Reading past issues of Crafts magazine can seem both strangely comforting and at times dispiriting in that the same arguments and debates fore-fronting their pages continue to dominate discussion today. It is in part a response to the circular, revolving nature of debate and its terms of reference, particularly within craft, and in part for us a desire to make a statement of radical intent that we decided to include the word ‘revolution’ as part of our blog title, enjoying both its meanings.
Within the content of the May/June 1995 issue of Crafts that I randomly picked out from a pile in our store, are two articles that caught my eye. I have recently become more conscious of the value of past Crafts publications as an essential resource in understanding craft’s recent history. It began with my ceramics evening class when in spare moments I would pick up random copies of past Crafts, Ceramic Reviews and other now defunct magazines published in a spirit of earnest optimism. Their pages allow one to retrospectively document the evolution of makers’ work, the issues that have shaped the sector, and importantly they offer up, and provide a benchmark for, the richness of writing about craft by makers, critics and historians.
A review of a seminar on the challenges of industry for furniture by Martina Margetts in this issue expresses frustration at the lack of articulated and shared territory between industry and the autonomous practice of the maker, despite their being many shades of position in the journey from production to the marketplace. The review emphasises that the debate about the nature of production and of consumption continues to be central to the identity and discussion of craft. It is its very unresolved state that provides an opportunity to continue to debate its many arguments and positions, and in the context of our project and blog, enables us to provide a mirror to wider national and global concerns about the changing nature of society, consumerism, sustainability and the competition of cheap skilled production and design and to which the slow movement is one response. It is surprising how long the shadow of William Morris – referenced in the article – falls.
The second article in this 1995 issue debates the ongoing tension between practice and theory, between the language revealed through making and that of contextualising analysis. The article is a response made by Pamela Johnson to the proceedings of a conference in Loughborough on ‘The Context for Critical Studies in Crafts.’ I have chosen to highlight this article because of the nature of our project’s collaboration which brings together the voice and experience of Helen as a maker, and myself as a curator of exhibitions. These terms only simplistically describe what we individually do and of course there is much overlapping of experience and knowledge between us.
Pamela writes: ‘This magazine for over 20 years has documented in great detail what goes on inside the studio or workshop. There is an abundance of accounts of making, problem solving, and the nature of materials. The fact that this discussion has rarely gone beyond the pages of this magazine suggests that discussion of practice alone simply will not do. Practice without history or theory leads to a kind of in-house discourse. If theoreticians must talk to practitioners, then the converse is also true. Makers must engage with wider cultural debates.’ (p.34). Her aim is not to undermine the essential need to understand the evolving nature of practice – she quotes the critic Peter Dormer as stating ‘craftspeople live with and try to work through questions of value and contradiction’, but also to recognise that craft operates within a field of cultural studies as with any other art form. ‘Articulating and defining this broader context is essential if we are advocate and ensure craft’s presence within beyond our in house publications and events.’
The majority of those working as curators and exhibitions programmers have come out of museum studies courses and are committed to the use of exhibitions and display as modes of communicating craft to the public, understanding that outside of purchasing or commissioning craft, exhibitions provide a significant medium through which audiences engage with and understand craft. The theory and practice of museum studies suggest that meaning is relative to experience and informed by the context in which things are negotiated and ‘consumed’ by the viewer.
I came across recently an article which outlines this argument: ‘From Sideboard to Showcase’, by Adrian Bland and written for a catalogue about the first exhibition of the Crafts Study Centre (you can purchase this catalogue from them). He writes, ‘Accepting that ‘things’ have biographies, that they are variously appropriated by the everyday world in ways that were perhaps not intended, allows for the recognition that far from being ‘fixed’, meaning is something that is unstable and endlessly negotiated according to both time and place. Seen in this way, the various trajectories of twentieth century crafts, the ways in which individual handmade objects have entered into a dialogue with both audiences and users through acts of display and consumption, can be seen to play an important role in mapping transformations in the status of craft, in articulating its ever changing position within the wider cultural field. Any individual object biography is likely to incorporate issues of design, making, distribution, consumption and use that are themselves subject to any number of physical and mental interventions. The relationships between people and objects that can constitute the world around them are almost invariably complex and almost impossible to pin down. This is especially true of individual objects likely to attract emotional investment, as might be suggested by the word ‘craft’.’
An ambition of our project is to communicate a series of ideas and positions to the wider public, primarily through a touring exhibition but also through other means including this blog. In doing so we would want to enhance the profile of craft and advocate its relevance and centrality to cultural and public debate. Yesterday I was forwarded an article by the journalist Lucia Van der Post published by the Times on-line (http://property.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/property/interiors/article3697614.ece) which publicises the emergence and presence of Slow Design and its relationship to the Slow Movement. She illustrates the article with many examples of ideas and approaches by designers such as Piet Hein Eek and Clare Coles, both of whose work blurs boundaries between craft and design. The article reflects the desire of the journalist to excite and enthuse her readers and suggests the relevance of the Slow Design movement to their interests. If the language and content is a little superficial and slick, the pace somewhat too fast, then perhaps this is the price paid for media attention. The challenge for us, however, is to find a balance: to represent and communicate the intention and integrity of the work we present through engaging and thoughtful ways.
Andy Horn, April 2008