Obscure Objects of Desire 1 2 3 4 - PRINTER VERSION
Published in Ceramics-Art and Perception
, Issue 29, 1997.
Obscure Objects of Desire? Reviewing Crafts in the 20th Century
was the title of a
small but ambitious conference held at East Anglia University in Norwich, England, from January
10-12, 1997. It was organized by Tanya Harrod under the auspices of the University of East Anglia
Fellowship in Critical Appreciation in the Crafts and Design. The Fellowship, whose purpose is to
provide a means of stimulating debate around the contemporary crafts, is funded by the Eastern
Arts Board and the Crafts Council and is hosted by the School of World Art Studies and Museology
at the University of East Anglia. Harrod is the second recipient of the Fellowship; the first was
awarded to the writer and critic Peter Dormer who died just a few weeks prior to this conference.
Harrod dedicated the conference to his memory and his presence seemed to pervade many of the
private conversations throughout the three days of the conference.
Because the conference attendance was limited to only 150 delegates, a third of whom were
delivering papers, it was quite intimate. Meals, tea and drinks in the evening were served in the
elegantly modern Sainsbury Centre. Delegates were taken by bus from their accommodations to the
campus, where the talks began at 9:30 am, and stayed until the buses returned for them at about
10:15 pm. One invariably found oneself during the breaks, at lunch or dinner, engaged in
conversations or arguments about one point or another made in one of the earlier talks.
I had wanted to attend this conference because I had heard from friends that this was the
largest conference on the crafts held in Britain since the late 1980s and l was curious about how
the British were dealing with the problem of what exactly defines modern crafts and how they were
going about writing its history. In the United States over the past 15 years, the desire by the
modern crafts to be part of the more glamorous and lucrative fine arts has caused crafts¼
academic, commercial and non-profit institutions to scurry around looking for new ways to reinvent
themselves as some sort of 'New Art Form', a kind of avant-garde sub-genre of postmodernist fine art. There have even been suggestions modern
crafts might best be explained and understood within the context of the decorative and applied
arts. I suspected, but was not entirely sure, that the situation in Britain was somewhat similar.
The British magazine Crafts
, for example, which is funded by the British Crafts Council,
advertises itself (at least in American publications) as 'The Decorative and Applied Arts
Magazine'. Harrods' statement that, "this is a conference about the crafts—things made by
hand in the 20th century. Phrases like 'decorative art' and 'applied art', somehow do not convey
the conference's aims and emphasis", set the tone for the conference and shows, I think, her
belief that craft must be understood on its own terms and that its history cannot be ignored
simply because it may momentarily be out of fashion.
The conference was structured into two distinct parts. There were six plenary sessions and
five parallel programs which were organized by themes such as 'National and Regional Identity',
'Relations with Modernism and Postmodernism', 'Production, Consumption and Value', 'Language,
Poetics and Methodologies' and 'The Dissident Workshop'. There were an average of 10 speakers
addressing various facets of each of these topics.
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