Today’s interview is from our friends at Art Practical, where Bean Gilsdorf gets a chance to chat with Glenn Adamson, deputy head of research and head of Graduate Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he leads a graduate program in the History of Design.
My interest in Glenn Adamson’s work began in 2006 with his essay “Handy-Crafts: A Doctrine,” which is included in the anthology What Makes a Great Exhibition? In this essay, Adamson posed a question that was to become an encapsulation of his practice as a historian and curator: “When the climate is so militantly hostile to an intelligent handling of craft, how is a curator who is interested in craft to navigate the shoals?” His answer is disarmingly simple: “treat craft as a subject, not a category.”1
Over the past decade, Adamson has been one of the few to investigate and re-envision craft from this wholly new position. He followed “Handy-Crafts” with the 2007 Thinking Through Craft, which argues that the supplementary status of craft is its very strength and that its position in the margin of art allows it space from which to provide a critique. Recognizing the absence of any standard for basic craft education, Adamson edited The Craft Reader in 2010, providing a foundational-level education in materiality, objecthood, and labor through the inclusion of essays by Karl Marx, William Morris, Annie Albers, and Lucy Lippard. I sat down with Adamson on April 1, 2011, just before he gave the keynote speech at the “Craft Forward” symposium hosted by the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Bean Gilsdorf: You’re putting together a show at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London on postmodernism, and I wonder if you could start by defining that term, because it’s so contentious.2
Glenn Adamson: The definition that we’ve been using—or the application of the term that we’ve been using—is that postmodernism is the proliferation of responses to the collapse of the modernist project. Rather than defining it positively, we’ve defined it as a phase of thinking and practice that occurs because the sometimes utopian or progressive practices and certainty of modernism—best known in architecture, but known in the other arts as well—collapses and you have something in its wake. That’s postmodernism. It’s very much a relational term, and it’s essentially based on the idea of freedom and difference. Modernism is like a transparent window, and it pretends to show you the world clearly, and postmodernism is like a shattered mirror, so it reflects yourself at yourself, but in fragments. It doesn’t necessarily pretend to truly show you anything; it’s simply a reflection of your own situation. That’s the long version; the short version is that postmodernism is what happens after modernism dies. What’s interesting, of course, is that modernism was revived in the 1990s. To some extent, it didn’t ever go away, because you always had modernist holdouts, but modernism again became the dominant style, and then you arguably have a kind of hybridization of various modernist and postmodernist motifs and approaches. But in any case, we’re thinking about postmodernism in the ’70s and ’80s, in that reactive, destructive way.
BG: In your previous craft projects and in your interest in craft, I am interested in your application of the term friction—where you identify a sense of working against something. Is that how you came to the idea of doing this project on postmodernism?
GA: The museum leadership pitched the idea to my cocurator Jane Pavitt and me, but it immediately appealed for exactly the reason you’re saying. I help edit The Journal of Modern Craft, which places modernism and craft in opposition. I’ve always thought of craft as something that is both produced by modernity and contests it. Postmodernism is the same thing, except with a very different structure.
BG: Do you tend to think in poles of opposition?
GA: Dialectically. It’s always about exposing a false opposition, or seeing how an opposition works, sometimes to create a synthesis and sometimes, possibly, to create further fragmentation as well. Marx thought that a real dialectic was one that was resolved. So he would say that if there was no possibility of resolution, you weren’t looking at a dialectic. But I think of opposition in postmodern terms, as leading to further fragmentation, or a rhizomatic, infinite cascade.