British Museum blog

What is the role and value of crafts today?

With Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman opening in two months, the British Museum has asked contributors from the craft world to share their thoughts on the importance of craft today.

First up is Teleri Lloyd-Jones, Assistant Editor of Crafts Magazine. There will also be a rescheduled live Twitter Q&A at 13.00 BST on Thursday 18 August 2011 – join the conversation using #craftdebate

£1 billion a year. That’s the simple answer, the total annual turnover of contemporary craftspeople in this country. Now that’s a big number, but of course craft is a lot more valuable than that.

Understanding how something is made, why it’s made that way, is more vital to modern life than ever. Craft is a language of material, provenance and making. It is learning the value of things. Sure, handmade, well-made things aren’t cheap but their value isn’t solely monetary. It’s political and social – to know how and where something came into being makes us more invested in it, so much so we become more responsible consumers. The handmade has unique aesthetic pleasures in itself but has also become intertwined with a whole bundle of different values, be they anti-consumerist, ‘localist’, green, or even just plain-old fashionable.

As soon as we widen our gaze beyond the shop or the gallery, we see craft appearing in the most unanticipated places. Take for example the recent trachea transplant, a world first. It was made possible not only by the dexterity of the hands of a surgeon but also the glass artist Matt Durran who made the mould on which to grow the transplant scaffold. Last year, an orthopaedic surgeon from the Royal Glamorgan Hospital placed his junior as a carpenter’s apprentice recognising the similarities in their practices: the tooling, teamworking and problem-solving. These skills are cross-disciplinary, neither art nor science, but always hard-won and always valuable.

So perhaps part of craft’s value is locked up in its confusion, the discussions to be had at its fuzzy edges. A surgeon may have similar needle-and-thread skills at their fingertips to a hobbyist and yet their contexts couldn’t be more different. We can all agree that a potter sat at a wheel has craft skills but what about a hairdresser, or a lab technician? In fact, is it possible to have a craftsperson who doesn’t use their hands at all to make things? Is burgeoning digital technology, like 3d printing, just another tool in the toolbox or is it a game-changer?

What a country makes is part of its fabric, its identity. Such importance has recently been recognised politically by the government’s launch of ‘Made by Britain’ a celebration of domestic manufacturing and ingenuity. And a quick flick back to George Osborne’s last budget and we can read about his ‘Britain held aloft by the march of the makers’. Even though the vast majority of our economy is not built on making things, still the cultural drive to make has intense political currency, it tugs at our heartstrings. What’s important here is nurturing and educating those who think with their hands, ensuring young people can discover their own talents and retain skills for a new generation.

As the skills and material knowledge central to craft continue to have great value it is the role itself that changes. Technologies advance at break-neck speeds and the public’s desire for authenticity grows making the role of the crafts crucial for modern life. Whether traditional or innovative, art or science, on show in a gallery window or hidden away in unexpected places, making has the power to deeply satisfy. And all it needs from us is a little patience and appreciation.

Teleri Lloyd-Jones, Assistant Editor of Crafts Magazine. Crafts is an editorially independent bi-monthly magazine published by the Crafts Council, the national development agency for contemporary craft in the UK.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

10 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Hannahb says:

    I am an occasional crafter, with friends who are ‘fine artists’ and I admit that I am sometimes guilty of seeing craft as something done for purely aesthetic reasons ‘because it looks pretty’ with little thought behind it (ie making a dress or toy) whilst the work of a fine artist is often portrayed as being far more intellectual, thought provoking, political, boundary pushing. I know that there are crafters smashing this perception (Grayson Perry being one!), but i think there exists a certain snobbery about craft sometimes? Maybe there isnt anything wrong with making things just because they’re pretty!

    But I loved this bit, and strongly agree
    “Understanding how something is made, why it’s made that way, is more vital to modern life than ever. Craft is a language of material, provenance and making. It is learning the value of things. Sure, handmade, well-made things aren’t cheap but their value isn’t solely monetary. It’s political and social – to know how and where something came into being makes us more invested in it, so much so we become more responsible consumers.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anne Westland says:

    I have a huge issue with “craft” as a concept. It hinges on the question of “When does making things become craft?” In this country we are so fixated on skills that we have perhaps blurred the difference to such and extent that skills may be valued but craft is sometimes a dirty word and because of this a craft item will inevitably be undervalued. As a child I was dragged round many “Craft Fairs” and listened to my parent’s disparaging remarks that it may look lovely but it is overpriced! It is only as my own tastes and abilities developed that I have come to gaze with utter amazement at the sheer beauty of crafted objects. I no longer look at the display of items, often the result of hours of effort, with anything other than admiration but I know that my view is perhaps less common. I covet the objects knowing that my own skills could never produce these wonderful items.
    So to return to the original idea of the role of craft today I would say that we are very lucky to have skilled people whose hearts very definitely rule their heads and it is through their efforts that we have the opportunity to be challenged by their visions. One day perhaps I will return to my brushes and create my own masterpieces, until then I will gaze with awe and wonder.

    Like

  3. Jay says:

    The other day my partner asked me “What is the difference between art and craft?” I have to admit that I didn’t know! It seems to me that “art” carries with it a set of values aesthetic, intellectual and political which are applied to a finished product. Craft, on the other hand, has more to do with ability, manual dexterity, the acquisition of skills and the refining of those skills. That being said, the question then becomes is the finished product made by a craftsman a work of art? As a potter, I would say that I want my work to be used and useful but I also want it to be aesthetically pleasing and have value to the person using it. So it would seem to me the answer is both.

    Like

    • huaracheblog says:

      “He who works with his hands is a laborer.
      He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
      He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” – Saint Francis of Assisi

      Like

  4. Craft has been important in philosophy since the beginning. Plato, of course, has a fine discussion, and Aristotle talks of Practice. More relevant in our modern era is Alasdair MacIntyre, and I would recommend any craftsperson or any concerned about crafts to read his work, especially chapter 14-18 of his book After Virtue

    Like

  5. As an Occupational Therapist, I see creativity all round me, it is in a way of thinking as well as actually doing. This way of thinking has been somewhat out of vogue for a while, it hasn’t sat well in modern mass produced consumerist culture. But I for one truly hope that this is about to change and that we begin to see the process of creation as a very thing of beauty itself.

    Like

  6. Robin Wood says:

    Lovely piece of writing Teleri, totally agree with it all. Wish I could join in twitter chat but am filming in workshop and probably too technoincompitent to work it anyway. have fun.

    Like

  7. gary scott says:

    I am a sculptor but see arts and crafts as one big melting pot of personal creativity. Trying to differentiate between them is to devalue the honest endeavours of the individuals concerned.

    Like

  8. After 2 years of trying to find work and with very little success, I have found my craft very rewarding. It has given me something to look forward to and give me a sense of achievement when I completed a kanzashi.

    Now I have decided to sell my creations I hope to spread the joys of my work and make people see that although one does not make a lot of money out of crafting, it has given me happiness which I only could dream about in the past.

    Like

  9. I see in everyone’s responses a groping towards definitions for art / craft. This seems to have been going on for generations. “Usefulness” doesn’t really help us either as I can think of many people working in (say) glass whose output does not run to vessels yet their work is never really, truly afforded the “art” tag . Is a sculptural form in glass or clay or wood always defined as a craft, even when it’s not conventionally beautiful ? Would Barbara Hepworth have been happy to be called a craftsman? Those sumptuous curves and playing to the material …..you see what I mean ? Does something become art when we say it is ? When it moves us and communicates deeply ? Is it art when I’m arrested, intrigued, shocked or amused ? Can “craft” objects do that too ? Personally, I don’t see the categories as particularly useful, though “to craft” something still has meaning. When I was at art school in London a long time ago, students used to put tongue-in-cheek and ask “when is art ?” and in our case “When is clay ?” We never knew what it meant either.

    Like

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For our final #MuseumInstaSwap post we’re highlighting the 'Make Do and Mend' campaign of the Second World War, as told by our partner @ImperialWarMuseums in their #FashionontheRation exhibition.

The campaign was launched to encourage people to make their existing supplies of clothes last longer. Posters and leaflets were circulated with advice on subjects including how to prevent moth damage to woollens, how to make shoes last longer or how to care for different fabrics. As the war went on, buying new was severely restricted by coupon limits and no longer an option for many people. The ability to repair, renovate and make one's own clothes became increasingly important. Although shoppers would have to hand over coupons for dressmaking fabric as well as readymade clothes, making clothes was often cheaper and saved coupons. ‘Make Do and Mend’ classes took place around the country, teaching skills such as pattern cutting. Dress makers and home sewers often had to be experimental in their choice of fabrics. Despite disliking much of the official rhetoric to Make Do and Mend, many people demonstrated great creativity and adaptability in dealing with rationing. Individual style flourished. Shortages necessitated imaginative use of materials, recycling and renovating of old clothes and innovative use of home-made accessories, which could alter or smarten up an outfit. Many women used furnishing fabrics for dressmaking until these too were rationed. Blackout material, which did not need points, was also sometimes used. Parachute silk was highly prized for underwear, nightclothes and wedding dresses.

We've really enjoyed working with and learning from our friends at @imperialwarmuseums this week. You can catch up on all our posts and discover many more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 4773 For #MuseumInstaSwap we’re discovering the street style of the Second World War in the #FashionontheRation exhibition at @ImperialWarMuseums. In this archive photo a female member of the Air Raid Precautions staff applies her lipstick between emergency calls.

In wartime Britain it was unfashionable to be seen wearing clothes that were obviously showy, yet women were frequently implored not to let 'standards' slip too far. There was genuine concern that a lack of interest in personal appearance could be a sign of low morale, which could have a detrimental impact on the war effort. The government's concern for the morale of women was a major factor in the decision to continue the manufacture of cosmetics, though in much reduced quantities. Make-up was never rationed, but was subject to a luxury tax and was very expensive. Many cosmetics firms switched some of their production to items needed for the war effort. Coty, for example, were known for their face powder and perfumes but also made army foot powder and anti-gas ointment. Make-up and hair styles took on an increased importance and many women went to great lengths to still feel well-dressed and stylish even if their clothes were last season's, their stockings darned and accessories home-made. As with clothing, women found creative ways around shortages, with beetroot juice used for a splash of lip colour and boot polish passing for mascara.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap © IWM (D 176) In the @ImperialWarMuseums exhibition ‘Fashion on the Ration: 1940s street style’ we can see how men and women found new ways to dress while clothing was rationed. Displays of original clothes from the era, from military uniforms to utility underwear, reveal what life was really like on the home front in wartime Britain.

Despite the limitations imposed by rationing, clothing retailers sought to retain and even expand their customer base during the Second World War. Britain's high street adapted in response to wartime conditions, and this was reflected in their retail ranges. The government intervened in the mass manufacture of high street fashions with the arrival of the Utility clothing scheme in 1942. Shoppers carefully spent their precious clothing coupons and money on new clothes to make sure their purchases would be suitable across spring, summer and autumn and winter. Despite the restrictions, the war and civilian austerity did not put an end to creative design, commercial opportunism or fashionable trends on the British home front.

#FashionontheRation exhibition runs @imperialwarmuseums until 31 August.

Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap. For our final day of #MuseumInstaSwap we’re learning about the Second World War @ImperialWarMuseums, and discovering the impact of the war on ordinary people. 
Clothes were rationed in Britain from 1 June 1941. This limited the amount of new garments people could buy until 1949, four years after the war's end. The British government needed to reduce production and consumption of civilian clothes to safeguard raw materials and release workers and factory space for war production. As with food rationing, which had been in place since 1940, one of the reasons for introducing civilian clothes rationing was to ensure fairness. Rationing sought to ensure a more equal distribution of clothing and improve the availability of garments in the shops.

As this poster shows, the rationing scheme worked by allocating each type of clothing item a 'points' value which varied according to how much material and labour went into its manufacture. Eleven coupons were needed for a dress, two needed for a pair of stockings, and eight coupons required for a man's shirt or a pair of trousers. Women's shoes meant relinquishing five coupons, and men's footwear cost seven coupons. When buying new clothes, the shopper had to hand over coupons with a 'points' value as well as money. Every adult was initially given an allocation of 66 points to last one year, but this allocation shrank as the war progressed. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 8293) This week on @instagram we’ve joined up with other London museums to highlight our shared stories. Our partner is @imperialwarmuseums, whose incredible collection brings people’s experiences of modern war and conflict to life. Follow #MuseumInstaSwap to discover some of the intriguing historical connections we have found, as well as insights into everyday life during wartime. As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap
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