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.


  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.


    • 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


  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


  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.


  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.


  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.


  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.


  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 … 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.


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These beautiful studies drawn from life are by artist Antoine Watteau, born #onthisday in 1684.
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