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

11 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.

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  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.

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    • 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

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  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.

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  10. [...] on 6 October 2011, the Museum has been asking contributors from the craft world including the Crafts Council and The Craftivist Collective to share their thoughts on the importance of craft today. In this [...]

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
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Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
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The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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