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.

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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.

    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.

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Concluding our short series of gold objects from the Museum’s collection is this group of items found in the Fishpool hoard. The hoard was buried in Nottinghamshire sometime during the War of the Roses (1455–1485), and contains some outstanding pieces of jewellery. 1,237 objects were found in this hoard in total. At the time it was deposited, its value would have been around £400, which is around £300,000 in today’s money! The variety of this collection of objects includes brilliant examples of fine craftsmanship. The turquoise ring in the centre was highly valued as it was believed that turquoise would protect the wearer from poisoning, drowning or falling off a horse.
#hoard #gold #jewellery #turquoise #treasure Continuing our exploration of the golden objects in the Museum, this amazing inlaid plaque is from 15th-century China. Lined with semi-precious stones, this piece would have formed part of a pair sewn into a robe. We can tell this belonged to an emperor of the Ming dynasty because only he would have been allowed to use items decorated with five-clawed dragons.
#Ming #gold #jewellery #China #BritishMuseum Our next trio of objects shows off some of the shimmering gold in the Museum’s collection. This stunning piece of jewellery comes from Egypt and was made around 600 BC. It was worn across the chest – this type of accessory is known as a ‘pectoral’. Popular throughout ancient Egypt, pectorals have been found from as early as 2600 BC. This example is made from gold and is inlaid with glass, showcasing the incredible level of craftsmanship in Egypt at the time, and asserting the status of the wearer. Falcons were important symbols in ancient Egypt – the god Horus took the form of a falcon.
#AncientEgypt #gold #jewellery #BritishMuseum In 1991, BMW invited South African artist Esther Mahlangu to make a work of art in their Art Car project to mark the end of apartheid. Her work, with its brightly coloured geometric shapes, draws on the traditional house-painting designs of Ndebele people in South Africa. Under apartheid the Ndebele were forced to live in ethnically defined rural reserves – their designs are an expression of cultural identity, and can be read as a form of protest against racial segregation and marginalisation.

See this incredible Art Car as part of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, which opens 27 October 2016. You can book your tickets now by following the link in our bio.

Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935), detail of BMW Art Car 12, 1991. © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives.
#SouthAfrica #history #art #design Mapungubwe was the capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa from AD 1220 to 1290. This gold rhinoceros, alongside four other gold sculptures, was discovered in three royal graves there. They are among the most significant sculptures in Africa today. They depict animals of high status – an ox, a wild cat, and a rhinoceros – and also objects associated with power – a sceptre and a bowl or crown. These treasures were discovered alongside hundreds of gold objects, including bracelets and beads. Gold was mined in the regions around Mapungubwe for trade with the coast, as part of an international trade network stretching as far as China, becoming a status symbol for the kingdom’s rulers.

On loan from the University of Pretoria @upmuseums, these gold treasures will be a highlight of our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition, opening 27 October 2016. Find out more about the exhibition by following the link in our bio.
#SouthAfrica #rhino #art #history Our special exhibition this autumn will explore the fascinating history of South Africa through art, telling a story that stretches back 100,000 years.

Rock art is one of South Africa’s oldest artistic traditions. It was first made by the ancestors of San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, South Africa’s first peoples, at least 30,000 years ago.

This rock painting will feature in the exhibition. It depicts San|Bushmen running between eland, a type of antelope that is spiritually important. Hunter-gatherer rock paintings such as this are understood to relate to a ritual practice named ‘the great healing’ or ‘trance dance’, which continues today in the Kalahari outside of South Africa. 
The paintings address the relationship between healers, or shamans, and the worlds of the living and the dead. In the painting some eland are bleeding from the nose and frothing at the mouth. Eland do this when they are close to death, and shamans show similar symptoms when they are metaphorically ‘dying’ and entering the world of the dead during the great trance dance.

Find out more about our #SouthAfricanArt exhibition by clicking on the link in our bio.

The Zaamenkomst Panel. Detail of rock art depicting San|Bushmen running between eland. Made before 1900. On loan from Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections and SARADA. Photo: Neil Rusch.
#rockart #SouthAfrica #painting
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