Books on theory are rarely urgent reading foranyone but other theorists. The exception iswhen the ﬁeld they cover happens to be in crisis.Then they are voraciously consumed in a search fora solution to whatever ails the ﬁeld. For that reason, two books on craft, Howard Risatti’s A Theoryof Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression andGlenn Adamson’s Thinking Through Craft, are likelyto garner attention as this community wrestles withits most challenging identity crisis in over a century.Also, since craft is increasingly becoming a legitimate subject within the fine arts, these volumes could ﬁnd a broader audience as well. They have theadded distinction of being the ﬁ rst books on crafttheory by American scholars since 1950.
Those with a conceptual bias may scoff at craft’srole today, but the early advocates of modern craft,such as John Ruskin and William Morris, providedimportant building blocks for modernist theory anda cornerstone in the founding of the Bauhaus. OscarWilde, Roger Fry and Frank Lloyd Wright also wroteon the subject. Even though craft practice todaytends to be determinedly anti-intellectual, it is not asubject to be dismissed.
Craft remains an under-explored, fertile fieldthat deals with morality, politics, materiality andesthetics in a different way than the other arts.And there are indications that an interest in crafttheory and history is on the rise. Glenn Adamsonis one of the founding editors of a new journal oncraft esthetics and history, the Journal of ModernCraft (Berg), which published its first issue inMarch. A college textbook on modern craft history
is in the works, and PBS recently aired Craft inAmerica, a three-part series.
That being said, since the English woodworkerDavid Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship (1968)—a marvel of erudition, intellectual rigor and economy (a mere 101 pages)—there has beenlittle that deserves a place in craft’s literary canon.A number of books have appeared recently, mainlyuneven anthologies from Britain and Canada, butonly one of these, the Norwegian Jorunn Veiteberg’sCrafts in Transition (2006), while not in Pye’sleague, makes a signiﬁ cant contribution.
One reason for the lackluster literature is thatsince World War II craft theory has been warped bya polarizing and largely specious “craft-is-art” argument. This is one of the root causes of the crisis thatcraft ﬁnds itself in today. Its institutions are becoming moribund, its ﬂ agships are abandoning the “c”word, its markets are weakening. So long as craft istransﬁxed by art-envy, practicing craftspeople (whonumber in the hundreds of thousands in America)will be unable to ﬁ nd a viable 21st-century deﬁnitionfor craft. Will either book lead them out of the mire?
The two writers come from different vantagepoints. Risatti, a professor emeritus of art history atVirginia Commonwealth University, is decidedly old school. This is not meant as a negative. Craft coulddo with some rigorous academic scrutiny. And Risattihas some ﬁrsthand knowledge of craft today: he wasthe coauthor, with Kenneth Trapp, of Skilled Work:American Craft in the Renwick Gallery (1998).
Adamson, on the other hand, is one of craft’sfresh, young, nontraditional voices. Now in hisearly 30s, he recieved a Phd from Yale in art history with a focus on modern craft. Since then he haswritten about and organized exhibitions that dealwith the subject. His presentation, made with his former professor Ned Cooke at Shaping the Futureof Craft, the American Craft Council conference in2006, was by far the highlight of the event.
Not surprisingly, Adamson and Risatti also havevery different approaches to their subject. Risattistates a plain, worthy goal: “defining what a craft object is.” Adamson, on the other hand, seeks toexplore craft “under conditions of modernity particularly with relationship to modern art.” The latter sounds suspiciously like a trip back to the swamp. Butﬁrst impressions, as in this case, can be deceptive.
Risatti’s voice is cheerful and likeable. He hasalmost childlike enthusiasm at times when delvinginto the issues. But one soon learns that this freshness all too often comes from visiting a speciﬁctopic for the ﬁrst time. This can be charming inanother context but theory is not well served by this kind of innocence.
Clearly Risatti is comfortable and knowledgeable in art (he is also the author of PostmodernPerspectives: Issues in Contemporary Art, 1990)and to a lesser extent design, which together takeup a disproportionate amount of the text (two ofthe four parts in the book are given over to thesubjects). Of course any deﬁ nition of craft requiressome comparison to ﬁne art and design, but onlyenough to clarify basic differences. For instance,does deﬁning a craft object require an entire chapter titled “Kant and Purpose in Fine Art”? Then,taking the bait from the craft-is-art camp, Risattigives too much of the book over to discussing whycraft is either different from art or could be art,rather than explaining what craft actually is.
Sadly, it is when Risatti does attempt to deﬁnethe craft object that his book truly falls apart.The wisdom he offers when writing about art isreplaced with a series of petty rules and regulations that only the denizen of an ivory tower couldlove. In the process, he slices and dices the fieldinto a confusing, poorly explained set of objectclasses, delineating some as craft and consigningothers to a material purgatory.
He deletes several traditional craft areas. Jewelry comes within a hairbreadth of being expelled.While Risatti ﬁ nally allows it into the fold, he does so reluctantly, clearly unconvinced of its craft credentials. Tools are generally considered among theearliest crafts and remain some of the most handsome and revered objects made today. Not so, saysRisatti. Tools cannot be craft objects, according toa confusing argument about the nature of utility, because “tools are used to make craft objects, craftobjects are rarely used to make tools.” Testing histhesis against everyday craft objects soon reveals itsimpracticality. How, for instance, would he regard ahandmade mortar and pestle if the mortar, as a vessel, qualiﬁes, but the pestle, as a tool, does not?
Risatti’s own example is the dinner table. Everything, including the table, can be craft—the crockery, the tablecloth and glassware—except hand-made ﬂatware by a metalsmith. Knives and forks aretools. And it gets worse. Even vessels, it turns out,are not safe. If a bowl is “subsumed” by painting, Risatti writes, it ceases being both craft and a bowland becomes a painting and therefore, one assumes,art. Also, when a vessel is “overtaken” by figuration(the examples are pitchers in the forms of a duckand a cow) it loses its craft credential.
Confused? Imagine the nightmare of categoriesin the craft studio. Different objects made by thesame craftsperson from the same material, withthe same technique, often serving the same role,would be divided into tools, craft, painting andsculpture. In a ﬁ eld that already suffers from the polarizing art/craft dualism, the last thing neededis further fragmentation.
Risatti’s credibility is further undermined by theabsence of any intimacy with the speciﬁc objectsthat he discusses. Sometimes he mistakes them for something they are not. The cow creamer heillustrates to make a point about craft is, in fact,industrially made and therefore, by his own rules, not admissible as craft. In another case, Risattiembraces the wrongheaded 1933 view by Rudolf Arnheim, the art and perceptual theorist, who regardedthe Cube teapot as a nonfunctional design disasterand “a monster to the eye.” Risatti is oblivious to thefact that it has since become an admired classic oftask-speciﬁc design, one of the best-known designsof its period, and he provides a line drawing of whatit “might” have looked like.
Risatti looks at craft objects as though they arecells in a Petri dish, detached from their connective tissue: social context, material traditions and sensual qualities.
A lack of intimacy with the practice of craft and its products is not a problem in Adamson’sThinking Through Craft. It is seamlessly connected to contemporary work, and Adamson’s knowledge ofthe objects he cites is deep and revealing. Adamsonis a smart scholar, and while his awareness of politics in both art and craft is impressive, somethingtoo often lacking in the hermetic world of craftliterature, he anchors much of his book in concepts that are time tested.
His choice of placing craft in the center of modernism is a provocative one. The modernist regime,having used many of the Arts & Crafts movement’s principles to forge its identity, then summarily banished craft for being too “bourgeois,” triggeringan inferiority complex in the crafts from which they have yet to recover. It also produced bizarreanomalies. For decades the Museum of Modern Artcould accession a teapot if it was industrially made,but not a handmade teapot, no matter how modern, functional and beautifully designed.
But Adamson is not spoiling for a ﬁght. He resists self-righteous, defensive arguments. He often leavesthe silliness of some of these positions (from boththe art and craft camps) to reveal themselves,trusting the reader. Adamson smartly contextualizes the role of craft while blithely ignoring art/craft boundaries. His book addresses all aspects of thevisual arts that employ craft as a component of theirexpression, which results in some unexpected inclusions, such as Brancusi and Mike Kelley. Each piecediscussed, be it a pot by the conservative BernardLeach or an Earthwork by the innovative RobertSmithson, is viewed within an organic loop usingjust three nonhierarchical elements—work, practice and site—as the reference points.
The author’s deftness with language is immediately clear from the book’s sly title, ThinkingThrough Craft. If one places the emphasis onthe first word, it means one thing. If one placesit on the ﬁrst two words, it means something significantly different. And Adamson weaves bothintents through his text, inviting us to use craft asa springboard for a different way of thinking aboutvisual art while carefully laying out the elements that make up both craft and anticraft theory.
Adamson’s voice, with a maturity beyond its years,is a decided tonic after two decades of shrill debate:generous, inclusive, self-conﬁ dent. Nor is the authorafraid to address the romantic character of craft.He does so unapologetically in a chapter titled “Pastoral,”where craft’s ties to rusticity are admitted,admired and defined. Adamson can write aboutbucolic charm without sentimentality because hedoes not indulge in moralizing notions, such as theidea that craft is ethically superior to art because itis tied to grassroots values of labor and utility.
But make no mistake, under this carefully disciplined veneer of neutrality, Adamson is a true believer in the modern craft movement. He writes that he would hotly dispute any claim that craft objects are culturally insigniﬁ cant or esthetically unsatisfying.
Yet he also acknowledges necessary limitations:For the historian, theorist, or critic who is interested inthe problem of craft, the challenge is not to subject everycraft object to an equivalent degree of analysis, but ratherto identify and do justice to the reality of craft’s positionwithin modern culture. Above all this means resisting theimpulse unthinkingly to celebrate craft in all of its manifestations. Thinking through craft is a useful exercise, and never more so than when it creates uncertainty.
There are times when Adamson’s writing, withits effortless sotto voce ﬂow, can become a touchglib. His comparison of Stephen De Staebler to Peter Voulkos, claiming that De Staebler’s ceramicwork submitted to gravity and Voulkos’s did not,is a case in point. It reads convincingly but is not accurate. Part of Voulkos’s revolutionary stance isthat he rejected throwing as a gravity-defying exercise. He replaced the classic throwing goal of “liftand life” with his own earthbound version “deathand dump,” in which mass trumped volume andgravity reigned supreme. The two artists appliedthe same principles, just in different ways.
Also, Adamson’s persistent evenhandedness,while decidedly one of the book’s strengths, canchafe. A few more moments of pepper and passion would enliven, such as when he correctlytakes on Dave Hickey and Peter Schjeldahl, stating that their criticism (albeit positive) of the work of Kenneth Price is “selling him far short.” Ultimately, these are quibbles in an otherwiseelegant, persuasive document.Does either book offer the compass that the craftcommunity seeks for the new century?
Alas, Risatti leads craft back into the art/craftmineﬁeld. Adamson’s book does not really offerspecific directions to the future either, mainly because he has not written for the craft worldalone. But he does offer a perspective free of thecurrent divisiveness.
By refusing to be drawn into the circular, political and often bogus skirmishes between art andcraft, Adamson has written a timely book. But he offers something even more important for thecraft community: the opportunity to take a lesshermetic view of the ﬁ eld and see craft as an open, inclusive continuum.
Garth Clark is a writer and historian whoclosed his 57th Street ceramics gallery last year.