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  • Critical Craft: Technology, Globalization, and Capitalism ed. by Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber and Alicia Ory DeNicola
  • Kevin Murray
Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber and Alicia Ory DeNicola, eds. Critical Craft: Technology, Globalization, and Capitalism. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. 320 pp. Paperback, $30.00, ISBN- 10:1472594851.

Craft in a modern context is more often a symbolic good rather than a utilitarian item. It carries stories of its production along with related values. Given the mute nature of the object, many of these narratives are projected by the consumer, which can often be based on fiction rather than reality. This makes ethnographic research, such as that collected in Critical Craft, of great importance.

One of the principal structures addressed is the hierarchy of craft and design. Geoffrey Gowlland's "Materials, the Nation and the Self: Division [End Page 671] of Labor in a Taiwanese Craft" offers a fascinating overview of the values attached to the production process of traditional ceramics. This involves the division between the anonymous forming of the vessel and its authored decoration. Gowlland invokes the concept of wen, meaning not just to paint over or glaze but also the acculturation of self, "that glistens with the gloss of accumulated heritage" (Gowland, 206). This is also reflected in Allana Cant's "Who Authors Crafts? Producing Woodcarvings and Authorship in Oaxaca, Mexico," which identifies the reverse process of "detachment" in which authorship is erased in preference to location. This complicates a liberal presumption that individual attribution is a universal right.

Clare M. Wilkinson-Weber and Alicia Ory DeNicola's "Designs on Craft: Negotiating Artisanal Knowledge and Identity in India" invites us to think critically about the concept of "craft revival," where developers seek to rescue a dying tradition, which implies a difference of agency between the victim artisan and savior designer. Another myth explored critically in this volume is that of the middleman, usually depicted as a parasite in the chain of production. Lynne Milgram continues her illuminating work on Filipino craft with "Refashioning a Global Craft Commodity Flow from Aklan, Central Philippines," which identifies the critical role of the middleman in managing risk in craft exports. An alternative arrangement is identified by Millaray Villalobos in the itinerant backpacker craftspeople in Latin America, who often operate in a gift economy.

On the consumer side, this book has some fascinating insights. The culture of chocolatiers analyzed by Susan Terrio involves some striking national differences, such as the French buying chocolate as gifts, compared with those in the United States who consume it as an earned reward. Elisha Renne describes the situation in Nigeria where the quality of embroidery in the babban riga robe has declined as power has evolved from the emir to the state politician. Comparing West and East, Myriem Naji finds the craft of weaving devalued in Morocco due to colonization, yet it has been revalorized in France as a respectable vocation.

Finally Frances Mascia-Lees's "American Beauty: The Middle Class Arts and Crafts Revival in the United States" reveals the culture of U.S. middle-class appreciation of Arts and Crafts. She characterizes it as an "intimate capitalism," rather than the kind of systemic challenge that William Morris originally advocated. Critical to this arrangement is an ongoing dialogue between the producer and consumer, about not only how the product is made but also how it is then used. [End Page 672]

Critical Craft provides rich material for understanding the global diversity of handmade production today. It demonstrates the worth of ethnography in critically assessing common beliefs about craft. Yet it does not quite manage to live up to its subtitle, Technology, Globalization and Capitalism. The technology content is relatively slight, involving a study of sensor enthusiasts. And there is little theoretical framework for understanding the broader issues at play, such as developmentalism. For that, volumes such as Glenn Adamson's The Invention of Craft offer useful contexts. The broader philosophical analysis of the craft/design hierarchy is yet to be fully developed, but hopefully Critical Craft will prompt much further thought.

Kevin Murray
RMIT University, School of Art

Works Cited

Yen Yuehping. Caligraphy and Power in Contemporary Chinese Society, (London: Routledge Curzon, 2005), 46.


Additional Information

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pp. 671-673
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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