Curator, writer and historian, working across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art.


Craft and the Allegorical Impulse

From the book Material Perceptions (Arnoldsche, 2018), edited by Knut Astrup Bull and Andrè Gali.

Cover image: Mary Queen of Scots, cross-stitch, 1570. The image is taken from the 1560 edition of Conrad Gesner's Icones Animalium.  V&A collection.

Author’s Note

I had originally intended, when writing Thinking Through Craft (2007), to include a chapter on Allegory. The book addressed craft’s marginalization within modernity, particularly in relation to fine art. My central argument was that Modern art defined itself, in part, through its dissociation from craft. I had arrived at this position through reading the work of postcolonial and feminist theorists. Much as study of the ethnographic Other has served to reinforce Eurocentric views of normalcy, or the feminine has been described negatively in such a way as to assert phallocentric authority, craft has been treated as a margin or ‘horizon’, incompatible with serious artwork. In developing this theme, I looked at a series of interrelated pairings – autonomous/supplemental, optical/material, institutional/pastoral, professional/amateur. Craft in each case is associated with the latter, unprivileged term. The book also has a fifth, central chapter on ‘skill’, the pivot around which the book was meant to turn, which marks the shift from the formal issues, addressed in the first two chapters, to issues of social context, taken up in the last two.

I had expected that the opposition between symbol and allegory would make another of these dialectical chapters. I didn’t quite manage that, though, and ended up shelving the research. Now, ten years on and thanks to the invitation of this volume’s editors, ‘later’ has arrived. So consider the following to be a long-delayed supplement to Thinking Through Craft – sort of like a DVD extra. My treatment of the theme of allegory is necessarily different from how I might have approached it in the 1990s, not least because of the tremendous shifts in craft practice, criticism and scholarship that have occurred since then. Understanding modern art’s power plays seems less urgent today, when there are so many ongoing questions about craft’s cultural and political efficacy; being able to theorize the enigmatic potency of craft, on its own terms, seems more important. Even so, I invite you to read this text as ‘unfinished business’ – which is, come to think of it, what the allegorical impulse is all about.

 In 1980 the American critic Craig Owens published an essay in two parts, entitled ‘The Allegorical Impulse: A Theory of Postmodernism’. His goal was to recuperate allegory as a renewed foundation for art practice. The essay was widely influential in the ensuing decade, so much so that today it might be considered a dead letter, a document that had its day and then became irrelevant. Yet, central to his argument was the notion of repeated return. Owens asserted that the allegorical mode had been inimical to Modernism, ‘proscribed territory’, ‘an aesthetic aberration, the antithesis of art’.[1] His intention was to reintroduce it, and at the same time, to reinvent it. Allegory was a particularly apt subject for such a maneuver, for as we will see, it can be understood metaphorically as a constantly renewable field of fragments, like an architectural ruin, ever ready for re-inhabitation. It is in this same spirit that we might profitably read Owens’ text. Though quintessentially of its time, it also has much to offer us today.

One of the curious features of twentieth-century writings about allegory is the way that they disguise wild flashes of creativity under thick layers of scholarly apparatus – think of the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, for example. Owens’ essay is no exception. In some passages, ‘The Allegorical Impulse’ comes across almost as a literature review: a lucid exposition of texts. At the centre of his account is Walter Benjamin’s book The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, 1927). But Owens’ overall goal is more provocative than mere historiography. He does not so much define his key term as deploy it, somewhat elliptically, and without committing to a single simple usage. Allegory, he writes, is ‘an attitude as well as a technique, a perception as well as a procedure’. That is pretty obscure, but then he continues: ‘Let us say for the moment that allegory occurs whenever one text is doubled by another.’ More precisely, it can be described as ‘a single metaphor introduced in continuous series’, which ‘superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events’. Allegory leaps across established disciplines and categories: ‘the allegorical work is synthetic, it crosses aesthetic boundaries’. Emotionally, it is an elegiac mode, ‘consistently attracted to the fragmentary, the imperfect, the incomplete’.[2]

Following this somewhat elusive theoretical exposition, Owens proceeds to apply the concept of allegory to a range of artists working in a range of styles: appropriationists like Sherrie Levine and Robert Longo; Robert Rauschenberg, for his thickly encoded ‘combines’, which can be read like rebuses; artists who engage in serial composition, like Carl Andre and Hanne Darboven; and Laurie Anderson, she of the shifting, beguiling and multiple voices. Over the course of the two parts of the essay, it becomes clear that what binds together these varied artists is more a philosophical stance than a specific methodology. Owens positions the ‘allegorical impulse’ as the core principle of Postmodernism. For him, the mode involves reading and re-scripting rather than creating anew, piling up fragments rather than seeking an integrated whole, and conceiving of works as being in endless series rather than as cases of definitive, closed form.

Owens was paving new ground in applying the concept of allegory to visual art, instead of leaving it in its traditional domain, literature. But he was by no means the only theorist who sought to revive allegory as part of the Postmodern turn. He was part of a generation of Post-Structuralists who, as Joel Black has written, believed that ‘each reading of the “same” text, by different readers at different times, produces a different “object” which is never the same in any two readings’.[3] Critics inclined to be hostile to this sort of relativism attacked writers like Owens for ‘elevating unintelligibility of relationship into [a] central aesthetic principle’ – a typically impatient response to Postmodernist indeterminacy.[4] But such conservative views missed the sophistication of Owens’ essay. He was certainly innovative, in that he found in allegory a poetic basis for Postmodern expression, quite different from the more overtly political conceptions of the term by the likes of Jean-François Lyotard, Fredric Jameson and Jürgen Habermas. Nonetheless, Owens was operating within a tradition of profound thought. As we will see, even as he showed the implications of allegory for then-nascent Postmodernism, his text also offered routes back into the pre-modern tradition, and forward to our own post-Postmodern moment. It is therefore worth retrieving ‘The Allegorical Impulse’ for present-day use. In this essay, I propose to do this, retracing the intellectual lineage of allegory, while simultaneously trying to render the idea more accessible and concrete.

In doing so, I will shift emphasis away from the type of works that Owens considered – broadly speaking, conceptual artworks that are metonymic in their structure – and instead ground my discussion within the history and theory of craft. I am sure that Owens himself would have found this a surprising move, for not a single one of the artists he discussed was oriented towards skilled workmanship; nor indeed was Postmodern practice generally.[5] Yet a consideration of craft, that much neglected term in so much theory, does seem consistent with the expansionist and metaphorical approach that he brought to the topic; his goal was to avoid rigid binaries, and instead explore structures of layering and simultaneity.[6] It seems entirely suitable to consider craft within such a permissive intellectual context. As it happens, there are also stray observations in Owens’ text that indicate the specific suitability of allegorical thinking to arrive at a deeper understanding of crafted objects. Following these traces back into the literature, we can begin to take the measure of a powerful and untapped body of thought, which sheds its light (or perhaps it would be better to say, casts its shadow) on artisanal practice.


Allegory and symbol

In an effort to establish firmer purchase on the term allegory, it is helpful first to contrast it to the term to which it is most frequently contrasted: symbol. The terminology here is slippery; authors vary in their handling of this important dichotomy, with Angus Fletcher, whom I will discuss at some length below, describing allegory as a ‘symbolic mode’. And in any case, the whole point of allegory is to avoid stark dialectical thinking, so we should understand the relation here as one of difference rather than actual opposition. The basic distinction, however, is as follows. A ‘symbol’ is a unitary sign. It may stand in for a divine entity – as a cross stands for Christ, for example – though it can also be secular, as with a dove that represents peace. The crucial point is that a symbol stands in a one-to-one metaphorical relationship with its referent. Classically, the symbol has been understood to possess qualities of clarity, brevity, grace, radiance and beauty.

Allegory can be briefly defined, in contrast, as ‘continuous metaphor’. If a symbol has a unified and potentially transcendent character, then allegory is an open-ended, often narrative mode, in which multiple images or emblems correlate to an external referent, which is itself multiple and complex. As Walter Benjamin beautifully put it, ‘allegory provides the dark background against which the bright world of the symbol might stand out’.[7] It is by nature multivalent, offering numerous anchor-points that bind together two or more layers of meaning. To quote the literary theorist William Empson: ‘The effect of allegory is to keep the two levels of being very distinct in your mind, though they interpenetrate each other in so many details.’[8]

Allegory dates back to ancient times, to texts such as Plato’s Republic, with its famous parable of the cave. Well-known modern instances include Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Albert Camus’ The Plague, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, all of which employ fable-like stories that echo contemporary political and social situations. A good contemporary example is the stage musical Hamilton, which retells the biography of one of the founding fathers of the USA in such a way as to hold a mirror up to twenty-first-century, multicultural America. It is also worth noting that texts can also be read allegorically, that is, subjected to retrospective metaphorical readings, as when stories from the Old Testament are interpreted as prefigurations of the life of Christ.

While the opposition between symbol and allegory has its roots in Classical rhetoric, it was only in the Romantic era that it was codified, mainly in order to assert the precedence of the former. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle, two prominent contributors to this development, seized on the symbol for its unity of form and content, the material and the metaphysical. They argued that symbols were the ideal (perhaps the only) means through which artistic imagination could body itself forth. Both men explicitly contrasted such ‘true works of art’ with allegories, which Carlyle dismissed as offering nothing but ‘the Daub of Artifice’.[9] As Bainard Cowan has written, from this point onwards, allegory ‘came to be seen as mere convention, inauthentic, not grounded in experience, cut off from being and concerned only with manipulating its repertoire of signs’.[10] This Romantic-era judgment cascaded down to the twentieth century, with the poet W. B. Yeats, for example, writing:

A symbol is indeed the only possible expression of some invisible essence, a transparent lamp about a spiritual flame; while allegory is one of many possible representations of an embodied thing, and belongs to fancy and not to imagination.[11]

Although discourse about allegory and symbol occurred mainly in literary criticism, one can also apply the distinction to visual art. Owens noted, for example, that the opposition between allegory and symbol is well captured in the difference between history painting and modernist abstraction. Artists like Jacques-Louis David created ‘machines’ with complex narratives corresponding to contemporaneous concerns; a Modernist like Mondrian or Rothko painted images possessed of unity and depth, connoting only aesthetic and spiritual resolution. An allegory does not even try to offer what a Mondrian or Rothko is meant to provide: a moment of escape, self-sufficient and autonomous. In a symbolic artwork, the very physicality of the artwork may seem to recede, allowing for a moment of heightened response. By contrast, allegory remains resolutely grounded in the material. Its characteristic motion is not a pathway up, but a lateral movement across the interwoven realm of signification. This is the reason that allegory became ‘proscribed territory’ within Modernism, and conversely, why Owens adopted it as the foundation for his new theory of Postmodernism. He saw the allegorical mode as a way to deny the false promise of ‘pure presence’, and to re-engage art with the social sphere.[12]

The opposition between symbol and allegory also helps us understand the phenomenon of craft’s inferiority within Modernist discourse. As I argued in Thinking Through Craft, Modernism was premised on principles of autonomy and optical clarity, principles that were rooted in the Romantic conception of artistic genius.[13] Within such a worldview, craft’s supplemental status (that is, its supporting and self-effacing role) and its assertive materiality relegate it to a position outside the pure symbolic order. Yet this relegation was itself contradictory, involving a blindness to the Modernist artwork’s physical dependencies on skill, technical traditions and materiality. It seems clear that craft has found a less problematic position within the interdisciplinary and layered condition of Postmodernism. But does this mean that craft is inherently allegorical? That is a more complicated question.

Ornament and rhetoric

We might begin by looking at a concept closely related (but certainly not identical) to craft: ornament. This is a term that recurs throughout discussions on allegory, though to my knowledge, no other recent author has isolated it for special attention. In his essay on the allegorical impulse, Owens emphasized that the mode’s ‘meta-textual’ character is the primary reason for its low reputation and analogized this to the role of ornament: ‘Allegory is attacked as interpretation merely appended post facto to a work, a rhetorical ornament or flourish.’ Allegory cannot stand on its own, nor does it restore the lost meaning of a text intact. Rather, it is supplemental, in the sense that its metaphor is arbitrarily added, a supervening layer.[14] It is not an autonomous form, but rather something akin to decoration.

Here as elsewhere, our critic was closely following Walter Benjamin’s Origin of German Tragic Drama, which looms, a melancholic monument, over Owens’ essay. To understand the genesis of the ‘allegorical impulse’, it is essential to engage with this famously difficult text – Benjamin’s first book, which was submitted (unsuccessfully) as his habilitation dissertation in 1925, then published two years later to little fanfare, nearly lost, and rediscovered only years after the author’s death. The text became widely available to a German readership only in 1955, as part of an edited selection of Benjamin’s writings; the English translation appeared in 1977, just in time for Owens to discover it.

Benjamin’s project was, on one level, straightforwardly historical, an academic exercise. The brief he set himself was to construct an account of Baroque stage tragedies (Trauerspiels, literally ‘sorrow plays’). Previous scholarship had not been kind to these seventeenth-century allegorical texts, which are prolix and convoluted, densely crowded precessions of classical and religious allusions, devoid of psychological character development or pleasing narrative shape. In a word, they are boring. Undeterred, Benjamin – who would later pen the famous line, ‘boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience’ – set himself the task of retrieving these seemingly remote texts for intellectual history.[15] Rejecting the Romantic rejection, he attributed to them a potentially redemptive significance.

It was here that Benjamin diverged dramatically from expectation, in ways that his university superiors found incomprehensible. Much as Owens would later use Benjamin’s text to his own Postmodernist ends, Benjamin projected on to the historical dramas his own tragic worldview. From the outset, he conceded the decadent nature of the Baroque, ‘not so much an age of genuine artistic achievement as an age possessed of an unremitting artistic will’. He also recognized the fundamental arbitrariness of these allegorical texts, in which ‘any person, any object, any relationship can mean absolutely anything else’.[16] Yet – and this will not surprise anyone familiar with Benjamin’s unfinished, digressive lifework The Arcades Project – he glimpsed in the arbitrariness of allegory a means of continuously confronting the chasm between reality and representation.[17] The potentially infinite succession of metaphorical emblems in allegory, so many pieces of a puzzle that refuse to cohere, were for him an apt reflection of lived experience, which is transitory, often enigmatic, and ultimately of course, leads only to death.[18]

For him, the reassuring wholeness of symbol, its promise of an ironclad meaning bound up in a single resplendent sign, could only be a lie. Allegory was a much truer reflection of the state of affairs. Its ever-accumulating series of signs could bear the weight of actual culture, even if in the aggregate, they could not be taken to ‘mean’ anything, except for the fact of impermanence itself. As he so often would in his later writings, Benjamin reached for a craft metaphor to convey this idea: ‘The value of fragments of thought is all the greater the less direct their relationship to the underlying idea, and the brilliance of the representation depends as much on this value as the brilliance of the mosaic does on the quality of the glass paste.’[19]

In passages like these, Benjamin’s allusions to ornament are highly suggestive for our purposes. He painstakingly traced the development of Baroque emblems, tracking their origins in classical texts about rhetoric, via Renaissance iconological guides, through to the ‘richness of extravagance’ that so defined the period stylistically: gaudy decoration, twisting columns and triumphal arches, commemorative medallions and coins and elaborate heraldic devices. He wrote, too, of the ‘subtle theoretical recipes’ of alchemists, suggesting that their hermetic knowledge exemplified the Baroque conception of genius: ‘The man of genius, the master of the ars inveniendi [arts of invention], is that of a man who could manipulate models with sovereign skill.’[20]

Benjamin knew well that the Baroque’s ornamental embellishment and illusionistic virtuosity might seem to ring hollow, but for him, the endless accumulation of details bespoke the desire for meaning more than any direct assertion of meaning could. The critic Michael Taussig summarizes it beautifully: ‘Allegory reminds us that by necessity reality skids away from logic, and it is this gap, this apparent imperfection, that nourishes the sacred as the desire for and the impossibility of the union between truth and meaning.’[21] In discussing this ‘gap’, Benjamin once more fielded an artisanal analogy, which, as he must have seen, applied just as well to his own work as to any seventeenth-century author:

The writer must not conceal the fact that his activity is one of arranging, since it was not so much the mere whole as its obviously constructed quality that was the principal impression which was aimed at. Hence the display of the craftsmanship, which (…) shows through like the masonry in a building whose rendering has broken away.[22]

It is here that we really arrive at the nexus of allegory and craft. It would not be quite right to say that craft is inherently allegorical. Rather, we might put it like this: it is through craft that allegorical structures are made. (Here I am using the term ‘craft’ in its least complicated sense, just as skilled work, without the artistic or ideological implications it is often made to carry.) Ornament provides a paradigmatic case: without technique, it is impossible to create the emblematic density that allegory requires. Furthermore, while a symbolic text tends to presume the transcendence (and hence, the denial) of its own facture, the underlying procedures of an allegorical text are always evident. As Benjamin puts it, the structure of the masonry shows through. (This is why Carlyle dismissed it as exhibiting ‘the Daub of Artifice’.) This aspect of allegory also has a temporal dimension. If a symbolic form possesses immediacy and can be considered complete once it is realized, an allegorical text is durational. It unfolds over time, potentially without end. As it does so, it continually draws attention to the procedures that give it form. And so, right alongside Owens’ examples of appropriation, collage and seriality, we should set craft processes – not because they are inherently allegorical in themselves, but because they are perfectly suited to allegory’s conventionalized and elaborate nature.

We can further explore the question of allegory’s relation to craft with the help of two[GA2]  further theoretical texts. The first is Allegory: Theory of a Symbolic Mode (1964), by the literary critic Angus Fletcher. Though writing independently of Benjamin, Fletcher comes to a similar set of conclusions about the ornamental logic of allegory. Of particular interest is his extended passage on kosmos, a Greek term meaning roughly ‘orderly arrangement’, which Fletcher places at the centre of his analysis. For him, the doubled structure of allegory necessarily implies a relationship between multiple scales. An allegorical text is a microcosm, which captures a larger reality (macrocosm) in a condensed, emblematic manner. Thus for example, George Orwell’s Animal Farm captures, in simple storybook form, the fateful politics of the Soviet revolution and ensuing regime; similarly, in The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood imagines a dystopian future that encapsulates present gender relations in exaggerated form.

Building on this observation, Fletcher makes the excellent point, not particularly emphasized by Benjamin, that allegory is often employed to assert authority. Its ‘cosmic’ (ordering) role is to establish an overall hierarchical structure through the amassing of innumerable details. Pointing to the examples of Baroque churches, medieval banners and coats of arms – which of course were achieved through the crafts of stonework, sewing and armoury – he notes that such allegorical constructs have the primary function of asserting rank within a system. This is essentially a conservative purpose, which cannot work without a well-established and widely understood visual code. ‘The old saws of religion and morality need far more than mere illustration to bring them to life’, he writes. ‘They need their own proper ornaments, the signs that go with them systematically, as the vestments of the priest go with the Mass, or the insignia of his uniform go with the military dictator or five-star general.’[23]

Fletcher also raises a related point that has to do with the emotional pitch of allegory. The Romantics (and following them, the Modernists) believed that only an imaginative and expressive symbol could stir profound feeling. Fletcher disputes this: ‘Nothing could be more likely to arouse intense emotional response than the status symbol.’[24] For all that an allegorical system may seem tedious from an external point of view – its encoded references, heraldic signs, or repetitive allusions to Classical mythology – for those operating within an allegorical system, it can be highly affective. This in turn helps to explain its rhetorical power.

Fletcher’s commentary is useful in that it directs our attention to craft’s more normative aspects – its compatability with conventional and even authoritarian tendencies. Too often, modern proponents of craft have embraced it as a guarantor of individualism. Yet that presumption, put forward so forcefully in the writings of William Morris, is at variance with much of actual craft practice. Even the most cursory glance at decorative art history is enough to remind us that high levels of skill have often been employed, anonymously and repetitively, to assert the privileges of high status and to furnish the trappings of power. Craftsmanship is also often called into service in religious ceremonial contexts, where devotion to labour is meant to reflect spiritual devotion. Allegory certainly can be used satirically, as Orwell and Atwood show, but more often it serves to indicate straightforward allegiance: consider the use of feudal medieval banners (or for that matter contemporary protest banners, which employ similar visual tropes to contrary but equally ideological effect).[25] Fletcher’s discussion of embellishment within allegorical systems – the details that signify the macrocosm – helps us to see how craft can operate powerfully, in an entirely non-individualistic manner.

A final, more recent theoretical text that deserves attention here is ‘Riegl’s Mache’, by the art historian Christopher S. Wood. Published in the journal RES in 2004, it is a closely argued profile of the fin de siècle curator and historian Alois Riegl, focused particularly on his studies of ancient jewellery. While Wood does not focus as much on allegory as the other authors reviewed here, he does offer a novel interpretation of craft that is highly relevant to our discussion. In a pattern that should now be familiar (and which I am aware of replicating myself, here), Wood claims to be interpreting Riegl, while actually offering an innovative account of his own. He begins by reviewing the lowly status of jewellery within the discipline of art history, on account of its supplemental character: ‘Idealist aesthetics could be characterized as one long process of delegitimization of the raw appeal of metal and gem’, he writes. Jewellery could ‘never accede to the autonomy, self containedness, or self-sufficiency of the artwork (…) The wrought form collapses inward on itself and is not redeemed by a concept’.[26]

Despite his deep interest in decorative art, Wood says, Riegl took this supplementary, ‘unthinking’ status for granted. Yet, rather as Benjamin found a redemptive possibility in the repetitive metaphor of Baroque drama, Riegl saw an unexpected potency in jewellery’s actual making, its Mache (German for ‘fabrication’ or ‘artifice’, roughly equivalent to the Greek techne).[27] Building on Riegl’s book Late Roman Art Industry (Die spätrömische Kunst-Industrie, 1901), as well as Angus Fletcher’s conception of ornament as allegorical and intrinsically hierarchical, Wood writes of jewellery as ‘establishing rank in a hierarchy that was analogically related to the cosmos’. Crucially though, he differs from Fletcher in locating the source of empathic potential in the act of fabrication. He sees jewellery as asserting its function through its essential materiality: its very ‘wroughtness’, as he puts it, ‘the spectacle of metal submitted to folding, bending, chiselling, puncturing, and scratching’.[28] Jewellery does not posit a viewer in the way that a painting or play does. It is not dependent on a separation from the everyday. Rather, it sits within the flow of materiality, simply attracting and intensifying our attention.[29]

Retracing the same historical progression that Benjamin and Owens identified, Wood goes on to argue that jewellery has been side-lined, not only because of its supplementarity, but also because it operates through what might be called a materialist metaphor:

The mind that prized the artifact as a talisman or a link to a higher sphere of the cosmos is figured as a phenomenon of the past. The modern mind then has the choice of whether to go back and seek authenticity in that origin, or to leave the origin safely behind. The modern relationship to the artifact is always presented as comparatively disengaged, abstract, and intellectualized. This is a virtually universal feature of the modern approach to object-quality (…) Art history assimilated at an early stage and has never really abandoned the ideal-historical schema of a primordial ‘tactile’ relationship to artifacts that through history is transformed into an intellectualized or spiritualized ‘optical’ relationship. I would say that the analysis of artifacts in art historical writing, whether it is framed as formalist or contextualist, always proceeds within this historicist transformatory schema.[30]

Wood here emphasizes the physicality of the allegorical ‘talisman’, and the gulf that has widened between art history as a discipline and the literal objects of its study. Also important in this passage is the fate of the originary past, which, he argues, is typically either fetishized by the historian, in the form of nostalgia, or held at a remove, where it can safely be subjected to study. The modern mind seeks to understand the past, but not to actually hold it close.

This separation from the past is exactly the distance that Benjamin was trying to cross. He argued that allegory is by its very nature a rearrangement of existing, often ancient material: ‘Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.’ He pictured his Baroque texts as layered and labyrinthine (this again stands in contrast to symbol, which typically presents itself as a flash of new insight). They did constitute a type of history, but ‘history as a petrified, primordial landscape’, which one might wander through in search of meaning, but never comprehend as a totality.[31] Benjamin sought precisely to establish a way of summoning the past in a manner that is not ‘disengaged, abstract, and intellectualized’, but infused with dramatic revelation – this is the famous ‘tiger’s leap’ (Tigersprung) that has become so associated with him.[32] Allegory, a premodern means of representing things that are emotionally charged, concrete and sensuous, provides a possible framework for the past to be redeemed.

Ruin and repetition

The history of modern craft suggests the difficulty of this goal. The choice that Wood delineates – either reconstruct the past in a spirit of nostalgia, or leave any sense of origin behind – well describes the tension inherent within craft movements, their tendencies toward revival on the one hand, and avant-garde exploration on the other. The path of allegory, as convoluted as it may be, offers a third way. This is not exactly a new idea; we should remember that John Ruskin, the first modern theorist to call for a return to the premodern, was a great lover of ruins, as of course was Benjamin.[33] It is easy to be critical of the nineteenth-century craft revivalists’ ambition to restore medieval patterns of life and work in ways that were frankly impossible (indeed, I myself have been critical of them on just this score).[34] Their efforts did often prompt shallow nostalgia.[35] Yet if we strip away narrow revivalism, we can see that their ambition to reconnect with the past without falsifying it, lies right at the heart of modern craft. In allegory, we see how this can be done: through forms of practice that are open-ended, repetitive and inconclusive. These forms of practice allude to premodern ways of making without trying literally to reproduce them; they avoid the easy gratifications of symbolism and instead embrace the complexity of ‘continuous metaphor’. They are assertively material, and yet contain cosmic implications.

These thoughts bring us back full circle to Craig Owens’ essay ‘The Allegorical Impulse’. For, as much as he was concerned with typically Postmodern artistic strategies, cerebral rather than artisanal in their methods, he was also animated by a desire for emotional connection, no less genuine than that of Ruskin or Morris. In subsequent years, it is worth pointing out, Owens would be one of the formative influences on artists engaged with ‘identity politics’, writing with particular passion on topics relating to gay selfhood and the impact of AIDS (from which he himself died in 1990).[36] Returning to his essay, therefore, it is no surprise to find a psychological intensity coursing under the surface of his erudition. The clue is in the title: he was concerned not just with allegory, but also with impulse. He saw that the structures employed by Hanne Darboven or Sol LeWitt, for example, were not only propositions about artistic ontology; they also could be read as expressions of ‘obsessional neurosis’. What principally attracted him to Benjamin’s theory, perhaps, was its emotional tenor, the possibility that yearning and melancholy could themselves be the basis of an operative technique. Hence Owens’ dramatic phrasing, in describing the promise of the allegory as its ‘capacity to rescue from historical oblivion that which threatens to disappear’, through ‘a conviction of the remoteness of the past, and a desire to redeem it for the present’.[37]

It has often been said that Walter Benjamin’s thought anticipated Postmodernism. The Origin of German Tragic Drama does seem eerily prescient of 1980s art and literature – even at the basic level of its writerly qualities, its myriad collaged quotations and sudden disjunctions. It is also clear that Benjamin’s retrieval of the Baroque offers routes back to premodern values which were, as Owens puts it, ‘foreclosed’ in a Modernist paradigm. What may be less obvious is that allegory, as Benjamin describes it, allows for a convergence of the pre-modern and the Postmodern. He bequeathed us a way to think through issues of historical return: how to avoid the traps of nostalgia or the fetishization of the new, to understand the past as past while still finding a way to make it present.

For those of us who have an interest in craft, the discourse I have charted here suggests a set of principles for approaching what Wood calls the ‘wroughtness’ of artefacts. Yielding to the allegorical impulse means abandoning ‘disengaged, abstract, and intellectualized’ approaches. It means valuing the intricate involutions of crafted things, not unpicking them through analysis. It means that we should not equate craft to individualism, or attempt to elevate it to the status of art, as a symbolic order might imply; but instead recognize it as a means of generating deeply inscribed, if often hierarchical, cultural arrangements. And it means recognizing the emotional affect that is embedded in these same crafted artefacts, simply by virtue of their place in an ongoing chain of human association.

It may seem odd to have arrived at these primary insights through a series of abstruse theoretical writings. But, for all that they have been placed in opposition to one another over the years, theory and craft are actually ideal partners. Theory helps us adjust our intuitions, infusing them with a higher degree of intelligence; in craft, intelligence is grounded and (one might say) dispersed into the material domain. Just as it is always helpful to enlarge the meaning of objects through interpretation, ideas should be continually tested against the reality of practice. Thinking through craft, you see, is a two-way street.



[1] Craig Owens: ’The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’, part one, October 12 (Spring, 1980), 67-86: 67.

[2] Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse’, part one, 68, 72, 75, 70.

[3] Joel D. Black: ‘Allegory Unveiled’, in Poetics Today 4(1) (1983), 109-126: 112. Among Post-Structuralist literary critics, Paul de Man was particularly influential in implementing the concept of allegory as part of his radical destabilization of textual meaning. See Paul de Man: Allegories of Reading (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).

[4] James Applewhite: ‘Postmodern Allegory and the Denial of Nature’, The Kenyon Review 11(1) (Winter, 1989), 1-17: 5.

[5] On this point, see my essay ‘Substance Abuse: The Postmodern Surface’, in Surface Tensions, eds. Glenn Adamson and Victoria Kelley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).

[6] I am indebted on this point to my colleague Ulrich Lehmann, whom I thank for his constructive reading of this essay in manuscript.

[7] Walter Benjamin: The Origin of German Tragic Drama [Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels], trans. John Osborne (New York: Verso, 1988; orig. pub. 1928), 161.

[8] William Empson: Structure of Complex Words (London: Chatto and Windus, 1951), 347.

[9] Thomas Carlyle: Sartor Resartus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000; orig. pub. 1836), 2000.

[10] Bainard Cowan: 'Walter Benjamin's Theory of Allegory', New German Critique 22 (Winter, 1981), 109-122: 111.

[11] W.B. Yeats: ‘William Blake’s Illustrations to the Divine Comedy’ (1903), in Essays and Introductions (London: MacMillan, 1961), 116-45: 116. See Nicholas Halmi: ‘Coleridge on Allegory and Symbol’, in The Oxford Handbook of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Frederick Burwick (Oxford University Press, 2009), 345–58.

[12] Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse’, part one, 81.

[13] Glenn Adamson: Thinking Through Craft (Oxford: Berg/V&A Publishing, 2007).

[14] ‘If he adds [the allegorist] does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement. This is why allegory is condemned, but it is also the source of its theoretical significance.’ Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse’, part one, 69.

[15] Walter Benjamin: ‘The Storyteller’, 1936; reprinted in Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 2007), 96. See Peter Toohey: Boredom: A Lively History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011); Patricia Meyer Spacks: Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

[16] Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 54-55; 175.

[17] Helen Hills has memorably written that in Benjamin’s thinking, ‘Allegory betrays the appearance which it sets out to represent; but as that appearance was untrue, allegory opens up the possibility of gaining truth.’ Helen Hills: ‘The Baroque: The Grit in the Oyster of Art History’, in Rethinking the Baroque, ed. Hills (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), 23.

[18] See Cowan, ‘Walter Benjamin's Theory of Allegory’, 110.

[19] Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 29. On Benjamin’s use of craft as figurative material, see Esther Leslie: ‘Walter Benjamin: Traces of Craft’, Journal of Design History 11(1) (1998), 5-13. Leslie comments on Benjamin’s technique of montage, ‘using debris and rubbish, the broken pots and torn scraps, not the high, sublime reordering of harmony in a bloodless, hands-off aestheticism’. (p. 12)

[20] Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 178, 179.

[21] Michael Taussig: ‘What Color is the Sacred?’, Critical Inquiry 33(1) (Autumn 2006), 28-51: 40.

[22] Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 179.

[23] Angus Fletcher: Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1964),  120. See also p. 116, note 74.

[24] Fletcher, Allegory, 117. Some pages later, he picks up this theme: ‘There are innumerable cases and kinds of ornamental art which need to be analyzed for their double meaning, their “cosmic” meaning: Anglo-Saxon poetry, its imagery all “curiously inwrought”; the ornaments of baroque poetry, as well as baroque music and architecture; the rococo facades of churches; the mazy twirls and hidden dells of picturesque art and landscape gardening (…) all these and innumerable other instances of ornament could be shown to imply, within an emotively charged system of beliefs, a hierarchical system.’ (p. 126-8)

[25] See Glenn Adamson: ‘Anatomy of the Protest Banner’, Disegno (Sept/Oct 2017).

[26] Christopher S. Wood: ‘Riegl’s mache’, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 46 (Autumn, 2004), 154-172: 158, 155.

[27] It should be noted that there is also a direct historiographical connection here, as Benjamin is known to have read Riegl with interest. See Margaret Iversen: Alois Rigel: Art History and Theory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993).

[28] Wood, ‘Riegl’s mache’, 161.

[29] This conception of allegorical ornament again accords with Walter Benjamin’s: ‘It is common in the literature of the Baroque to pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal, and in the unremitting expectation of a miracle, to take the repetition of stereotypes for a process of intensification.’ Origin of German Tragic Drama, 178.

[30] Wood, ‘Riegl’s mache’, 163-4.

[31] Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama, 178, 166.

[32] Ulrich Lehmann: Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).

[33] Andrew Spurr has interpreted the dispute between Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc – the great preservationist and the great rebuilder of monuments – in relation to the distinction between symbol and allegory: ‘On one hand, the timeless unity of the object with its ideal essence; on the other hand, rupture, disunity, and the pathos evoked by the material remains of an irrecoverable past.' David Spurr: Architecture and Modern Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 158.

[34] Glenn Adamson: The Invention of Craft (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), ch. 4.

[35] See Edward S. Cooke, Jr.: ‘The Long Shadow of William Morris: Paradigmatic Problems of Twentieth-Century American Furniture’, in The Craft Reader, ed. Glenn Adamson (London: Bloomsbury, 2010).

[36] For his later writings, see Craig Owens: Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley: University California Press, 1994).

[37] Owens, ‘The Allegorical Impulse’, part one, 68. The italics here are mine.

WritingMarci LeBrun