Arts and Crafts as a Modern Innovation

Written by André Gali

(Translated from Norwegian by Arlyne Moi)

 

What do we do after the orgy of modernity? Is simulation all we have left? /…/ this expression – ‘after the orgy’ – comes from a story full of hope: it is the story of a man who whispers into the ear of a woman during an orgy, ‘What are you doing after the orgy?’ There is always the hope of a new seduction. [i]


The orgy the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard describes in this quote seems to be over, or at least its losing momentum. The ongoing process of liberation that marked postmodernity has resulted in an unproductive relativism, and it is as if the pendulum is swinging back to certain fundamental values prized during Modernism (I refer to the late 19th to mid-20th cen., particularly the years following World War I). In 2009 the French art theorist Nicolas Bourriaud launched the concept altermodern as a descriptor for this ‘new’ modernity. The term’s coinage, he claims, came about through his contempt for using the prefix post to define tendencies in contemporary society; he found it lazy, cowardly and ‘a scandal to thought’. He says the idea behind the new concept is ‘to revisit the modern under a different prefix, which is one I much prefer – this “alter”, meaning “other”. Alternative’.[ii]

Bourriaud is not alone in trying to introduce a concept that can describe our era, one that links up with modernity and criticizes postmodernism. Other thinkers have create other concepts based on their own needs, for instance metamodernism and remodernism, and while the intended meaning of these concepts is very different, they all harken back to a way of thinking and a set of values that existed in the modernist period, before ‘the spectacle’[iii] or ‘the orgy’ which we now call postmodernism reached full bloom. Postmodernism’s critique of the idea of there being a single unified Truth, its dissolution of history as a progressive movement, and its preference for the ‘anything goes’ attitude have resulted in a Western exhaustion and identity crisis where ironic distance and decadent self-staging are as productive as an idling motor.

The pendulum has now swung backwards, and central to this re-appraisal of modern values and strategies are the qualities inherent in crafts and crafts-based art practices.[iv] A common assumption about what we today could call crafts-based art practices – a professional field referred to by numerous names throughout history, for instance decorative art, applied art, arts and crafts, studio craft, fine craft, contemporary craft, and so forth (for sake of ease, in this essay it will be referred to as craft-based art) – is that it belongs to a pre-modern era and ideology and is always in danger of being marginalized. It is even assumed to be dying due to challenges from new technologies and conceptually-based art. In this essay I examine a different reading that understands craft as having a key role to play in the development of modernity. In this new reading, craft is seen as a significant aspect of part of contemporary art, not least that part that is related to a renewed interest in abstract and materially-based art. Craft-based art practices can here be understood as integral to a professional discipline, as an attitude, and as an approach to making, all of which place great significance on concepts such as skill and materiality.


A natural centre of attention

The new attitude towards modernity and the reappraisal of modern values and strategies come to expression in the role that craft-based art practices now play. These practices – which are rooted in materiality, skill and handicraft, and situated like ‘spaces for action’ between product design and the wider field of visual art – now enjoy the centre of attention. This current status, I believe, is largely due to their rootedness in modernism. They never became fully postmodern. Visual art (we could also call it contemporary art), after having been conceptual since the 1960s, now seeks new strategies, and design has been exhausted through mass-production (it served to satisfy the consumer-hungry post-war generation and its attendant use-and-throw-away mentality). Hence contemporary art and design appear now to be seeking certain fundamental values that are clearly manifested in craft-based art practices. Several values come immediately to mind: the close proximity to materials, uniqueness, local production, personalized aspects, authenticity (as opposed to expressing cynicism), the importance placed on practical know-how, and the way in which craft art exerts resistance to our steadily-accelerating global economy and the environmental damage it causes. But craft-based art practices have other values as well, for if we examine their origins and the role they have played in industry, art history and modernity, we realize that they – as well as craft in a wider context – have contributed as much to innovation and progress as they have exerted resistance to the same.

For William Morris (1834-1896), one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts Movement in Britain, craft-based art could serve a socialist revolution by being seen to stand as a contrast to industrial production. Morris conceived of the craftsman as free and genuine, in contrast to Marxism’s concept of the industrial labourer as estranged. He presented handicraft as antithetical to working with machines: he forged a link between tradition and craft-based art and saw them as standing in opposition to new technologies, new production processes, and new methods for administering and managing workplaces.

The claim that craft is conservative, old-fashioned, and pre-modern has been heard since the time of Morris, and it is a view that has been criticized by the American art historian Glenn Adamson, in his book The Invention of Craft.[v] The concept of craft encompasses far more than the concept of craft-based art (in some definitions, the latter is limited to ceramic, glass, textile, leather and wooden objects that have been made for a specifically artistic purpose). Adamson himself offers the following definition of craft, regardless of whether or not it is conceived as art: ‘For me, craft has always meant something like “making something well through hand skill”, no more and no less.’[vi] With this loose definition, he aims to revaluate craft[vii] and its role in the story of modernity. Adamson argues that the concept of craft first became relevant at the beginning of the modernist period, as a contrast to industrially produced objects. Furthermore, he argues, such a concept would have had no meaning in the pre-modern era. He makes the following claim in the book’s foreword: "Rather than treating craft as an ever-present aspect of human behaviour increasingly threatened by technological advances, I argue that craft is itself a modern invention."[viii]


An open field for innovation

Morris’ nostalgic longing – for a pre-industrial time when ‘the craftsman’ was a respected figure, unsuppressed by the upper classes in the making of objects – is based on what Adamson describes as a ‘false memory’. What he means is that it is absolutely false that the craftsman was marginalized by modern industry; the opposite was in fact the case, but the false memory did somehow serve to bolster Morris’ socialistic idea. Morris invented the idea of a pre-modern England as a monumental and mystical land filled with things that were handmade, traditional, autonomous and authentic. But such a country never existed, at least not in the way Morris imagined it. As Adamson shows, the false memory primarily serves the purpose of treating the ‘trauma’[ix] which rupture-riddled modernity evokes. Seen from this perspective, the conception of craft as something static and traditional gives it the role of a stabilizing centre of gravity, in contrast to design, which is characterized by rapid innovation and the invention of new objects that change the way in which everyday life is lived and administered. It is as if craft-based art practices are situated in-between contemporary art’s avant-garde strategies and the readily-accessible designed objects that are the result of mass-production. With postmodernism, however, it seems as though the linkage or positioning of contemporary art, craft, and design is completely broken, in large part because craft in postmodern production often functions best when it is only minimally noticeable in the final product.

A typical feature of several postmodern art practices is that craftsmanship primarily serves to minimize its own apparent presence (this is also the case with readymades, which entail that the crafting takes place in advance of artistic treatment) and functions as a friction-free tool for a concept. Much art and design in postmodern culture is produced through outsourcing to low-cost countries (often places where people possess impressive crafting knowledge). In such works, craft is an essential but occluded part of the final product.

A Norwegian artist who turns this scenario on its head is Ane Mette Hol. She has made hand-drawn copies of different types of paper products, for instance copies of pages from art history books and different types of rolled paper. In this way she points to the materials themselves, to paper’s multifarious manifestations and qualities, to the use-related aspects in the production of products, to the handicraft of drawing, and to representation. She makes both figurative and abstract works, but what they share in common is that they are Hol’s own representations of types of paper she has found in diverse contexts. She therefore uses a strategy that is commonly deployed in craft-based art practices: she treats craft as both a tool and a theme. At the same time, she links her practice to a contemporary discourse through referring to art history, art theory, and colour theory.

Adamson comments on this type of practice:

"These handmade copies, and the legion of other instances in contemporary art, mark a post-postmodern relation to authorship, which is not so much a matter of paralytic doubt (the much discussed ‘death of the author’ has little purchase on these works) as it is an active exploration, which might be poetic, psychological, or political. /…/ Crafts here stand in as an assertion of will, a refusal to remain passive in the face of mass-produced commodities."[x]

Through strategies like these – where artists explore the principles of imitation and address discussions about factory production and human production – a field opens up where innovation can happen.


Postdisciplinary, non-hierarchical practices

Adamson sees this exploration of craft after Duchamp as ‘postpostmodern’ – in its relation to the receiver, in relation to the author of the work, and in how it creates a space for innovation. If we examine the entire production process for an artwork, from the seminal idea to the finished object, Adamson thinks craft will exist in different ways throughout the entire process. The fact that this is being recognized and made visible – we see examples of it in numerous newer abstract artworks – points to the fact that designers, conceptually-oriented contemporary artists and craft artists are working in a different way now than just a few years ago. Craft-based art is no longer seen as less valuable in comparison with design and contemporary art, as was the case under the postmodern regime:

"This sense that craft is defined by its inferior status is, I think, crucial for understanding the 19th and 20th century, but for the 21st century, it’s misleading. /…/ What I think we are living through now is a great convergence of these things into one undifferentiated field."[xi]

One reason why Adamson wants to examine the origin or invention of craft is that he thinks a reappraisal of its significance for modernity can result in a new perspective on its role today, given that it enjoys renewed attention from the fields of design and contemporary art, both of which have pursued what Adamson calls ‘postdisiplinary, non-hierarchical practice’.[xii]

Adamson’s point is that craft-based art practices no longer stand in a contrasting position to the design industry and contemporary art, nor do they appear as a less-valued field which the other two fields differentiate themselves from; these practices now have equal status as part of an undifferentiated aesthetic and cultural field. Furthermore, he asserts, this development is necessary if one is to create ‘a successful 21st century object’. The artist, the designer, and the craft artist must take responsibility for every aspect of their practice.[xiii]

This post-disciplinary attitude that Adamson describes is interesting because the categories of contemporary art, craft, and design are in many ways reformulated as distinctly different aspects of a work of art; all the aspects – theoretical thinking (the ideation and concept), practical thinking (about how the work can be made) and physical making – must be emphasized in order for the work to be judged as having high quality (regardless of whether the work is operating within contemporary art, craft-based art, or design).[xiv]


The aesthetics of modernity

Functionalism and the Bauhaus school in Germany constitute a direction within art and design that can partly be seen as a precursor to the tendencies Adamson sees today. Founded by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus school taught architecture, interior design and visual art. Gropius chose the school’s name partly because it had strong connotations to Bauhütte, the medieval guild of builders and stonemasons. His manifesto from 1919 underscores the role of craft:

"Architects, sculptors, painters – we all must return to craftsmanship! For there is no such thing as ‘art by profession’. There is no essential difference between the artist and the artisan. The artist is an exalted artisan."[xv]

Just a few years before this manifesto was published, the German architect Adolph Loos voiced the idea of modern aesthetics as the antithesis of ornamentation. In his essay ‘Ornament and Crime’ from 1910,[xvi] he described ornamentation as primitive, as an expression for an uneconomical and unmodern irrationality, and as a misuse of the craftsperson’s time, and the customer’s money – all for sake of an aesthetic that was primitive, vulgar and associated with sensual desire. Loos’ essay bears a strong resemblance to what Adamson says about the modern impression of craft as being both primitive and pre-modern: modern craftspersons, the argument goes, limit their effort to that which is absolutely necessary; skills are subordinate to the telos or purpose, and the ‘imprint’ of their hand is reduced to a minimum; primitive or pre-modern craftspersons, by contrast, demonstrate their skills through unnecessary ornaments that have no function other than to please the senses. Here there is a parallel to how contemporary art turned from representation and figuration to increasingly abstract surfaces. In this type of art, attention is focused on art’s own conditions, on the material’s own values, on craftsmanship and tactility as reflections of the artist’s psychological and spiritual being. In design, attention is directed to that which is specific for design: the use and functionality of objects.


Successful objects

Adamson does not discuss modernity after 1851 to any great extent (even though he repeatedly draws parallels to today’s situation), but he notes several examples of what he believes is a paradox: when craft is innovative, it is often invisible or subdued, but when it serves the ideas of permanence and continuity, it is highlighted as a quality in its own right. Nevertheless, he believes a synthesis exists whereby craft is valued as a quality in its own right and inscribes itself in the history of craft-based art, simultaneously as it adds something new, here and now, by linking up with larger social and cultural issues. It is perhaps from this perspective we must understand the growing interest in artists such as Hannah Ryggen and Aase Texmon Rygh and their participation in dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel in 2012. This exhibition in many respects heralded a renewed interest in artistic strategies that treat materiality, modernity, and the physical object as having central importance.

Ida Ekblad, Steinar Haga Kristensen, Anders Sletvold Moe, Aurora Passero, and Ann-Cathrin November Høibo are examples of relatively young artists who revitalize these types of strategies using media such as painting, sculpture, textiles, and ceramics. It is worth mentioning that they do not merely reproduce a modern art-discourse, since they also assimilate ideas and experiences from postmodern discourse. It is typical for them not to commit to one single material or medium; in one project they may explore a specific material or medium, but in the next project they might expend just as much effort on a hybrid work made with multiple media. This type of many-faceted artistic practice calls to mind Adamson’s reflections on post-disciplinary practice (mentioned above).

For Ekblad, an artist who has moved away from appropriation and a neoconceptual visual language to a more CoBrA-like aesthetic, the centre of attention is on materiality and her own craft-related presence in the work. Her artistic development exemplifies how artists are turning from a theoretical approach to artistic production, over to a practical approach. In her paintings, the affinity with CoBrA art is striking, while in her sculptural works, she reformulates a found-object tradition through insisting on a craftsmanly treatment and intuitive handling of the object. Here industrial objects and other readymades function as starting points for a neo-modern aesthetic that gives the artist subject a clear presence in the work. A different approach to materiality and the hand-made can be found in works by Steinar Haga Kristensen, particularly in his exhibition Fortvilelser i leir (Despair in Clay) at Kunsthall Oslo in 2012. The impetus for this exhibition was the fact that much of the city of Oslo is built on blåleire, a type of clay that is difficult to work with artistically, at least in comparison with other types of clay, and which is considered relatively ‘dirty’ and of little value. In collaboration with staff and students at Oslo National Academy of the Arts, Kristensen did research on the clay’s tactility and other sensory qualities and ended up making an exhibition of rough clay sculptures. The works ranged from figurative sculptures of chairs and a table to abstract shapes reminiscent of excrement and decomposing human bodies. No less ‘modern’ than Ekblad and Kristensen is Anders Sletvold Moe, yet he does not share their level of expressiveness. He chooses rather to tone down expression in order to pursue a purer, more minimal aesthetic. Slettevold Moe often manipulates gallery walls by cutting into them, making displacements, and utilizing the reflected light that such interventions bring about. Several of his works are elaborations on monochrome painting, where materiality, surfaces, light, and colour are all significant. The consummate finish he gives to his works creates a relation to industrial surfaces. As such, he alludes to a machine-produced design aesthetic at the same time as he enables us to have heightened experiences of the material and physical qualities of an artfully constructed space.

Aurora Passero and Ann-Cathrin November Høibo are both interested in using textiles as aesthetic and politically-charged materials. Passero’s works are abstract, hyperaesthetic ‘surfaces’ composed of many threads woven into monumentally-sized drapery. Her works have a strong sensory appeal and relate to modernistic, abstract painting, yet due to the way they are hung – for instance in sagging folds suspended from the ceiling and in the middle of a room – they also gain a sculptural presence. Given that hand-woven textiles have traditionally been made by women and are strongly associated with decorative art and crafts made in the home, Passero’s textiles also tell a political story, one central theme of which is textile’s entry into the field of contemporary art. The same political tone can be found in November Høibo’s works, but they reflect a completely different aesthetic and conceptual approach to textile materials. In her works, the idea of ‘textiles as history and handicraft’ is often communicated forthrightly, such as when she creates an installation around a large weaving, or makes small, half-finished weavings that hang on a wall. November Høibo uses found textiles but also weaves herself, combining the two in order to create constellations that trigger associations to different types of materials and clothing. Building on the work of her Norwegian precursors Hannah Ryggen and Else Marie Jacobsen, she treats textile art as an interface between the political and private spheres.

A characteristic shared by all the artists I have mentioned is that they have a strong awareness of the materials and handicraft in their works. They link up with modernist traditions, yet do not repeat the strategies and devices used by their precursors. To the contrary: they ‘bend’ these strategies and devices into deconstructive and critical artistic practices that treat readymades, appropriation, and contextual awareness as fundamental elements. They could therefore be said to work in a post-disciplinary way: while they work outside the traditional boundaries of any given artistic discipline, they end up combining aspects of several disciplines. They attend to theoretical thinking, practical thinking, and physical making in ways that enable craftsmanship to contribute to innovation and renewal.



[i] Sylvere Lotringer (ed.) (2005). Jean Baudrillard. The Conspiracy of Art: Manifestos, Interviews, Essays. New York: Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, pp. 98-110.

[ii] André Gali (2012). ‘En syntetisk mann i altermoderne tider’, interview with Nicolas Bourriaud, Kunstforum, no. 4.

[iii] Guy Debord (1967). Society of the Spectacle, Paris: Buchet/Chastel.

[iv] I Norwegian I use the term kunsthåndverk, which comes from the tradition of applied art, designed and industrially-produced goods, and handicrafts. In the 1960s, this Norwegian term gained momentum as a means for distinguishing craft-based art practices from mass-produced designed products and traditional crafts. At the same time, the makers wanted craft-based art to be seen as an art form in its own right (distinct from fine or contemporary art) and to be deemed as addressing issues of craftsmanship, utility and decorative elements from a somewhat critical perspective. In this essay, I sometimes use the term ‘crafts’ and other times write ‘crafts-based art practices’. I largely build on ideas put forth by Glenn Adamson in The Invention of Crafts, where he uses the term ‘crafts’ in a broad sense. I will sometimes limit my reading of Adamson to ‘just’ the crafts-based art practices. I show this distinction by using the term ‘crafts’ when talking about crafts in a broad sense, and ‘crafts-based art practices’ when talking about a narrower field of craft having to do with art.

[v] Glenn Adamson (2013). The Invention of Craft, London/ New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

[vi] Ibid. p. xxiv.

[vii] Since Adamson has a background in curating, criticism, and theory in the field of crafts-based art practices, I feel his thoughts on crafts in general are relevant to use in connection with the specific branch of crafts that deals with art, what I call crafts-based art practices.

[viii] Adamson, The Invention of Craft, p. xii.

[ix] Here Adamson uses an analogy from psychology, in a longer reflection over craft’s role as a creator of continuity in Modernism.

[x] Adamson, The Invention of Craft, p.163.

[xi] Andre Gali (2013). ‘What's Important about Craft?’ (discussion with Glenn Adamson, in the issue entitled ‘Process. Result. Anticipation.’, Norwegian Crafts Magazine, no. 2. http://www.norwegiancrafts.no/magazine/02-2013/what-s-important-about-craft (last accessed 6 March 2015).

[xii] Adamson, The Invention of Craft, p xiv.

[xiii] Gali, What's Important about Craft?

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Bauhaus Manifesto. http://bauhaus-online.de/en/atlas/das-bauhaus/idee/manifest (accessed 30 Dec. 2014).

[xvi] Albert Loos’ essay ‘Ornament and Crime’ was first presented as a lecture in 1910. In 1913 it was translated into French and in 1929 was published in German. Available in English at http://www2.gwu.edu/~art/Temporary_SL/177/pdfs/Loos.pdf (accessed 5 Jan. 2015).

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