CRAFT UNBOUND: MAKE THE COMMON PRECIOUS
(Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2005)
By Kevin Murray
There was once a familiar order to things. On one side was the supermarket and on the other was the art gallery. There was the world of common things to be used up and discarded, and the realm of precious objects to be appreciated into the future. The meaningless cycle of consumption was counterbalanced by the collection of treasured objects. But this cultural economy has become stagnant as art becomes increasingly insular and detached from everyday life. Consumption continues to accelerate while art risks being locked into the fashion cycle.
A generation of radical Australian makers is challenging this arrangement by bringing the profane world of consumption into the sacred halls of art. Theirs is not merely a conceptual exercise. There is no Duchamp-like cleverness about their use of found objects. These craftspersons express a renewal in the elemental energy of creation, reaching back to the mysteries of material transformation in alchemy. They are breaking through.
This is a distinctly Australian phenomenon, and we need to gather these makers together to appreciate their work, learn about its origins, and understand its meaning. What is the relationship between beauty and rarity that their work confronts? Let’s begin to examine this question with the broad brush.
The lay of the land
To make the common precious is to work against the grain. The identification of value and rarity is self-evident. It governs the way we see the world and how we transact with it. According to Gestalt psychology, we perceive the world by dividing it into figure and ground: the lone object stands out before the common background. By taking the common for granted, we can focus our attention on the singular.
In the English language rarity is almost always expressed using words that carry a positive connotation—words such as ‘extraordinary’, ‘special’, ‘rare’, ‘incomparable’ and ‘noble’. Whereas what is common is valued negatively, as in ‘ordinary’, ‘average’, ‘mundane’, ‘usual’, ‘pedestrian’ or ‘plebeian’. Accordingly, we will pay more for something that is exclusive, one-off or editioned than we would for goods that are mass-marketed.
This asymmetry is especially prevalent in the world of art. It seems obvious that the beautiful is necessarily exceptional. After all, art history is peopled by rare geniuses who produce rare masterpieces. Craft plays its own part in this story. In the decorative arts treasures such as the Fabergé Eggs are valued for their rarity as much as their craftsmanship. The value of an object is conditioned more by its supply than its simple use value.
But there are ways in which this natural order of things can be questioned. In a radical move the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that rarity is not the accident of beauty, but rather its cause.[i] We enjoy a masterpiece because it is rare. According to Bourdieu, art enforces a hierarchical society, in which value must be seen as limited to the few.
This view has its shortcomings. While providing a powerful critique of aestheticism, such arguments do not suggest ways of creating beauty that are alternative to the existing economy. To find these, we need to go beyond academic theory and explore the popular values that shadow elitism. The different manifestations of elitism provide us with alternative ways of understanding what Australian craftspersons are achieving today.
Throughout the history of Christianity, the gospels have often been used to support the Church’s responsibility to the broad mass of people—‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’ In contrast to the hierarchy of the Vatican orders such as the Franciscans make humility a life-long vocation. And, most radically, during the Reformation anti-elitist movements celebrated daily labour and the common tongue. A similar tension is present in Islam, in the opposition between the priestly Shiite and popularist Sunni versions of the religion. Beyond religion, popularism was given its most powerful expression in the revolutionary movements that culminated in Marxism. Given the declining significance of theology and ideology in the third millennium, where might an aesthetics of commonness reside today?
In Western society, there is alongside the mainstream economy of beauty a black market of artistic production.[ii] The value of rarity is reversed when it is seen to be tightly controlled by a particular group. Thus there are negative terms associated with those who police rarity, such as ‘elites’, ‘priesthoods’, ‘snobs’ and ‘cabals’.
The craft movement
Throughout modernity, craft has provided an alternative set of values to the positivist dream of technological advancement. At its most basic, craft is the transformation of common materials into precious works. Potters dig up mud which they shape and bake in the fire to make vessels for eating and drinking. The history of modern craft is characterised by a search for these elemental roots.
It was during industrialisation in the nineteenth century that craft emerged as a foil to modern capitalism. Reflecting a Protestant spirit, the English Arts and Craft movement of this period championed labour and decried bourgeois decadence.
Rarity was a significant issue for the movement’s champion, John Ruskin. He admitted that certain kinds of rarity, such as a fine sunset, were legitimate as ‘Nature’s way of stimulating your attention’. However, if rarity became a matter of possession, then it was idolatry: there was no reason to value pearls above glass beads. So Ruskin wrote, ‘If only the English nation could be made to understand that the beauty which is indeed to be a joy for ever, must be a joy for all.’[iii] At the time, the craft spirit was identified as a northern phenomenon, with its origins reaching back to the historical struggle of egalitarian Anglo-Saxons against their Norman overlords.
In the twentieth century Western craft turned to the East. The English potter Edmund Leach introduced the values associated with Mingei, a Japanese movement of folk ceramics. These values emerged from a strain of Zen Buddhism that sought enlightenment in the here and now. A key text for Mingei practitioners was The Unknown Craftsman written by Soetsu Yanagi in 1931, which stated ‘Why should beauty emerge from the world of the ordinary? The answer is, ultimately, because the world is natural.’[iv] Yanagi’s values were epitomised in the Kizaemon tea bowl. This sixteenth-century bowl was celebrated as one of Japan’s most significant treasures. According to legend, the bowl was found in a Korean workshop, and produced by a regular worker in a moment of complete unselfconsciousness.
The roles were reversed in the late twentieth century. Crafts practitioners reacted against the earnestness associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, and with Japanese ceramics. Post-modern flamboyance and conceptualism, such as that inspired by the Italian designers Memphis, removed craft from its demotic base.
Meanwhile industrialisation entered the information era, which altered the basic economy of production. Today, the greater the number of people who possess a particular piece of software, the more valuable it is. As Pierre Lévy writes, ‘Everything that flows from top to bottom in theological discourse should be viewed, within the technosocial system, as flowing from bottom to top.’[v] What was vertical has become horizontal—networks replace silos. While technological change has proceeded largely independent of the arts, it does alter the mindset in which the arts are perceived. Craft is just beginning to enjoy this new ground.
Poor cousins in the arts
Modesty of means is not exclusive to the contemporary crafts movement. The ‘Poor Theatre’ of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski evolved in the 1960s as a rejection of theatrical excess, such as lush sets and lavish costumes. It used austerity to bring the focus back on the unadorned actor. This process was extended into cinema with Dogma 95, the Danish movement led by Lars von Trier, which precluded sound tracks and editing in order to bring acting to the fore. For von Trier and other like-minded directors, to work with whatever is at hand promises to be a more transparent means for creative expression.
In the late 1960s Grotowski’s Poor Theatre inspired an Italian art movement known as ‘Arte Povera’. Influenced by American minimalism, a group of sculptors reacted against what they saw as a commodification of art, and created works that materialised a raw creative energy. Their process involved both found materials and spaces outside galleries.
For its main spokesperson, Germano Celant, Arte Povera was a distinctly European movement which contrasted with the futuristic and industrialised scene in America. As Celant writes, European progress ‘is made up of elements astonishingly cobbled together, of deteriorated, ancient materials, excavated from the past and recycled according to intuitive, illogical visions.’[vi] Arte Povera embodied the primitivism of Poor Theatre while articulating a specific message about the heterogeneity of European history. And it embraced the enigmatic.
The antipodean future
At first, there seems no place for a country such as Australia in Celant’s scheme. On the one hand, our thin past does not reflect the rich palimpsest of European history. Australian history seems like a crust of colonialism built over a seemingly timeless continuity of Aboriginal occupation. And on the other hand, Australia is not gripped by the positivism of its American cousins. The cultural dynamic is more colonial in character. It is within the colonial story that we might find the ground for a distinctly Australian craft.
According to the colonial mindset, Europe is the rightful home of preciousness. In his book The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd holds up the north as a model: ‘Yet in England, unlike America and Australia, there is always something of genuine beauty around the corner, a medieval church or a glimpse of field, hedge and honest stonework.’[vii] This Europe is studded with the precious jewels of its grand pasts.
Such ‘colonial cringe’ naturally evokes a republican response. There have been many strains of irreverent nationalism. In the 1990s the Sydney designers Mambo celebrated suburban values, typified in local wisdom such as ‘The grass is always greener around the tap.’[viii] Films such as Muriel’s Wedding associate suburbanism with a free spirit and the sense of community; they foster a boisterous pride in being ordinary.
Australian folk craft reflects this popularism. Bush furniture celebrated the make-do practices of farmers who were isolated by the great distances of the outback. A kerosene tin became a chest of drawers. Likewise, the isolation of Aboriginal communities has encouraged an ingenuity of means. The 2001 television series Bush Mechanics celebrated the almost magical ability of the Walpiri people to keep cars going without the backup of tools and supplies. Australian popular applied arts have been forged by isolation.
Australia shares this celebration of the common with other ex-colonies, particularly in the south. Consider the most influential poet in South America, Pablo Neruda. He was ideologically committed to ordinariness. His Elementary Odes are rhapsodic verses in praise of ordinary things. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Neruda claimed that ‘The best poet is he who prepares our daily bread.’[ix] The popularism of Liberation theology and leftist revolutions aims to continue the struggle first established against Spanish imperialism into the factories.
Parallel sentiments are being expressed across the Indian Ocean, where the African Renaissance upholds the value of collective tribalism against capitalist individualism. The post-apartheid generation of South African intellectuals is keen to turn the freedom struggle beyond the spectacle of mass riots to the matters of ordinary life. The author Njabulo Ndebele writes about the ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’ as the focus for political action: ‘If it is a new society we seek to bring about in South Africa then that newness will be based on a direct concern with the way people actually live.’[x] Cultural energy in the new South Africa stems from township life, particularly music and craft.
There are clear differences between a majority White country such as Australia, and the racial profiles of nations in Africa and South America. Craft in Australia is located in galleries, where it is partly removed from its value in the market. Yet despite differences in culture and economy, all southern nations share the condition of seeming to live in the ‘shadow’ of the north, where the common things of our world are outshone by the precious imports from afar.
Eventually corrupted by modernity, the modest spirit of craft in the West seeks renewal from outside. In the past Western makers looked to the Viking north and pre-modern East. Now it is from the south that emerges a fresh energy.
The nineteen makers profiled in this book have chosen to work with materials which might otherwise be considered worthless. They have gathered remnants, packaging and rubbish that have no place in the economic system: they turn to whatever is at hand. This ‘poor craft’ is a particularly rich source of creative expression.
To speak of a ‘poor craft’ is to suggest a movement that is bound by common experience and ideas. But it would be premature to christen a new movement. As products of relatively modest backgrounds, the makers in this book share similar sensibilities, though their ideas about preciousness sometimes diverge.
These artists share a common story. They are like the last fruit of a native Australian tree that only grows in the wild. Their childhoods were spent in relatively free open spaces—if not gazing upon the open horizons of the bush then roaming the wilds of the outer suburbs. They grew up before television had absorbed recreational time, and so faced the rare challenge of learning how to create time themselves and to make virtue of necessity.
Relatively few of the makers moved in a straight line. While institutional training has been a critical part of their development as a craftsperson, most have gained ideas on their own. There are certainly common themes that emerge through the work of these artists; they share a spirit of invention and an interest in the alchemic transformation of materials, and many are engaged in a critique of consumerism. Together, they all seek forms of creative energy that are not bound by commodification. Better to have something roughly made from common materials than a slickly produced object that fits snugly into its niche market. While the artists gathered in this book share a use of common materials, their differences are also important. There are two opposed aims. One is the goal of overturning hierarchy, whereby common becomes precious—lead replaces gold. The other is the abolition of hierarchy itself, to make the precious common—gold is reduced to lead. The former tends to be more strategic in orientation, making a mountain out of a molehill. The latter is more modernist in approach. One overturns the pyramid; the other transforms it into a cube. There are reformists, and there are revolutionaries.
The differences between the artists in this book prompt much debate and questioning. I have grouped the artists according to their method of approaching the ordinary. Each chapter deals with a particular group of makers. Gatherers draw from the Australian land to produce work, while Fossickers discover materials in manufactured environments. Gleaners use what gets left behind, such as packaging, and Alchemists look to the physical transformation of materials. Dissectors expose beauty through the act of destruction, but Liberators take the precious out of the gallery and onto the street. While representing a fresh, critical edge in Australian culture, each maker also demonstrates a growing inventiveness in the field of craft.
Like their cousins in Poor Theatre, these makers of ‘poor craft’ seek modesty of means as a way of renewing creative expression. As in the reality television program Survivor, makers are thrown back on their own craft to make works of beauty from what is at hand. And, as in the Arte Povera movement, found materials offer resistance to the dominant economic system, and allow for the spontaneous expression of identity. Ironically, both Poor Theatre and Arte Povera were inward focused and relatively unpopular art movements. ‘Poor craft’ seems different. In its reference to everyday life it seems possible that ‘poor craft’ will enjoy a broad audience, untutored in art theory. This is a rare moment for the art of the ordinary.
[i] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. R. Nice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1984 (orig. 1974)
[ii] While the celebration of the common occurs in many different cultures and histories, we need not assume that it is linked to a universal meaning. The championing of ordinary seems a reaction against authority that emerges within a specific context.
[iii] John Ruskin, Arata Pentelici: Seven Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture, George Allen, London, 1890, p. 23.
[iv] Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, trans. Bernard Leach, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1989 (orig. 1931), p. 101.
[v] Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, Plenum Press, New York, 1997 (orig. 1995), p. 100.
[vi] Germano Celant, Arte Povera: Art from Italy, 1967–2002, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2002, p. 23.
[vii] Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1960, p. 16.
[viii] Mambo: Still Life with Franchise, Mambo Graphics, Sydney, 1998, p. 115.
[ix] Alan Feinstein, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, Bloomsbury, New York, 2004, p. 379.
[x] Njabulo Ndebele, South African Literature and Culture: Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1994, p. 57. The phrase was echoed in the opening of a speech made by Mbulelo Mzamane in 2004 at a gathering of artists and writers from the southern hemisphere (see www.southproject.org).