Towards a Critical Discourse on Craft

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 5/ 2011: Critical Thinking about Craft

This issue is devoted to theoretical discussions and critical essays. There are several reasons for this, not least an increasing interest in theory and discourse amongst craft artists. Yet the most notably reason might be that two international conferences were recently held in Norway: ‘Making or unmaking? – The Contexts of Contemporary Ceramics’ (in Bergen 27 – 29 October) and ‘Home as a Historical and Contemporary Context for Arts and Crafts’ (in Oslo 16 November).

The three-day conference in Bergen marked the conclusion of the research project ‘Creating Art Value: A Research Project on Trash and Readymades, Art and Ceramics’ at Bergen National Academy of the Arts. In addition, the exhibition Thing Tang Trash – Upcycling in Contemporary Ceramics has offered visual references for the issues raised at the conference. It has been on display since September and will continue through 8 January 2012.

As a collaborative project between Bergen National Academy of the Arts and Arts Museums Bergen, ‘Creating Art Value’ is part of the Research Council of Norway’’s programme for cultural research for the period 2008-2012. The research team has included art historian and professor Jorunn Veiteberg (leader), art historian and senior curator Anne Britt Ylvisåker, philosopher and professor Søren Kjørup, research fellow and artist Kjell Rylander and research fellow and artist Caroline Slotte.

«Critical discourse in craft is considered to be relatively new, but it could be argued that it derives from discussions on aesthetics that go back to Immanuel Kant»

Veiteberg also participates in this issue of Norwegiancrafts.no through a round-table discussion with curator Knut Astrup Bull and dean of contemporary crafts Jørn Mortensen. Chaired by our correspondent Marit Øydegard, the discussion is aptly titled What Is ‘Contemporary Craft’? The title draws on e-flux’s book What Is Contemporary Art? (2010 Sternberg Press). Øydegard’s titular question implies the need to discuss discourse and theory in the field of craft in similar ways as in the field of contemporary art.

Another instance of the increasing interest in theory and discourse is a one-day conference in Oslo that was arranged in conjunction with the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts’ annual exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Art and Design in Oslo (part of the National Museum for Art, Architecture and Design). This annually held conference series was initiated by the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts three years ago in order to stimulate thinking in and around craft. This year’s focus for critical attention has been ‘the home as a context for historical and contemporary crafts’.

At this conference, Knut Astrup Bull, senior curator at the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in Oslo, held a lecture discussing the Arts and Crafts Movement in relation to the tradition of Kantian aesthetics, Karl Marx’ concept of the division of labour, and the use of the home as curatorial strategy today. His manuscript is published (largely unedited) in this issue of Norwegiancrafts.no and draws important connections between theory and the history of arts and crafts.

«Thinking critically about a practice may be useful for developing new expressions and for being more aware of the historical and social contexts that surround the work»

The conferences in Bergen and Oslo both featured a line-up of renowned thinkers and artists from Norway and abroad, who shed light on different discourses in craft.

Critical discourse in craft is considered to be relatively new, but it could be argued that it derives from discussions on aesthetics that go back to Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) and his book Critique of Judgment from 1790 .

In his closing lecture at the ‘Making or Unmaking?’ conference in Bergen, Danish philosopher and professor Søren Kjørup, who was also a member of the research team for ‘Creating Art Value’, discussed Kant’s Critique of Judgment and what he referred to as ‘The great divide’.

According to Kjørup ‘The great divide’ denotes the time when fine art distinguished itself from crafts, and he thinks this might have happened sometime around 1750. In art history studies, craft becomes the minor art form after that division, and is largely ignored while painting and sculpture rise to become fine art – painting of course being the nobler of the two.

Kjørup analyses Kant’s Critique of Judgment and asserts that only about ten pages are devoted to what came to be called ‘fine, autonomous art’. When Kant mentions art, Kjørup conjectures, he is also thinking about ’the decoration of rooms with tapestries, bric-a-brac, and all beautiful furnishings whose sole function is to be looked at, as well as the art of dressing tastefully, with rings, snuff-boxes’. Kjørup stresses that Kant’s book, which has become so important for aesthetic theory, is not really about art or craft, but about taste, or, to be precise, ‘the judgment of taste’.

However on or off the mark Kjørup’s analyses may be, craft practitioners are still trying to define themselves in relation to ‘fine’ artists, as is clear from the round-table discussion What is ‘Contemporary Craft’?

«while developing a skill, the mind is at work»

Jørn Mortensen, who was appointed dean of contemporary craft at Oslo National Academy of the Arts just a few months ago, has already claimed he will bolster the students’ abilities to think critically about their practice and to develop an academic language for talking about it (see his interview in the Norwegian fine art magazine Billedkunst no. 5, 2011).

The discussion in What Is ‘Contemporary Craft’? touches on issues regarding nomenclature, craft’s relationship with art, and the question of what is relevant theory in the contemporary craft field. Thinking critically about a practice may be useful for developing new expressions and for being more aware of the historical and social contexts that surround the work.

In his book The Craftsman, sociologist Richard Sennett explores what could be described as ‘thinking through craft’, to borrow a book title from curator and theorist Glenn Adamson. Sennett’s book focuses on ‘the intimate connection between hand and head’. Because every good craftsman ‘conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking, this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding’.

In his essay ‘Life as a Workshop’ art critic and theorist Kjetil Røed examines Sennett’s book and underlines the relationship between thinking and making in light of Sennett’s theorization of it. To have a skill is not only to know how to do something, Sennett says; it involves an experience of trying and failing. And while developing a skill, the mind is at work.

To end this introduction, I quote Røed’s article:

Abstract thinking […] is not radically different from manual labour. Quite the contrary, there is a tactile element in each and every philosophy, just as there is a philosophy mixed into each and every type of concrete, materially-based work.

Reference books:
Immanuel Kant: Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790)
Richard Sennett: The Craftsman, Penguin Books 2008.
Glenn Adamson: Thinking through Craft, Berg Publishers 2007.