What is the role and value of crafts today?
£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.
Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
There will also be a rescheduled live Twitter Q&A at 13.00 BST on Thursday 18 August 2011 – join the conversation using #craftdebate