Sandra Alfoldy ✿ Global Peace Through Craft: The Formation of the World Crafts Council


26 February 2019

Sandra Alfoldy was an important Canadian craft historian. She was professor of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design’s Craft Institute. Her untimely passing is an opportunity to remember her incisive perspective on world craft. 

The formation of the World Crafts Council was a triumphant celebration of the ability of craftspeople, and their objects, to make substantial contributions to global unity. This new Council, created at the height of the Cold War, was the brainchild of Aileen Osborn Webb, the founder and sponsor of the American Craft Council. In the early 1960s, Webb had a vision of contributing to world peace by uniting the craftspeople of the world. The American respect for individuality in craft would elevate international crafts from traditional, joyless labour lacking aesthetic direction, to art craft, marketable throughout capitalist economies. As Webb believed, “we’ve removed crafts from the level of the church fair in this country – now we must do it for the world.” Webb’s message was timely, as western craftspeople and the general public were concerned about the effects that modernization would have on craft objects and society in general. While the World Crafts Council was formed to provide international harmony through the crafts, its objective proved difficult to attain, as its formation was rooted in an American-centric and often imperializing definition of what constituted “craft.”

The vision of craft overcoming difference and uniting the world had been cultivated for decades. In the 1940s, Bernard Leach expressed his desire to unify the east and west through craft; views similar to the ideals of World Crafts Council founder Aileen Osborn Webb. Tanya Harrod has compared Webb to Leach, stating “Her internationalist ideas were a cruder variant of Leach’s proselytising for a unity of eastern and western aesthetics, in which connections and friendship between craftsmen of all races would create harmony between nations.” While Webb and Leach shared similar outlooks, Aileen Osborn Webb’s cultural philanthropy stemmed from the belief that the power and wealth of the individual could make a difference in society. As a result Webb, the possessor of an independent fortune, financially supported the World Crafts Council and the conference that resulted in its formation.
In 1960 Margaret Patch, a weaver from Massachusetts, completed an international survey of craftspeople. After visiting craftspeople on every continent Patch returned to New York to inform Webb, who had funded the research, of the intense interest she had encountered for the idea of designing an international craft project. The American Craft Council had already scheduled a national gathering for New York City during the 1964 World’s Fair; after Patch’s positive reception by those deemed to represent the world’s craftspeople, it was decided simply to convert the national conference into an international one. As a result of the American Craft Council’s establishment of a national craft magazine, Craft Horizons in 1942 (today titled American Craft), the School for American Craftsmen in 1946, and the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1956 (conveniently located across the street from the Museum of Modern Art), the 23,500 individual members belonging to the American Craft Council in 1964 regarded Webb as being responsible for the shift in perception of American crafts from rural hobbies to objects forming part of the New York art scene. Now she planned to take on the same task for the rest of the world.

Webb and Patch confidently set about organizing the First World Congress of Craftsmen held June 8-19, 1964 at Columbia University in New York City. Aileen Osborn Webb opened the event, expressing in her welcome great excitement at the cultural diversity of the representatives. The conference attracted 942 conferees from 47 countries. Some undoubtedly took advantage of Aileen Osborn Webb’s offer to find free board and lodging for the two-week period, but the cost of travel still meant that the Congress was dominated by Americans: 692 were in attendance. Canada, Italy, Mexico and India had the largest representations outside of the United States with 30, 28, 22 and 14 representatives respectively.

A booklet A Short Guide to World Crafts was distributed to delegates and contained revealing statistics and surveys of the crafts of each country represented. The American section of the conference publication highlighted extensive listings of craft organizations, universities and art schools offering professional training for craftspeople, as well as a list of successful artists who worked in various craft media. “It is of interest to note here,” wrote the education department of the American Craft Council, “that the approach to craftsmanship in America is that of the individual artist, working most often alone as both designer and producer, and creating one-of-a-kind prestige pieces.” This contrasted greatly to the approach to crafts emphasized in many of the other write-ups from western, and in particular, non-western countries. The advancing position of American craftspeople within the recognized hierarchy of the arts was thus contrasted to the struggles of other craftspeople to occupy the same professional space.

In addition to the economic capital, Webb invested in hosting the first world conference on crafts, her cultural and symbolic capital came into play in terms of the presenters who agreed to participate in the numerous conference panels and workshops held over twelve days. Among them were two extremely influential Americans, Rene d’Harnoncourt, Director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the critic Harold Rosenberg. Rosenberg had achieved critical fame through his essay on the Abstract Expressionist movement, “American Action Painters” (1952), as well as his books, The Tradition of the New (1962) and The Anxious Object: Art Today and Its Audiences (1964). Unlike his contemporary Clement Greenberg, who focused on the avant-garde at the expense of craft concerns, Rosenberg was careful to note the links between art and craft. Both Rosenberg and d’Harnoncourts’ message for craft was simple: professionalism, based on modernism’s rules, was mandatory:

A form of work establishes itself as a profession not only through the complication of its technique—many of the ancient crafts involved more complex recipes than their counterparts today—but through self-consciousness with regard to this technique.

Acting as the opening speaker for the “Vistas in the Arts” panel of the First World Congress of Craftsmen, Rosenberg reiterated the important connections existing between the crafts and the fine arts, arguing “the fine artist and the inventive craftsman are indistinguishable from each other. It is regrettable that an inherited hierarchy of terms makes it more desirable to be called an artist than an artisan.” In his paper in the panel “The Contemporary Scene,” Rene d’Harnoncourt agreed with Rosenberg on the validity of crafts as fine art, but approached the question of identity from a different angle, contending instead that the desire of craftspeople to be given the same prestige as art was disturbing. “It seemed to me then, as it seems to me now,” he stated “that the crafts have a dignity and distinction of their own and need not try to borrow status from anything else.” What neither Rosenberg, d’Harnoncourt, nor the panels they presided over considered, was the irrelevance of the artistic goals of modernism to the situation of many of the non-western craftspeople in attendance. With the formation of the World Crafts Council at the First World Congress of Craftsmen, it became clear that the modernist narrative was accepted as the official credo of international craft.

With over 600 representatives from the United States at the First World Congress of Craftsmen, it was not surprising that American concern over the status of craft as a valid art form dominated the conference. References to a global craft community at the conference were misnomers, as non-western representatives had to possess the economic capital to afford to travel to the United States, the cultural capital to have met American Craft Council representatives, and the symbolic capital to represent the craft interests of their country. The low number of non-western delegates to the event resulted in a lack of discussion over the fine craft focus of the conference. Although Aileen Osborn Webb was successful in bringing together “both the village artisan and the urbanized designer-craftsman,” the voices of the village artisans were difficult to hear.

From 1964 to 1974 the World Crafts Council continued to promote the discourses of professionalism and modernism through their international newsletter and at their biennial conferences. Although never explicitly defined, professional craft was rooted in the master narrative of modernism, with an emphasis on its language structures and aesthetics. Craft objects featuring references to modern art trends were highlighted, innovative interpretations that pushed boundaries while paying homage to craft materials and forms were praised and a willingness to work with architects and designers was promoted. A definition of professionalism that included innovation, self-reflexivity, higher education, and interdisciplinarity, was necessarily exclusive. The survival and promotion of professional craft in face of the onslaught of popular traditional crafts would guarantee its rise within the artistic hierarchy. World Crafts Council organizers assumed that such advances would have a universally positive effect on craft and as a result they overlooked the imperialist nature of this hierarchy, rooted in western fine arts traditions. The colonizing attitude of organizers who applauded the World Crafts Council’s successes in “elevating” the crafts of the world without acknowledgment of the impossibility of a universal craft identity, reached its pinnacle in the form of the tenth anniversary celebrations of the Council.

The biennial conference of the World Crafts Council was held in Toronto from June 9th to 15th 1974, uniting 1500 craftspeople from over 70 countries. In Praise of Hands, an international craft exhibition organized by the World Crafts Council, ran from June 11th to September 2nd, 1974, with an attendance of over half a million people. As it had from the inception of the UNESCO-supported World Crafts Council, the omnipresence of the United States greatly influenced the ideologies and approaches toward the global craft community promoted at the conference and exhibition. North American organizers, namely Aileen Osborn Webb and the Canadian chair of the exhibition committee Joan Chalmers, made it a priority to elevate the standards of craft and the taste of the public. Their definition of “proper” crafts was indicative of their positions within the cultural nobility of North America. Following the modernist lead of the First World Congress of Craftsmen, these objects continued to be reflections of the cultural constructs that formed the ideology of the prevailing artistic taste of the times. Exhibitions held by the American Crafts Council and the Ontario branch of the Canadian Guild of Crafts indicated that the craftspeople involved with these organizations supported individualistic art/craft objects, often the products of professional craftspeople with formal artistic training. Some professional craftspeople producing traditional work felt excluded by the taste of administrators and jurors. David Smith, a production potter in Maine, complained in a letter to Craft Horizons over the increasing use of art/craft to represent all contemporary craft. Smith argued that the recognition of the sculptural funk ceramics of California’s Robert Arneson by the American Crafts Council was “a blow to the identity of the craft potter, a slap in the face and an insult that cannot go unrationalized any longer.”

In addition to the growing dissension between production and artist craftspeople in the west, difficulty creating a global community was increasingly evident despite the best efforts of World Crafts Council organizers. While articles with titles like “A global holding of hands,” and “Crafts around the World,” waxed poetic about the “common thread of empathy and understanding and artistry running through the whole craft world,” the economic, ethnographic and geographic dichotomies between western and non-western craftspeople were difficult to overcome. The exhibition consisted of a formal display area on the upper level galleries and live demonstrations on the lower stage and outdoor patio where craftspeople interacted with visitors. Difference was unconsciously cultivated within the physical space of the exhibition through the portrayal of non-western craftspeople as demonstrators outside the exhibition rather than as official exhibiting artists inside the exhibition. This was coupled with the frequently anonymous status of non-western objects shown in the exhibit alongside authored western pieces.

Difference was further demonstrated through the classifications of craft used in the exhibition and its accompanying book. Five categories were utilized: Apparel and Adornment; the Home: Utility and Embellishment; Play; Ritual and Celebration; and the Maker’s Statement (Clay, Glass, Metal, Fibre). The majority of conceptual pieces, all the work of craftspeople from industrialized nations, were placed in the Maker’s Statement category. These pieces were signed and formally attributed to individual makers. Although many western pieces were included in the other categories, very few of them were anonymous, operating in contrast to a significant percentage of non-western traditional items. For example, in the Apparel and Adornment section, almost fifty percent of the objects were anonymous, non-western entries, whereas eleven percent were authored non-western entries. This ratio was reversed in the Maker’s Statement category, where almost all of the objects were attributed to specific craftspeople; however, the percentages indicate the fundamental separation between western and non-western participants. Five percent of the objects belonged to non-western craftspeople, versus the remaining ninety-five percent attributed to western craftspeople.

The exhibition had a limited number of official entries. First, member countries would collect and jury their own crafts, and second, these final items would be sent to an international jury based in New York. As in the case of Canada, the initial jury recognized artists who adhered to the artistic principles expounded by the official organizations. These jurors brought to the judging their particular conceptualization of craft, and had a personal interest in ensuring that the pieces submitted to the New York jury were of the highest standards. The social class structure that had been established by Aileen Osborn Webb and the American Craft Council in their pursuit of art/craft was being replicated in the exhibition. Of the twelve Canadian craftspeople chosen for the In Praise of Hands exhibition, Ruth Gowdy McKinlay (ceramics), Robert Held (glass), and Haakon Bakken (jewelry), were all Americans who were teaching at the Sheridan College of Art and Design near Toronto, Ontario.
The international jury consisted of Erica Billeter, the curator of Zurich’s Museum Bellevive, Paul Smith, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York, and Sori Yanagi, the head of the Yanagi Industrial Design Institute, Tokyo. The jury met for four days and selected 387 pieces from 2400 slides submitted from over 70 countries.[ Yanagi was vocal in his displeasure over the non-traditional focus of the exhibition, complaining that “The exhibits from the United States were mostly what we call craft objects, created more for self-expression than for providing utility, and seem to communicate the psychological confusion and uncertainty of America today.” As Paul Smith states, “the objects for jury selection were so broad, dealing both with traditional arts that would eventually disappear and new craft ideas, that it really was two different worlds.”

While In Praise of Hands was juried and displayed as an art exhibition, the majority of ethnic demonstrators did not have authored pieces in the exhibit. Outside the official display area, the demonstrations of craftspeople continued a long tradition of display of the “other” in western exhibitions. Paradoxically, even Canadian citizens brought to In Praise of Hands demonstrated not as Canadians, but as members of their countries of origin, for example, Tibetans or Danes, or as examples of minority groups including the First Nations and Mennonites. British representatives at In Praise of Hands were disturbed by the strong presence of marginalized ethnic demonstrators. Marigold Coleman’s review of the show in the journal Crafts expressed worry about the ethics of the conference and exhibition. She described a Mexican (most likely Jose Sanchez) in traditional dress demonstrating his craft, “He raised too many questions in my mind about the reasons for his work, the validity of its context, the alternatives open to him and the buying power of his remuneration after others had taken their cut.”

Indeed, the flow of goods remained from the periphery to the centre, replicating the colonial structures that had provided the basis for earlier expositions. In general, the non-western craftspeople sponsored to demonstrate at In Praise of Hands could retail their work, but did not possess the capital to purchase pieces, particularly those done by the artist-craftspeople of North America and Europe. Minority craftspeople were frequently sponsored by the Canadian government and were dependent on the funding provided to them by administrators.

By examining the objects and demonstrators involved in the final exhibition, it appears that the debates between western craftspeople and the economic, political and social differences between western and non-western producers were secondary to the creation of a harmonious image for the global craft community. Issues including the impact of income generated from crafts on gender relations, the patriarchal basis of global capitalism, and the gender systems operating in specific indigenous groups were not considered by the Canadian and American organizers.

The World Crafts Council stressed the concept of preservation through western intervention. In his essay for the official book, James Plaut wrote of the “curious paradox” of non-industrial crafts, “left alone, the indigenous crafts would have ceased to exist.” The changes to these crafts as imperial intervention forced them to adapt to industrialized markets and the expectations of western consumers remained unacknowledged by the World Crafts Council; however, reviewers of the exhibition noted the obvious difference between western and non-western participation, frequently describing it as a breakdown between traditional production and art/craft. Some critics, like Kay Kritzwiser of the Globe and Mail, felt that the artistic craft objects fell below the standards set by the traditional pieces. Her admiration for the “wool, dyed and woven into garments, into useful accessories and truly gorgeous hangings” contrasted with her contempt for the American ceramist Patti Warashina Bauer’s Car Kiln, a “silly clay car.” Conceding that Warashina’s piece was a marvel of technology, Kritzwiser felt the Car Kiln was symptomatic of the decline of the crafts of developed countries into, “Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy Koloured Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby Syndrome.” New York Times reviewer Rita Reif agreed with Kritzwiser, stating in her review that the traditional items “pulse with the greatest power.” Meanwhile, Sol Littman of the Toronto Star criticized what he saw as the conservative nature of the official entries to In Praise of Hands. Reviews of In Praise of Hands were among the first to delve into the art/craft debate that continues to divide the craft world. While the theme of art versus craft had certainly been alluded to in earlier writing, the World Crafts Council events of 1974 highlighted the differences between functional and non-functional craft as well as the split between non-western and western objects, resulting in an unresolved ideological divide.

The tensions and inequalities that resulted from the World Crafts Council’s attempts to provide a universalizing narrative for craft through its common materials, forms and techniques are often overlooked today. Instead, there is an assumption that the cross-cultural exchange of craft is equitable rather than marginalizing. As the internet is applauded for providing craft with new globalized markets and the capacity to unite diverse craft traditions, it is important to critically analyze these attempts within the framework of earlier efforts to create international democracies for craft. These examples provide us with reminders of the difficulties inherent in overcoming the centrism of our position within Western culture with our specific biases toward art/craft. Exploring the issues surrounding the formation of the World Crafts Council and its tenth anniversary celebrations allows us to remain aware how these events continue to shape our contemporary understanding of craft.

This was article first published in Craft Culture, an online journal of Craft Victoria.

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