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Craft, Creativity and Critical Practice
Sue Rowley

Modernism: creativity and the conservatism of craft

In recent years, a number of writers have pointed out that modernist thought and art positioned craft as the ‘other’ of art. From the early twentieth century, craft was assumed to be dependent on tradition, and modern art was deeply concerned to break away from the shackles of tradition. Artists of the avant garde movements fervently sought to ‘make-it-new’. Craft represented the past. Hand production was understood not only to have been left behind—or rather, swept aside—by industrialisation, but skilled craft makers were seen as resistant to change, and this resistance was seen to underscore an essential conservatism in craft culture.

Particularly in the first half of this century, as both Andreas Huyssen and Raymond Williams have argued, the avant garde movements were fired by a utopian vision and a radical politics underpinned by a belief in progress and, to use Huyssen’s phrase, a technological imagination. Artists believed that, through their work, they could transform everyday life. For many artists, the imagination was fired by the culture of technology, which they found dynamic and compelling. Visual languages associated with modernism utilised fragmentation, assemblage, spontaneity, chance and gesture. There seemed to be no need for the staid materiality of objects that testified to laboriously acquired skill and the ‘there-ness’ of the past.

As the utopian vision of art as a transformative practice faded after the Second World War, the autonomy of the artwork and its separation from everyday life were emphasised. The disinterestedness of the artist was mirrored by the detachment of the art object from the business of living. Apprehending the significance of the art object was understood to be an intellectual–aesthetic act, typically a contemplation of the object in an architectural context which ‘whites-out’ the noise of the world. Increasingly, the ‘embeddeness’ of craft objects in everyday life, as useful things, gifts, memoirs, came to connote a lack of detachment. Useful things, it seemed, could not communicate important insights into the human condition. The busy craft object, passing from hand to hand, acquired a patination of use rather than a provenance of value.

Whether we speak of the making, the makers or the objects, within modernist discourse the term ‘craft’ has carried connotations of conservatism and resistance to change. In comparison with art, craft appears not only conservative, but craft practice seems to lack creativity.

Postmodernism: critical practice

Compared to modernist thought and art, postmodernism is predicated on weaker notions of creativity. There are no originals in postmodernism: images are re-cycled and re-presented; repetition, copying and appropriation become hallmarks of postmodern practice. Richard Kearney writes:

Right across the spectrum of structuralist, post-structuralist and deconstructionist thinking, one notes a common concern to dismantle the very notion of imagination. Where it is spoken of at all, it is subjected to suspicion or denigrated an an outdated humanist illusion.

Even so, postmodernism has its own language of creativity, evident in such phrases as ‘experimental art’, or ‘the cutting edge’ of contemporary practice. Kearney himself proposes a theoretical re-inscription of a postmodern ethical, critical, poetic imagination.

In principal, postmodernism nurtures more positive attitudes than those of modernism towards craft. This, I would argue, is borne out also in more diverse and integrated art–world opportunties for contemporary craft practice. However, to the extent that postmodern notions of creativity emphasise representation over object, and bricolage over skill, these notions do not recuperate craft practice. Breaking down the opposition of high art and popular culture similarly opens up space for craft but, in fact, it is the culture of mass media, mass production and mass consumption that is the focus here. Artisan traditions and hand–technologies remain peripheral to the focal concerns of postmodern theory and practice.

Significantly, the legacy of modernism’s radical utopianism is evident in the contemporary idea of art as critical practice. No longer confident in the capacity of art to transform life, many artists and critics retain a deep commitment to politically–engaged practice. Contemporary art is intended to offer interpretive and revelatory comment on social life.

Difference: postcolonial creativity and craft

The notion of difference, derived from the work of Jacques Derrida, refuses to conceive of the world as coherent and singular, insisting instead on multiplicity and irreconcilable, irreducible differences in human experience and culture. It is this concept that has given much of the bite to postcolonialism. ‘Difference’ underscores the belated recognition that Euro-American modernity has not laid down the template for the experience of modernity by other peoples and in other lands. All modernisms are not essentially derivative of Euro-American modernism which, by the same token, can no longer be seen as a coherent, historically unilinear ‘trajectory’. The multiplicities of differentiated historical experience and agency become important in the context of a heightened awareness of the current global re-configuration.

Postcolonialism is built on a much more robust conceptualisation of creative practice. Its roots in literary practice and theory should not be overlooked. Postcolonialism is centred on the use of the language of colonial powers by colonised people to express their own local and specific experience. Language itself is transformed in the articulation of ‘foreign’ experiences and reflections. The notion of difference becomes a key, but this time authorship is strengthened: writers and artists can be understood as making meaningful objects, not simply objects from which meaning may be inferred by insightful readers and critics.

In its attention to local histories and cultures, postcolonial practice frequently invokes traditions, especially those related to creative and symbolic practices such as storytelling, popular culture and craft. In spite of, or perhaps because of the centrality of language, resistance to the imposition of colonial culture and the re-forging of identity has emerged as a central theme of postcolonialism. So postcolonial artworks might invoke craft and might incorporate craft practices or objects as a means of delineating that which is indigenous, local and specific.

It is one thing to invoke the craft and artisan cultural practices and traditions; it is quite another to over-write Euro-American traditions of delineating craft as ‘not-art’. Craft can be used to signify non-western and resistant modes of creative practice without actually being recognised as contemporary art, or as critical practice, on its own terms. Indeed, critically engaged, signifying practices within contemporary craft are, in a sense, both superfluous to the requirements of contemporary art, and redundant because the trajectory of traditional modernist art practices leaves no space for their inclusion.

The notion of difference has acted as a fulcrum in postcolonial critical cultural practice. But in the context of a globalising political economy, difference is not secured for critique. This point is made forcefully in a recent essay by Lawrence Grossberg. In the past, capitalism refused differences which restricted productivity; today it works by the production of difference itself. But it is the form, not the content, of this ubiquitous difference that is produced: ‘difference has been commodified’. Noting that capitalism produces difference ‘at the level of expression’, Grossberg comments that this ‘obviously makes the current faith in difference as the site of agency and resistance problematic’. In recognising that difference is produced—and indeed, is produced within the institutions and conventions of international art—we acknowledge that this may signify both a creative activity and a curtailing of creativity.

Notwithstanding the ambivalence of the concept, difference lies at the heart of notions of creativity, imagination and innovation as they emerge in writing on cultural displacement and cultural contact. Much of the recent writing on diaspora, exile and travel, on cross-cultural contact, colonisation and exchange, and on translation and misreading is suggestive of a renewed confidence in a human capacity for creative as well as critical agency.


If creativity is implicitly theorised in terms of the dynamism of modernity or the frisson of difference, how is creativity in traditional cultures to be understood? In their influential essay on the ‘invention of tradition’, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger posit ‘invariance’ as the defining characteristic of tradition. They contrast tradition with custom which, they say, ‘does not preclude innovation and chance up to a point, though the requirement that it must appear compatible or even identical with precedent imposes substantial limitations on it’. Though custom gives any desired change (or resistance to innovation) the sanction of precedent, social continuity and natural law as expressed in history, it ‘cannot afford to be invariant because even in ‘traditional’ society, life is not so’.

In The Invention of Tradition Hobsbawm and Ranger present a series of case studies of ‘invented traditions’ of nineteenth and twentieth century Britain. They define invented traditions as including those which are actually invented, constructed and formally instituted and ‘those emerging in a less easily traceable manner within a brief and dateable period and establishing themselves with great rapidity’. These invented traditions attempt to structure social life as unchanging and invariant by establishing apparent continuity with a suitable past, frequently by the use of repetition. The context of these studies is modernity: invented traditions arise because ‘new or dramatically transformed social groups, environments and social contexts called for new devices to ensure or express social cohesion and identity and to structure social relations’ or because traditional forms of ruling ‘grew more difficult or impracticable, requiring new methods of ruling or establishing bonds of loyalty’.

But is ‘invariance’ the defining characteristic of tradition? In fact, Hobsbawm and Ranger are inconsistent on this. Their use of the term implies a useful anthropological definition of tradition as ‘a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which symbolise social cohesion, legitimate social institutions and inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour through reference to the authority of the past’. They acknowledge that ‘even traditional topoi of genuine antiquity may have breaks in continuity’ and that ‘the strength and adaptability of genuine traditions is not to be confused with the invention of traditions. Where old ways are alive, traditions need neither to be revived nor invented’. The distinction between tradition and custom, then, seems not so clear-cut. As with custom, we could conclude that tradition is not invariant because life is not so.

Peter Osborne in The Politics of Time: Modernity and Avant-Garde describes as ‘a form of temporalisation…distinguished by its apparent priorization of the past over both present and future’. Consequently, ‘the present presents itself as the site for the transmission of the past into the future’ and ‘the future is envisaged in the image of the past’. Osborne writes of tradition as a ‘quasi-natural form’ which is dependent on the physical proximity of the members of a community, and kinship as a model of social power.

Tradition shadows the biological continuity of generations at the level of social form. Anchoring ethics and politics to nature, it connects the idea of history to the life of the species. (p. 127)

For this reason, he concludes, that primary medium of tradition is not self-consciousness, but ‘the pregiven, unreflected and binding existence of social forms’. Thus, the idea of tradition, as a self-recognising practice, does not arise within those ‘original’ communities in which its presence is deeply naturalised. Rather, tradition, as an idea, is produced within modernity, and as its inescapable dialectical other:

…as a periodising concept, modernity marks out the time of the dialectics of modernity and tradition as competing, yet intertwined forms of historical consciousness, rather than that of a single temporal form, however abstract.(p. 114)

What is perceived as ‘tradition’ from the vantage of point of modernity is experienced as part of the natural order in those original communities which are positioned implicitly as ‘outside history’.

Anthropologists Smadar Lavie, Kirin Narayan and Renato Rosaldo incorporate invention into the transmission of tradition, arguing that the ‘healthy perpetuation of cultural traditions requires invention as well as rote repetition’. Creativity is ‘always emergent’ for two reasons: firstly, because younger generations always select from, elaborate upon, and transform the traditions they inherit, and secondly, because decisions to alter nothing received from the past will usually be thwarted because changing circumstances transform the meaning and consequences of dutifully repeated traditional actions. Thus, creativity ‘often dissolves, or perhaps more precisely redraws the boundaries of social institutions and cultural patterns’.

Taken together, then, creativity and critique may operate within tradition. In theorising innovation and tradition, temporality emerges as a central issue.


A further complication here is that there is no singular structure of temporality. We are accustomed to thinking of postmodernity (and now ‘globalisation’) in terms of multiple structures of temporality. Contemporary global experience is characterised by disjunctures in the structures and organisation of time. The Euro-American perception of historical time as unilinear and progressive is an artefact of Western modernity, and the apparent universality of this temporality has been challenged by the critique of progress, by global interpenetration of diverse cultural constructs of time, and by the impact of new technologies of communication and information cyber-space. As Andreas Huyssen comments in Twilight Memories,

…we have accumulated so many non-synchronicities in our present that a very hybrid structure of temporality seems to be emerging, one that has clearly moved beyond the parameters of two and more centuries of European-American modernity.

Within these temporal multiplicities, space is opened up for creative practice. Homi Bhabha and Andreas Huyssen have both drawn attention to this dynamic. For Huyssen, it is in the representational act that re-constitutes the remembered past in the present that is the basis of creativity. 'The fissure that opens up between experiencing an event and remembering it,’ he writes, ‘is a powerful stimulant for cultural and artistic creativity.’

Homi Bhabha’s essay ‘How newness enters the world’ explores directly the questions of creativity and tradition. His ideas on the ‘in-between’ spaces have acquired a currency in contemporary writing but the emphasis he places on creativity is worth re-iterating here. Bhabha writes of the impetus for creativity that is formed in 'a new international space of discontinuous historical realities' and ‘the interstitial passages and processes of cultural difference’. For Bhabha, cultural difference is the prime mover in the production of creativity, but difference is theorised in relation to temporal orders. His theorisation of difference invokes the notion of tradition. Tradition, consigned to the past within modern thought, is retrieved for the present: the past is 'restaged', and 'incommensurable cultural temporalities [are introduced] into the invention of tradition'. Thus, he writes that the ‘borderline engagements of cultural difference… may confound our definitions of tradition and modernity’.

Thus the apparent dichotomy of tradition and innovation, so significant in defining modernity, but of little use in defining tradition, is undermined.

Craft temporalities and mortal lives

It is useful to think of craft in terms of multiple temporalities. This idea informs the theoretical discussion of the relationship between craft practice and ‘living’ tradition, on the one hand, and between the making of objects and their subsequent careers as objects of symbolic and practical use, on the other. Craft’s temporalities are the time-spans involved in making and using objects embedded in ceremonial, symbolic and everyday practices. Thinking about craft in terms of temporality enables certain suggestive, recurring threads to be drawn between the objects and human (which is to say, mortal and social) lives.

Let us begin with Norman Bryson’s observation that the forms of the tableware figured in still life painting belong to a long cultural span that goes back to pre-antiquity: ‘The bowls, jugs, pitchers and vases with which the modern viewer is familiar are all direct lineal descendants of series which were already old in Pompeii.’ By contrast, Bryson writes, the culture of the table ‘displays a rapid, volatile receptivity to its surrounding culture in the mode of inflecting its fundamental forms’. Thus, Bryson distinguishes two rates of change:

rapid—there is constant inflection of the objects under the influences of the fast-moving changes that occur in the spheres of ideology, economics, and technology; and slow—there is little actual innovation as a result of this influence.

Bryson conceives of the culture of the table as ‘an authentically self-determining level of material life’, arguing that this ‘slowest, most entropic level of material existence’ is inescapable because it is formed by ‘the conditions of creaturality’. In relation to textiles, a similar argument might be made for clothing and ‘coverings’ (rugs, wall hangings, curtains, bedding, etc.). For Bryson, human creaturality necessitates eating and drinking, and the objects used for these inescapable activities are shaped around needs, functions and capabilities of the human body. From shards of objects whose forms are familiar and accessible, archaeologists infer cultures and histories of past worlds.

Like enduring forms of vessels and clothing shaped to the human body, the acquisition of skill takes time. It was precisely this investment of time in acquiring skill—and the economic power that skilled workers could exercise by virtue of that investment—that the nineteenth and twentieth century industrialists sought to undercut through re-organisation of production and the use of technologies. The long duration associated with acquiring craft skills could not easily be assimilated into the rhetoric of modern art, with its insistence on newness, spontaneity and ever-faster turn-around of ideas and their visual articulation. Unlike eating and drinking, the acquisition of skills is not an ‘inescapable condition of creaturality’: humans have a capacity for skill which may never be realised. And increasingly, it appears that skills in making things take too much time to acquire through practice.

There are other durations and rhythms associated with the making and the using of objects. These, too, are evocative of human activities and bodies, sociability, and ultimately, mortality. The rhythms of making, which Walter Benjamin sees the formative context for story-telling, are the heart–beats of human sociability. Is it romantic to suggest that the temporalities of craft are somehow bound up with those of the human body and social life? Possibly. But the suggestion itself quietly, insistently intrudes itself into shared perceptions of craft through literature, and theoretical and speculative writing. ‘Craftsmanship is a sign that expresses society… as shared physical life,’ writes Octavio Paz; ‘it transforms a utensil into a sign of participation.’

Paz compares the duration of the craft object to the ‘air-conditioned eternity’ of the art object and the ‘trash-bin’ transience of the industrial object. Whilst the artwork is not usually (literally) worn out by our observation of it, we invest meaning in everyday objects through the deepening familiarity of use: they wear out as we get to know them. In Biographical Objects, Janet Hoskins draws on a similar distinction made Violette Morin between public commodities and ‘biographical objects’. She comments that ‘the biographical object grows old, and may become worn and tattered along with the life span of its owner, while the public commodity is eternally youthful and not used up but replaced’:

…the biographical object limits the concrete space of its owner and sinks its roots deeply into the soil. It anchors the owner to a particular time and place…it ‘imposes itself as the witness of the functional unity of its user, his or her everyday experience made in to a thing’.

As Paz observes, ‘the work of craftsmanship is the pulse of human time’:

Craftwork teaches us to die, and by doing so teaches us to live.

From a very different starting point, Andreas Huyssen picks up a related theme to argue that we are living through a transformation of the structure of temporality in which the relationship of past, present and future is being transformed. Huyssen’s argument in relation to the current obsession with memory could be extended to the conceptualisation of craft. He suggests that ‘the memory boom’ is

…a reaction formation of mortal bodies that want to hold on to their temporality against a media world spinning a cocoon of timeless claustrophobia and nightmarish phantasms and simulations.

If there is a thread connecting craft to human time-spans, rhythms and mortality, then the making and using of material objects is also an expression of ‘the basic human need to live in extended structures of temporality, however they may be organised’. Further, the conceptualisation of craft in terms of temporalities has reinforced the social embeddedness of craft. The table for Bryson, the story-telling for Benjamin, the fiesta for Paz: not only are the objects and their making inherently social, but they appear to constitute the social world.

This is why the connection between craft and tradition has been so tenacious. Like tradition, craft is deeply naturalised as an articulation of human mortality and sociability. Osborne’s comment that tradition ‘connects the idea of history to the life of the species’ could apply to equally well to the concept of craft.

Creating meaning

Many artists, including installation artists and textile artists, invoke craft precisely to reflect critically on the questions of social formation and temporal experience in the emerging context of a global political economy formed in conjunction with the new information technologies. Craft is employed as a sign of alternative possibilities for social identity and community, usually grounded in a sense of historical depth, but without acceding to the authority of history to shape the present. In this sense, craft functions as a sign of an alternative, community-based creativity, resistant to the modernist notion of the heroic genius.

In her anthropological study of ‘biographical objects’, Janet Hoskins suggests that possessions to which value and significance is attached can act as ‘surrogate selves’, endowed with the personal characteristics of their owners and used to ‘reify characteristics of personhood that must then be narratively organised into an identity’. Thus, an object can become ‘a way of knowing oneself through things’.

The imagination works on objects to turn commodities, gifts, or ordinary utilitarian tools into sometimes very significant possessions, which draw their power from biographical experiences and the stories told about these.

Hoskins summarises differences between Kodi exchange objects and modern consumer objects in terms of their investment in form and in work, value placed on age rather than novelty and their exchange histories. She notes, too, that in modern industrial societies, objects imbued with particular personal significance tend to be more directly representational. The way in which Hoskins handles the relationship between self and object resonates strongly with the perception of many craft-makers that objects may validly act as vehicles by which identity and memory may be organised and expressed.

Thus, objects are imbued with meaning through use and, in turn, they enable personal and cultural experiences to be constituted as meaningful. This does suggest a conceptualisation of creativity different to that of the critical tradition of art, with its strong emphasis on representation and reflection. Lavie, Narayan and Rosaldo define creativity as ‘human activities that transform existing cultural practices in a manner that a community or certain of its members find of value’. Thus, ‘activities that induce creativity at times are…set apart in special spheres’, but they are also at times ‘integrated into the mundane arenas of everyday life’. Significantly creativity inheres in both individuals and social situations. Always emergent, erupting at unpredictable times and on unexpected occasions, this definition does not require that we dismantle the ‘special sphere’—art—in order that other creativities, in other arenas of social life, might be conceivable. The contemporary conjunction of creativity and critical practice are retained while the possibility, and limitations of transformative practice, are asserted.