Whose Haunting Who?

“Once named the American Craft Museum, the Museum of Arts and Design remains craft-haunted, and not in a good way,” New York Times art critic Roberta Smith writes, in the opening few paragraphs of her review of the Sterling Ruby show at the museum in 2018.[1] She goes on to define the “craft” that haunts the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) as “pointlessly fussy, technique-obsessed and uncreative” and, in doing so, makes craft less of a noun and more of an adjective. At the time, I was the chief curator at MAD, and needless to say, I was insulted. The curatorial and education departments had been working for some time to unravel that perception of the museum, critically investigating the boundaries of craft, design, and art and how they applied in our programs. I felt that we were being unfairly characterized based upon an older generation of exhibitions, an era of “post-modern” studio craft that, while not necessarily without its merits, embraced technical prowess.

Craft is not inherently fussy and technical; the term can characterize a wide range of objects, regardless of category. Essentially, Smith’s critique is that MAD was haunted by work she deemed less in line with her modernist framework for assessing an artwork’s success and larger cultural importance. In disparaging that work as “craft,” she assists in maintaining “craft” as a shameful and regressive category.[2] I interpret Smith’s mindset regarding craft, as she has defined it in this review, as a sensibility that is frustrating a trajectory of triumphant evolution for makers, their objects, and their institutions; according to this view, MAD has been dogged by those fussy and virtuosic objects that keep hanging around and demanding recognition and respect for what they are.

Craft often seems both ahead of and behind the times, never fully comfortable in the present. Accordingly, within a few days I came to be fond of Smith’s critique, to the extent that I had two dozen tie-dye shirts made with craft-haunted printed in pink in a spooky font. It felt good to run with it, to reclaim it and emblazon it on my person (and anyone else at work who cared to participate) as a commitment to the ever-troubled and ill-defined field of “craft.” Fast-forward four years and I am invited to write this piece for Dilettante Army’s issue A Spectre is Haunting…, and I sit down with the idea of hauntology, wherein the future is experienced as a ghostly presence impinging on the now. One outcome of the condition, according to Mark Fisher’s analysis in “What Is Hauntology?”, is succumbing to inertia and nostalgia when the future fails to unfold as imagined or hoped.[3] Under the spell of nostalgia, a haunted site remains in the past, replaying the moment when confidence in an acclivitous, expansive, and optimistic trajectory was fresh and alive.

When I question in what sense “craft” was haunting MAD—a museum founded to support that very field—I wonder if Smith’s perspective suggests that the museum was suffering from a kind of inertia and nostalgia, haunted by its founding mission until: Sterling Ruby! Smith writes that MAD “needs to feature more artists who complicate, transcend or decimate [art, design, and craft].… Mr. Ruby accomplishes all of the above.” In the Greenbergian sense, transcendence and decimation would likely shatter the nostalgia a haunted site might be stuck in, but my argument here is that “craft”—as invective against objects that are virtuosic or decorative—is not the party haunting the museum; rather, the proposition that objects themselves are evidence, or representative, of liberation haunts the larger art world. Smith doesn’t bring up the political in her review, but she does miss the reason Ruby is attracted to “craft” to begin with, and that’s pivotal.

 

The Ghost of Modernism

 

First, let’s extrapolate these two categorical distinctions from Smith’s review: good objects complicate, transcend, and decimate (and perhaps are rewarded with the title “art”); bad objects are technical, decorative, and uncreative. This dichotomy leaves no room for the possibility that the technical and decorative might also complicate and transcend, or that transcendent objects could in fact be disguising a great deal of technical prowess or even fussiness. While explicit mention of the decorative or ornamental is not present in Smith’s short review, the term “fussy” references unnecessary detail, recalling the oft-cited Adolf Loos and his essay “Ornament and Crime”[4] (and Loos may be the true creep here, haunting as he does a dying breed of art criticism still invested in a cultural polemics against beauty and the effeminate).

Without embarking on a total review of art history, the fact is that marginalized artists have been applying decorative techniques, craft materials and associated forms, and both technical prowess and the rejection of same to their practices and objects for generations. American artists in the 1970s invoked domestic craft to support feminist political messages, and the intersection between queerness and craft has grown into a field of study all its own over the last 20 years.[5] Decoration can be quite subversive, often because it has been so summarily dismissed, and thus internalized, as abject, and artists, designers, performers, and theorists have explored this potential for ages.[6] Technique, on the other hand, can communicate care, and in doing so reject a (Greenbergian-American) modernism that has centered a kind of romanticized, lone and heroic masculine individualism that has contributed to the atomized society that we live in today.[7] The question of whether the application of the decorative (read: fussy) or technique is or isn’t creative is more difficult to defend. Degrees of creativity are impossible to measure, and thus are subjective assessments.

Again, I’m not certain whether Smith is implying that MAD was haunted by its own founding mission or just by this pejorative perception of “craft”; but the influences on his work that Sterling Ruby has very vocally cited[8] (including his textile work[9])—women’s craft, popular ceramics with its cheap accessible glazes, and therapeutic craft-making—are, for the most part, the craft of the untrained or the hobbyist. Ruby’s object ancestors are not just modernist painters and their psychologically charged canvases, but also the china painters at the local clay studio, plying a craft that, in all likelihood, has no calculated designs on transcendence.

Ruby chooses to mine that specific craft space for his own work because transcendence, a.k.a. ascendency, is difficult to acquire within the very crowded and strategic landscape of contemporary art. Ruby, like countless artists before him who have enjoyed the privileges of whiteness, maleness, heteronormativity, and/or economic independence, has sought out in the work of the “un”—uncelebrated, unrecognized, untainted—the threshold to greatness.[10] The fact that “craft” remains symbolic of a kind of natural, untrained creativity, and advantageous to an artist interested in surpassing sculptural norms or expectations of craft materials in the fine art context, is an interesting conundrum, one that flies in the face of practitioners working in traditional craft media who desire to carve out a space for recognition of their work on its own terms.

I argue that what Ruby’s work makes evident is that modernism continues to haunt the field of fine art and, for that matter, fine art criticism. Craft in this context is just one of many possible markers. The idea that “craft” might offer transcendence (read: supremacy) is a nostalgic one in the context of a modernism that pilfered the art of everyone—non-Western traditions, women, untrained artists, craftspeople, etc.—in order to satiate a craving for authenticity, which had become located in objects and peoples that had yet to be “denatured by modernity and industry.”[11] But I will build on that further, to point out that the idea that “craft” is in some way liberatory, because it is intuitive, marginalized, or aligned with agency over one’s labor, is one of the ghosts hanging around and haunting current creative practices, regardless of whether we label them art or craft.

 

The Impossibility of Objects

 

What any one critic means when speaking of craft can be slippery, to say the least. Before I continue, I need to lay out the range of ways I hear “craft” being deployed, both within the context of this essay and beyond:

1. Craft as field of practice: a category of material exploration, as in the American craft movement, wherein work is made from clay, fiber, glass, wood, or metal (the latter medium usually takes the form of personal ornamentation, as in studio jewelry, but also includes utensils or tools).

2. Craft as noun: a category of objects that are functional and handmade. This could arguably also be labeled design; no material specificity required.

3. Craft as verb: a shortened version of “handcraft,” implying making by hand, regardless of material. This usage focuses on the labor of an individual maker.

4. Craft as verb: a loftier application of the preceding usage, referring to a practitioner’s skill in completing their work and perhaps their attention to that work—for example, “the writer’s craft,” referring to their voice, word choice, sentence structure, etc. See Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman.

5. Craft as adjective: used to label and categorize an object, usually in opposition to art and frequently encompassing the materials listed above; used derogatorily in relation to handmade objects of any kind whose materiality, form, surface, ideas, or execution in general is out of step with the prevailing conventions of “fine art.”

When reading works of criticism that invoke craft, I rarely see the term defined—there is almost always an assumption that a reader shares the critic’s understanding. I find this notable not only in regard to Smith’s review but also in “Craft as Property as Liberalism as Problem,” the previously cited essay by Leopold Kowolik, published in the recent volume of craft criticism The New Politics of the Handmade: Craft, Art and Design.

From the outset, Kowolik defines “craft” as a unified field of material culture that is “juxtaposed to mass production, industrial uniformity and uncreative design and assembly.”[12] While he defines craft similarly to my first definition, as a field demarcated by certain material explorations, he fails to tease out the nuance in the word’s usage as noun, verb, and adjective, a failure that also accounts for Smith’s use of the term to mean “uncreative” as opposed to being in juxtaposition to the same. In an otherwise compelling argument against colluding craft objects with liberatory politics, Kowolik includes a critique of “serious self-reflection, strained gravitas, a weathered voice of profound personality and the creased hands of individual creativity, all set within an anti-capitalist counterculture.”[13] Where he goes wrong is in presenting these qualities as unique to craft, when in fact they could apply to the larger project of artmaking.

This brings me back to the haunting: What Kowolik is critical of is the righteous aura that has surrounded “craft” since William Morris posited that craft could lead to political change. In Kowolik’s argument, a misunderstanding of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government has led to a neoliberalism that misconstrues individualism and informs the “modernist assumptions” embraced by makers: that “makers feel ‘rights’ and ‘obligations-to-authentic selfhood’ due to perceived democratic-liberal rights of all social individuals.”[14] Kowolik is referring explicitly to craft in this essay, and the misappropriation of craft as an impossible tool for anti-capitalist argument; and while he uses a few examples to make his case, it largely rests on a working knowledge of “craft’s pride in its Marx-like revaluing of labor and associated definitions of work, not to mention the commoditized nature of authorship.”[15] We think of craft objects as more special than manufactured objects because they come from one set of hands and one set of skills; in Kowolik’s argument, those hands and skills are thought of as the craftsperson’s property, which means that the maker has already commodified their own labor. However, the craftsperson, existing in a neoliberal framework, is no different than any other entrepreneur. The association between craft work and the commodity form, as it has developed and entrenched itself since Morris, makes craft a troubled symbol when activated by artists—thereby haunting craft with the impossibility of being political or liberatory objects.

The notion that craft has the capacity to be political and liberatory appears to be primarily tethered to craft as verb, then secondarily to the materials and methodologies that have accrued to it as noun. Even though there is “craft” to making a painting, the sense that craft (as verb and noun) might revalue labor requires that craft be considered in relation to industrial manufacturing, and a point in history when certain modes of production moved from the craftsman’s atelier to the factory. Craft, in terms of the first definition, is still regarded in relationship to this eighteenth- and nineteenth-century transition, oddly not embracing—whether by design or by accident—other forms of production that are largely industrial but can still be done artisanally. While small-batch distillers and brewers refer to their work as craft, other efforts to widen the scope of craft appreciation to honor other forms are largely fumbled or simply don’t stick.[16]

In today’s art practices, identity-as-subject matter (social, gendered, racial and/or ethnic) has made use of craft media as means to tightly link authorship and singular labor with the message of the work, suggesting a continued association between craft (both objects and process) and agency[17], as per Morris. However, Morris’s “agency” was about returning craft and the craftsman to the atelier and attempting to recreate respect and a market for objects produced outside the factory. (Of course, this premise was flawed in that the work of the arts and crafts movement was largely unattainable by regular people, making it more of a luxury good than a cultural necessity.) Contemporary artists who use craft tend to focus their creative agency more on the power of personal narrative than on the dignity of labor.

In his essay, Kowolik points out, “when craft celebrates authorship and the expression of the individual, it accentuates one of the problems it might seek to resolve—that the individual is given primacy over the community.”[18] I interpret this as short-hand for a kind of craft that is betraying an understood link between it and community building, a belief that craft is naturally connected to a history of mentorship and apprenticeship, inherited traditions, and shared, if not collaborative, technical discovery and advancement. By overly emphasizing the author, the belief that craft has stronger ties to community than other object-making falls away. 

In the end we might agree that there is no pure definition or understanding in what craft is, and that some of the assumptions that have attached themselves to the field might be specious claims. Craft has enormous capacity, which is why it might be so difficult to define and why it suffers from apparently contradictory interpretations. What’s it not though, is an elevated form of object-making that manages to evade the fate of being a product in one form or the other. So long as craft (art or design) objects build cultural or economic capital around them and their authors, all objects will fail to liberate their makers, users, or collectors from capitalism, and attempting to find in craft practice some shred of unadulterated humanity that will ennoble art and design is feeble at best.

But as the latter impulse—to seek authenticity through appropriating whatever is currently overlooked or marginalized—is likely to never die out, I am tempted to think that Smith will soon be singing the praises of a fussy and technique-obsessed artist, as inevitably this maligned quality will likely be revisited before long, as another chance at transcendence.    

 

 


[1] Roberta Smith, “Sterling Ruby Pipes Down, a Bit,” New York Times, November 14, 2018.

[2] Roberta Smith’s byline at the New York Times states: “Special areas of interest include ceramics, textiles, folk and outsider art, design and video art.” While it doesn’t cite craft specifically, her interests cover two mediums deeply entangled in craft histories in the United States and abroad. https://www.nytimes.com/by/roberta-smith

[3] Mark Fisher, “What Is Hauntology?” Film Quarterly 66, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 16–17.

[4] If you haven’t read this ubiquitous essay, it is easily found online: https://faculty.risd.edu/bcampbel/Loos-Ornament%20and%20Crime.pdf.

[5] For example, see Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community (2014), a traveling exhibition curated by John Chaich, and LJ Roberts, “Put Your Thing Down, Flip It, and Reverse It: Reimagining Craft Identities Using Tactics of Queer Theory,” in Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art, ed. Maria Elena Buszek (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[6] A good place to start is Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch or Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style.

[7] I began teasing some of this out while curating the exhibition Between You and Me, presented at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in 2020, which assembled artists whose work had at its foundation an intention to “care for.” While it was not explicitly a craft exhibition, featured artists like Christine Wong Yap and John Preus tie their commitment to technical production in print- and book-making (Yap) and carpentry (Preus) to the politics of care that is part of their research and practice.

[8] See Sterling Ruby: Ceramics, Des Moines Art Center, 2018

[9] His textile work was not included in the exhibition in question, but it bears citing in this context.

[10] This perennial pursuit has a long history from the post-impressionist paintings of Paul Gauguin and his romantic depictions of Tahiti and modern art’s obsession with African sculpture as a means to advance Western painting beyond naturalism. Appropriation of the art of the self-taught, women, or other marginalized peoples by artists with the privilege of visibility is apparent across art history and beyond the scope of this brief essay.

[11] Leopold Kowolik, “Craft as Property as Liberalism as Problem,” in The New Politics of the Handmade: Craft, Art and Design, ed. Anthea Black and Nicole Burisch (London: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020), 111.

[12] Kowolik, 99.

[13] Kowolik, 97.

[14] Kowolik, 107.

[15] Kowolik, 107.

[16] Glenn Adamson led the exhibition concept “NYC Makers” at the Museum of Arts and Design in 2014 that worked to widen this scope by curating an exhibition of creative forms from special effects through to food and social practice. The exhibition was described as “part swan dive part belly-flop” by Roberta Smith in her review for the Times. He has pursued this expanded framework for craft discourse in his book Craft: An American History (Bloomsbury, 2021). Other authors on the subject include Richard Sennet’s book The Craftsman (Yale, 2008), Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft (Penguin Books, 2009), among others.

[17] Grayson Perry and Roberto Lugo may be the footnote to many younger artists’ pursuit of the pot as the contemporary substrate for both self-portraiture and political commentary, and Theaster Gates ceramics practice as performative storytelling is likely further inspiration. And of course artists can reach back further in history to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party for contemporary art and clay being a vehicle for political statements.

[18] Kowolik, 110.