Biennale for Crafts and Design, Copenhagen, 2013
In 1942 the Japanese author Uno Chiyo published “The Puppet Maker”. In it Chiyo’s narrator describes how knowledge of a craft is passed from one maker to the next:
Whenever I get set to teach someone a thing or two about carving, I tell him right from the start that I’m not going to sit there and explain every little thing. I show him one of the puppet heads I’ve carved and tell him to try and carve one like it. Then, as he goes along, I tell him ‘that looks fine,’ or ‘that’s no good.’ But what I can’t ever tell him is how he should make the final strokes, the finishing touches . . . I think on them so hard I become completely swallowed up in my thoughts, and then I proceed to carve. But even if I can’t come right out and explain to my students all they should do, I show them with my hands. I guess it amounts to the same thing.
Chiyo offers us a reminder that knowledge is transmitted in multiple ways. Craft can be captured and articulated in spoken or written words, but there are also times when knowledge is best shared when shown or felt.
Craft’s recent infatuation with concept has injected the discipline with a sense of content that goes beyond the materials and skills of its making. This has allowed contemporary craft to say more than just being well made, or taking – by today’s standards – a long time to make. Craft can communicate commentaries about culture, politics, economics; the stuff that keeps us up at night and the things that society really should set about trying to change. These messages are not in reality new to craft, but the downside of the current interest in concept is that it can be impenetrable to access. In the worse case, viewers spend more time in craft exhibitions reading explanations than looking at or feeling the objects on display. In fact, taken a step further viewers can feel alienated and don’t visit at all.
This interest in the conceptual may in part be a reaction against a critical approach to craft that proposed craft as an experience that exists beyond language. At the extreme end of this spectrum we have the late British critic Peter Dormer who wrote in “The Language and Practical Philosophy of Craft”:
There can be no general theory covering the craft disciplines, and consequently whatever clarification of motives and values the craftsperson achieves can be inferred from the work and what he or she does but cannot, with any depth be put into words . . . almost nothing that is important about craft can be put into words and propositions.
Dormer’s assertion that craft is something we cannot adequately capture in language is a troubling assertion – particularly for a writer! But equally difficult territory is inhabited by crafts that no longer place importance on the materials of their making. Arguably, conceptual content is often conveyed to the viewing public through the written analysis of a critic or curator. At times this chimes perfectly with the stated intentions of the maker; but as often as not these intentions are left unconfirmed by the maker for the viewer alone to decipher.
Empty words and the taboo of beauty
The American author Amy Whittaker in Museum Legs: fatigue and hope in the face of art writes with great humour about this dilemma in relation to Fine Art. “Worst-case scenario, the wall label, or hypothetical spokesperson, provides content where none existed in the first place… It confers greatness and intention that do not exist: The stick figure drawing is post-Renaissance, post-post-modern, and neo-expressionist. It is therefore intentionally naive…” Such language excludes a healthy portion of the viewing public. It is also, as Whittaker mocks, pure nonsense.
We have to be able to understand contemporary craft. This can occur through the materials deployed, or the ideas executed, or ideally work that operates on both levels. Increasingly, this is made difficult for some types of practice that find themselves on the outside of current visual trends. Beauty, for instance, seems to have grown into a taboo. Academia at least has deemed beauty an inadequate result if it cannot be explained and expanded upon. While the touchstone of ‘academic rigour’ can be productive and bring about innovation, a far more common reality is the generation of hot air. Retrospective explanations by makers and critics alike are used to fill a box rather than communicate or clarify meaning.
With beauty now deemed by some as deeply uninteresting, a maker’s particular knowledge of their craft materials rubs up against another popular line of research thinking today: the interdisciplinary. In fairness, inter-disciplinarity is a strategy which, when it works, can work spectacularly well. But it is a tough approach for the crafts to do well. Multi-trans-inter-cross: regardless of nomenclature it is in reality very difficult for one practitioner to become expert in their knowledge of a vast range of materials. It simply takes too long. Instead these ways of working favour collaborative practice or the delegation of fabrication to another individual or team to preserve standards of making. This allows an individual freedom to roam amongst the material disciplines.
A maker delegating hands-on work to others inevitably occupies the position of ideas generator instead. The unfortunate upshot of this is the inability of the maker to respond as easily to chance – to let the materials of their work become their teacher. Where does all of this leave us? Contemporary craft embodies an intimate knowledge of materials. But it often has far more to say than simply confirming the maker’s physical skills. The increasingly conceptual agenda of contemporary craft practice can enrich the field, but only if craft’s messages are as articulate as the skills used in the object’s creation. The materials of craft continue to have much they can teach us, and there is still much to learn about how we choose to communicate these lessons.