Value Judgement – Shifting Sands of Value in the Crafts

Does diminishing support for the crafts in education reflect a wider lack of interest from the wider public? Do we need to re-think how we conceive and value craft objects in the age of computer controlled production techniques?

The crafts, it appears, have seen better days. Educational institutions are struggling to recruit to craft courses or find funding to support them. Students, concerned about impending hefty overdrafts look towards subjects with more obviously lucrative income streams. Craft’s anarchic brother art, and sell-out sister design appear to be grabbing all the headlines and have incestuously merged to form Design-Art which threatens to steal the gallery limelight.

Certain craft subjects appear genuinely endangered. Ceramics in particular has seen closures over the last year, on top of earlier ones, and it is clear that those remaining in this ever-diminishing disciplinary community need to band together to ensure that the importance and value of craft is understood at the highest (read: government) levels. We need not only to protect subjects but to enable them to flourish once more. Yet the nagging chicken-and-egg question remains unanswered: does lack of support from government and the education sector reflect a wider lack of interest from the public?

Have we, as a society, turned our back on the broader notion of craftsmanship? Perhaps it is time to attempt a re-assessment of the values that craft offers, not least because these constantly shift.

Within sociology, value held or exchanged by individuals or groups is referred to as ‘capital’. The scattered range of opinions about what we place value in agglomerate to form what the late sociologist Pierre Bordieu (in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, 1984) called ‘fields of capital’. Objects within these fields are attributed ‘symbolic capital’ by those collectors and critics able to describe and justify their reasons for championing them. Bordieu argued that such fields had boundaries marking where appreciation of their value ends. Hence an object sought after in a newly recognised field, may have little value in a traditional one. Craft of course has always had its traditionalists and modernizers but there are today more of these fields than ever springing up as practitioners break new ground. Each new field challenges the makers and consumers of craft to consider what it is about the object they consider significant. Like every other consumed item, the craft object becomes the currency through which we give aesthetic expression to our aspirations.

Commonly invoked in the teaching of craft theory is David Pye’s distinction between craft as ‘the workmanship of risk’ and production as ‘the workmanship of certainty’ described in The Nature and Art of Workmanship (1968). In Meanings of Modern Design (1990), Peter Dormer dissects Pye’s theories in a chapter called Valuing the Handmade. Of studio craft Dormer tells us, “What we admire is the delivery of beauty in the teeth of risk. At the heart of the workmanship of risk is the thrill of avoiding failure”. Illuminating though this is, it narrows the remit of craft activity to that which contains risk. One is being nudged towards the conclusion that the greater the risk, the higher the value of the outcome, yet this is not always the case.

A few years ago when teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University on the Three-Dimensional Design course I was shown two films of potters at work. The first, available on YouTube (see below) is of Isaac Button, the last English Country Potter to work at the Soil Hill Pottery near Halifax. Made around 1963-64 it shows Button working at his wheel with incredible speed and skill; a one-man ceramics factory, with row upon row of ‘product’ behind him. A caption flashes up claiming Button was capable of throwing a ton of clay in a day. The other film, made by an MMU colleague, showed the contemporary potter Jim Malone at work in his studio in the late 90s. Same material, same process, same trace of the maker’s finger marks on every piece. Yet Malone took vastly longer to make each one, his movements laboured by comparison. To my untrained eye – I studied industrial design – there was little difference in the end result. And though I could see Malone’s work was more refined, if anything Button’s had more charm. It certainly displayed a far greater vanquishing of risk.

Malone’s pots sell for £100 upwards and although some of Button’s now appear to have reached comparable figures, when first sold they would have done so at a fraction of Malone’s current prices. Context is of course, everything. In 1963-4 Button was one of the few remaining examples in this country of someone practicing a craft activity as a working-class trade. Malone on the other hand, like his contemporaries as well as such forbears as Michael Cardew and Bernard Leech- were and are working from a more privileged position. “Today,” Dormer tells us, “craft is produced out of a middle class choice, as an expression of free will for an audience that has sufficient money – and perception – to afford useless objects of contemplation”. And though “useless” sounds pejorative, as if Dormer is denying the spiritual as well as the practical “use” of the craft object, he is far from blind to its virtues. The book makes a frank and dispassionate analysis of the context of objects bought primarily for aesthetic reasons, and of those intended to serve utilitarian purposes.

One problem with risk or certainty as descriptors of workmanship is that such discussions can imply the worlds of studio-craft and industrial production never meet. The reality is somewhat different. In my own experience working with British pewters Wentworths, factories such as theirs rely upon a team of highly skilled craftsmen who engage in the workmanship of risk on a daily basis. Similarly, the work of Finnish glassmakers Iittala (Fig. 1), recently on show at Chelsea College of Art, reveals that an industrial scale operation does not exclude the making of pieces that rely upon individual skill.

Fig. 1 Pieces from Iittala's Artworks collection by Harri Koskinen

Naturally, the workmanship of certainty – the application of jigs, moulds and tools to ensure an identical result, to reduce the risk of failure – is associated with industrial production. Yet a significant volume of today’s craft objects are the result of the (skilful) use of such methods. By contrast, at the experimental end of factory production, designers are exploring ways of contriving uniqueness in serial runs of products while maintaining the efficiency of the process. Manufactured by Edra, Peter Traag’s Sponge chair (fig. 2) is made by injecting polyurethane foam into a mould containing a loose fabric cover larger than the mould itself. As the mould is filled, the fabric creases up, leaving a unique pattern of folds covering the finished chair. For the project Breeding Tables (fig. 3), Reed Kram and Clemens Weishaar used a computer algorithm to generate an infinite number of different table base geometries. Though Kram and Weishaar selected which would be fabricated in sheet steel, responsibility for the design of each had been devolved to the computer. While these objects do not display the hand skill of the craftsman, they at least illustrate that designers are looking to such craft attributes as uniqueness for ways of endearing their wares to customers.

Fig. 2 Sponge Chair by Peter Traag for Edra

Fig, 3 Breeding Table by Kram Weishaar

What’s more, the calculation of craft values has recently had to confront a new phenomenon. Just as industrial production methods superseded craft techniques in the making of the price-competitive objects of trade, the new computer-controlled technologies of mass manufacture are now invading that last outpost of the hand-made – the craftsperson’s studio.

Craftspeople are using such equipment to mimic handwork or to explore new aesthetics. Researching this at the sharp end are members of the Autonomatic group at Falmouth University. Far from diminishing the value of the craft object, the group uses the newly available technologies to explore its full potential. They question the established “boundaries between craft and industrial production” and aim to “raise the profile of making in 21st century design culture.” Autonomatic’s Tavs Jorgensen has used an animator’s motion capture glove to translate physical movements into three-dimensional modelling data that will be outputted as objects; a CNC milled bench with a rippled surface in which fingers have plotted virtual troughs; a tea towel that has a 2D drawing printed on it made from a 3D scan of a teacup being dried. The applications of these processes create poetic results and challenge the status of the sacred ‘hand of the maker’.

Fig. 4 Motion Capture Glove

Fig. 5 Drying In Motion by Tavs Jorgensen

This challenge is perhaps timely. While some will deplore the thought of the hand being connected only remotely to the work, art and design have long accepted it and gone further. For a long time the idea has had primacy over the hand in determining the overall value of a work of art or design. Many of today’s famous artists employ craftspeople to make their work; yet despite the skill involved, there is no expectation that the craftsperson should be credited alongside the artist. In much contemporary art, the making skill is taken as read. It needn’t be there, but when it is, it is expected to be perfect.

This reveals a worrying schism; the touch of the hand of the maker exulted in many areas of the crafts, yet now considered insignificant in neighbouring fields, where once it was seen as essential. It implies that craft is lagging behind in the diversity of its intellectual development. As art grew away from figuration – via various forms of abstraction and conceptualism – design emerged from the industrial revolution with missionary purpose, realised its error and turned agnostic. The result has been a healthy pluralism of approaches within art and design from which its objects materialize. The very nature of craft activity has kept its journey more sedate, less turbulent. Yet concept and narrative do now play a greater role in the creation of value in craft works. Pieces with a story that speak to more a revealed process of production are ascribed greater worth.

The shift of focus away from craftsmanship for its own sake could be read as a reflection of a broader trend in society. As Britain has moved from having a rich manufacturing culture to a service based economy, fewer and fewer earning adults place their hands on anything other than a computer keyboard. As screen based entertainment proliferates, fewer children grow up regularly making things outside school. And so the academies have seen a decline in appropriate ability among those starting craft-based courses. Skills have disappeared all around as new technologies change the rules of engagement. On-line social networking, texting and e-mailing have diminished the art of writing; finesse sacrificed for the speedy exchange of raw information. The craft of television programme making has, in many instances, been reduced to a set of tick-box formulae. Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman highlights that in many areas of life, prioritising quality for its own sake and for the enjoyment of others – the craftsmanship of a job well done – has been left behind in favour of instant gratification and artless pragmatism. If, as a society, we are losing the appreciation for craftsmanship, and with it, its skills and support for it, it is craftspeople that must be at the forefront of the resistance.

The Isaac Buttons of their day made products relevant to their time – if they didn’t, they would go out of business. The Shanahan brothers, traditional basket makers from Carrick-on-Suir, Ireland, (as featured in David Shaw-Smith’s acclaimed documentary series ‘Hands’ 1978) describe how they have gone from making eel traps through various domestic containers to large scale bespoke baskets for hot air balloons, to keep pace with contemporary uses for their skill. Keeping alive the techniques of yesterday in the forms of yesterday is a common pursuit in the crafts, but one primarily suited to demonstrations in museums and heritage theme parks. Yet many practitioners recognise that the act of making craft today has to have a relevance to the culture of today; whether this be the exploration of contemporary materials and techniques or the application of traditional ones to forms that accord with how we now live. The crafts need not be driven by market forces, but these at lease offer a barometer for the public’s prevailing interests. Craftwork can either follow these preferences or oppose them; it they should not ignore them.

Only a very few can prosper as the latest young incarnation of the master craftsmen of the past. My feeling is that too many practitioners in charge of (endangered) craft courses continue to herd students towards this goal, away from fresh thinking, imagination and experimentation. Sadly, the courses producing some of the most cutting-edge work are among those that have been closed. If the crafts are to gain broader support, students must become practiced in channelling the zeitgeist into products that truly reflect our time and not graduate into a branch of the heritage industry. And those in a position to fight on craft’s behalf in the corridors of power must be made aware of, and indeed be prepared to champion, its relevance.

Published in the November/December 2009 edition of Crafts Magazine.


About this entry