Glenn Adamson on Craft as a Reflection of Ourselves
For curator and scholar Glenn Adamson, craft isn’t a quirky hobby that sits on the outskirts of contemporary culture. Rather, it’s a vital, timeless tool for teaching us about one another, and about humanity as a whole. This belief fuels his writing, teaching, and curatorial projects, which seek to unpack the many ways in which the age-old activity shapes our lives. Adamson’s work shows that craft is bigger than any single skillfully handmade object—each of which itself can serve as an important symbol of the human capacity for honing expertise over time—and influences countless aspects of society, from the Japanese tea ceremony to farming robots devised by Google’s parent company, Alphabet X. In this way, craft acts as a lens for understanding people and places across time.
Adamson, 49, has explored the virtues of craft throughout his two-decade-long career, which has included roles at Milwaukee’s Chipstone Foundation, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. In his 2018 book Fewer, Better Things (Bloomsbury), he positions craft as a means of connecting with fundamental issues and ideas (as opposed to those that hold only momentary or superficial relevance), and explains why taking the time to appreciate handmade objects from a maker’s or a user’s perspective holds particular spiritual and psychological value. Adamson’s account of the discipline in the United States, neatly laid out in his latest book, Craft: An American History (Bloomsbury), reveals how artisans—whose trade often includes people who are disempowered by their ethnicity, gender, or both—have been consistently suppressed throughout the nation’s history, but, paradoxically, are integral to many of its greatest achievements.
His latest endeavor takes a more forward-looking approach. “Futures,” an exhibition Adamson co-curated that opens in November at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in Washington, D.C. (on view through summer 2022), considers how craft can signal where we might be headed, and why we should be optimistic about the time to come. Over and over again, Adamson demonstrates how skilled making is about more than just beautiful objects. “Craft stands in for the whole idea of what it means to be human,” he says, “and why that matters.”
On this episode, Adamson discusses the various facets of skilled making, talking with Spencer about the value of hand-formed objects, the relationship between time and craft, and the discipline’s essential, often complicated role in the history of human progress.
Adamson considers the connection between craft and time, and how it’s exemplified in Japanese tea ceremonies and in work by certain contemporary artists. He also details how craft became a luxury following the Industrial Revolution.
Adamson explains how craft can help us focus on foundational issues and ideas. He also discusses technology as a corollary of craft, and why “material intelligence” can help us better understand the world.
Adamson talks about growing up in Boston with his identical twin brother, Peter, and how his grandfather’s wood carvings, as well as a decorative arts professor at Yale, sparked his interest in craft.
Adamson discusses his work within institutions, including the Milwaukee Art Museum, the Chipstone Foundation, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Museum of Arts and Design.
Adamson speaks about the complicated legacy of skilled making, using examples from his 2021 book, Craft: An American History.
Adamson describes the enduring relevance of craft, and how it continues to impact people and culture. He also talks about his upcoming exhibition, “Futures,” at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in Washington, D.C.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Today on Time Sensitive, we’ve got Glenn Adamson, a historian, writer, critic, curator, and one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject of craft. His latest book is Craft: An American History. Welcome, Glenn.
GLENN ADAMSON: Thank you, Spencer. So great to be here.
SB: In thinking about the relationship between craft and time, I wanted to set the stage, so to speak, with the subject of the tea ceremony, which is all about feeling the passage of time. When you’re holding a tea bowl in your hands, there’s this moment of slowing down. There’s a connection to the object that you’re holding. There are multiple tea bowls, so each is kind of a character. There’s also the idea of individuality through materiality. I’m wondering if you could talk about, from a craft perspective, the history and the importance of the tea ceremony?
GA: That is such a great place to start. The tea ceremony is virtually unique in the world of craft in the sense that it’s not just multisensory, but all-sensory. It includes the smell of the tea; the taste of the tea; obviously, your vision, appreciating the tea bowl and all the other accoutrements; the sound of the implements striking the ceramic [vessels]; and, of course, paramount among them all, in some ways, touch, which, in a European context, is often thought to be the lowest of the senses. But, I dare say, in a Japanese context, at least that Japanese context, it is venerated to an extent that it almost seems the most important, because it’s the one that’s most present to you. The European idea is that the further away something is from your body, your ability to sense it through vision—a distant mountain, for example—attests to your God-like qualities as a human. Whereas, in this context, it’s proximity. It’s the contact to the object.
I think what that really tells you about the tea ceremony is that there’s a kind of cult of the moment of gathering, and the moment of direct encounter with that thing, in that time, in that place. It’s something that we don’t do very well, arguably, in the twenty-first century, because, understandably, we’re always having our attention attracted by something over the next horizon. And that horizon might be very distant indeed, because of our technological capabilities. So I think the reason that the tea ceremony has been so attractive as a metaphor for so many people is because it does the opposite of that. It insists on presence, and insists on the now. So it is a kind of slowing down.
SB: It’s a marker of time, too.
SB: I don’t think you forget a tea ceremony when you experience it, because you have to be so present for it. I’m thinking of a tea ceremony I did once in Tokyo, at the Hotel Okura—right before it closed, actually, and was demolished and destroyed to make way for a new hotel for these ill-fated Olympics. But that moment of sitting in that room, I still remember what it smelled like. I still remember the tea bowl that I held in my hand, and the taste.
GA: And yet, it’s not stupid. [Laughter] This is maybe the thing that’s easy to lose track of, because when you say “direct encounter with a clay object”—I mean, that sounds so primary, so basic, that it feels undeveloped in some way. But in that moment that you hold, literally and figuratively, you also have this quality of complexity, because it’s shot through with association. It’s everything you’re bringing into that room, everything the potter brought into that object, everything your hosts might have had in mind when they prepared for your arrival. And that’s very referential, very subtle. It involves years of learning. It’s even esoteric—that’d be a good word for it. There might be a painting on the wall that, in some obscure, literary way, via the Tale of Genji, perhaps, refers to this place from which that tea bowl came, or where the tea itself was harvested.
So it’s very layered. It’s very abstruse. It has the qualities that you might associate almost with an operatic tradition in the European context. That’s, I think, really important to insist on from the beginning, here in our conversation, that craft has this quality of simplicity, but often it’s a simplicity that’s derived from incredible learning.
SB: I can’t help but think of Robert Wilson’s work in this context.
GA: Sure. And the idea of staging, also.
SB: Multiple acts.
GA: Yes. And of course, multiple disciplines: music, choreography, narrative, all layered on top of one another. And the idea of craft as something that’s performed for others, too, is in the tea ceremony. We might think of it in the context of a demonstration. Like, “Here’s how you throw a pot.” People are always so fascinated by that, seeing craft in action. This idea that craft is really most powerful as a verb rather than a noun, something that is unfolding before your eyes, that almost becomes like a pageant of human capacity. That’s, of course, why it grabs you.
SB: What do you think modern society could learn or take from this ancient Japanese tradition?
GA: I think, certainly, the idea of focus. This idea of being undistracted and giving yourself the time and the space, that kind of pool of regard and attentiveness. Again, that’s quite easily said. Maybe the more interesting part of the lesson is that this moment needs to be earned, so it’s not something that you come by easily. This of course is associated with many other Eastern concepts to do with religion, spirituality, meditation. It’ll be familiar to anybody who’s had even the barest acquaintance with Zen, for example. That there might be a moment of enlightenment, and although you perhaps might expect it, you can never know when it would come. It’s in some way given to you. It’s a matter of preparedness.
So I think the lesson maybe is that those possibilities for encounter are out there, and you need to be ready for them. You need to walk into that room with as much openness and awareness as you can, so that what’s given to you is received.
SB: In broad terms, how do you think about the relationship between craft and time? And about craft’s temporalities, particularly its way of going forward by reverting back to tradition?
GA: There are so many different types of temporality that are active in craft, so it’s really wheels within wheels. Just to begin with, as you said, you have the idea of tradition, so that’s history unfolding in the present, being recaptured in the present moment. I always say that the most difficult thing to do in the arts is to be traditional, because you have to work like crazy to keep the thing intact, even as the world changes around it. A craftsperson who seems to be very static is often innovating madly to keep that state of affairs going.
SB: Like our friend, Daniel Brush, who has been a guest on the podcast [Ep. 23].
GA: Yes, Daniel Brush. Such a great example. He’s based here in New York, [and is] an incredible metalsmith, jeweler, conceptual artist, and a real avatar of stillness, I would say. He’s a good example because he’s so apparently slow, but his mind is working all the time. The gears are spinning. He’s the proverbial duck with the legs paddling underneath the surface of the water.
GA: Craft has that. It has the big, macroscopic, historical temporality. But then it also has the immediate temporality of rhythm: the tink, tink, tink of a metalsmith. The whirring of the wheel as the pot forms and a cylinder rises in front of you. The clack, clack of the loom. All those sorts of musicality. A blacksmith’s ring on the anvil. In addition to that moment-by-moment rhythm, you have the longer rhythms of the year, or the seasons. Historically—this is not so true anymore—it used to be that artisans were farmers, so when there was a harvest to be brought in, they turned to their handwork when there was opportunity to do that, often during the winter months, let’s say. There’s also this sense that it marked out the connections to the cycles of the earth: When is it appropriate to actually make? There was a really strong sense of that in most historical societies, and still is in some places in the world today.
These are all examples of the way that craft connects us to rhythms that are around us and inside us, that we, again, today, often close ourselves to because our technology makes it so easy to do that.
SB: Now you have me thinking of Kevin Beasley [an artist and the guest of Ep. 47 of Time Sensitive].
SB: I really liked this review of your new book by Deborah Needleman in The New York Times. She wrote, “In a world where time is money, a sticking point for craft is always time.” And [she] also wrote, “Craft’s current revival is happening in part because making is an essential human impulse with which many of us have lost touch. But another driver may be that modern consumer society has grown dissatisfied with using economic efficiency as a basis for appraising time.”
GA: That’s the crux of what I call “modern craft,” in other words, craft after the Industrial Revolution. Before the late eighteenth century, you could say there’s not really such a thing as craft as a distinct affair, because how else were you going to make anything? There’s no juxtaposition to give it a kind of particularity, culturally speaking. What happens once you do have machine production, mass production, come into the equation, is that craft is typecast as the slow thing, as the inefficient thing. Therefore it’s the backward-looking thing. Then there becomes the question, “Why would you ever do it that way if you had the choice?”
Immediately flowing from that is the brutal economic fact of elitism: If you can make something more cheaply by machine—albeit by some kind of dehumanized, repetitive, crushingly boring labor—wouldn’t it be better to do that, because more people can afford it in the marketplace? That’s how craft, to be honest, rightly comes by its reputation for being exclusive, or being basically a luxury. We think of the French luxury trades, the Italian luxury trades, as being emblematic of that. There’s really, in a funny way, no way around that. You need to structure your thinking about craft in relation to that trade-off.
William Morris, who is an essential reference point in these conversations still, ran headlong into that problem. He’s a socialist, politically speaking. But he also wants to make things that are beautiful, and he wants to do it by hand in the best possible way. That becomes almost like a division in his soul, you might say. How does he bring those two things into alignment? In many ways, he didn’t, and couldn’t. It’s an inherent contradiction.
For me, maybe the thing to say is that that contradiction speaks to a deeper tension in our culture, that we have to continually work on and balance out. How do we think about quality of life, on the one hand, versus baseline economic advantage on the other? You can’t just pick one of them. They’re inherently in a kind of balance with one another. Craft is a place where those two imperatives meet, and clash, and get worked out.
SB: In your book, Fewer, Better Things, you explore how, in your words, “rapid technological obsolescence is a major threat to our preservation.” I’m curious: How can craft, or traditions like the tea ceremony, help us find greater balance and presence in this screen-addled, tech-enabled, globalized moment and world we find ourselves in?
GA: Maybe the first thing to say is that, despite what a lot of people would love to believe, craft is actually not very sustainable in the sense of preventing climate change, or offering an option that would circumvent the negative impact of manufacturing on the planet, for reasons that are similar to the question of economic efficiency. It’s, generally speaking, not a very efficient use of resources, either.
If you think about it for a second, which is more efficient per unit, the country pottery up in Vermont with its own kiln and all the shipping problems they’re going to face, or Ikea, or another mass manufacturer, who’s pumping millions of plates out in this hyper-optimized system? The easy answer—which you’d love to be able to give—is that craft is just good for the planet. That is, in most cases, actually not true. So you have to think psychologically, and think maybe even spiritually. You have to think that craft is a means of connecting to things that actually matter, rather than things that just appear for the moment to matter, which, again, takes a kind of learning to appreciate and understand, perhaps, both for makers and for users. That really was the point of that book, Fewer, Better Things. Even the title kind of says it: Worry about fewer things, and worry more about them. Maybe “worry” is the wrong word. Attend to them.
SB: Yeah. Be concerned.
GA: Concerned, exactly.
SB: You also note in the book how the sheer amount of information in the world today promotes this sort of superficiality in our relationships to each other, to our environment—almost, in essence, encouraging us to miss the value of what surrounds us, what’s around us. You write—and I love this line—“We aren’t even aware of how unaware we are.” Is your argument that craft can make us more aware, somehow?
GA: Yeah, in a roundabout way. I think, again, it’s not as simple as you might think. To me, it’s a matter of how you cope with complexity. One way of framing the problem of information overload and speed is that we’re simply trying to deal with more complexity than we ever have as a species before, and partly, that’s because the world is more interconnected. There actually is more complicated-ness out there. But it’s also more available to us, radically more available, and that’s happened within our generation.
So you have both an increase in the level of relevant information, and that’s actually operative in any decision that you might want to make politically, personally, whatever. And you also have a better handle on that information, at least in terms of getting it to you. The question then is, How are you going to cope with that complexity? I think of craft as a model for that, because materials themselves are very complex; processes are very complex. Again, it takes years of embodied experience to get to grips, literally, with those things, and those techniques.
If you have gone through that kind of experience, or even if you have a good appreciation of it, maybe there’s something there that you can learn from, almost use as an armature, and transport into other aspects of your life. If you have a craftsman-like, or craftsperson-like, attitude to other things that you might undertake, then that might lead you to a better, more moral, result. It’s a topic that Richard Sennett wrote about beautifully in his book The Craftsman, which is, despite its title, not, generally speaking, about actually making things by hand. He’s really using craft more as a metaphor for socially responsible citizenship. To me, that ability to cope with complexity is a great way of thinking about that.
SB: On this tip, there’s been a lot of talk over the past decade, basically since the invention of the iPhone, about screen addiction. And psychologically, I’m wondering, from your vantage, what impact do you think screens are having on us, on our relationship to the world around us, to the objects around us, and to human touch?
GA: One way to get into that would be to think about “screen centrality” as an object, which, if you think about it, we’ve never really had that before. What we’ve had to deal with, materially speaking, with our fingers and minds alike, is an incredible diversity of different materialities and different affordances.
When you have one thing that is so dominant in your life as a means of access, one portal into the rest of the world, it’s like this “one ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them” kind of idea, that can’t be good, just because of its non-diversity. It’s like the world gets pounded flat into that tiny space. So it’s not that the screen itself is lacking. Quite the contrary: It’s too much. It’s giving you only one way of encountering reality. So no matter what its properties, it’s going to be very, very limiting.
SB: It’s a lens through which to see the world. And Andrew [Zuckerman] has always made this great connection to the paleolithic hand axe, talking about how, at one point, that was the world’s sort of equivalent to a smartphone. That was the tool through which you could explore and look at the world. A much simpler tool, obviously, but there is a sort of corollary, all the way from the paleolithic hand axe to the iPhone.
GA: That is a super interesting analogy. Although, you could also say, maybe more in the lines of what I was just saying, that there’s also very strong contrast there, because the hand axe was great for doing some things, but it wasn’t your only tool. You had the bone needle, for example. You had maybe strips of leather that you’d use to tie things. And Neolithic cultures, I would say, by our present-day standards, were omnicompetent in dealing with the world around them. They had a very wide array of different tools that they used to navigate and manipulate their environment.
You might say that that’s the thing we’re losing. In other words—what’s the line? “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I think that Neolithic cultures actually didn’t make that mistake with the hand axe. They didn’t just assume that that tool would get them through. And that does seem to be how we’re assuming our phones will serve us. Of course, the companies that make them are working really hard to make that a potentiality, and to persuade us of it. I suppose I’m quite skeptical of that.
SB: I want to go back to the root of this in so many ways: the creation of smartphones. Which, paradoxically, as you’ve pointed out, were first modeled by hand in hard foam and other materials, and were created by various craftspeople. I like how, in Fewer Better Things, you make a note that the phrasing of “smart” “implies that other objects are “dumb,” in both senses of that term—mute and unintelligent. It seems so strange that craft itself, through the creation of the smartphone, has led us toward a profound detachment from physicality, and what you’ve called “diminished reality.”
What has the smartphone era, the digital world efficiency, done to our relationship with time? How do you view this full-circle effect, from something that was crafted, but also has led to this detachment?
GA: You know, Spencer, that is an old story in the sense that the Industrial Revolution itself, and then everything that flowed from it, all that innovation was essentially done by craftspeople, too. It’s not just Jony Ive.
SB: Sure. Yeah, [like the] Model T.
GA: Exactly. Machine tools in the nineteenth century. Artisans are continually making the tools of their own undoing, which is a hard truth about craft history. But when you get to the actual smartphone itself, and that device….
I mean, maybe it would be helpful to counterbalance the conversation just by pointing out that there’s also a lot of compatibilities there, because, just to begin with, artisan-based companies are much more viable now than they were before the internet, or even Instagram, specifically, because that’s a very, very low cost way of platforming your work, getting it to a market, identifying potential clients and customers. A lot of craftspeople are now able to have an independent living in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.
I don’t want to come off as some kind of Luddite, or technophobe. I think the thing to do is to be specific, and identify the areas in which digitization is liberating us from material constraint in a way that’s helpful, and also to identify ways in which it’s impoverishing our experience, or putting blinders on us in ways that we might not be aware of.
SB: That’s a great point.
I think it’s important here to also bring up knowing how things are made, and having transparency around that is incredibly important. I think it will be all the more so going forward, especially in the face of the climate crisis. Just thinking about the parts inside the iPhone, I think if more people knew exactly what went into it—the highly destructive mining practices, the low-wage labor, the carbon footprint—there’d probably be a very different view of Apple, or of any smartphone maker. But of course, that’s largely veiled in marketing, and the sort of brand sheen. If more companies were transparent, what do you think the result would be?
GA: That’s a tough thing to ask of a company. I think one thing that I’m always trying to bear in mind is that capitalism punishes the weak. Often, people who share our instincts about the various problems that we’re confronting tell themselves, Well, companies should just X. They should just be more transparent. They should just pay their workers more. They should just have more environmentally responsible practices. The thing is, if some companies do that, then those companies will go out of business, and other companies that have not done that will have an even greater share of the market. That’s obviously where the role of the government comes in. But it’s also where the role of the commentariat comes in.
I feel, frankly, people like us, and also journalists and academics, have a responsibility to do the work of that transparency. I am not somebody who really has a lot of faith in the corporate sector to do that work for us. I think if sufficiently pressured, and there’s certainly some signs of that happening, then it will in fact occur. But I don’t expect them to be the leaders of that process.
SB: Right. The environment will demand it. Politics will demand it.
GA: Absolutely. Specifically, this issue of transparency that you’re raising, which is really a matter of intellectual capital, that is, I feel like, best done by the media, which is not a term that gets a lot of warm support these days. [Laughter] But I remain an absolutely firm believer in the importance of a free, investigative press.
So reports that have come out recently about cobalt mining, for example That’s a material that goes into smartphones. Terrible things happen with the extraction of cobalt in Africa. It also involves the geopolitical relationship to China, because their access to cobalt and other heavy metals in their own terrain, and also their dependent economies in Africa and elsewhere, have everything to do with the politics of technology. You really need to have people who are out there investigating that, and talking about it as we are now, and surfacing those issues. Because they impinge on all of us, and we all have a moral stake in those stories. And it’s really important that we hear them.
SB: The classic [journalism phrase], “Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.”
GA: Yeah, there you go. That reminds me of the great line from Guy Debord, the theorist of the situationists, in his book The Society of the Spectacle. He said the nature of the spectacle is that “everything that is good will appear and everything that appears is good.” Which is such a great definition of capitalism. The natural propensity of capitalism is that it wants you to buy into that, literally.
SB: We haven’t really talked about your definition of craft, but you’ve written that “whenever a skilled person makes something with their hands, that’s craft,” and define craft essentially as skilled making at human scale. You think of craft essentially as a verb, as an action. And you’ve also spoken and written a bit about this notion of material intelligence, which connects to craft.
Could you define material intelligence for me, and talk about why you think it’s so vital to the future of our planet, and just so important in terms of understanding not just craft, but the world?
GA: Sure. And that’s the right way to put it, Spencer: not just craft, but the world. I think of it as a much broader issue than craft. In coming up with that phrase, I was very inspired by the idea of emotional intelligence, which I realize has been critiqued from a number of different vantage points as being overly simplistic. Maybe you could say that about material intelligence, too, but the point of it is to show that intelligence comes in many forms, and people of different walks of life and backgrounds deserve respect for having different forms of wisdom and insight. So material intelligence is a gigantic branch of human capability, and it deserves respect on that basis.
More specifically, what I had in mind was the idea that the ability to understand and shape the environment was widely shared across many, many disciplines, from craft to advanced technology, engineering, science, medicine, art. We have a tendency in our culture to chop those things up, even if you look at the way that universities are organized. This is totally understandable, because one of the things that happens with modernity is specialization. And one of the things that specialists do is talk to one another within their area of expertise, not talk across these boundaries.
So material intelligence, I suppose, is most helpful as a kind of conduit from one area of knowledge to another, like a connective tissue. It just seems, to me, really helpful to say, “This is all kind of the same at the basic level.” It’s like a common ground that we’re all standing on when we try to understand the material world around us. I have found that, reliably, if in fact you do put a chemist and a potter in a room together, they will end up having a huge amount to talk about, because of that material intelligence, that shared area of concern and expertise.
SB: I want to go back to a young Glenn Adamson, growing up in Boston. What was your childhood like? And tell me a bit about your parents, too. What did they do? What was it like growing up under them?
GA: My mother was a doctor. She’s retired now. My father was a computer engineer. So both kind of … which side of the brain is it? The science side. My mother was particularly extraordinary, professionally speaking, because she was a real pioneer as a female physician. She had been one of the first women to go to her medical school, one of the first women to be a doctor at her hospital. She became the chief of medicine at her hospital, was the first woman to do that there. So, she took a lot of crap on the way. If you think about the show Mad Men, and what women were facing in the advertising sector, I think medicine was just as bad. For somebody with that level of training to be subjected to that kind of prejudice must have been terrible. But she didn’t really bring a lot of that home with her, I wouldn’t have said. She was maybe more focused on just being a great doctor and reaching people.
My dad—bless him—intensely geeky, wonderful, math-y brain, won two statewide math competitions in Ohio growing up as a teenager. He’s very, very numbers-oriented, and fact-oriented. One of the maybe telling features of our upbringing is that we would work our way through the atlas, the plays of Shakespeare, the U.S. Constitution, even the dictionary, over meals. My twin brother, Peter [Adamson], and I always like to joke that we went to school during the day, and then we were also homeschooled. [Laughter] To be honest, I think it was really just a way of my parents trying to get these twin boys to just quiet down, and not be so rambunctious. I think it was maybe more that. Also, that was just a natural way for them to interact with us.
SB: A lot of families have TV dinners. You guys had dictionary dinners.
GA: Looking back on it now, of course, I didn’t think there was anything unusual about it at the time. I only discovered later that other families weren’t doing this every evening.
GA: But I’m quite grateful to them. They’ve really put a huge premium on knowledge, and implied that our horizons should be infinite in terms of curiosity. I mean, that was the point of going through the atlas. I remember specifically my mother doing that every morning, and showing us the flag of each country, and literally going through, like, What is its gross national product? What are its primary exports? What is the history? What is the geography of Angola? Then you’d go on to the next one, the next morning. And I really—I don’t remember that much about Angola—but the principle of it stayed with me, which is that you can just go and learn about anything. You just need to look it up.
SB: Your horizon’s only as large as your curiosity and knowledge.
GA: Yeah. But then the irony, Spencer, is that we lived on a street that was about as cookie-cutter and materially uninspiring as you can imagine.
GA: It had been thrown up at great speed in the late 1960s. I was born in 1972. This is my childhood milieu. Every house on the street looked exactly the same. They were all just turned different directions and painted different colors. They were very, very mass-produced feeling. It was also that particular kind of post-war American suburbia that seems almost to have been designed to avoid any kind of specificity whatsoever. There was no sense of place there, really. Even though the town—I come from a town called Stoneham, so named because the ground had so many rocks in it—it had become a shoemaking town in the seventeenth century, as I discovered much later, and had an incredible craft history behind it. But by the time I came along, in the late twentieth century, there was no vestige of that whatsoever. It was basically a shopping center with a bunch of identicate developments around it.
SB: Was there an object in the home that stood out to you as something truly crafted, or something that really led you toward thinking about craft in that way?
GA: Well, yeah, it was my grandfather’s wood carvings, which I wrote about a little bit in Fewer, Better Things. He was a really influential person on me, and quite an extraordinary person altogether. He was an aircraft engineer who also had the hobby of being a wood-carver, which he taught himself, and he became quite adept. He had a business card that said, “Arthur P. Adamson, Jet Engines and Wood Carvings, Made to Order.” [Laughter] When we went to visit him, he would carve in his shop, and I’d get to watch him, and learn about that smell, the different woods. What does Osage orange smell like as opposed to walnut when you cut into it with a chisel? Let me try it. So that was a super influential early experience for me.
SB: I’m struck by this contrast, too, between the fact that he was designing jet engines, and then in his basement, making wood carvings. Can you talk about how his engagement with art, technology, engineering, and industry entered this influential sphere for you?
GA: If you think about it, the material intelligence idea, it almost could be just a description of his life and what he cared about. He had been raised on a farm, also, so—we were talking about Neolithic people with their hand axes earlier. In a way, that was his experience. He could fix a tractor. He could mend a fence. He could make ice cream. He could do all these different physical processes, and it’s not that he sat down and taught me all those things, or that I would know how to do them today, but he would talk to me about them, and get across to me the idea of the value of them.
I think beyond the kind of intellectual thing of formulating theories about all this stuff, there’s a deeper thing there that’s more emotional, that has to do with a kind of intrinsic respect that I have for people that have know-how. And I feel, myself… it’s almost like a kind of postmodern feeling, of having come along too late. I know, obviously, it’s not. Like I could go off and be a farmer tomorrow, if I really wanted to. But one thing and another has led me to be a person of books and ideas, and a person who does spend a lot of time staring at screens, and doesn’t have a lot of craft skills myself.
But that exposure at secondhand just gave me such a huge and inspirational example to put in the center of my thinking. So I’m super grateful for that. I feel like so many people have that. So many people have someone in their family, or some older person they knew growing up. And there’s that intergenerational quality in craft, as well. That maybe is the human face of what can sometimes feel like a rather abstract conversation about aesthetics and economics.
SB: You mentioned your twin brother, Peter, who’s now a professor and historian of philosophy, and who Andrew and I spoke with on our At A Distance podcast recently. What was that like having a twin? I should mention here that I’m also a twin, so I’m coming at this question with mutual and relatable interest.
GA: I was going to say, Spencer, you could probably speak to that just as well as I.
Well, of course when you’re a twin, you don’t know what it’s like not to have a twin. It’s like, what’s it like to live in gravity? It’s a little hard to wrap your mind around it. I mean, it’s so fundamental to your identity. I don’t know if you would agree with that.
GA: For me, the most important thing is that, despite being essentially social outcasts, and deeply on the nerd end of the social spectrum, that was never a problem for us. Even when we were mercilessly teased at school, I never really took it that hard because I had this other person. It’s like walking around with a mirror. This other person who’s verifying everything about you, and reflecting you back at yourself. It’s like being in a team of two, going through your entire life like that. Maybe, in some ways, it would have been better if I had actually had more pressure on me to get along with other people in high school. But it was just so easy to kind of think, We’re fine. To have this kind of subculture of being the Adamson boys.
Now, being an adult—I mean, hopefully I get along with other people okay—it’s amazing to have somebody out there in the world. He’s all the way over in Germany, I’m here in the States. But having somebody who you don’t compete with, but you always have as a point of reference. Like in scientific laboratories, they have a control group and an experimental group. When you’re a twin, you sort of feel like you’re in both. Like, you’re the control group for your brother, and your brother is the control group for you. It just gives you this baseline to navigate, a place to stand. I just feel so lucky to have been gifted that. How about you? Is it like that for you, too?
SB: Yeah. I think that there’s this idea of being compatriots. Creatively, even. Growing up, I played drums, he [Trent] played bass. He took pictures, I wrote. There was always this yin and yang, and give and take, and sort of a backbone. When there were moments where I was confused or in doubt, I had someone to lean on and kind of be like, Oh, yeah.
GA: Yeah. Everyone should have one. We did the school newspaper together in high school. The Stoneham Spectrum. He was the editor and I was the layout guy. It was like, we didn’t know anything about it.
SB: Oh, you literally made the newspaper.
GA: In fact, I was in that generation that made the crossover from cut-and-paste to digital. So I remember—I think we were juniors.
SB: That’s craft.
GA: Exactly. It was going from literally building the newspaper in front of me on a table to doing it on an early Mac, and having that technological disruption in a very small way.
SB: Did you engage in any other particular crafts as a kid?
GA: To be honest, not really. I was very artsy, in the sense of drawing all the time and painting—I went to art classes. In fact, when I got to college, I wanted to be an artist. And, true story, I found out about Marcel Duchamp, and it stopped me in my tracks. I had just never encountered that set of ideas before. I literally said to myself, “I can’t make art until I understand what’s going on here.” Because, before that, to be honest, my idea of a good artist was probably Normal Rockwell, like, somebody who could render well. I realized there was this vast cosmos of other possibilities out there. Also, critical positions that might invalidate what I would do if I were ignorant and uninformed. I suppose I’m still trying to figure all that out. I sort of totally gave up on the idea of being an artist in the meantime. I think I would have been a terrible artist, so it’s for the best.
SB: [Laughs] Most people don’t know this about you, but you play the Irish pipes. When did that happen? When did you start playing the Irish pipes?
GA: I’m from Boston. There’s a lot of Irish music, a lot of Irish American folks up there. I was just listening to music. They’re called The Bothy Band, an incredible 1970s group. There’s a piper who played with them called Paddy Keenan, who … I mean, I’m hardly unique in this respect. I think probably if you talk to most hobbyist pipers, I would say half of them probably started out listening to him, and a couple of other bands from that period. It was just the sound of this instrument that just took me, and wouldn’t let me go.
I first started playing the tin whistle when I was about 19, 20 maybe. Then, step by step, I went through the laborious process of getting a full set of pipes, which is its own project, because these are all handcrafted instruments. There’s no mass production of these. Everything about them is handmade. The reeds inside them are also handmade, and super finicky, and touchy, and you never know when they’re going to work because of humidity and temperature fluctuations.
Then, of course, you actually have to learn to play. Another famous piper called Séamus Ennis said that it takes twenty-one years to play the pipes: seven years listening, seven years practicing, and seven years playing, and then you’re a piper. I’ve just now maybe been playing for about twenty-one years. So now if I can’t do it, it’s my fault. [Laughter]
But it’s an incredibly, incredibly difficult, and incredibly satisfying thing to do. I think it’s also just great to do something that you’re not that good at. I feel like I’m a pretty good writer, I’m a pretty good teacher, I’m a pretty good editor, pretty good curator. I’m just not that good a musician, inherently. I’m not that talented at it. The experience of banging your head against that wall every day, and just being as good as you can, and being okay with that, is incredibly helpful. It’s humbling.
SB: It allows for letting go. It’s a release.
GA: Yeah, and I have absolutely no pretensions to do anything but maybe play a few tunes with some other people who are at my level. Like, that’s as far as my ambitions go.
SB: Well, I’m excited to share with the listeners that we have some Irish pipes in the studio today. And that you’ll play a little something at the end of this episode if they stick around.
GA: That’s the idea. We’ll see if they cooperate.
SB: [Laughs] So back to your education. You earned a B.A. in the history of art from Cornell in 1994, and got your Ph.D. in art history from Yale in 2001. Share a little bit about your path in education. I understand it was a Chinese ceramics course at Cornell in particular that had a profound impact for you.
GA: Yes. So I was an undergraduate. Though I was studying at Cornell at the time, I actually had visited Harvard for a couple of semesters. It was there that I had this encounter with a Chinese pot that was placed in my hands by this wonderful and classic old-school professor. Bob Mowry was his name. He had a neatly brushed white mustache, and a blue blazer with gold buttons on it, and he was the curator at the Sackler Gallery, then was at Harvard. [My] first class in this history of Chinese ceramics, which I fell into by total happenstance—it was a fits-in-my-schedule kind of thing. Don’t think I even knew what ceramics were. I couldn’t have told you, like, fired clay, even. I don’t think I even had that. He put this Tang dynasty sancai pot—sancai means “three color,” so iron brown, cobalt blue, lead green—on a stoneware base. And, man, just holding it and feeling, like, the impressions of the fingers of the person who had made it a thousand years ago, and listening to him talk about it, and the way that it combined all the things we’d been talking about—aesthetics, economics, trade….
GA: Time. Deep time, but also instantaneous time. That thing was made super quickly by somebody who was making hundreds of them as fast as they could possibly go. And also division of labor, famously. Chinese ceramics manufacturers were the first people to develop the division of labor, a thousand years before Henry Ford. Or Adam Smith. So just taking all that on board, and also having this physical artifact in my hands, instead of having just a slide on a screen, and to be able to manipulate it, turn it over, feel its weight, its texture.
If you’re lucky, you have a moment like that in your life that can keep you going for as long as it has. I often feel I’m just trying to live up to those moments of being in the presence of an aesthetic object or an artist. An artist’s studio, for example, you visit, these days often via Zoom, but better in person. [There], you have that opportunity to, I don’t know, have their whole world explode into your head at once.Then go off and try to write about it. That’s all it is, is just trying to live up to what happened. The same thing happened for me then with that pot.
SB: So this visceral reaction to a pot is one way of explaining your journey into craft?
GA: Yes, but visceral and intellectual at the same time. It was the combination of feeling the weight, and everything I said—the texture, the color—and also hearing why it was interesting from an expert. Just like the tea ceremony, it’s bodily, sensual, direct. It’s also limitless in its intellectual space.
SB: Yeah, heart and mind.
SB: The Yale decorative arts professor Edward S. Cooke Jr. is another figure I wanted to bring up in this journey. What about his teaching stood out to you?
GA: This is Ned Cooke, I would call him. He has been the professor at Yale for decorative arts since the mid-nineties. Right when I arrived, I was one of his first students. I’m very fortunate to have arrived there at the same time as him. He, I think, probably deserves credit for being the pioneer craft scholar in the country. In the last twenty years, this has been this incredible opening up of craft studies as a discipline. I’ve been lucky enough to be very involved with that at an early stage. But Ned really was the person that first started writing about that and teaching about craft in a consolidated, interconnected way. Thinking about it in relation to social history, in relation to specific material histories. In a way, getting out of the museum, that’s the key thing. You think of decorative arts, maybe, as a phrase, and it conjures a chair sitting in a museum on a platform, or a piece of porcelain in a case. He was really interested in showing you what actually happened in spaces of making, in tracking objects as they circulated once they had been made in a workshop, and figuring out what actually was going to happen to them, what their fate was, and the conditions of distribution and use.
It’s like the whole picture, and realizing that craft is not this little, funny, kind of wretchedly eccentric thing sitting in the corner of modern economies. It’s actually pervasive and crucially important and powerful. I always like to remind people [that] the etymology of the word “craft” comes from the Germanic root kraft, which just means “power.” Like, kraftwerk is “power plant.” That’s what it means. It’s literally the ability to do something. That’s what we’re talking about, as a human being.
SB: In 2007, you became the deputy head of research at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. What was your path to London after grad school?
GA: I spent five years in Milwaukee first. I had this amazing experience of being the curator at a place called the Chipstone Foundation, so called because the founders’ last names were Stone, and the wife’s nickname was Chipmunk. So, Chipstone. But don’t hold that against them [laughter], because having had that sort of strange set of roots and not very enlightened patronage, they became an extremely progressive-minded and provocative force within what you might call the decorative-arts establishment in America.
By the time I was able to move over to the V&A, I already had all of this curating under my belt. And actually, I only ever got to really curate one show at the V&A. So it was much, much slower. I was also teaching, and working on the back-of-house research policy and so on of the museum. But I had a sort of ideal preparation before I got to London.
SB: What was the show at the V&A that you curated?
GA: That was a show about postmodernism, in 2011. I curated it with a wonderful compatriot, Jane Pavitt, a really brilliant historian of architecture and graphics, especially. We were very complementary, because … well, for starters, she was just a couple of years older than me, and British. Because Europe and America were two of the primary geographies of the exhibition, we both had firsthand experience of it, like what it was like to grow up as postmodern kids in the seventies and eighties.
You know, for me, putting, I don’t know, a costume from a Devo video, or a Laurie Anderson video, into a show. Or for her, thinking about David Bowie, or the architects who were active at that time, like James Stirling, for example, in Britain. She had grown up with all of those narratives, and so it was really like we were able to curate our own growing-up years in this really interesting way.
In fact, we experienced that with the audience, too. When people came through that show, the number one thing that happened was that they had this incredible sense of nostalgic return to this moment of the seventies and eighties, when so many things seemed possible. It was this kind of great libratory explosion, especially in the music world, but also in the art world and architecture, to some extent in graphic and product design. We were able to give that back to people, and it was just long enough that it didn’t seem kind of sad and dated. It seemed exciting again.
SB: Also during these years, you co-founded The Journal of Modern Craft, [and] you wrote a bunch of books with craft in the title. Then you were appointed, in 2013, to the director role at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. From your perspective, how did craft, or the public’s understanding of craft, shift in the culture during these years? And did you find that your career shifted with it, toward MAD, in a way?
GA: I think that’s probably fair. It was shifting inexorably towards the center of the conversation, but as you can tell from the fact that the museum changed its name from the American Craft Museum to the Museum of Arts and Design, it wasn’t all going in one direction. There was still a lot of discomfort around the word. It was really seen by the museum at that time as being an albatross around their neck, in fundraising contexts, as well as press and marketing and all the rest of it, dealing with artists directly.
So, although they had come in for a lot of criticism for that decision, including from me, I also really understand why they made that decision. You can see that it wasn’t all just a kind of sloshing of positive energy for craft, all in one direction. I think in my little world of craft studies, or academic writing on craft, which is really what I was doing at the time, before I became a director, it felt more like a gathering of energies and a building of rigorous scholarship. But out there in the wider world, the rough-and-tumble of the art market, it was by no means obvious that things were going to go as well as they have.
SB: You were just in that role for three years. Were the logistical and administrative challenges of running an institution too far from the scholarship you wanted to be doing? What was your reason for moving on so quickly?
GA: I still ask myself this question all the time, as you might imagine. Because when you do something for three years, you have the weird experience of learning a huge amount. I mean, my learning curve there was much greater than grad school, or the V&A, or anything else I’ve done.
SB: All of a sudden, you’re fundraising. I mean, it’s a very—
GA: For sure.
GA: Fundraising, managing, all these things that I had not been trained to do, and had relatively little experience with beforehand. You’re discovering whether you have any aptitude for these things that you’re having to do at quite a high level without a net. Even now, I wonder, Should I try to do something like that again? I struggled with it mightily. How much of that was to do with me, how much of it was to do with the museum, and where I was at at the time…
Having gone through the agonizing experience of going up that learning curve, I feel like I want to use that knowledge now, and take it somewhere else. Then part of me thinks, You know, I really like sitting at home writing. And I love curating stuff—directors have no business curating, in my opinion. It’s a total conflict of interest, in most cases. Probably the greater part of me thinks I just want to do what I’m doing now, basically, but there’s still a little bit of longing around that. I mean, it is wonderful, too, when you actually get a funder on board, and they’re excited about your program, or you’re working with a curator who’s at the height of their powers, and doing the right project for them, giving an artist that kind of platform. There’s kind of nothing like it. It’s super, super gratifying, too.
SB: I feel like an institution can shift culture collectively in a way that it’s much harder for any piece of writing [to do]. Even if, on a personal basis, that’s something you really deeply love and cherish.
GA: Yeah. And it’s harder to track your influence, too. I’ve been active as a writer much more than I have as a museum director, or even as a curator. You do hear from people who have read your books sometimes, but there’s not an opening. [Laughs]
SB: On that note, I did want to make sure we get to your new book, Craft: An American History, which is basically one long timeline of America, through the lens of craft. I read it as a form of time travel—through craft.
What I found particularly interesting and revealing is how, in such clear terms, it shows this nation’s legacy of racism, sexism, and economic inequality. What is it about craft that reveals so much about this, about who we are, including our dark, dusty pasts? And also, how we got here, and where we’re going, this trajectory?
GA: Yeah. Well, maybe the easiest way to get a handle on it, thinking across this long history—it’s like three hundred years of history in that book—the common thing is that craftspeople are being disempowered, and shouldered aside, from the halls of influence, from positions of political power, and obviously from the center of the economy. Not coincidentally, that means that people who are themselves disempowered by virtue of their ethnicity or gender, or both, often find themselves in the position of being artisans. When you tell the story of American craft, you are largely telling the story of Black, Native American, and other ethnic minorities, of women, and of course, of the white working class, too, who are a super important part of the story.
SB: Many of whom are immigrants.
GA: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, all of whom are immigrants or descended from immigrants. You have a story there about people who are, as we’ve been saying, powerful in the sense of being able to do things, and that power is being disenfranchised and controlled in various ways, or invalidated with all the distress that you can imagine accompanies that.
In a lot of ways, it’s not that happy of a story that I’m telling in that book. And yet, at the end of the day, those are the objects, and often those are the people, that we look back to as being the best parts of ourselves as a nation. Very obviously, you get Paul Revere and Betsy Ross as these kind of luminous, semi-mythical figures from the period of the Revolution. But not only them. Right up through, let’s say the Civil Rights Movement, the way that the Quilts of Gee’s Bend, for example, have been celebrated in recent years as these emblematic artifacts of a moment of liberation and self-actualization and aesthetic achievement.
It’s this funny thing where American history seems to have been constantly conspiring against its craftspeople, and yet, when we actually look back at it, we sort of feel like the craftspeople have always been involved in all the things we’ve accomplished. Again, like we were saying earlier, that includes innovation. Artisans have been also responsible for a great deal of the technological progress that we’ve had as a nation. So there’s that back and forth. Ultimately, you feel like, Boy, if you have a community without craftspeople in it, then that’s probably a recipe for disaster.
SB: The complexity and contradiction inherent in so much of it, too, I found fascinating. The book explores the erasure of Indigenous culture in a lot of different ways, and the role that craft actually played in that. While craft is often associated with positive connotations, there are also these more sinister uses of it. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania you write a lot about, in particular. You describe it as this “experience of extreme disorientation, and sometimes worse.” Using that school as an example, could you describe how craft, in the context of that school, was both a positive in some ways, but also a negative?
GA: So if listeners aren’t aware of this story, just very briefly, this was part of the forced assimilation campaigns that were inflicted on Native Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Carlisle Industrial School, which was in Pennsylvania, was one of the first of these establishments, set up by a man [named Richard Henry Pratt] who literally said that to save the Indian, you had to kill the Indian in him.
What they did was to kidnap native children from their families—which, by the way, meant taking them from reservations to which they had already been forcibly dislocated. So you’re already dealing with quite a traumatized population. And they just took these kids, and took them several states away, in some cases. Did not let them go back to stay with or see their families—they were sent to white families during breaks from school, to further assimilate them. Forced them out of their Native American clothing, and put them in clothes that were very distressing and uncomfortable to them. They all talk about that.
SB: Wearing shoes.
GA: Shoes, wool suits. Gave them new names, chosen at random from a blackboard, and taught them crafts. But of course, what they did was not teach them basketry and beadwork. They taught them metal shop, or carpentry. So basically, vocational training.
SB: Which, on the one hand, was preparing them in some ways for some sort of assimilation into capitalist society. But in another way, it was pushing them further away from the crafts that [their ancestors] had practiced for centuries.
GA: Exactly. And you have a very strong comparison there to the African American vocational schools that Booker T. Washington, for example, was very involved in setting up, like the Tuskegee Institute. He similarly was very criticized for effectively playing into the interest of the white ruling class, and training young Black children only to be manual workers. Basically preparing these people for working-class stability, but nothing higher in terms of economic accomplishment or status. The same thing is happening in these industrial schools with Native kids. The point is that craft is here being used basically as a weapon. It’s being weaponized, and used to inflict assimilation on these Native communities, and also, it becomes a tool of subjection, in some ways.
I just feel like, if you’re going to tell the history of American craft, you have to take these kinds of stories into account, because it’s part of what happened. You have to not think that you’re only telling the story of beautiful objects in the galleries of the Metropolitan [Museum of Art]. You have to really think about all the different ways in which craft was used, both for good and bad.
SB: The book is kaleidoscopic. There are so many fascinating subjects we could discuss, like Eli Terry and clockmaking, Elizabeth Keckley, Frederick Douglass, [Henry David] Thoreau and Walden, the Model T, which I mentioned earlier, the Shakers.
But I wanted to fast-forward through all that, actually, because that would be a whole other conversation, and get to the latter half of the twentieth century, during which craft entered the counterculture, starting with this do-it-yourself movement in the fifties, dressmaking and hot-rodding, hippie house-building, utopian experiments like Drop City in the sixties. Robert Pirsig’s 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, fits into this, and of course, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, which launched in 1968. On Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, I was wondering if you could speak to the impact on craft and material intelligence that that had and continues to have?
GA: You know, the slogan of the Whole Earth Catalog was “access to tools,” which was, if you think about it, the kind of pragmatic version of what a counterculture would have to look like. The idea was: Yes, drop out; yes, tune in; but also, skill up, so that you have this ability to create a separate, but also viable, base of political and cultural action. And so this is intensely ideological, obviously. It’s during the period of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, nascent feminism as well, that great wave of feminism that comes forward in the 1970s, and all of these different—
SB: Environmental movements.
GA: Eventually, and of course—
SB: The rise of Silicon Valley, just beginning.
GA: Yeah. And the Whole Earth Catalog has that famous picture of the Earth shot from outside. The point being, this is the fragile blue marble. Buckminster Fuller’s “Spaceship Earth.” He was maybe the most influential person on Brand’s thinking, Fuller was.
You have a super fascinating conjunction of ideas there, some of which are coming from this kind of technocratic, quite white male, futurist thinking, some of which is much more grassroots, and much more diverse, and creative. I mean, creative to the point of being fantastical and absurdist, even. I think that’s just such a generative space in which craft found itself. And yet, it also was a matter of raw necessity. Like, you had to build your shelter.
SB: I think we could draw parallels to Ladies Home Journal at the turn of the twentieth century, and what they were doing, and what Whole Earth Catalog became.
GA: Absolutely. Yeah. Or really, any magazine that’s legitimately trying to give people the wherewithal to do what needs doing, in distinction to, let’s say, Martha Stewart [Living magazine] later on, which is almost completely aspirational and symbolic, and has no hint of necessity around it.
It’s fascinating to think of the overall landscape of these instructional texts as part of craft history as well. But the other thing that’s fascinating about the counterculture is that at the same time that the hippies are rising, the unions are falling. It sort of belatedly dawned on me, while I was writing this book, that I had to be writing the history of labor unions, because they’re the most important organizations in the country that think of themselves as craftspeople. It’s not the arts and crafts movement or the studio craft movement.
SB: Yeah, it’s plumbers, too.
GA: It’s plumbers, it’s electricians, it’s builders. And yet, you have events, famously, like the Hard Hat Riot here in Manhattan, where these sort of proto–Trump-supporting…. I mean, maybe it’s a little unfair because [Richard] Nixon was a very different figure, and it was a very different political moment. But certainly a nascent right-wing, nativist, white, working-class group of guys just marched off their construction sites, and went and beat up a bunch of hippie, anti-war protestors, literally using the tools of the trade, you know, their hard hats and their wrenches.
That’s the kind of division in craft culture that you see, again, over and over again. And the nineteenth century white artisans often would turn to physical abuse against Black makers who they thought were competing with them, or immigrants. That’s another part of the story—craftspeople at each other’s throats—unfortunately.
SB: You mentioned Martha Stewart. Where does she fit into all this?
GA: Oh, Martha Stewart. Spencer, I have to say, writing that part of the book was the most fun. The whole thing, it’s such a weird thing to admit. But in the entire three-hundred year period, that was the thing that I laughed about the most. [Laughs]
SB: Well, I’m asking [because] I’m a kid of the nineties. I grew up with Michaels and Hobby Lobby and Martha Stewart on TV.
GA: Yeah. And Michael’s and Hobby Lobby perceived Martha Stewart, rightly, as an existential threat, because she represented something totally different from the sort of cheap and cheerful, low barrier to entry kind of marketplace that they were trying to create. And ultimately, you probably could say that they prevailed. Their companies were a lot larger than Martha Stewart’s was. But in some ways, she was kind of winning the culture war. But just, I don’t know.
SB: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting—there are very few figures like her. I mean, I think Dolly Parton might be somebody that we think of in similar terms. It’s like, pretty much everyone likes Martha Stewart. What’s interesting is that she’s used craft as this tool to connect people. And your book is largely about that, too, so I saw it as this, maybe not apex moment, but a moment in the story of the history of craft where it’s like, Here’s a very clear example of somebody who has used craft as a connective tool to bring different people together across culture.
GA: Although, it is very telling that when Martha Stewart did go to jail briefly for insider trading, there was a lot of schadenfreude, as well. It’s like she was a little too perfect. There’s a great article that was published on her in the nineties. And the title was, “She’s Martha, and You’re Not,” which says it all. It’s this idea of an impossible aspiration that she represented.
SB: And yet, she comes out of that just as strong.
GA: Well, exactly. I mean, maybe there’s something there about her specifically, but also something about the robustness of craft as a place to stand. If you’re going to build your empire on a foundation, maybe it’s just a really good one to choose.
SB: You end the book by describing craft as “a way of slowing down and connecting more to the world around us,” as “an alternative pathway,” and as “a means of renewal.” We didn’t even get to touch on notions of utopia much, but is that a sort of utopia in your mind? A world in which we all, in our own way, engage meaningfully in craft, whatever that craft is, and the physical world around us?
GA: “Utopia” is a really interesting word. As everybody always says, it means “no place,” and “best place,” at the same time. My next book is actually going to be on the concept of the future. That’s the plan, anyway. So I’ve been thinking a lot about utopian writing, and about the role of prediction. Prediction and forecasting, like people saying, ”This will happen,” but also utopian thinkers, whose message is a little different. They’re saying, “This could happen, if we want it badly enough.”
If you think about it, those two different ways of thinking about the future are both really tools to use to act on the present. And the way that you structure your prediction, or the kinds of judgment and values that you bring to your utopia, inevitably have a kind of critical, and also epistemological, relationship to the present. By epistemological, I just mean that the way you think about the future will help you notice things, but also maybe make you blind to things in your present, because you’ve already decided what you care about. The, of course, inevitable example here would be the Russian Revolution. So you have constructivism, and the artistic version of that. Then you also have the headlong rush into a possible political reality that creates untold human suffering as it’s trampling over the present to get to tomorrow. These things need to be handled with a great deal of care, critically speaking.
SB: Yeah, another example, which you wrote about recently in a Nation magazine cover story was the Bauhaus, and the impact of the Bauhaus.
GA: Absolutely. Which weirdly turns out to be most actualized in Ikea rather than a Socialist, egalitarian housing project. At least you can make that argument. So yeah, there’s also the fascinating thing here about unanticipated consequences.
But to get back to your original question, “Does craft have a role in utopia?” Or maybe a better way of framing the question is, “Does craft have a role in our future thinking and the way that we should therefore think about our present?” I would say absolutely yes, mainly because if we’re saying goodbye to craft, then we’re saying goodbye to the very idea that human-scale action could be enough.
Think about what that means. If you admit that the only thing that’s going to make a difference is highly capitalized, vastly complex, [and] global in scale, because all that really counts at the end of the day is economy of scale, then you’re really consigning individual people to the role of being passengers or victims. It’s like the opposite of Renaissance humanism, where they put the individual human at the center of things. The danger, of course, is that we are doing the opposite. We’re creating structure after structure in which the individual human has no purchase, no handle on the machine.
So for me, the retention of craft is literally helpful because of all the things we’ve been talking about: the material awareness, and the connection to the person that made the object, let’s say. There’s a lot of specific things. But it’s also that it stands in for the whole idea of what it is to be human and why that matters.
SB: I wanted to finish our conversation with an appropriately forward-looking subject, which is “Futures,” an exhibition you’re co-curating at the Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian, which opens this fall. How did you put together selecting the objects and pieces for this show, and what has it taught you about where we might be headed?
GA: This is a great project. It opens in November. First of all, the Arts and Industries Building, which people might not have heard of because it’s been closed for a while, was actually the first U.S. national museum. It opened in the 1880s, and has been used as a kind of incubator for other Smithsonian units since. For example, in the 1960s, they had a bunch of spacecraft lined up out front. It was called Rocket Row. That was while they were getting ready to open what’s now the [National] Air and Space Museum. So it’s a very appropriate place to be doing this kind of future thinking. The show itself is kind of like a woke twenty-first century World’s Fair, I want to say.
GA: It’s super diverse just in terms of whose futures we’re considering. As you said, it is called “FUTURES,” with an “s,” so it’s plural, it’s multivalent. I always think about it as maybe juxtaposed to “The World of Tomorrow,” the 1939 [New York] World’s Fair. Norman Bel Geddes and General Motors saying, “This will be your future, everyone. And we’re going to put you on the conveyor belt, and take you above it to show you.” What we’re doing is much more textured, and drawing from all these different disciplines—art, science, technology, design, architecture, science. The key idea animating all of it is that all of us do have a role individually in shaping the future together and collectively. We’re trying to show examples where that actually is happening. It’s really about the responsibility of each of us as individual citizens to shape the future that we want.
The thing that has struck us, because we’ve been working on it for a few years, is that doing the show now, post–coronavirus pandemic, and after the election of last year, and everything else that’s happened, it just seems so counterintuitive to do a show that’s this optimistic about the future. Because most of the public narratives that we’ve understandably been presented with are so dark—climate change above all, but not just that. Trying to make a show that gives you real, substantiated reasons to be optimistic, like reasons to be cheerful, it feels like it has a kind of quiet radicalism to it at this moment. Hopefully that’s how it will be received. But certainly being involved with the project has been like a lifeline during this period of isolation. It’s also just interesting to say that, because I joined the project last year, I actually haven’t met most of my co-curators and other team members. We’ve been doing it all through screens.
SB: Remote work.
GA: Yeah. So that opening party’s going to be really interesting.
SB: Is there an object in the show you can point to that you think is emblematic of where we might be going?
GA: Sure. I’ll give you two, actually. I’ll give one historical one and one contemporary one. The historical one is called the Bakelizer. It’s the machine that Leo Bakeland used to synthesize phenolic plastic—in other words, the first plastic-making device. It’s now in the collection of the [National] Museum of American History. There you have this thing that’s sort of weird, and steampunk-y, and huge, and scary-looking. It really seems like it just fell off the set of a sci-fi film. And you think of what that object has led to, both good and bad. To us, it’s sort of like a symbol of futures as unpredictable, and containing just vast potential for both beneficial impacts on people’s lives, and obviously incredible destruction.
In terms of contemporary objects, I think maybe the one I’ll use as an example, it actually comes from X, which is Google’s research and development wing. They have made this incredible device called the Mineral rover, which is basically like a farming robot. It’s artificial intelligence–driven, and all it does is endlessly go up and down rows of crops evaluating what each individual plant needs, meaning fertilizer, water, especially those two resources. Then it feeds that information into a central processing unit. And then exactly that amount of resource is dispensed to each of those plants.
As you can imagine, this is so efficient compared to just broadcasting water and fertilizer over the whole field. It’s funny, because it’s almost like the opposite of an assembly line, the robots moving up and down this natural set of trenches, with all these living plants. It’s the kind of thinking, and the kind of technology, that actually could make a huge difference, because we have to make so much more food to actually keep the planet going in the next twenty, thirty years.
Without being smarter about how we’re going to do that, we just won’t be able to. So maybe it’s good, in conclusion, because we’ve been talking so much about craft, to remember that these advanced technologies—prototyped, in many cases—do actually have an incredible potential to, if not rescue us from, then at least to ameliorate the condition that we’ve managed to get ourselves into. It feels really good to be able to celebrate that and say, “This is an example of leading thinking that actually is a cause for optimism.”
SB: I think we’ll end there. Glenn, this was so great. Thanks for coming in, and excited to hear you play the pipes.
GA: So great to talk to you, Spencer. Really appreciate it.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on July 27, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by our assistant editor, Emily Jiang; managing director, Mike Lala; and sound engineer, Pat McCusker.