24.11.13

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.

Peter Voulkos

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)

Anne Mette Hjortshoj

Bowl by Anne Mette Hjortshoj

Edmund de Waal

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.

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