The Invention of Craft by Glenn Adamson

Nithikul Nimkulrat discusses an ‘indispensable means of working’

June 13, 2013

Craft, in Glenn Adamson’s view, has continuously referred to a process or an activity rather than a discipline on its own. Adamson, head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, has written extensively on this subject; here, he revisits craft, but with a different focus. The Invention of Craft presents craft as a modern invention playing its role in society. It is therefore positioned within modern production - and increasingly within today’s post-disciplinary practice. For Adamson, the conventional narrative of craft emerging during the Industrial Revolution and the Arts and Crafts Movement has posited it as workmanship of the past with no relation to industrial production.

Here, the author looks to demonstrate that craft is not a second-class or anti-modern discipline, but rather a skilled process that is crucial for contemporary practices across a wide range of disciplines, including sculpture, painting and contem-porary art, fashion, design, architecture and the digitalised industrial fabrication of products. By way of illustration, he not only explores the origins of modern craft but also emphasises its significance today.

Craft has never been in decline or dead: instead, it has always been ‘an indispensable means of working’

His arguments throughout are well supported by examples of inventions from numerous disciplines dated from the 18th century to the present. Many examples are contemporary and widely known among people who are neither makers nor scholars. You might not imagine it possible to draw connections between the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress and a quilt made by anonymous prisoners at HMP Wandsworth in a discussion of craft, but Adamson, a knowledgeable scholar, does so with ease, while at the same time showing how contemporary practice can be informed by the study of modern craft in its period of invention.

Through its four thematic sections (manipulation, mystery, mechanical and memory), the book demonstrates craft’s firm existence in any form of industrial production or modern invention. Craft has never been in decline or dead: instead, it has always been “an indispensable means of working”.

When craft depends on skilful hands, the hands manipulating the resistances of material become part of the meaning of the work. Whether it is an art piece that the artist requires others to make or a design product’s components that are fabricated in the Far East, the hands of the “others” always leave marks on the object.

As craft is a means of working, its knowledge exists in the practice. Mystifying in nature, craft renders tacit and practical knowledge into material form, not revealing nor concealing it. To learn a craft process is to do it repeatedly. This differs greatly from scientific knowledge, which tends to be thoroughly explained. This difference leads to the modern presumption that craft needs improvement through the addition of theory, art or the digital, but Adamson does not agree. To him, craft can integrate itself into discourse of all kinds (ethical, aesthetic or technological) and is a “living part of a larger mechanical system”.

Despite its many twists of theoretical perspective, from craft history to psychoanalysis, feminism and postcolonial theory, The Invention of Craft is structured well enough to guide the reader through Adamson’s journey. Although not an easy read, it is nevertheless an enjoyable one, full of examples readers can relate to as they try to understand the meaning of craft in the world we live in. Even if your profession has nothing to do with the subject, this book will surprise you in demonstrating how close craft is to us. It is not disappearing as a result of modernity: it is itself a modern invention.

The Invention of Craft

By Glenn Adamson
Bloomsbury, 2pp, £55.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780857850645 and 50669
Published 28 February 2013

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