Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Craft: High/Low-Brow Conspiracy

Bill Caraher has proposed a new blog series on Archaeology and Craft. I have spent some of my summer fieldwork documenting craft collaboration in Greek vernacular architecture. Consider the beautiful iron pin here, inserted between two limestone blocks, and pinned into the wooden sash of the door invisible behind the wall. In this tiny construction detail, we have a masterful collaboration between a mason, a carpenter, and a metalworker, masters of three mutually exclusive material. At the same time, I have been looking at American archaeologists of the 1930s. Raised in an Arts-and-Crafts pedagogy, a circle of progressive archaeologists began a scientific inquiry on Greek vernacular crafts. The physical and historiographic research, two sides of the same quoin, bring craft into focus. So, I am excited to engage in the conversation over the craft of archaeology at two levels.

But I'm not ready yet. What I'd like to note instead is this weekend's conversation in the New York Times. A. O. Scott's "The Squeeze on the Middlebrow" relates class stratification to cultural taste. Inspired by Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the 21st Century," Scott considers Piketty's ramifications of class inequality in cultural production. One way by which the middle class has been squeezed out into a high and low class is by the eradication of the middlebrow. The notion of middlebrow as an American mid-century phenomenon was first articulated by Russell Lynes in "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow" (1949) and elaborated on by Dwight Macdonald in "Masscult and Midcult" (1960). In addition to Scott's essay, the New York Times book review invited two prominent thinkers Pankaj Mishra and Thomas Mallon to elaborate on Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow: Do These Kinds of Cultural Categories Mean Anything Anymore? This is a huge topic of discussion of course and it assumes a clear understanding of the unique character of cultural production in mid-century America.

The conversation reminded me that the CRAFT gets implicated into the cultural typology in that it is shared by the lowbrow (who produces it) and the highbrow (who worships it) as a mode of eradicating the middlebrow who gives it a much lower cultural value. In Lynes words, "The highbrows would like to eliminate the middlebrows and devise a society that would approximate an intellectual feudal system, in which the lowbrows do the work to create folk arts and the highbrows do the thinking and create fine arts." The passage also reminded me of Thorstein Veblen's similar analysis in his 1899 "Theory of the Leisure Class," where he considered the upper class's embrace of premodern habits, like candlelit dinners, to distinguish themselves from the middle class (who uses electricity at dinner).

This post is just an open question. The avant-garde of the early 20th century loved folk culture for its purity and preindustrial authenticity. Modern art began to look increasingly primitive and non-western, as a strategy to critique mass production. The study of craft contains an inevitable tension between the academy (which Veblen argues get a special entry into the upper class) and the lower class. In the late 19th century, theorists of the Arts and Crafts built on a model of socialist utopia that bypassed the middlebrow problem. Any investment in craft at some fundamental level is an act of resistance to mass production and capitalist exploitation. But at the same time, the discourse of craft hides a strange alliance between high and low. Not sure what to make of this paradox yet, if only to throw it in the conversation.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States