Monday, September 27, 2010

Book Review: The Culture of Craft: Status and Future (Dormer)

Peter Dormer (ed.). Manchester University Press, 1997. xi + 200 pp. $22.00. ISBN 978-0-7190-4618-6.

The late Peter Dormer, one of Britain’s most outspoken and idiosyncratic writers on the visual arts[1], posits in his anthology The Culture of Craft: Status and Future, that through a separation from art and design, a “phenomena of late-twentieth-century Western culture,”[2] craft in modern-day culture has been severely marginalized, an occurrence which is attributable to three significant factors: a “plurality of meanings”[3] in regard to the definition of craft, the advancement and increased use of technology in modern-day art and manufacture, and finally, a lack of a substantial discourse on the subject.

Dormer, here in his last published work[4], has assembled a group of some of the most widely recognized and authoritative writers on the subject of craft[5] in modern-day society. Among them, Paul Greenhalgh, Gloria Hickey, Jeremy Myerson, as well as Dormer himself, provide within their respective essays some of the most insightful discourse regarding craft in today’s technological and consumerist culture.

Divided into three parts, each focused on one of Dormer’s three significant factors contributing to the marginalization of craft in modern-day society, Dormer’s anthology attempts to immerse the reader in the ongoing dialogue revolving around the culture of craft,[6] looking at its past, where it stands today, and where it is headed tomorrow.

Part One, “The Status of Craft,” examines three significant “aspects which contribute to the ambiguity of the status of ‘the crafts’: (i) the separation of making from meaning, (ii) the separation of the arts into categories of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ (pottery is low art, sculpture isn’t), [and] (iii) puzzled ‘ordinary’ consumers.”[7] Greenhalgh’s “The History of Craft” and Hickey’s “Craft Within a Consuming Society,” provide an exceptional background into craft’s fluctuating cultural status throughout history, as well as a meaningful and relevant look into the status of craft in today’s consumerist culture.

Hickey’s essay in particular, “Craft Within a Consuming Society,” provides a significant look into the ever-significant craft vs. factory-made debate[8] through the analysis of gift-giving in modern-day society. Hickey puts forth that “gift-giving is probably one of the oldest and most basic of human behaviors. To say that for centuries these gifts were handcrafted is a truism. However, to say that today, from the vast proliferation of market goods, craft objects are frequently selected as gifts is significant.”[9] What is interesting about Hickey’s work is that (seemingly contradictorily) it is shown that although our culture places a high value on craft, it is sadly only typically shown in our consumerist society’s exercise of gift-giving and not through the objects we purchase on a more frequent basis.

“The Challenge of Technology,” Part Two, the most significant and pertinent section of the anthology, addresses four questions posed by contributing authors Neal French, Jeremy Myerson, and editor Peter Dormer: “(i) how does technology differ from craft?, (ii) do either artisanal or ‘the studio crafts’ have a contribution to make to the debate about aesthetics in design?, (iii) can computing, our most advanced commonplace technological tool, be described as a craft?, [and] (iv) are there crafts which are naturally at ease with contemporary technology?”[10]

One of the most relevant essays within Part Two and perhaps the entire anthology, Myerson’s “Tornadoes, T-squares and Technology: Can Computing be a Craft?” examines the claim that “virtual computer-based design is the new craft of the late twentieth century.”[11] Within our technology-driven consumerist culture, the increasing capabilities of the computer are causing, especially in the fields of architecture and industrial design, an obsessive interest towards increased production, which has proven more than anything to be a detriment to craft in modern-day society.

Thankfully, Myerson concludes that “until the computer becomes less of a machine and more of a biological extension of the user, then ascribing craftlike qualities to its process will be like looking into the proverbial eye of the hurricane.”[12] For those readers who are sympathetic to the plight of craft, this is reassuring information; although in our technology-driven consumerist culture, computers as “biological extension of the user” are presumably not far off.

The final section of the anthology, “Writing About the Crafts,” takes a look at what Dormer believes is a critical missing link in the study of craft: discourse. Dormer believes that craft deserves a substantial base of “good-quality writing and argument,”[13] even though it is Dormer himself who says in regard to writing about craft, “what can only be shown cannot be written about, and to those who think there can be a theory and a critical language of craft that is a warning worth heeding.”[14]

The final essay of the anthology, Dormer’s “The Language and Practical Philosophy of Craft,” provides two essential, albeit seemingly contradictory arguments with regard to developing a much-needed philosophy of craft. The first argument states that “when craft is practiced as a disciplined piece of knowledge, it is inevitably an activity of self-exploration in the sense that one learns about oneself through searching for excellence in work.”[15] The second argument however, states that “there can be no general theory covering the craft disciplines, and that consequently whatever clarification of motives and values the craftsperson achieves can be inferred from the work and what he or she does but cannot, with any depth, be put into words.”[16]

I bring this final essay up here because what makes this seemingly contradictory argument significant is that it helps the reader to understand the inherent complexities within the topic of craft and to exemplify the difficulties which are presenting themselves to the proponents of craft in modern-day society.

* * *

Overall, Dormer’s The Culture of Craft: Status and Future is an expertly choreographed collection of essays, which are capable of providing the authority and neophyte alike with a breadth of insight and meaningful discourse into the topic of craft in modern-day culture. Dormer’s anthology provides a solid foundation whether one is looking to gain a fundamental understanding of the topic, use it as a springboard into their own research, or to simply use the collection of essays as a reference. In our technology-driven consumerist culture, it is imperative that the study and practice of craft not be lost to the soulless computer…Dormer would want it that way.

[1] Tanya Harrod, “Obituary: Peter Dormer,” The Independent, January 2, 1997, (accessed June 25, 2010).
[2] Peter Dormer (ed.), The Culture of Craft: Status and Future (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 18.
[3] Ibid., vii.
[4] Ibid., x. “Peter Dormer died on Christmas Eve 1996, as this volume entered its final proofing stage. He leaves behind his many friends and countless admirers of his many contributions to the history and theory of the visual arts.”
[5] Ibid., ix.
[6] Ibid., 16. Dormer states in his introduction to the anthology that he regards “all of the chapters in this book as a contribution to a family argument provided either by members or friends of the family.”
[7] Ibid., 19.
[8] Gloria Hickey, “Craft Within a Consuming Society,” in The Culture of Craft: Status and Future, edited by Peter Dormer (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 88
[9] Ibid., 83.
[10] Dormer, The Culture of Craft: Status and Future, 103.
[11] Jeremy Myerson, “Tornadoes, T-squares, and Technology: Can Computing be a Craft?” in The Culture of Craft: Status and Future, edited by Peter Dormer (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 176.
[12] Ibid., 185.
[13] Dormer, The Culture of Craft: Status and Future, 16.
[14] Peter Dormer, “The Language and Practical Philosophy of Craft,” in The Culture of Craft: Status and Future (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 230.
[15] Ibid., 219.
[16] Ibid., 219

No comments: