The craft world shows signs of renewed vitality. One indication is the rash of books in the last few years that explore the significance of craft and the inherent cultural virtues embedded in the genius of the human hand. These books, although different in approach and attitude, generally testify to the profound importance of finely honed skill, the devotion, discipline and dedication demonstrated in this activity, and the respect for the integrity of the material or media employed. That is of course one significant advantage of crafts today. They have stayed true to the material artifact and writers like Philip Rawson in his book, “Ceramics” lays out the finely described physical anatomy of pottery and the embedded aesthetics that represents the qualities of technique and symbolism of form. Here indeed one can extract criteria and standards that could be applied elsewhere in a general scheme and structure of an organized critique.
Among the important books on craft that have been issued lately are: Thinking Through Craft by Glenn Adamson, NeoCraft: Modernity and the Crafts edited by Sandra Alfoldy, Objects & Meaning: New Perspectives on Art and Craft edited by M. Anna Fariello and Paula Owen, Contemporary Crafts by Imogen Racz, The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, Shop Class as Soulcraft: an Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford, Evocative Objects: Things we Think With edited by Sherry Turkle, and A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression by Howard Raisatti. There are many more; I don’t want to leave out an earlier book, The Culture of Craft by Peter Dormer. We could also include the literature of the Arts and Crafts movement and much more.
This literature forms a healthy and still growing field of critical investigation. In addition, in a difficult environment for the published text due to the electronic revolution, the British craft periodical, The Journal of Modern Craft, has recently joined the field and provided significant contributions.
I am building a case for craft. I have found a friend in Peter Dormer in his book, “The Culture of Craft”. Dormer says in his book that the division of craft from art and design became representative of our culture during the last century. According to Dormer, this has led to the separation of ‘having ideas’ from ‘making objects’ in how people divided craft from art. This separation has implied the isolation of something known as creativity from the knowledge and skill of making things. This has led to art without craft. Dormer makes an important point when he follows this idea with this statement, “The fact that the practitioners of essay-writing, dance, theater and music, for example, have not accepted that creativity can be defined as ‘art without craft’.” He declares that it is only in the visual arts that artists would say they don’t want craft to get in the way of their creativity. How has this bizarre situation come about? When did art sacrifice the craft of making art? Was it with Duchamp and his urinal, or was it Warhol with his tomato soup cans? I insist that it is art that desperately needs to retrieve the skills of craft today in how art is made. It is art that can learn much from craft, not the other way around.
I have often declared that those people involved in crafts must stop being so defensive and internalizing a culturally-defined inferior position. And instead, potters should proudly proclaim the virtues of craft and its long history at the center of human culture. I know craftspeople have to make a living and the usually lower price of crafts is detrimental to that essential goal. I also acknowledge that the verdict of the culture can’t help but influence your own. But maybe more potters need to further investigate the rich history of ceramics as craft and learn more about those cultures other than our own that make potters national treasures. In discussing Dormer in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, I respond to Dormer’s comments with my own,
“Dormer has identified a central dilemma for the potter and other craftspeople. They often end up with the worst of both worlds. Not considered artists, not respected for their finely honed craft, not the makers of meaning but the makers of decorative objects for the home. I have seen pottery sold in furniture stores as accessories, along with bookcases, lamps and other bric-a-brac. This is a case where time has not brought progress to pottery. Sometime, in the emerging modern era, the skills of craft were no longer vital or universally appreciated in the fine arts. Their application in crafts suffered the same loss of value and respect as in the general culture. How do potters make the claim that their pottery is the result of craft and art, meaning and making? Maybe pottery has to find that middle ground between art and craft, a moderate bridge that embodies a contemporary application of both skill and art. How many potters are ready for that challenge? How many can articulate that aesthetic possibility?”
Potters need to tell their stories about what they do with confidence and pride. Yesterday I was at the Los Angeles Pottery Show. I viewed thousands of ceramic artifacts, antique and contemporary. That part of the Pasadena Convention Center devoted to this show was filled with people looking at pottery. The remarkable diversity of pottery displayed there made apparent that pottery represents an invaluable cultural significance and treasure. The cultural and aesthetic virtues of craft were never more evident. Let us sing our own praises!