Saturday, July 16, 2005

Arts & Crafts

Last year in London, Sarah Carrington and I went to hear art historian and curator Linda Parry lecture on the Arts and Crafts Movement. Her talk was hosted by the William Morris Society in the elegantly decorated lecture hall of the Art Workers Guild. Parry was working on an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which I have since seen, that examines the Arts and Crafts movement as the first truly international art movement. The following are some of our notes, as they relate to Notion Nanny.

The Arts and Crafts movement originally took its name from the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, whose first exhibition analyzed the state of British industry and tried to reconsider the decorative arts, a genre previously considered to be of minor importance. Across the Western world, the context of political and social turmoil in the late 19th century led to a longing for escape from industrialization. Artists and writers extolled the values of the 'simple life' and tried to recall and revive previous ways of living and working. This led to a celebration of local vernacular traditions in a bid to strengthen national identities undergoing significant change, and many countries attempted to redefine their national identities through an exploration of traditional heritage. Though the Arts and Crafts movement today is sometimes characterized in terms of making on an amateur basis, its original protagonists argued that with improved working conditions, everyday goods would be better designed and made.

Ruskin's writing underpinned the movement as a whole. He provided a 'beacon of sense' to people jaded by industrialization. Stones of Venice proved to be most influential on William Morris, as it confirmed his belief that medieval art was 'made by ordinary men.' Morris argued that ideal workmanship would only be realized in Britain if people moved away from degradation in the workplace and if employers provided their workers with more enjoyment. His own workshop was organized like a Medieval guild, and his employees worked slowly and laboriously to make beautiful things that the factories couldn't.

Influenced by the A&C movement, colleges developed courses and workshops to teach design and the decorative arts, and in 1896 Lethaby established Central St. Martins College. At the same time, a series of workshops were established in rural areas by philanthropists who attempted to 'take advantage of local skills and resources,' for example the Langdale Linen Industry in Cumbria. Unfortunately, the workshops were rarely sustainable, as the only buyers of their products were in London due to the unexpected but necessarily high price of the goods being made.

Ultimately, the movement appealed to a need for escape among urban professionals who craved rural experience and nature, and the work produced meant little to the rural communities themselves. Rather than providing the masses with well-made things by respected workers, the movement provided a relatively few wealthy patrons with the fruits of its labor. Morris's friend and colleague Ashbee despaired at the privileged image of the A&C movement and felt that this disparity between the object's creation and its user was responsible for the movement's decline. Unlike Ashbee, Morris realized that the movement would not achieve his political goals and he focused his need for change on direct political agitation.

Interestingly, the Arts and Crafts movement in the US was characterizedentrepreneurialneurial spirit unseen in the movement's UK manifestation. The American movement managed to utilize A&C principles with greater commercial success than was possible in the UK, for without the 'moral baggage' of the UK movement, it was far more financially successful and sustainable. Some examples of US A&C enclaves are the Birdcliff Institute in Woodstock, as well as a similar community established in New Jersey.

Parry argued that A&C values are as relevant today as they were then, since there is still little opportunity for small-scale production of goods, and mass production is detrimental to the whole. She also noted that this longing for nature and simplicity through handmade goods still holds strength today.

In Notion Nanny, the current context of political and social turmoil will be referenced via objects relating to war, trench art, and revolutionary art movements. Through the representation of a Revolutionary War-era village character type, the figure suggests a longing for escape from the present crisis, and through the peddler figure specifically, escape from corporate power structures and the commercialization of art. But rather than extolling the values of the simple life, I am looking back to moments of complexity and conflict. By foregrounding various vernacular and popular art/craft forms I am trying to recall and revive ways of living and working that speak to the current situation I find myself in as a contemporary artist, working in the context of war and a deep national divide. Rather than a celebration of local vernacular traditions in a bid to strengthen national identities, I am questioning what the notion of national identity means, and how nations, communities, artists/artisans produce visual histories.

I would like to pick up on this thread of craving for rural experience and nature, and how that is always connected to the urban experience. When it strays too far into the actual countryside, it loses its charged meaning and power. I recognize that there is something urban in my desires, and that the context for this project resides in both urban and rural settings simultaneously.


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