Interview with Glenn AdamsonMay 30, 2011
My interest in Glenn Adamson’s work began in 2006 with his essay “Handy-Crafts: A Doctrine,” which is included in the anthology What Makes a Great Exhibition? In this essay, Adamson posed a question that was to become an encapsulation of his practice as a historian and curator: “When the climate is so militantly hostile to an intelligent handling of craft, how is a curator who is interested in craft to navigate the shoals?” His answer is disarmingly simple: “treat craft as a subject, not a category.”1
Over the past decade, Adamson has been one of the few to investigate and re-envision craft from this wholly new position. He followed “Handy-Crafts” with the 2007 Thinking Through Craft, which argues that the supplementary status of craft is its very strength and that its position in the margin of art allows it space from which to provide a critique. Recognizing the absence of any standard for basic craft education, Adamson edited The Craft Reader in 2010, providing a foundational-level education in materiality, objecthood, and labor through the inclusion of essays by Karl Marx, William Morris, Annie Albers, and Lucy Lippard. I sat down with Adamson on April 1, 2011, just before he gave the keynote speech at the “Craft Forward” symposium hosted by the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Bean Gilsdorf: You’re putting together a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London on postmodernism, and I wonder if you could start by defining that term, because it’s so contentious.2
Glenn Adamson: The definition that we’ve been using—or the application of the term that we’ve been using—is that postmodernism is the proliferation of responses to the collapse of the modernist project. Rather than defining it positively, we’ve defined it as a phase of thinking and practice that occurs because the sometimes utopian or progressive practices and certainty of modernism—best known in architecture, but known in the other arts as well—collapses and you have something in its wake. That’s postmodernism. It’s very much a relational term, and it’s essentially based on the idea of freedom and difference. Modernism is like a transparent window, and it pretends to show you the world clearly, and postmodernism is like a shattered mirror, so it reflects yourself at yourself, but in fragments. It doesn’t necessarily pretend to truly show you anything; it’s simply a reflection of your own situation. That’s the long version; the short version is that postmodernism is what happens after modernism dies. What’s interesting, of course, is that modernism was revived in the 1990s. To some extent, it didn’t ever go away, because you always had modernist holdouts, but modernism again became the dominant style, and then you arguably have a kind of hybridization of various modernist and postmodernist motifs and approaches. But in any case, we’re thinking about postmodernism in the ’70s and ’80s, in that reactive, destructive way.
BG: In your previous craft projects and in your interest in craft, I am interested in your application of the term friction—where you identify a sense of working against something. Is that how you came to the idea of doing this project on postmodernism?
GA: The museum leadership pitched the idea to my cocurator Jane Pavitt and me, but it immediately appealed for exactly the reason you’re saying. I help edit The Journal of Modern Craft, which places modernism and craft in opposition. I’ve always thought of craft as something that is both produced by modernity and contests it. Postmodernism is the same thing, except with a very different structure.
BG: Do you tend to think in poles of opposition?
GA: Dialectically. It’s always about exposing a false opposition, or seeing how an opposition works, sometimes to create a synthesis and sometimes, possibly, to create further fragmentation as well. Marx thought that a real dialectic was one that was resolved. So he would say that if there was no possibility of resolution, you weren’t looking at a dialectic. But I think of opposition in postmodern terms, as leading to further fragmentation, or a rhizomatic, infinite cascade.
BG: Is that why you think that craft now is so productive?
GA: Yes, craft is not in an oppositional relationship to anything anymore. It’s in a supplementary relationship or a supporting relationship, but it’s not opposed to industry or mass production; it isn’t opposed to modernization. In fact, it could be the vehicle by which all those things occur. For example, the Chinese economy is essentially founded on artisanal skills, yet it’s challenging the West and unsettling the hegemony of capitalism as we know it through craft. A kind of hyper-capitalization occurs through the organization of work, by integrating craft in factories and large-scale serial production. It can be integrated with various digital practices; it can be organized through various art and design practices in an oppositional way. So craft can’t retain that simple William Morris–style, anti-alienation, humanizing message. Some of that is quite important to hold on to, but it doesn’t need to be didactic in its opposition.
BG: Are you interested in the continuing use of craft as a form of protest?
GA: Definitely. It is key that it retains that bite or that critique, that critical edge, but in the context of fluidity and possibility-making and facilitation. For example, craft can be simultaneously critical and self-effacing by being plunged into a certain social context.
BG: But it sounds like craft still has to be “apart from” in order to make that critique.
GA: It needs to create some space for itself, and it is indeed a temporal, spatial thing. That’s one of the ways that craft applies friction: it requires space, time, skill, infrastructure, and tools. It’s not conceptual art, therefore its critical apparatus is fundamentally different; it’s complicit, embedded, materialized.
BG: Do you see craft operating in the same way in twenty years?
GA: I always find those questions really difficult because I’m a historian!
BG: You look backward.
GA: My business is right up until yesterday and then I absent myself from the discussion. Although the next show I’m working on at the V&A is about the future. It’s about the history of prophetic design. Not necessarily impossible design, but improbable design—design that probably won’t be realized in the present day, but forecasts [the future]. So I’ve been thinking about a kind of history of futurology. So with those spectacles on, I might say that craft won’t stay fashionable the way that it is now. I think it will recede again into a kind of unstated, taken-for-granted-ness.
BG: Go into a period of lull.
GA: I think it will not regain the sort of embarrassing separateness that it had in the ’80s and ’90s. But I think and hope it will become an evermore explicit area of political discourse. I want craft to be not so tacit or unspoken, not so hidden offstage. I want it to be something that everyone sees happening before their eyes and thinks constantly about how it should be structured. Rather like environmentalism, the politics of global outsourcing and labor are going to force that issue, partly because the people that are being exploited now are going to take it up. If you imagine what’s happening with the Arab Spring now—if you apply that sense of uprising to global labor politics—you can see craft playing a key role there, especially in the way that gender performs as this repressed element that’s not going to take it anymore. That’s what I would like to see, but maybe that’s too optimistic.
BG: You use your blog From Sketch to Product as a platform to talk about design. How does design fit in with craft?
GA: The blog prompted the future of design idea. Briefly, it locates the presence of craft within design by looking at prototyping and sketching. The idea is to look at a preparatory stage as a way of isolating the location of skill and the hand and various kinds of tooling. One of the earliest examples was a look at the difference between an airbrush and a felt-tip marker, and how the use of different sketching materials produces a different car. It’s really a way of isolating the craft activity that stands in relation to the rest of the design process—that is part of the design process, rather than separated out as some kind of studio craft thing. You don’t see the sketch and the prototype made of tape and cardboard, or carved wood, or whatever it was when you look at the final object, but you might feel its resonance. That would not have been possible without the craft object that came before it.
BG: In the blog you talk about the use of different fonts. Where does that come in?
GA: That came from working with the graphic designer on the Postmodernism exhibition. I was struck by her ability to envision many, many different applications of a set of graphic ideas and typefaces and the artisanal quality of that, because she was so attentive to the materiality and nuance of each letterform. You expect that of a graphic designer, but it was so interesting to see her go through the font selection process and alight on one of them for reasons she might not have been able to explain.
BG: So it was intuitive.
GA: Yes, much in the way that somebody throwing a pot would find the process intuitive. I was struck by all those correspondences, even though [graphic design] is less obviously craftlike—she wasn’t hand lettering.
BG: But it’s still a foundational platform of knowledge and skills that leads to working through intuition, a knowledge base that doesn’t necessarily have to be tapped explicitly.
GA: And the blog’s not just about craft–design relations, but about the way that creativity works. Sketching is a nice thing to look at if you want to understand that.
BG: Back to postmodernism—why are postmodernism and craft so contentious, such disputed territories?
GA: They’re very different cases. In the case of postmodernism, it was a matter of the fundamental vacancy of the term. Even now, thirty years later, we’re defining it negatively, and that’s telling. Because postmodernism’s not one set of ideas that makes a lot of things possible, it’s a way of thinking that shatters the concept of stylistic unity. You don’t believe in “isms” anymore, except in a kind of joking way—you wouldn’t have Cubism or futurism after postmodernism. Also, because the discussion about postmodernism carried on for such a long time without it producing anything that seemed definitive, and because it became complicit with commodity culture in the ’80s, people became exhausted with it. What seemed initially to be very liberatory became a straightjacket. David Byrne wrote the postscript to our book, and he said something incredibly right-on about this. He said postmodernism originally seemed like permission to do what he liked, “but then it became a look. Time to move on.” And that’s exactly right. It became codified. The story of postmodernism is basically the story of rupture followed by exhaustion.
In the case of craft, it’s a much more substantial and long-term problem that’s not going to go away. Craft is always defined relative to these stronger forces, so that it tends to be associated with the feminine, ethnic, marginal, or regional. It’s the thing that doesn’t have the power. And more than mass production versus hand, or digital versus material, it’s actually controlling versus controlled that determines the craft relationship, craft being the controlled thing. Obviously, there have been many attempts to get out of that relationship, but it’s always going to be the thing that’s figured as traditional, historic, static, marginal, or other. That means there’s always going to be resentment and antagonism and a kind of insurrectionary feeling, as well as embarrassment and shame. There are lots of reasons to think that will continue, because it helps us think though issues of hierarchy.
BG: Whereas postmodernism stopped helping us at a certain point…
GA: Because it was grounded in a certain historical phase, whereas craft is an ever-present variable within production. Postmodernism is more like a moment. Postmodernity is just getting going—postmodernism is just its early warning sign, like the canary in the coal mine.
Glenn Adamson, PhD, is deputy head of research and head of Graduate Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he leads a graduate program in the History of Design. He is co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft and the author of Thinking Through Craft (Berg Publishers/V&A Publications, 2007) and The Craft Reader (Berg, 2010). Dr. Adamson’ s other publications include Industrial Strength Design: How Brooks Stevens Shaped Your World (MIT Press, 2003). His most recent project is Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 to 1990, a major exhibition and accompanying catalogue that will be on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum from September 24, 2011, to January 15, 2012.