Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Category: contemporary craft

Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!

Grayson Perry – Alan Measles and Claire Visit the Rust Belt (one side), 2017

The New York Review of Books has a nice review of a recent exhibition of work by English artist Grayson Perry at the Serpent Galleries — “Grayson Perry: The Most Popular Exhibition Ever!” Perry, an irreverent iconoclast of English art (he won the Turner Prize in 2003), is probably known as much for his cross-dressing and cheeky wit as for his clever ceramic vases. He belongs to the Arts and Crafts tradition of using decorative art as a subversive strategy; his vases, tapestries, woodcuts, and banners blur the lines between high and low culture, fine art and trade-union propaganda.

In an article for London Times back in 2006, “Let the Artisans Craft Our Future,” Perry made his commitment to an artisanal utopian vision clear: “Maybe I am being sentimental and nostalgic about horny-handed men in leather aprons wielding a spokeshave, but I think that there is a place for the commissioned one-off handmade object in our future because, as we know, the future has to be green…Handmade is often a byword for pricey, and local means unadventurous or lack of choice. But what about when the oil runs out and the forests are all cut down, when we can’t just drive to Furniture Barn and buy a table, designed in Scandinavia, made in China with wood from South America, for the price of a round of drinks?”

From the review:

“The deepest appeal [of Perry’s art] lies in the combination of original concepts and craftsmanship. Perry makes his own pots, but most of his art is collaborative and he’s the first to acknowledge the astounding skill of the foundry workers and tapestry weavers involved. He returns constantly, too, to the people’s art, the folk art of Africa, or of Ruritania and Lithuania, the junk creations of outsider artists—like a totemic Alan Measles made from pebbles and sea-shore debris—and to the banners, and the bikes and sheds and graffiti, of “ordinary people.” It’s here, in showing that craft is also “art,” and that it belongs to us all, even more than in his overt political statements, that Perry is truly democratic and profoundly “popular.”

Why We Make Things and Why It Matters

Pete Korn - Why We Make Things

Available from Amazon. Click here.

Peter Korn’s Why We Making Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman is a smart and engaging bildungsroman — the story of how the pot-smoking, draft-dodging son of a lawyer and doctor became one of the country’s most acclaimed furniture designer-makers. It is no accident, in Korn’s account, that a thoughtful college kid looking for a meaningful life in the early 1970s would turn to “craft” for answers—the road had been laid in the late 19th century by John Ruskin and William Morris, the founding fathers of the British Arts and Crafts movement. “Craft” as a concept—a way of thinking and interpreting the world—arguably begins with the Arts and Crafts challenge to the Industrial Revolution (with its exploited labor, polluted cities, crass commercialism and mass-manufactured commodities). An inheritor of Ruskin and Morris’s theories, Korn draws a parallel between making furniture with “simplicity, integrity, and grace” and arriving at “a vision of how life could and should be lived.”

Peter Korn - woodworking-basics

Available from Amazon, click here.

It is important to remember that “craft” as we understand it (artisanal, handmade, non-alienated, combining manual and intellectual labor) was invented by socialists. It was a politicized concept from the beginning. Craft became a means to designate an aesthetic and social system in radical opposition to prevailing modes of capitalist production. If the Craftsman has become a mythic, Romanticized figure—sure-of-hand, morally upright, and industrious in idyllic surrounding—that owed in large measure to the compensatory and utopian quality of the Arts and Crafts ideas about  the nature of joyful labor, the moral welfare of the worker, the health of society, and the holistic interconnectedness of those issues. As Korn observes, “Furniture, after all, is more than an object of contemplation; it is a prescription for the life to be lived around it.”

Korn’s answers to the question Why We Make Things and Why It Matters closely resemble Ruskin’s and Morris’s before him. Craft offers a practical form of building Utopia. (Utopia considered not as a static place but as a process.) One of Korn’s insights from a life of craftwork is that “a good life was not some Shangri-La waiting to be stumbled upon. One constructed it from the materials at hand.”

Theaster Gates and William Morris

A Guardian article/interview with Chicago-based artist, Theaster Gates, makes it clear that the “poster boy for socially engaged art” has a lot in common with William Morris. It’s unsurprising that Morris’s commitment to art as anti-capitalist activism would resonate with contemporary artists. His interest in the relationship between craft, labor, and the environment still seems ahead of its time, not to mention his trenchant criticisms of a capitalist system in which art is reduced to an exchangeable commodity, sold to the highest (richest) bidder, such as the recent sale of a Picasso for a mind-boggling $179 million.

wpid-theaster_gatesAsked if he were a superhero Gates says he would be the Unknown Craftsman: “You know! Mask and cape, making anonymous interventions, changing the city forever.” Sounds like a man after Morris’s heart. Gates, son of a roofer, adheres to a “philosophy of pride in things done well, made well,” which he calls part of his “strategy of hope” for urban renewal and repurposing houses in low-income neighborhoods. His first show at White Cube was called My Labor is My Protest, an apt expression for Morris’s insistence that joyful labor would help combat social ills. Like Morris, Gates is interested in workshop practice and communal production, investing in wood and metal shops. When asked directly if William Morris influences his work, he answered:

“I think, as William Morris realised, as new power structures emerged, some things were being lost for ever. I am into that. I’d rather have a communal cinematheque than Netflix, so I’ll make one. The people I work with, they love each other now. They are like family. All of the scales are exciting for me, from wanting to make a pot to getting 60 people to make something well. It’s the same feeling. We believe in the things we make.”

The fact that Gates, one of the most exciting contemporary artists working today, shares many of the same values as William Morris (and is confronting many of the same entrenched social problems) proves the ongoing relevance of Morris’s thought. I think Morris would consider Gates one of history’s “pilgrims of hope,” using labor as a form of protest and work as a form of communal uplift and renewal.

theaster