You are on page 1of 5

The Journal of

Modern Craft
Volume 2Issue 1
March 2009
pp. 113116
Reprints available directly
from the publishers
Photocopying permitted by
licence only
Berg 2009

Book Review
Thinking through Craft
Glenn Adamson
Oxford: Berg, 2007. 50/US$99.95 (cloth). 15.99/US$29.95
(paperback). ISBN: 978-1-84520-646-8 (cloth).
978-1-84520-647-5 (paperback).

Reviewed by Love Jnsson

Love Jnsson is a freelance critic and curator and a member
of the faculty of the School of Design and Crafts at University
of Gothenburg, Sweden.
To elevate the status of the crafts and to get them included
in the institutional and commercial framework of fine arts
has been a repetitive, not to say exhausting, endeavor within
the crafts community for as long as anyone can remember.
The resentment caused by the constant failure of these
attempts has weighed down individual makers as well as
the community as a whole. It has been in the air, however,
that a change is coming. We have recently seen a growing
numbers of makers deliberately reclaiming and re-evaluating
the detested c-word. Furthermore, there are makers who
rather than trying to get seamlessly integrated into the
structure of the art world, seek to critically explore the same
structure as well as their own problematic place insideor
outsideof it. Given this background, Glenn Adamsons
Thinking through Craft is a welcome and opportune theoretical
study. Adamson, who holds a PhD in art history from Yale
University and is Head of Graduate Studies and Deputy
Head of Research at the V&A Museum, London, manages
to turn the jaded art/craft debate upside down, refueling
the discussion in a way that has long been called for. The
crucial point in Adamsons argument is that the features
that have disqualified craft from gaining acceptance in the
art worldfor instance its supplementary character (i.e.
its non-autonomy) and its dependence on materiality and
manual skillare not problems to overcome, but principles
to be examined and put into use. Thus, instead of denying
the difference between art and craft and calling for the
The Journal of Modern Craft Volume 2Issue 1March 2009, pp. 113116

114 Book Review

erasure of their boundaries, Adamson

maintains their basic differences: craft, as
a cultural practice, exists in opposition to
the modern conception of art itself (p. 2).
Moreover, crafts theoretical and institutional
subordination with regard to art is viewed
here as an interesting and artistically
productive condition.
The title of the book in itself suggests
another principal shift of perspective
in the discussion surrounding craft; the
emphasis here is not so much on making
as on thinking. Adamsons book also
marks a departure from the crafts as a
specific, medium-based discipline, towards
craft as a practice and a way of thinking
through practice that transcends all creative
disciplines: there is no reason that any
medium or genre of production should be
more conductive to this way of thinking than
another (p. 7). While this idea is not new,
it has rarely been subject to a study this
accurate and stimulating. Despite its handy
format, the book comprises a rich array of
knowledge, opinions and analyses, and stands
as a significant addition to the growing body
of theoretical literature on craft. From a
specialized crafts perspective, it might still be
complained that the references in the book
are biased towards art history and theory,
at the expense of the crafts. In defense
of the books tendency to give priority to
other fields, one has to keep in mind that it
does not set out to deal with studio craft
as a specific discipline, but with craft as an
extra-disciplinary practice. Still, it is probable
that it is precisely among the followers of
studio craft that the book will find most of its
In his introduction, Adamson talks about
craft as one of the many horizons defining

Love Jnsson

modern art, a conceptual limit active

throughout modern artistic practice (p. 2),
and, in even looser terms, as an approach,
an attitude, or a habit of action (p. 4).
Less interested in defining the concept of
craft than highlighting its ambiguities and
its contingent nature, the author applies
a dialectical model in which voices and
works from various artistic contexts and
epochs are brought together. The research
method is one of problematization, not
only of the prevailing points of departure in
the crafts discourse, but in extension also
of the art theory models that have veiled
or neglected the role of craft in modern
and contemporary art. Underpinned by
convincing arguments, Adamson states that
under the condition of modernity craft is a
supplement to art. Modern art cannot get
along in its absence but also cannot admit its
indebtedness (p. 21).
The book is divided into five sections,
each focusing on crucial aspects of craft
and theories about craft: Supplemental,
Material, Skilled, Pastoral and Amateur.
As the emphasis is on craft as a practice,
concepts like function and use, so essential in
much previous writings on craft as an object
category, fall outside of the study. While this
omission might be lamented, it also leaves
room for other views.
Turning to the cultural position of the
crafts, it should be noted that Adamsons
book has a critical, if not unforgiving attitude
to studio craft that pretentiously tries to
be art. Like a Victorian servant aping his
or her betters, studio craft inadvertently
ratifies the hierarchal arrangement of the
art world by aspiring so transparently to a
status that it cannot claim, as the author
openly puts it (p. 139). The book offers

The Journal of Modern Craft Volume 2Issue 1March 2009, pp. 113116

Book Review 115

Love Jnsson

no relief for the quite large number of

makers who happily produce moderniststyle sculptures, claim their pieces status as
autonomous artworks, and are let down
by the art worlds rejection. On the contrary,
what is stressed here is a negativethat
the crafts have largely hung on to a notion
of art (centered on object and studio)
that the dominant art world has since
long set aside. As Adamson frankly, or
bluntly, states in the books initial chapter:
We might simply conclude that the crafts
have become a preserve for outmoded
models of art (p. 15). Even if he goes on
to slightly moderate his judgment, offering
a broader historical understanding of the
situation, his critique of the naivety with
which the average craftsperson approaches
the art/craft debate is harsh. Later on in the
book, in the chapter on Material, Adamson
returns to his critique of the formalist objet
dart, that category of neomodernist works
so cherished by todays crafts galleries
and collectors. Discussing the work of the
influential glass artist Dale Chihuly, Adamson
writes disdainfully about the free, gleefully
empty-headed play of forms that so many
makers indulge in (p. 66). Again, he is
not the first to bring the question to the
table, but he does it with a directness and a
fervor that that is rare in the crafts debates
overwhelmingly gentle and confirming
climate. The authors insistence on combining
theory and history with criticism is one of
the books strengths, and can be regarded as
a model for contemporary writings on craft.
Staying with Adamsons critique of
Chihuly and his followers, it is interesting
to see how it to some extent echoes
Peter Dormers dismissal two decades
ago of quasi art and handicraft gone to

fat, i.e. sculptural crafts pieces, American

in particular, of exaggerated design, size
and complexity and hugely inflated prices
(Dormer 1988: 142f.). But if in the case of
Dormer the attack is launched towards the
commercialization of studio craft and its way
of distancing itself from the everyday and
the ordinary home, Adamson focuses more
on the lack of self-reflection in the works,
and their makers cynical disregard for arts
critical possibilities (p. 66). For Dormer, the
remedy for the misdirected crafts was a
return to the values of utility and truth to
materials, framed by a domestic and modest
surrounding. In Adamsons version, the
way forward for the crafts rather lies in a
sophisticated, conceptual investigation of its
own being. Craft is regarded as a problem to
be thought through again and again (p. 168).
The self-referential strategy for craft outlined
by Adamson aligns with Adornos theory
of negative aesthetics and its prescription
that the serious work of art above all has
to consider and critique its own conditions.
Adamson, who gives Adornos theories an
important place in his book, shares with the
great German philosopher also a tendency
towards elitism. This does not say that
Adamsons thoughts have a limited scope,
but that they throughout reflect a vanguard
theoretical position that will probably
seem far-flung, if not irrelevant, from the
perspective of the average craftsperson.
In his conclusion, Adamson touches upon
the above fact, noting his own lack of interest
in much of the work made by traditional
craftspeople, and claiming that all craft does
not demand critical analysis. He also warns
against the impulse unthinkingly to celebrate
craft in all its manifestations (p. 169).
Provocative and demanding as they are in

The Journal of Modern Craft Volume 2Issue 1March 2009, pp. 113116

116 Book Review

the light of the general craft discourse, these

and the like remarks deserve to be taken
seriously. Certainly they have the potential
to spur further debate. In many ways,
Adamsons sharp and polemical study calls
for responses, not only from fellow scholars
and critics but also from makerscritical
responses all the more called for as they

Love Jnsson

would seem sympathetic to the stress on

dialectical thinking that is at the very core of
the structure of the book itself.

Dormer, Peter. The Ideal World of Vermeers
Little Lacemaker. In John Thackara, ed. Design after
Modernism. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988.

The Journal of Modern Craft Volume 2Issue 1March 2009, pp. 113116


TITLE: [Thinking through Craft]

SOURCE: J Mod Craft 2 no1 Mr 2009
The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it
is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in
violation of the copyright is prohibited. To contact the publisher: