of distinguished value among the high class of a time period filled with very clear class separations (a time of slavery and plantations).

Why did she use 456 plates as a canvas for this humongous, well…essentially it is a painting. “I want people [of all levels of artistic understanding] to walk in…and feel comfortable understanding it through the accessibility of a dinner plate…we all know what that is.” Really, her work is more about painting and drawing. The question she was asking herself (and I have found myself asking this about my work as well) was this: “How do I make an object into a drawing?”

Hatch is referencing historical patterns, imported goods for the high class, but she flips and tweaks it to making her work accessible to all audiences by using a low-class material low fire earthenware (in comparison to a fine porcelain, which is what those 18th century plates were made from, that is low class). I think Hatch’s backstory is interesting and gives a lot of perspective for the work she makes. She grew up in a dairy farming family; they worked hard, but had very nice decorative objects. She said her parents rejected the wealth they came from but also embraced. She said all her clothes came from the Salvation Army and they ate a lot of beef and cabbage, but the objects they were surrounded with were rather high class decorative. “I understood wealth through object,” Hatch says. This transfers into her work.

She feels as though she is in the same position of the 18th century artisan. Here she is making $50,000 sculptures that the average person will never buy; instead, these projects are funded by the high class. The part where some people wonder if she sold out is when Anthropologie asked her to sell wholesale to them. She realized she couldn’t attempt to be a factory without losing the integrity of her work and was unwilling to do so. She was willing to work with them as a designer, however, because at the time money was tight and she just could produce on that scale. Being the designer of ceramic tableware and then allowing someone else to take over the production was appealing. I love how she explains it:

“If they can make it for $15 a cup, why am I killing myself for the people who can afford a $70 cup? Which in itself is another inherent class problem. We might save, and take the time to save, to buy the cups because we care so deeply as potters or ceramic artists, or as collectors, or as people who are educated about what goes into the hand made, but for the most part most people can’t tell the difference when I put the two pieces, the prototype and the final product, next to each other, because the integrity of what I had intended the pot to do is all there.”

It took a lot of pressure off of her, and suddenly her friends could afford her work. “If that’s not a sign enough of what people value and how they value it…” she trailed off to talk about something else. She makes a very fair point, doesn’t she? It traces back to her sculptural work in the fact that she is trying to make accessible the high class things in life. Personally, if I told my friends how much a mug of mine would cost they would pull back too. But if my work could be perfectly replicated but still wholly designed by me, my gosh, they would be lining up to buy the dinnerware set for 12. It isn’t as if other artists haven’t done the same thing (enlisting other craftspersons to produce the work, then stamping their name on it). Molly Hatch hasn’t sold out. She simply uses industry as an important tool in her tool kit, enabling her to reach a multitude of people.

Craft is dead, long live Craft.


I think this is the first reading I have encountered that I have actually understood from “cover to cover.” It is also the first reading I have been able to read without thinking some parts if not all of it was, pardon my strong opinion, complete bull crap. Garth Clark unapologetically rips craft apart. Some of it is embarrassing, but I see it as completely unavoidable. 

Finally! an essay that explains to me what al this ART vs. CRAFT hubbub is about. I have been wondering why we are still arguing about the rankings of craft for a long time, and I have been hesitant to take any of these writers at their word because most of these readings seem to be decades old. I paid a lot closer attention to How Envy Killed the Crafts because Clark wrote this in 2008.

I still wonder why craft has to be the same as art, or why it is so necessary that we put ourselves on the same playing field with the same worth and meaning. Now for once I don’t feel ashamed for being okay with craft being a different thing entirely from art, because someone who has experienced the recent history of craft with his own hands and witnessed it with his own eyes can show me that craft just never got to that level.

I am completely content to keep craft in a separate realm. As Clark says in his essay, “Design, as long as it kept to its own identity and purpose, was a welcome part of the art club so it had nothing to prove.” If only Craft had the gumption to do the same! He proves to me in this essay that Craft has an identity crisis and is not comfortable in its own skin, desperately longing to be the airbrushed cover girl, Art (which is not to say that art is fake, but that it represents the image that we think we are supposed to look just like).  

Most of these essays I have read and the arguments I have pondered over have left me wondering, “Is what I do as a craftsperson not enough? Do I need more content, more pizzaz, more historical or political references?” I feel like the adolescent girl looking at the front covers of beauty magazines, wondering how to be like the woman before me. In reality, I have different skin, different hair, and a different wallet. Craft is that girl looking in on Art, practically perfect in every way. In reality, Art just wants their style to stop being copied, pinched, pilfered, in a way of speaking.

All this is just to say that I am very much okay with the short list of possibilities that Garth Clark presents at the end of his essay:  “Let go of New York…encourage craft into the 21st century aesthetically…post a definition of craft that is accurate and unambiguous…make the new entity an unwelcoming place for failed sculptors to live…” I would encourage it even if it meant my sculptural work had to be classified in a different place entirely. I would rather Craft became what it could be than stay where it is, and I imagine that when this starts to really come about that it will be a great day for Craft.

Fragments of the Art World


I think that each essay we read from the Craft Reader this week showed us fragments of the art world. The art world is made up of hundreds of fragments, each having a certain twist, taste, sound, aroma…the art world is a melting pot of people making decisions developing styles and techniques, and applying medium to their “canvas” in new or old ways. I say “canvas” and use that term loosely because it is the only term I can think of that can cover a multitude of surfaces. Your canvas may literally be a canvas or paper or masonite, but it might also be a wall, a street light, a sidewalk, a piece of metal, or even the air. If you are an embroiderer, your canvas may be a piece of linen kept taught within a hoop. If you are a ceramicist, your canvas may be a pot or the very sculpture you are building. If you are a woodworker, your canvas could be each plane of wood, and the finished piece comes together more and more with every cut, and every pass of sandpaper as it turns into an object. So I use the term canvas loosely here.

The people of Canyon that Philip Lieder mentions in his final essay (How I Spent My Summer Vacation), are an example of those whose canvas is the air. Everything about their life is art. Their homes are works of art that illustrate their very essence; who cares if they’re not up to building codes? They’re works of art, and they serve their purpose for their inhabitants far better than any cookie cutter Moraga house could. Canyon is a prime example of the fragment in the art world where everything centers around art, in a very natural and almost primeval way. When reading this essay, I kept thinking of festivals like Burning Man. Such places and happenings almost seem to take place in another realm…they are nearly transcendental. Many people are not comfortable with a place and people like that of Canyon existing, and that, I think, is why people come in and try to either erase or fix it up; that is why authorities come into Canyon and condemn houses. But Canyon is a fragment of the art world, a type of people who can be found all over and will always go right back to making things after society is finished trying to make them proper for the day.

Then there are artists like George Nakashima. I have never read or heard a wood-worker explain wood-working with such zeal like I do in The Soul of a Tree. He truly sees his work as a spiritual connection between the wood and the maker. He has personified every step of the process. Every aspect about woodworking to him is poetic. He uses the term lyric. I read the way he describes his craft and I wonder how anyone could say this is not art. I think the emotion and spiritual connection he has with wood could even out-beat many people who fit in the “fine arts” category.

But you know, many people cater their work to their audience or their buyers. Most of us handicraft artists like to make a living off of the craftsmanship we work so hard to produce. Does it mean we’re cheating or selling out if we make things that we know will sell? No, I don’t think so at all. Our craft evolves throughout our whole lives. Part of the joy in making craft is that people get to experience it, use it, enjoy it as their own once they buy it from us. Edward S. Cooke, Jr.  argued that Sam Maloof (an esteemed woodworker) was being incorrectly situated into the William Morris ideal. It seemed to me like he was trying to add to his argument by pointing out that Sam Maloof was tweaking his style with the clients’s taste in mind, rather than pursuing that ideal, utopian mindset that people grouped him into. Perhaps Sam Maloof belonged in that category at one time in his life; if a person’s craft is ever-changing, ever becoming better, we cannot hold that person to something that might have been true of his or her work at one time. We make things for ourselves. We make things for people. It can occur simultaneously, and the appearance of our work can change. Craftsmen (and women) have that right.

I think “fine art” is one of those broad terms, hard to pin down and solidly define. I think “craft” can fit in and out of that term, just like the people of Canyon, makers like George Nakashima, and Sam Maloof. Each a pocket of the art world, contributors to a melting pot of artistic culture and the world of craft.

In Which I Ponder the Idea of Being a Smothering Mother


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.