Reading – Glenn Adamson: thinking through craft

Adamson, G. (2007) thinking through craft, Oxford: Berg.

This book looks at craft in all sorts of ways, showing how it isn’t and can’t be art. It takes an analytical, academic, theoretical approach to “craft” the idea and contrasts it to modern avant garde art. It is, I am sure, deliberately provocative. The author has clearly done a lot of research and thinking, and he aims to get others thinking.

Adamson proceeds in a systematic way to examine five perspectives or ways of thinking about craft – Supplemental (not autonomous); Material (versus optical); Skilled (more complex, but perhaps beside the point in art); Pastoral (that is nostalgic and limiting creative freedom); Amateur.  He begins with a survey of theory, then history, then a critical analysis of specific works or texts. In one sense I enjoyed the book very much and felt I was learning a lot. Adamson covers a lot of territory, much of it new or only faintly familiar to me, and he generally explains his terms and concepts clearly and carefully. He certainly gave me a lot to think about, and I expect I’ll be re-reading the book in parts and as a whole many time in the future. I’d definitely recommend it to others.

On the other hand the book made me cranky. Very cranky. Two main reasons – first, I don’t like his conclusions, which wouldn’t be a problem (after all it’s interesting when people hold and discuss different views) except that second, I think he indulges in some sleights of hand and leaps of logic which make his conclusions suspect.

In most of the book Adamson is specifically referring to avant garde art. It has a theory and expressed concept behind it. It is autonomous (self-standing), generally optical, has an underlying principle of freedom, can transcend any limits, not necessarily created with great manual skill, in theory with intrinsic (not just market) value. On the other hand Adamson deliberately doesn’t define craft closely. It is a process and way of doing things, it has core principles, it limits itself.

In my mind the tricky part is that this allows Adamson to select among all that is “craft” some examples that don’t meet the particular art criteria being considered. For instance in chapter 1 “Supplemental” he writes that art, a painting, stands apart and exists in itself. He then takes the extreme example of the frame around the art as representing craft, and shows that the frame supplements the art but isn’t art in itself. Not a hard sell – I suggest only in particular cases is a frame presented or claimed as art. Adamson does go on to give some more convincing examples, but one thing he doesn’t convince me of is that avant garde art is autonomous. It requires an “accepted critical account” (page 32). Some other recent reading suggests I’m not original in pointing this out. For example, in an article on the new hang at the Art Gallery of NSW John McDonald wrote that when considering contemporary art “one can be a fashion victim rather than an art historian and no one will notice the difference” (1). Or much earlier Tom Wolfe: “”Without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting … Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.” (2) So much for autonomous.

In chapter 4 “Pastoral” Adamson writes about the “sentimental escapism” of attendees at summer crafts schools. I certainly don’t accept that as an accurate description of the work we did in Liz Williamson’s class last January (post here), not that I’m claiming avant garde status but there was certainly no “air of crabby conservatism” (p. 168). This is one of many places where it’s convenient for Adamson’s position that he limited himself to avant garde art, because otherwise he would have to figure out how to accommodate in his theory all the art classes held at Sturt at the same time. The attendees there are covered in that “there is no such thing as an amateur contemporary artist, only an unsuccessful one” (p. 143). I wonder if artists who choose or need to earn at least part of their income by teaching thereby lose any status as Artists.

One final sleight of hand. Adamson suggests that in its inferiority craft performs a useful function, acting as a “horizon” to art – “a conceptual limit active throughout modern artistic practice” (p. 2). Craft seems to act as some kind of foil to art, helping to intensify its art-ness. “The limits embodied by craft are not only psychologically comforting, but also conceptually useful” (p. 5). For me though as Adamson explores this frontier he seems to accept as art some work that has pushed into territory previously seen as craft. Adamson sidesteps the difficulty that an area or process or material that was part of craft is now to be seen as art –  he has already dismissed as banal any circular argument that something is art because it says it is, but in this situation he doesn’t offer any other explanation for the discontinuity.

So why did I keep reading, when the book made me cranky and had me muttering and scribbling copious notes (possibly a concern to other bus travellers)? Simply because it did give me so much to think about, and helped me further in my understanding of what I want to do and how I want to develop. A very worthwhile read.

1. McDonald, J. In with the new http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/in-with-the-new-20120621-20p1x.html accessed 6 July 2012

2. Wolfe, J The Painted Word, quoted in Ellsworth-Jones, W. Never mind the theory… http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/never-mind-the-theory–20120629-21792.html accessed 6 July 2012

Adamson, G. (2007) thinking through craft, Oxford: Berg.

4 Responses to “Reading – Glenn Adamson: thinking through craft”


  1. 1 Cally July 12, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    Very interesting. I’ve had this book on my to-read list for ages but have tended to postpone it for fear of that crankiness thing, so thanks for being in the vanguard! Your analysis of his argument probably applies to much of the art vs craft business, in that essentially it boils down to the categories one defines and the attributes one ascribes to them. Do it just right and any conclusion you want can be yours!

    Sounds as though it is worth the annoyance, but I might need to wait until background crankiness levels are a little lower than at present.


  1. 1 Research point – Craft « Fibres of Being Trackback on August 18, 2012 at 5:48 pm
  2. 2 UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon | Fibres of Being Trackback on March 17, 2013 at 6:12 pm
  3. 3 UA1-WA:P3-p2-Ex Reflecting on abstract expressionism | Fibres of Being Trackback on December 27, 2013 at 4:30 pm

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Fabulous figure sculpting workshop with Kassandra Bossell!

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