A voice for craft in the art tropics

Glenn Adamson’s first visit to Australia was engineered by the current president of the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand, Peter McNeill. On Thursday 4 December Adamson gave the keynote of the AAANZ annual conference at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. Here’s the outline:

Modern Craft: Directions and Displacements

After many years out in the cold, craft is a hot topic for art historians. Received narratives of nineteenth-century imperialist and industrial aesthetics are being displaced by studies that focus on the figure of the artisan. Fixtures in the Modernist firmament, from the Bauhaus to Minimalism, are being re-evaluated according to new ideas about production. Meanwhile, contemporary artists are embracing carpentry and ceramics, and a whole youth subculture is taking up knitting and other hobby techniques. In this talk, Glenn Adamson will provide a brief survey of recent scholarly work. By looking closely at three areas of contemporary practice – DIY protest art, ceramic sculpture, and so-called ‘Design Art’ – he will also suggest where modern craft is heading next.

It was a masterful talk that introduced fascinating new practices, particularly in the agit-prop domain. Adamson continued the line from his book Thinking Through Craft that while craft sits alongside visual art, is still a distinct practice of its own. A particularly charged word in Adamson’s talk was ‘friction’, which was used to express that element in craft that resisted conceptualisation.

The discussion that ensued was very interesting. The last questioner proposed that what made craft different from art was that ‘anyone can do it’. Adamson differed and argued that the ‘friction’ of craft is produced by many years of dedicated training in the understanding of materials. There seems quite a divide between the agit-prop craft that is energising collectives and the specialist craft techniques practiced by artists. How to bridge this divide is a very interesting challenge facing commentators on craft.

Leftover from Adamson’s talk is still the question of craft’s political voice, as it echoes back to the idealism of the crafts movement. Is this just ‘ideological baggage’, ‘academic chatter’, or a rationale whereby so many craft practitioners dedicate themselves to learning skills that may not seem to be overly rewarded in this world?

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