Tradition and...

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Tradition and the Modern Crafts Establishment   1      2      3      -      PRINTER VERSION

Published in The Studio Potter, 18(2), June 1990.

Modern crafts' institutions, its museums, funding agencies, publications, educational institutions, and professional organizations have labeled the making of traditional craft objects —anything useful or recognizable in an historical sense as craft—as unimaginative, irrelevant, and passÈ. They have advanced this view of traditional craft, not only by excluding it from the field's survey exhibitions like The Eloquent Object and Poetry of the Physical, but also by discouraging, in our universities, its practice by undergraduates and by rejecting it as an entirely merit less subject for postgraduate study.

The proponents of so-called modern craft have sought to invalidate the historical definition of crafts' language and replace it with an artificial version based on American modernist painting and sculpture.

Why has the craft establishment so enthusiastically rejected the history and language of crafts—the tradition of crafts? The main reason seems to be a desire to find critical acceptance and a market share within the more celebrated fine arts world, a world which, they feel, has always looked on crafts with their connotation of utility as a vehicle unworthy as the conveyance of serious thought.

The rejection of the traditional crafts in favor of the tradition of modernist fine art by the craft establishment was relatively easy and painless. American culture which had no vital surviving tradition of craft, and therefore no interest or investment in craft as a language, has always been predisposed to the idea of the "new". Modern craftspeople, who began making work in the craft vacuum following World War II, showed for the most part little knowledge of and even less interest in crafts' sophisticated and complex language. Much of their early work merely floated on the surface of the craft language ‚ making only the most superficial references without even questioning in a philosophical way what there was about craft that attracted them so strongly in the first place. Instead, when their infatuation faded and the lure of fine art status became irresistible, they simply abandoned it. That and an arrogance born out of cultural insecurity are part of the reason American crafts have premised their philosophical and aesthetic investigations on the past fifty years of American modernism rather than on the cross-cultural influence from thousands of years of craft tradition. Consequently, the idea and meaning of tradition, because it stood in sharp contrast to what was believed to be modern crafts' most important task—appearing to be avant-garde—was perverted to mean redundant, narrow, and derivative.

Modern craft, as it is celebrated in survey exhibitions such as The Eloquent Object and Poetry of the Physical, however, has done little to gain critical recognition for itself separate from the fine arts, nor has it succeeded in adding to or becoming part of the dialogue within the fine arts. Modern crafts is, in short, in such a muddled state and suffers from such a severe identity crisis that there are now, finally, sounds being made by some in the field that perhaps a scholarly approach to the history of craft might be an answer to modern crafts' dilemma.

T.S. Eliot, in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent", says that tradition "cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth

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