Thinking About Glen Adamson

This is by way of introduction of Glen Adamson – someone we should all know of as he is not only the editor of the periodic Journal of Modern Craft but is responsible for two notable recent books, The Craft Reader as editor and author of Thinking Through Craft. All of which have gained a great deal of attention off-shore. The compilation of essays that is The Craft Reader will only possibly be out-shone for those of us in ceramics by Garth Clark’s currently-being-edited selection of specifically ceramic subjects. Adamson is a member of Think-Tank and also Director of Post Graduate studies at the V&A Museum in London but is originally American. He is regarded as one of the most influential of thinkers in Craft today.

Here are some of his opinions…

Q.Could you give a brief definition for “Craft?”

Adamson: I always say that craft is exactly what you think it is – that is, if you have a definition that’s not pretty close to the proverbial person on the street’s, you are probably barking up the wrong tree. So, something like “knowing how to make something, through a detailed engagement with materials and process.” Notice that doesn’t include “by hand,” nor does it presume that craft involves making something functional.

Q. How can something not be crafted “by hand?”

Adamson: The British theorist and woodworker David Pye pointed out that almost nothing is crafted by hand except pinchpots and coiled baskets – that’s about it. Craft involves tooling. Pye ingeniously introduced the division between “the workmanship of risk” and the “workmanship of certainty” as a way of analyzing that tooling – a craft process – involves a lot of risk and manual control while a very automated process will produce the same result every time. But this is not an absolute distinction, it’s a matter of degree. Furthermore, you could argue that many processes (from slipcasting to computer-aided design) combine elements of risk and certainty in ways that distribute the imprint or features of craft skill across a large number of identical objects. And we haven’t even gotten on to issues like repair and forgery where craft is employed in order to make an exact replica of a previously existing object (which may itself have been mass produced). What it adds up to is that you can’t easily distinguish craft processes from non-craft processes; craft is present in most activities of making, but in many different forms. 

Q: Why do you think craftspeople should care about their secondary status to art?

Adamson: Because it is the condition in which all craftspeople exist, whether they like it or not. Art can be crafted, of course, and it often is. So I would not (at all!) say that art and craft are distinct categories. What I would say is that much art tends to hold itself apart from “mere” craft. This often involves attributing to it certain qualities – femininity, ethnicity, non-intellectualism. That is upsetting but it can also be turned around and made into an instrument of critique.

Q: Do you think the practice of craft is inherently conservative?

Adamson: No, not at all. Craft is susceptible to use by avant-gardeists and conservatives alike – it’s not a matter of red state/blue state (that always makes me think of Dr. Seuss, by the way). The Arts and Crafts and the subsequent studio craft movements were both strongly divided by conservative and also progressive impulses. It is important to know about the history of conservatism in craft though, it can be influential. However, many people think craft is intrinsically humanist and liberating, but the totalitarian powers of the twentieth century – in Japan, Spain, Germany and Italy – all found it to be a useful basis for propaganda and rhetoric.

Q: Is there current hot spot for craft?

Adamson: I have been very impressed with what is happening in Scandinavia. They have lots of government funding, a young scene where the curators and artists often went to school together, and great opportunities for exchange. It’s the place to watch.


Glen's iphone photo of his Mackenzie bowl

Q: Does a Mackenzie bowl make food taste better?

Adamson: You know, it probably does. But for some foods, you really want plastic.


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