November 25, 2013 § 2 Comments
Reading The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century these last few months has made me question the place/role of craft. As I wrote in my last post, reading the book I get an over-riding sense of the marginalisation of craft, whether it be in relation to industry, art or consumer culture. So, particularly ceramics, why make things by hand for people to use?
At the beginning of the twentieth century, mass production was coming fast, the future was the present, new was everything. People didn’t want things made by hand. It was all about design for manufacture and potters weren’t very good at embracing that.
As the century progressed art became more radical and ceramics struggled to find its place in relation to it. Ceramics was never going to be ‘cool’. It was made of clay and however much potters tried to funk it up the art world was never going to buy it. Peter Voulkos tried; Ruth Duckworth tried – but ultimately it was clay, not neon tubes or happenings or film.
Sculpture by Peter Voulkos
I studied for my batchelor’s degree at Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall and knew a number of people on the ceramics course. Only one person threw pots on a wheel, the rest approached the course much more conceptually. My friend on the sculpture course and I regularly asked each other why they were using clay to explore their conceptual concerns when use of any manner of other materials might bring far richer rewards.
Why make things by hand for people to use? It is easy to pop to Asda or M & S to buy a bowl to use at home. They function perfectly well. They are cheap. Terence Conran’s Habitat (which was still expensive) was a killer when it opened in the mid-1960s and now we have Ikea (which isn’t). As Harrod wrote: ‘The dream of affordable furniture [substitute ceramics]…in the 1950s and 1960s proved unworkable in the face of the keen pricing at Habitat’.
My partner had a nice phrase: ‘The impossibility of craft in the age of capital’.
Is it impossible? It’s for people with money, there is no illusion there. When I started making pottery 2 years ago, I wanted handmade in every home – affordability and accessibility. I have no background in pottery, no context in which to put my making. I thought this accessibility was realistic. It isn’t – except in the Utopian world of a potter in every town making for the local population. This isn’t going to happen, however desirable it might be.
So, it seems there are 3 approaches to making pottery that are open to me: working more as a production potter; making functional ware for sale in exhibitions/galleries and at fairs that is higher priced and more collectable (e.g. the pots of Anne Mette Hjortshoj); or Fine Art ceramics (Edmund de Waal)
Bowl by Anne Mette Hjortshoj
Work by Edmund de Waal
I don’t want to make either the first or the last, which leaves me with the second. It’s not where I started out but it is helpful to have some understanding to clarify and crystallise decision-making.
November 18, 2013 § 3 Comments
When I left my part-time job as art technician in July, I was given some book vouchers for a local bookshop as a leaving present. For a long time I had been wanting to buy Tanya Harrod’s The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century and felt this was the perfect opportunity to acquire it. And it’s been a very interesting read so far – I am up to the 1950s/60s – and frustrating at the same time.
Hanging over the book is a dead weight that exerts its pressure in a downward movement, keeping ‘craft’ very much in its place. And that is how I feel all the time I am reading the book – craft as second best, craft being marginalised, craft completely absent. As I read, the questions I keep asking myself are: was this right? Is this right? Could it be/have been different? What is the place for craft today?
Glenn Adamson, in his book The Invention of Craft, says that craft was invented at the time of the industrial revolution as a counter-point to industry. Tanya Harrod makes this point, too. Craft was left behind by design for industry and mass production. At the turn of the twentieth century, crafts people scorned those makers that made the move towards the machine made, like Gordon Russell.
Cabinet by Gordon Russell
But the machine was taking off and craft was nowhere to be seen. It just doesn’t seem to have been taken seriously. How did anyone making a living at it? In the 40s and 50s, it appears to have been predominantly the preserve of middle-class people with means – Bernard Leach, who had no business sense; Katherine Pleydell Bouverie, who had no need to sell anything and didn’t try very hard; neither, apparently, did Norah Braden, who virtually stopped making after the war.
Bowl by Katherine Pleydell Bouverie
So, as the counter-point to mass produced wares, does that leave craft in a position of catering to those who have more money than they know what to do with? Mass produced for the masses, handmade for the rich and well-to-do? And if the answer is ‘yes’ – I don’t know that it is – would that be OK? William Morris wanted beautiful, well-crafted objects in everyone’s homes but it turned out that you need a certain income to be able to afford that quality. This has been one of the major criticisms of him.
I’m interested to see where the rest of the book goes. Currently, I’m reading about 1960s counter culture of which craft was a significant part. People/makers attempted to make a living outside of the system making jewellery, tie-dyed clothes, ‘lumpy pottery’ (apparently). It didn’t matter what you made or how you made it – ‘…crankiest, wobbliest pots, the lumpiest cloth and the dottiest pictures are all effective in…that they register protest‘ (Patrick Heron). I wonder whether this is where the populist idea of craft came from. Harrod says, ‘…this kind of ‘craft’ sounds like the ideal stock for lower quality ‘craft shops’ which began to spring up…’
Where does craft go in the 80s and 90s, when capitalism was at its height?
November 11, 2013 § Leave a comment
I have a very busy week beginning a new and exciting order for a shop in London but I’ve more than half an eye on Sunday, when we have the first of our three Open Studios.
Also present will be:
Alice Fox – textile artist
The Print Project
I’m really looking forward to meeting friends and making some new ones. We’ll be open from 11am – 4pm and there will be tea and homemade cake for those that are in need of sustenance other than the creative type.
The address is:
Dockfield Road, Shipley, West Yorkshire, BD17 7AD.