The Effects of Modernity and Postmodernity on the Significance of Craft in the Process of Globalization

Craft, Handloom, Art, Cultural, Creative Industries, Innovation, Contemporization, Op-Ed

The Effects of Modernity and Postmodernity on the Significance of Craft in the Process of Globalization

McComb, Jessie F.


It was a beautiful, winter afternoon in Delhi, before the days of fog and chilled marble floors had set in. I had found myself once again visiting the dusty galleries and living exhibits at the Crafts Museum in Pragati Maidan. Outside, in the open-air craft demonstration ground, I struck up a conversation with a wood craftsman from Jaipur. We chatted about the expectant arrival of his first child, the experience of staying in Delhi for a month and, of course, the weather. Finally, I inquired about his crafts which varied from large Hindu gods and goddesses to small trinket items in the form of elephants, frogs and such. I was particularly struck by a series of Buddhas carved in what appeared, to my art historian eyes, to be a classic Chinese style. Devendra Raj, the craftsman in question, responded shyly that these were mostly for export, an order to be filled for the “international” market. He went on to say that he did not particularly enjoy making these items, but they sold well overseas and brought an income much needed for his soon expanding family. I walked away from the conversation with an unsettled feeling that the fate of crafts, both Indian and otherwise, was balanced ever so precariously on the scales of globalization.

In a world where new jargon arises in the wake of old key phrases, terms like modernity, post modernity and globalization seem to loose their meaning, their significance and their gravity. Old college friends casually talk about the disgraceful influx of western music and dress over a cup of coffee, newspaper articles discuss importation and Americanization with a fatalistic tone and television adds boast international products over domestic ones. Has the academic dialogue ceased to reach the masses, or have they just stopped caring about the fate of tradition in the face of globalization?

Many academics see the crafts sector as playing a crucial role in the halting, or at least the reduction of, the negative aspects of globalization. Academics and consumers alike view crafts as more than just objects. They are instead cultural items, imbedded with some meaningful experience or communication. With the trade of craft objects the implicit attributes of culture, both traditional and folk, should be carried within these culturally significant articles, whether it be a Shiva Nataraja, a piece of Rabari embroidery or a hand-carved, wooden Ganesha. Many view the export of “third world” crafts to the developed world as a means to expanding the beneficial reaches of what is now the one-sided affair of the globalized world.

To fully understand the true role crafts play in globalization, it is necessary to provide some background information on globalization itself. In its purist and unadulterated form, globalization would herald a new global system possible of shattering the boundaries constructed by colonialism, imperialism and racism. However, this is not the avenue globalization has taken. Instead of an equal exchange of cultural ideas, as well as consumer objects, globalization has lead to the mass consumption of western, and more specifically American, consumer goods and consumer culture. Non-western countries, receiving commercial objects from the west, have the opportunity to understand the capitalist-based and consumer-centered culture of America. But the same cannot be said for the majority of the products exported from India which appear in Euro-American markets. Nevertheless, it is craft that has been heralded as the exception to this rule.

But, as my experience at the Crafts Museum, and other similar encounters, has proven to me time and time again, crafts are not necessarily immune to strong, international market forces. True, culturally sensitive designers, working with well-informed and well-intentioned NGOs, try to sculpt the craft into a marketable form with less damaging and less drastic changes than in the case of Mr. Raj, but the motivation behind the influx of crafts into the global market is what I am mainly concerned about. If these crafts are being bought with intentions any less pure than the increase of cultural knowledge and understanding, then I fear that the beneficial aspects of having crafts in the global market will not out weight the damage done by designers, marketers and exporters.

In a society established in modernity, this exchange of international goods works within the boundaries of commercial success because items were judged/viewed on a universal aesthetic. As Kwame Anthony Appiah, a historian of African Art and Craft wrote, “For modernism, primitive art was to be judged by putatively universal aesthetic criteria, and by these standards it was finally found possible to value it.” In the age of modernism there was no need for a designer because these craft pieces were valued for an aesthetic quality which fit within the limits of the prescribed aesthetic discourse. There was also no transfer of cultural knowledge. These crafts – functional, cultural objects – were viewed more as Art – with a capital “A” with a non-functional purpose – than craft – with a lowercase “c” with a functional origin.

Moreover, in efforts to appease the global art market with objects that fit within this universal aesthetic appeal and the concept of art in terms of modernism – the non-functional, pure object – crafts threatened to become a mere imitation of their former selves. Nick Stevenson writes, in his article “Globalization and Cultural Political Economy,” that “the superficial culture of markets has also erased the notion of individual style [or in our case the notion of craft as evolutionary]. Since discursive heterogeneity has become the norm, modern culture [with its cultural products] is best represented as ‘blank parody’ or pastiche.” Fortunately, the age of modernism did not last forever.

In the wake of late capitalism consumers began to feel the weight of this cultural shift away from tradition, nature and the idea of “home-made.” They began to gravitate towards cultural items that promised more fulfillment than these mainly capitalist items. As Manjusha Nair, in her paper “Understanding the Practices of Indigenous Movements,” writes: “It is the nostalgia and the collective guilt of modernity, which articulates the indigenous peoples as the global subject. The collective conscience of a post industrial society that is critical of the dehumanizing tendencies of industrialization should refer to the primitive that has been trampled in the process of its evolution.” These people, on the cusp of postmodernity, became interested in the “marginalized,” “primitive” peoples of “developing” countries; they became interested and aware of the “Other” and their culture.

The reason for this rise in nostalgia for the past can be illuminated by Fredric Jameson’s critique of postmodern society in terms of what he calls the “schizophrenic” obsession of postmodern society with the present.

I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism. I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of that particular social system. I will only be able, however, to show this for one major theme: namely the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve.

I see this loss of history, and therefore the loss of the culture’s inherent traditions, as urging western postmodern societies to look for traditions in the present. In developing countries these traditions abound in the living and evolving folk and tribal communities that are still very much alive and generating. These communities, existing in their own form of the modern/postmodern world, can fulfill the western postmodernist’s longing for the past without his needing to recall or remember his/her own past, something Jameson labels as impossible within the postmodern context.

This shift towards consuming the culture of the “other” could also be manifest from the postmodernist’s need for individualism, both communication and interaction with the producer of their consumption, and cultural relativism. As John McLean writes:

However, insofar as globalization is a condition of late-modernity (Giddens, 1990;1991) then it is conceivable that post-modernism, in its artistic, architectural and literary terms, and as an assumed analytical posture, is both a strict causal consequence of globalization, and a causal element in its social reproduction. On this view, post-modernism can best be seen as one more example of a fundamentalist reassertion of tradition against globalization, in particular the reassertion of self, of identity, of choice, or more generally of bourgeois possessive individualism.

Ironically, this sought after communication and cultural relativism is never fulfilled in the purchase of these “handmade” crafts because of the distance – physically, technologically and economically – between the consumer and the craftsperson. The crafts are first designed by a western or western-educated Indian designer, marketed by an Indian NGO, a western company or some combination thereof, perhaps on the internet or in a glossy catalog picked up at say, The International Trade Fair or the The National Handicrafts Expo, and then finally presented to the international consumer through a glowing computer screen or a shinny magazine page. Any small “interaction” between customer and craftsman can be cornered as a testimonial on a web page or a signature on a terracotta icon (which holds issues of its own). And what is more, these western postmodern consumers are actually pushing the craftspeople, whom they so desperately seek individual communication with, into a more capitalist culture, which the postmodernist is trying to escape by purchasing culturally imbued objects, i.e. crafts. Not to mention the issues of authentication that these global exchanges, along with their design and market elements, raise.

I think that Geeta Kapur, the eminent Indian Art Historian, writer and critic, summarizes this dilemma well when she writes: “[Crafts and traditions] survive in their plurality by means that have a good deal to do with urbanism, innovation and a simultaneously closed and open identitarian politics of the postmodern age where the artefact has a new exchange value and prospers as a sign for reified communities in the globalized market.” And it is this position of crafts as a sign, a sign for desired communication, for an unremembered past or for the “other,” that I wish to highlight in this article. Crafts, once living, evolving and essentially functional, have come to signify something greater once they are introduced into the global, postmodern market and into the hands of the postmodern consumer. Those academics working in the crafts sector have their hands full with the giant task of documentation and preservation, but the significance of these objects on the global scale truly tells us, both the postmodernist and the postcolonialist, more about the workings of the postmodern market and the postmodernist’s relationship with living, traditional communities. And more importantly, what this examination can point to is what Appiah highlights as “the role postmodernism might play in the Third World.”

1 Kwame Anthony Appiah, from In My Father’s House, in The Nature of Art, ed. Thomas E. Wartenbrg, Orlando: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001, 311.

2 Nick Stevenson, “Globalization and Cultural Political Economy,” 91-113 in Globalization and its Critics: Perspectives from Political Economy. Ed. Randall Germain. Macmillan Press Ltd: London, 2000, 101.

3 Manjusha Nair, Understanding the Practices of Indigenous Movements: The Case of the Adivasis in India, New Jeresy: Rutgers, 2003, 19.

4 Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster, The New Press: New York, 1998, 143-4.

5 John McLean, “Philosophical Roots of Globalization and Philosophical Routes to Globalization,” 58-9 in Globalization and its Critics: Perspectives from Political Economy, Ed. Randall Germain, Macmillan Press Ltd: London, 2000, 3-66.

6 Kwame Anthony Appiah, from In My Father’s House #


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