Craftsmanship as political gesture:

“Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970-1990”. Cinziz Ruggeri “Homage to Levi-Strauss´ dress” / Grace Jones “Matery Dress”. © V&A images.

Craftsmanship as political gesture:

two exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Two exhibitions currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum readdress the fluctuating boundaries between so-called “fine art” and the “applied arts”, “crafts” or “art and design”. In so doing they highlight the socio-political ramifications of the distinctions between art, craft and craftsmanship. This article does not seek to capture the expansive, on-going debate on the distinction between fine art and crafts, but merely to explore the political potential of the display of such fruits of human production as manifested in these two exhibitions. Both exhibitions include a range of different artistic mediums and craft techniques, with textile production featuring at the forefront of both.

17. November 2011


The first exhibition is Power of Making, guest-curated by Daniel Charny and is a collaboration between the V&A and the Crafts Council. It aims to show “the breadth and depth of craft’s presence in modern life” through a range of techniques, which foreground the method and the medium. It is contained in one room, a crowded display of forging, stitching, sewing cutting, throwing welding and woodturning, to mention just a few. Here is a Crochetdermy bear, a diamond studded bicycle, a Six-necked guitar, a Sandra Backlund knitted dress and a machine that makes shoes. Shauna Richardson’s bear is a feat of textile production: it uncannily resembles taxidermy, and it is not until one carefully scrutinises it that one realises that it is, in fact, made entirely from wool, worked with a single 3mm hook, using one type of stitch that change direction of the stitches to create the bear’s anatomical features. The only thing that alerts one to its textile origin rather than that of dead animal skin is a slight uniformity in the colour scheme.

The exhibition is a celebration of innovative craftsmanship and skilled labour. It fits with a traditional conception of the applied arts and crafts. Nevertheless, with its emphasis on its innovation and pushing the boundaries of technology, Power of Making echoes Richard Sennett’s concept of craftsmanship set out in The Craftsman (2008) as that which unites the head and the hand. It seeks to show something other than just beautiful things, something that makes one reassess the social relevancy of objects and of aesthetic beauty itself.

The second is the V&A’s flagship exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-90. It sprawls a range of different media: film in the form of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982); architecture with Robert Venturi at the centre; design with an emphasis on Ettore Sottsass and his colleagues; music with contributions from New Order, Grace Jones and others; as well as magazine publishing and performance art. Fine art is represented by Robert Rauschenberg, Jeff Koons, Laurie Anderson and Andy Warhol among others, but in keeping with the eclecticism that typified the post-modern approach they are not singled out as “high art” as they would have been in the Modernist period. In fact, the exhibition’s two curators Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt have solid academic backgrounds in craft and design, and are involved in the V&A’s joint graduate studies programme with the Royal College of Art, just up the road. Consequently, one cannot fault the scholarly approach of their exhibition. The two most pervasive images of the exhibition are Cinzia Ruggeri’s ‘Homage to Levi-Strauss’ dress (1983/4) and Grace Jones’s Maternity Dress (1979). Ruggeri’s asymmetric creation captures the buzzwords associated with the Postmodern era: pastiche, contradiction, and the melding of high brow and mass culture, while its uniting of the strikingly angular and soft drapery with so-called “new materials” is echoed in Jean-Paul Goude and Antonio Lopez’s captivating design for the iconic singer, whose beautiful garment is given even greater presence by the intensity of the loud colour scheme. The ironic exclamation mark ushers in the ironic complexity and paradoxicality, which would come to define fashion in the coming decade.

The two exhibitions reflect diverse approaches display, albeit within the walls of the same institution. Power of Making is contained in one room: it is a crowded, messy display, a visual cacophony of works vying for the viewers’ attention. And there are a lot of viewers packed into this one space. Maybe because of its free entry? Postmodernism, on the other hand, ticketed at twelve pounds, is a slick display, with ultraviolet and highly eloquent wall texts, taking visitors on an undulating journey that accentuates the hybridity and fluidity of the era. Whereas the former underlines techniques, the latter exhibition, somewhat paradoxically, foregrounds its distinctive disciplines, while simultaneously arguing for the bricolage nature of the post-modern era.

Architecture dominates the initial displays in the Postmodernism exhibition. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown’s photographs of Las Vegas taken in the late 1960s, shows the postmodern penchant for so-called “low culture”. Postmodernism as pastiche – as opposed to the alleged purity, simplicity, originality and material integrity of Modernism – is represented by James Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerei in Stuttgart. Passage through Hans Hollein’s façade from Strada Novissima, The Presence of the Past, initially shown at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 1980, ushers in the more eclectic and seemingly subversive elements of Postmodernism where Leigh Bowery’s costumes resonate with the more gender-bending, cross-dressing musical performances of the era. But this is where the subversiveness stops; the identity politics of the post-modern era, so key to the movement itself is represented in the mainstream and palatable form of Madonna and Annie Lennox, who has a related exhibition dedicated to her array of costumes in The House of Annie Lennox.

<p>“Power of Making.” © V&A images</p>

“Power of Making.” © V&A images

The Postmodernism exhibition reveals a clear UK and US bias. However, one object that features in both exhibitions is the often-seen Ghanaian coffin, which allows its commissioner to be buried in their fantasy of choice: a fish, a Coca-Cola bottle or a Mercedes-Benz. In Power of Making, the coffin serves as an example of woodcarving and the contemporary manifestation of a traditional craft. In Postmodernism, the coffin operates as a reference to the seminal exhibition Magiciens de la Terre (1989) and is juxtaposed with Bodys Isek Kingelez’s architectural models of cities in what can only be seen as a cursory reference to “Africa”. The accompanying wall text makes no mention of the highly controversial nature of Magiciens, curated by Jean Hubert Martin, in that it offered primacy to Western artists, whose works were named, dated and displayed according to Western gallery conventions. Non-Western works of art, on the other hand, while they were shown alongside their Western counterparts, were presented as manifestations of traditional crafts rather than as art objects created by a named artist-subject, and were displayed according to the traditions of an ethnographic museum display as opposed to that of the white cube. The Postmodernism exhibition may not be the appropriate forum in which to rehash these arguments central to the history of exhibition-making, however, the fact that the race riots of the 1980s were also ignored, gives the sense that there was a central socio-political issue of the time that have been bypassed in the display.

It seems as if, in seeking to foreground the multi-disciplinarity of Postmodernism, the curators favour width over incision, and have patched over the movement’s more combative elements, including those associated with marginalised societal groups. The exhibition displays many aspects of gay culture, for example, but it is shown in the form of fashion, performance and music, with oblique, if any, references to the AIDS epidemic, which devastated the community at the time. The show also makes ample allusions to the cocaine-fuelled mega-riches of the era, for example in Robert Longo’s ‘Men in the City’ series (1981), but few to the social problems associated with rampant neo-liberalism and the decline of the welfare state. The clip from Derek Jarman’s The Last of England (1988) is a notable exception, showing the darker underbelly of Thatcher’s Britain with its homelessness, unemployment and drug abuse, but this is a small footnote to the more glamorous grand narrative. The exhibition concludes with a sense of nostalgia and lament with New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle (1986). Perhaps the line “Why can’t we be ourselves like we were yesterday” reflects a longing for a certain earnestness of the time, a kind of naïve, but genuine belief that music, art, writing could change the world. Or maybe it is purely fashionista revivalism at play: despite exhibition’s tagline reference to subversion, Postmodernism is clearly more concerned with style.

In that sense, the apolitical nature of Power of Making is more compelling; it never pretends to be subversive, it just seeks to show a cabinet of curiosities, cataloguing some of the more striking examples of innovative and original craftsmanship. It is clearly a craft exhibition; it does not pretend to be anything else. Postmodernism, on the other hand, by seeking to include every disciplinary aspect of the era, blurs the boundaries between art and crafts and all its associated mediums and disciplines.

The traditional distinction between fine art and craft was purposive: if it had an applied function it was craft. One of the central elements of Kantian aesthetics required that art objects displayed purposiveness, but crucially without a purpose. The distinction gradually became to hard to make on an aesthetic level, as a number of craftspeople made objects that formally resembled works of art. The first issue of Crafts magazine in 1973, posed the questions “What is Craft?” and “How does it differ on the one hand from industry and on the other hand from art?” According to Rosemary Hill, this magazine issue ushered in an era of “the new crafts” which had “found their voice and flourished” in the space between art and craft, as she contended in her 2001 Peter Dormer Lecture at the Royal College of Art. In mimicking art, the crafts began to lose their utilitarian function, which slid into industrial manufacture, while what remained of handcraft skirted so closely to fine art so as to become almost indistinguishable from it.

Furthermore, artists increasingly drew on techniques that had traditionally been the domain of the applied arts. Yinka Shonibare’s works with batik are an obvious example, as are Ghada Amer’s embroidered “paintings”. When one cannot use the applied or utilitarian purpose of an object, the distinction must operate at a conceptual level. The concept of art transcends mere beauty, which the crafts are more than capable of achieving. It is not my intention to downgrade craft by arguing for a conceptual separation, just to distinguish it from art, which, obviously, also requires craftsmanship so as to give it its integrity. Again, Richard Sennett’s expanded notion of craftsmanship is instructive. As he contended The Culture of the New Capitalism (2008): “Getting something right, even though it may get you nothing, is the spirit of true craftsmanship. And only that kind of disinterested commitment – or so I believe – can lift people up emotionally; otherwise, they succumb in the struggle to survive.” His contention serves to inject a political gesture into the notion of craftsmanship, unannounced, but more effective for its insidiousness. Announcing something as subversive, in most cases, means that its subversive potential evaporates. Doing something well for the sake of doing it well (rather than financial reward) is a more powerful gesture, and one that runs counter to the current socio-political climate of fast-paced hyper-consumerism in which objects and fabrics are cheap, transitory and dispensable. This is the kind of craftsmanship one can be proud of, regardless of the objects’ functionality, beauty or relative “arthood”. It is where the arts and crafts and fine art converge, albeit it in their own, unique spiritual territories.               

<p>“E-shoe. High heeled shoe guitar.” © V&A images</p>

“E-shoe. High heeled shoe guitar.” © V&A images

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