Thinking Through Craft, Glen Adamson, (2007)

Oxford: Berg, 209 pp., ISBN 9781845206475, Paperback, £15.99

Reviewed by Nicholas Houghton

Craft has long been a neglected topic, conceived as a poor relation of more important things such as art, design and progress, and barely worthy of study. The few books published over the years that attempted to theorize craft have been precious and much cited, despite their flaws. This lack of interest in craft theory has been matched by a decline of craft education in many countries. Although there is no indication that this decline in teaching craft has been arrested, in recent years there has been a remarkable flurry of publishing activity around craft theory. Several books about aspects of craft theory have appeared and meanwhile two new scholarly journals about craft have been launched (Journal of Modern Craft and Craft Research). Three of these new books are reviewed in this issue, together with one about working with clay with younger children.

This book does not have a theme or thesis running through it. Instead it tackles a variety of topics: the supplemental, the material, the skilled, the pastoral and the amateur. Each is self-sufficient and could be read without reference to the others. The common link, of course, is the author and his point of view. Craft is always discussed in terms of art, both the craft within art and the art within craft. The reference points are mostly within the realm of art theory, with a few excursions into theory of architecture and art education. Such topics as traditional craft or the way craft can be a vehicle of cultural transmission are overtly excluded.

The first two chapters deal with the Greenbergian notion of the autonomy of the object. This seems so quaint that it was a relief when it was counterbalanced by a consideration of Derrida’s theory of the supplemental. This is not just a dry extrapolation of ideas, since they are illustrated by examples of artists and studio crafts people.

There are two problems with these chapters. The first is that while purporting to be theoretical and not historical, in a sense the author is telling a history. This will be familiar to many: the change from mid-twentieth century formalism to an acceptance that art has a broader context that cannot be ignored. The second problem is that craft theory is hardly advanced by learning that studio crafts people (unsurprisingly) hung onto the coat tails of this change, or to put it another way they changed their style as did artists to accommodate a different critical climate (or more likely the critical climate championed different styles).

The third chapter deals with the question of skill, which is central to so much craft theory. It also impinges on art education theory. It includes a section entitled Learning by Doing which discusses how Dewey influenced the popularization of craft education in the USA in the mid-twentieth century. However, as he rightly reports, this impetus ran out and for almost forty years skills have tended to be taught to art, design and craft students as and when they felt they needed them. He does not acknowledge that beyond the Anglophone world, this trend away from teaching skills is much less pronounced. Nor does he add that where it has taken place, this shift has represented a fundamental shift. Without this in-depth knowledge and understanding of the properties of a particular medium, the problems makers set themselves will be unlikely to be about the possibilities and limitations of working materials in the same way they would with someone who has developed high levels of skill. This way of working coalesced with a formalist aesthetic whereby studio crafts could be critically considered alongside art – without it the two risk diverging.

The final two chapters were both disappointing. The association of craft with the countryside and with the past is a very mixed legacy. Here the lack of a historical perspective proved particularly frustrating. Longing for a lost pastoral paradise has been the lot of city dwellers since antiquity, but craft also needs to be understood in terms of the industrial revolution, romanticism and the arts and crafts movement. This chapter does include allusions to the arts and crafts movement through a description of craft in the English district of the Cotswolds. It also describes the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s in the USA and there is a section on the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre and the land artist Robert Smithson. However, when one considers that there continues to be a rapid migration to cities that expand at the expense of the countryside (literally: they gobble it up), it is clear that there is a highly relevant theme Adamson could have discussed. Moreover, how craft is sometimes associated with an attempt to regain a lost Acadia and sometimes with an idealized, sustainable future – New Age or otherwise – are not a part of Adamson’s thinking.

There has been an explosion in craft as a hobby ever since free time came to the masses in the twentieth century. This is fascinating, not least how as manual work declines, uptake of manual pastimes increases. But this is not what Adamson writes about in his last chapter.

It would be unfair to criticize this book for being centred in art theory, just as one could hardly complain after seeing a tragedy that it was not funny. After all, this text is what it is and the author has the right to set the perimeters where he wants. All the same, despite the fact that his theorizing barely encompasses the social realm, this does not prevent the social realm from encompassing his theorizing. As he admits, his gaze is always firmly on craft in relation to western ‘avant-garde’ art ‘because I do not think that all craft demands critical analysis’ (2007: 169). Behind this lies a host of assumptions about his position, not only in the kinds of art activities he considers to be worth writing about, but also the strong bias towards an Anglocentric point of view.

Despite setting clear perimeters, the book contains parts that do not add up to a coherent whole. This appears not to be because he resists the idea of a meta-narrative, since his more modest narratives all feed off the taken for granted importance of western, avant-garde art. It was a little surprising to find avant-garde being used in this context, since I was under the impression that the art avant-garde had imploded long ago and the term was only useful for describing what happened before this. Meanwhile, craft theory has been feeding off more recent phenomena such as the Slow movement.

Moreover, the art theory that Adamson adopts has itself moved during the last forty years from being concerned with art and its context and own institutions tout court to a consideration of its broad social context. Adamson edges towards acknowledging this by citing Derrida in the first two chapters but does not take on the implications of this. And let’s be clear: Derrida might still be the darling of those writing theses to accompany practice-based Ph.D.s but he’s hardly dernier cri in theory. Craft needs theorizing and to that extent this book is to be welcomed. But it also needs theory that does not resemble a dog sniffing its own backside.