The Practice of American Craft

4 Minute Read

By Bruce MetcalfMore from this author

The practice of American craft is set against the larger phenomenon of industrialization: every aspect of craft compares to and competes with mass production. This condition has been basic to craft since 1945, when the war effort killed off subsistence craft and displaced most types of production to factory assembly lines. The kind of craft this magazine documents - craft exhibited in museums or marketed in galleries - must inevitably be compared to industrial production. Why make anything by hand when it can be replaced by a cheaper, less laborious machine made substitute? Measuring hand production against machine production forces us to question the competence of craft.

A key to the comparison is found in an analogy to painting and photography. In the early 1880s, the value of painting was understood in its ability to accurately replicate an idealized prototype from nature. Painting had no peer in depicting landscapes or bodies or still life, and its superiority in representation was unchallenged. Photography changed all that. Here was a technique that could answer the esthetic demands of naturalism even better than painting. Suddenly, photography could render the visible world as convincingly as painting. Moreover, photography could be done mechanically, without any need for the expertise of a painter. Painting was jarred from its position as the superior form of representation. While many questions remained - What of photography's lack of color? How could photography represent scenes and individuals absent from the camera? - the compe-tence of painting was called into question. What could a painter do that a camera could not?

Painters largely abandoned naturalistic depiction, leaving that territory to photography. In news, advertising, documentation and hobbies, we resort to photography long before we think of painting, We think of the representation of "reality" as belonging more to photography and video. In spite of this, painting has Found new areas of competence and continues as a viable art form. Historically, painting's struggle to find a new role is found in Impressionism, Cubism and the many succeeding "isms" that did not rely on accurate representation for their artistic power and esthetic justification. Photo-graphy probably hastened the arrival of abstract art: painting was pushed into areas in which photography was not competent. The standard reading of art history now holds that painting became the arena for the development of ideas about art, and that painters became great thinkers as well as great painters. The notion of art as philosophical inquiry returned painters to a sphere of competence.

As photography is to painting, so industry is to craft. At one time, craft was essential to all civilizations. All useful objects, from clothing and tools to buildings, were made by hand, within traditions of design and production. Every object was a craft object. But around 1760, the Industrial Revolution in England started to push craft aside. The earliest forms of mass production were aimed at replacing traditional crafts like weaving and printing with mechanized processes. Gradually, familiar hand-labor methods were replaced by faster, cheaper and more profitable industrial methods. The goods necessary to living were more efficiently produced in factories, and the competence of craft was challenged by mass production. Craft survived mostly in economic backwaters and as a means of production for luxury items. However, late 20th-century craft (the craft of university degree programs, fairs, galleries and magazines) occupies a radically different social position. It is for neither subsistence nor luxury. This is a historically new version of craft.

Although craft lost its original raison d'être, it has endured. In the United States and other industrialized nations, people continue to learn and practice the crafts. We must assume there are good reasons for the persistence of craft, unless we assume that people are innately wrongheaded, and their refusal to abandon craft is stupid and backwards. Personally, I believe the survival of craft reflects a genuine, if unexplained, reaction to modern culture. That craft continues in the face of the almost complete mechanization of production, suggests that the competence of craft is not limited to mere efficiency. Like photography, mass production does some things very well, but it has not made its progenitor completely obsolete.

Modern craft is framed and defined by mass production, the same way painting is delineated by photography. Writing and speaking about craft tends to avoid the issue entirely, treating craft as a branch of functional design, an ancient tradition or a type of modern art. The view of craft as either design or art appropriates the language, bias and blindness of another field and does little to examine the special issues of craft. The view of craft as historical tradition ignores contemporary social conditions. We don't have a story that accounts for the tenacious survival of craft, when logic tells us that industry should have buried it long ago.

Every craft object quietly, implicitly answers the question, "What can craft do that industry cannot?" It remains for us, as practitioners and commentators, to listen carefully enough to hear the answer. Until the relationship between industry and handcraft is clarified, and until the question of craft's newfound competence is resolved, craftspeople in America will not be able to adequately explain their practice. Not to themselves, or anybody else.

Bruce Metcalf teaches jewelry and metalsmithing at Kent State University and is a contributing editor to Metalsmith.

By Bruce Metcalf
Metalsmith Magazine – 1991 Winter
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Bruce Metcalf

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