Crafting Enlightenment: A Review—by Katie Scott

Crafting Enlightenment: Artisanal Histories and Transnational Networks, ed. by Lauren R. Cannady and Jennifer Ferng (Oxford: Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2021). 418 pp.; 76 ills. $100

This edited collection started life as a colloquium. The arrangement of the published papers (dedicated to the late and greatly missed eighteenth-century scholar, Mary D. Sheriff) into pairs, or dialogues, echoes the oral form in which the ideas and arguments were first expressed, as does the incorporation of critical responses to each of those five exchanges. The result is a tightly choreographed and dynamically discursive text which will check any tendency to read selectively, and instead compel those picking up the book to read on, beyond their original intentions. Consisting of a critical introduction, ten essays and five responses, this is a substantial collection which aims to make an important contribution to the historical understanding of material culture in the early modern world. In chronological scope, it reaches back to the mid-seventeenth century and forward to the mid-nineteenth century. Geographically, it extends from and beyond Europe, West to the Americas and East to Oceania via Asia. Under the category of craft, it gathers painting, sculpture, boiseries, furniture, porcelain, silverware, clockmaking, gardening, and woodwork, each variously embodied in “transnational objects,” which benefit from generous color illustration.

In “Assembling Artisanal Identities across Geographies,” editors Lauren Cannady and Jennifer Ferng introduce the reader to the book’s aims by defining its key critical terms, “artisan” and “Enlightenment.” They step nimbly around traditional debates about the respective roles of the old world’s guilds and academies in the history of technological progress, and about artisans and artists, “hands” and “minds,” in the history of the emergence of the modern art world in the West. They focus instead on “praxis,” that is, the dialectical synthesis of theory and practice embodied by those artists and artisans who orient their work and ideas towards the transformation of relations in society. In her essay, “Interregna: The Société des arts and the Scale of Time,” Cannady puts flesh on the concept in her account of the informal social networks that promoted freer, more open approaches to invention in France in the 1730s, notably in horology, invention germinated by patronage of the court and the church, institutions it served ultimately to modify in turn.

“Enlightenment” is likewise subjected to revisions, both geographical and temporal. It is decentered, first by narrating its history via connections and exchanges between European sites—e.g., Paris, London—and non-European ones—e.g., Puebla de los Ángeles in Mexico, Alexandria in Virginia—and by acknowledging other, non-European “modernities”—in Asia and Oceania. The temporal phenomenon of Enlightenment is similarly elastic. The book opens with Chandra Mukerji’s essay “Sovereign Sun King” which describes the art of Louis XIV’s artisans, not as propaganda, passively produced and reproduced, but rather as augur, arguing that the lavish decorations at Versailles articulated an artisanal presentiment of a future enlightened sovereign order. It concludes with Ferng’s essay on mining and “colonial bling” in 1880s and ’90s Australia, the miniature, silver, goldfields objets d’art providing a visually and intellectually satisfying contrast to the gigantic golden works at Versailles. But Ferng’s account of Enlightenment out of time, in the work of émigrés European silversmiths, has not the sunny utopianism attributed by Mukerji to Apollo’s artisans; it resembles, rather, Vulcan’s darker underworld, and was characterized by extractive toil, exploitation, and colonial violence. 

The essays that follow the introduction are generally case studies of objects, or types of objects, that variously and more and less nearly speak to the concerns outlined in Cannady and Ferng’s introduction. The five critical responses to the sub-themes generated by pairing the essays—for instance, artisanal formations of time (Richard Taws), and of place (Nancy Um)—are excellent, so much so indeed that they leave the reviewer with little to do. However, reading otherwise, across the sections and according to more traditional art-historical habits, by craft (furniture, gardens) or technique (painting, carpentry) is no less rewarding and adds food for further thought. Thus, Dennis Carr’s and Neil Kamil’s essays on furniture offer contrasting perspectives on the trade in technology and ordinary domestic objects across the Atlantic. While Carr’s top-down reading of a bespoke bureau-bookcase provides a fascinating analysis of the complex combinations of European and Indigenous forms and techniques used to create it for the descendants of conquistadors, Kamil approaches the ordinary, middle-market, William and Mary caned chair from the bottom-up, and gives voice to the Huguenots craftsmen who with no little pain and industry commodified chair-making for export to Britain’s colonies. Though the work of marquetry, lacquerwork, and caning contributes to their several interpretations, both authors read furniture semiotically for the meanings, positive or negative, these and other movable items had as signs in the political discourse on colonial property.

By contrast, Valérie Nègre’s essay on eighteenth-century French carpentry and Dorothy Ko’s on ceramics at Jingdezhen come closest of any in the collection to addressing questions of poesis as well as praxis, that is, of making as well as of doing. Nègre places us on the building site, and Ko puts us in the potter’s shed. However, the sources they respectively use to reconstruct work done in these places provide very different answers to the question of Crafting Enlightenment. Ko draws on the oral tradition of craft tales whose purpose was communication not of information but of craft wisdom, of the means to live craftily in a world increasingly dominated by profit margins and diminishing natural resources. Nègre, on the other hand, identifies the three-dimensional model as the vital, distinguishing resource of artisanal thinking on making, at once neither the tacit knowledge instilled unthinkingly by apprenticeship nor the theoretical knowledge learned by schooling. Both essays serve to reveal the power of artisanal skill to disturb, if not subvert, the hierarchical social relations upon which the “progress” of Enlightenment depended.  

Crafting Enlightenment is that rare thing, an exceptionally well-crafted compendium of current thinking on an historically important topic that enlightens the reader and leaves her wanting to learn more.

Katie Scott is Professor in the History of Art at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London, UK


Cite this note as:  Katie Scott, “Crafting Enlightenment: A Review,” Journal18 (June 2022), https://www.journal18.org/6389.

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