American Craft Past, Present, and Future
Makers from R & Company’s Object USA 2020 exhibition reflect on the state of craft in America
“The whole movement runs startlingly counter to the drift of our times. Working with the simplest of tools (no electronics), using the oldest of materials (no plastics), tending all the work himself from design through execution, the American craftsman today is busier and more highly regarded than he has been in almost a century.” —LIFE, July 29, 1966
New York design gallery R & Company’s latest, ambitious exhibition Objects USA 2020 is a contemporary reimagining of a landmark exhibition of American studio craft that first opened in 1969 at what is now the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The US in the 1960s and ’70s saw a resurgence of energy around the handmade, and the Smithsonian exhibition offered a momentous snapshot of makers that were leading the movement at that time. R & Company recognized that a similarly vibrant movement defines our current moment. The gallery’s new take on Objects USA includes 50 works from the original show alongside 50 works from those working at the forefront of making today.
The juxtaposition of historical and contemporary material in Objects USA 2020 naturally sparks a comparison between craft culture then and now; a reflection on where handmade production was 60 years ago and where it’s heading in the future. We asked four makers who are represented in the current show to share their perspectives on American studio craft past, present, and future.
Read on for thoughtful insights from Adejoke Tugbiyele, Liz Collins, Christopher Kurtz, and Michele Oka Doner (whose work was also included in the original Objects USA exhibition). And be sure to check out our exclusive virtual tour of Objects USA 2020 in the Design Miami/ Shop here as well.
Michele Oka Doner
Past: Craft in the 20th century was challenged by many competing forces. It was bypassed and taken for granted, as were people who worked with their hands—a result of the societal bifurcation between blue collar and white collar in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Handwork was relegated to a lower class. Sleek and shiny objects produced by machines replaced the handiwork that had been the only source of goods in our ancestral past, causing craft to move even further down the ladder. Meanwhile, the Temple of Art elevated itself into a more conceptual realm. Philosophy and ideas became dominant, and irony followed. Towards the end of the 20th century, one needed a higher education to enter the art club.
Present: A resurgence is clearly taking place. A restoration of respect for unadulterated food— the literal as well as figurative Stuff of Life—has trickled down to the World of Makers. An excess of consumer goods has also been responsible for the impulse to push away the readily available in favor of objects that have been crafted by human hands that are attached to a soul. The Age of Irony seems to be dwindling down as a new reality of our fragile state perfumes the air in spite of the deodorant of money.
Future: The urge and the need to use our hands did not vanish with the Machine Age. In fact, I believe the retreat from the handmade upended the neurology of our bodies. The nervous energies that came out of the fingertips as the human species separated shafts of wheat from the grains, collected seeds, rooted for edibles, and created mud containers to store these vitals were displaced when instead we drove to the store. Millions of years came to a crashing halt.
As connections continue to be made to the reality of our physical limits—to the rhythms of the body—a new respect for work by the hand will re-enter our daily lives. Already that truth is beginning to manifest. The return of a life based on human hands will accelerate the repair of our environment and engender a new level of respect for basic ingredients—for life itself, which can no longer be taken for granted.
Past: I am not a scholar or a historian. I am a practitioner in this hybrid area of Art/Craft/Design, so I see things through the lens of a maker. Craft in the 20th century showed an incredible elasticity and adaptability. It reflected and made major contributions to a lot of the tendencies more closely associated with “fine art,” i.e. painting and sculpture. Abstract Expressionism, Chance Operations, Performance, and Ephemerality infiltrated a discipline previously identified with set rules and traditions. This advanced how we’ve come to look at, curate, value, and collect “craft.” Craft seemed to be jockeying for a seat at the "fine art table" for much of the 20th century, even though it had always been an integral part of it.
Present: Today, the makers of my generation and younger have pretty much shed the paranoia of craft as being a separate entity to fine art. The need for the craft community to puff its chest out in order to be relevant or accepted by the art world is more or less a moot point. Very few of the artists working in this area are preoccupied with the perceived hierarchy of the past, and the resulting conversations in the studios have grown to be so much more sophisticated. The notion that hand-work is somehow less intelligent than concept-driven, hands-off-work seems very out of touch with contemporary culture. Artists have truly moved past this, even if the perception still persists in the fringes of the art world, and the work being made today shows it. The mainstream in academia, institutions, and collectors are finally catching up to what has been happening in the studios for a long while now.
Future: The ubiquity of high-tech digital production and the ability to make anything imaginable really ups the ante for people choosing to work by hand. I see handwork getting more elevated, more specialized, and more exceptional in order to match the level and expectations of the digital aesthetic. Craft will continue to embrace technology, reject it, and work in concert with it—but with anything possible. When absolutely anything can be made relatively inexpensively and with great precision in the material or virtual world, I think the only way for things to stand out is to go deeper into the personal narrative of the artist, and craft is particularly well suited for this. That is one code that technology won’t crack.
Past: 20th century craft is a multivalent term. Rather than try to define it, I can share my own associations with that idea: handmade, materially driven, domestic life, creative life, making stuff, and selling it. I grew up immersed in craft /art/design from the 1970s on, so when I think about defining it, I get flooded with how much craft I absorbed as a kid at a time when craft WAS everywhere… in my life, at least. From kits and school activities (latch hook, needlepoint, leather craft, macrame, popsicle sticks, glue guns, paper beads, weaving potholders, etc) to the exquisite kente cloths of the Ghanian weavers at the Museum of African Art, to the artists making ceramics and giant steel sculptures of basketball players at the Torpedo Factory (I grew up in Alexandria, VA), to my own family’s making endeavors, it presented itself as a powerful possibility for me on a daily basis.
Present: In reference to contemporary makers, I like Glenn Adamson’s statement in his essay for the Objects USA 2020 catalogue: “...we need to think less in terms of a movement, or even a field (which implies a more or less defined arena), and more in terms of free action in unbounded space.” I relate to the concept of craft more as a verb, as in to make something with one’s hands. Because context so often defines the way we take in and understand objects, the word craft no longer resonates as anything more than this for me.
Future: Of course the evolutions will keep moving relative to technology, alongside and in concert with what we see in ongoing analog making methods. However, although perhaps horrifying (or soothing!) to imagine, I do often think about the post-apocalyptic scenario of a landscape where technology has failed us, has broken down in massive ways due to resource overuse; so craft returns to many people’s lives as a necessity again. It will be more embedded in people's survival strategies.
Past: I don’t believe Craft should be or can be defined. It is an invisible force that represents both material and non-material things. At best, I aim for an increased understanding of Craft, how I shape it and reciprocally how I am transformed by it.
To gain a deeper understanding, it might be helpful to distinguish between the industry of craft and the making of Craft in the US in the 20th century. Kindly bear in mind that because I am bi-cultural—Nigerian-American—my responses may reflect an awareness through the lens of both Africa and America.
The industry of craft in the 20th century was not perfect, but it was on the right spiritual path. Brought to heights with movements in the 1960s with efforts to shift perceptions on diversity— viewing it as a strength rather than a weakness. America began to shift away from white-male-dominated spheres, with more reception to artworks by Black people, long disenfranchised, but also to people and works from other parts of the world, including Africa.
While remaining a largely male-dominated affair, later shifts include significant institutional moves to break the glass ceiling by presenting strong works by female artists, then queer artists, and so on towards greater and greater inclusion. There appears to be a parallel relationship between the industry of craft and the general flow—or vacillation—of liberal vs. conservative politics and cultural machinations in America. Much debate within the industry of craft has less to do with Craft itself and more to do with America’s grappling with its sense of self.
The most important element—the sacred and spiritual power of Craft—remains misunderstood, taken for granted or even ignored. In some cases, the idea of Spirit itself is rendered an enemy of Craft, given its roots in Western religion, which dominated collective thought in historically oppressive ways. However in other areas, efforts were made towards reclamation.
We can point to Joseph Beuys’ social sculpture theory, Duchamp, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism, Notes on the Anti-Aesthetic, and Krauss' Sculpture in the Expanded Field. The latter part of the 20th century presented an opening up to what African and other indigenous Crafts both in America and around the world can reveal about Spirit, especially as it relates to nature. Wisdom that pre-dates the colonial condition and context.
The 20th century thus followed a path that allows us to potentially come full circle in our understanding of Craft as a powerful, invisible, and transformative force that is present in both material and non-material things.
Present: I am not sure how to define Craft today, and furthermore I question if this should be our purpose. One could argue that Craft is “all over the place.” I sense there is a strong need to look deeper beneath the surface. Craft is certainly not meant to chart a parallel course with the spirit of violence we sadly bear witness to today, but rather take us on a journey down the road towards healing, liberation, and renewal.
Like other industries and makers, we are re-emerging from anger, sadness, confusion, and disillusion about significant setbacks from progress made in the 20th century. There is hope. Craft desires healing as it simultaneously has the power to heal. The latter suggests that we can harness the ability of craft to re-sensitize and communicate that which lies beneath the surface. I believe it must be done with clear purpose, focused attention, and simplicity in intention.
Like watching a flower blossom in the garden. But it’s not just poetic. We have to be honest about our co-dependence with nature. I believe we are in the collective process of redirecting our energy—in Yoruba, energy/force is called Ase—in the right spiritual ways towards renewal.
Future: Before jumping to the next 50 years, I feel it’s best to look deeply at how we best focus our energy every 50 minutes. People are bombarded with much information and are less sure about what it means or what to do with it. Meditation and focus—critical elements of Craft—appear harder to achieve in a rapidly evolving, technological age. I approach Craft/Art with a Spiritual sensibility, rooted in my Yoruba heritage, with universal links and with an awareness of nature. If we can practice self- awareness and insight—in Yoruba insight is called Oju-inu—if we can be present and in the moment, I truly believe the next 50 years will take care of itself. ◆
Objects USA is on view now at R & Company through July. Be sure to swing by if you're in New York to see the works of the above artists and other talents in person—or click here to enjoy a virtual tour.