In his 2003 article “The Long Shadow of William Morris,” Edward S. Cooke Jr. argued that “American scholars of twentieth-century material culture remain mired in the celebration of either individual craftspeople or designers and emphasize historical narrative at the expense of critical analysis or interpretation.” Cooke ascribed this limited view, in part, to the influence of the arts and crafts movement advocate William Morris, whose emphasis on individualism discouraged an understanding of craft’s true social and economic role.
In the years since Cooke’s article, a new generation of scholars has begun to construct an alternative map of modern craft—one in which the idealistic figure of the solitary studio craftsman has been displaced from the center, making way for a multidimensional account of skills at work in myriad kinds of situations. Building on these new approaches, this symposium looks at some of the questions that remain. One of these is the proper understanding of what Cooke called “historical narrative” in the analysis of modern craft. Should we resist conceptions of tradition as inherently vague and mystifying? Or does tradition still have an important role to play, as an anchor and binding agent? How should we understand the phenomenon of knowledge transmission, once guild-based apprenticeships began to decline drastically in the nineteenth century? Most generally, what role does the past play in contemporary making?