Last month, HCA trustees met with Solveig Torgersen Grinder (Norwegian Folk Art and Craft Association) and Liina Veskimägi (Estonian Folk Art and Craft Union) from the European Folk Art and Craft Federation, a European network of non-profit associations with the aim of protecting and supporting traditional and contemporary crafts. The HCA will join the EFACF has an observer member next year.
It seems to me that the life many people aspire to at the moment involves spending the working day in important meetings or at a computer or doing similar cerebral work, then in the morning or evening jogging or pumping iron at the gym to get that perfect body.
These gyms seem bizarre places to me, I have walked past them in London full of folk pounding away like so many hamsters on wheels. The bizarre thing is that all those machines are consuming electricity, I’d like to see a gym that generated electricity or better see those folk out carrying shopping for old ladies or some other useful physical activity. Besides that I struggle with the idea of pounding away just to get the current trendy body shape. I think far better to live a balanced life that involves a mix of cerebral and physical activity. At the moment I am converting my ex village police station into a holiday cottage, there is a lot of hard labouring work which a hard nosed business annalist would say I should pay a labourer £50 a day to do whilst I got on with more lucrative work. I earn an average of £80 a day so I can’t argue with the economics but there is something more important than economics to me. By doing the labouring myself I get a feeling of empowerment, and also a good workout which would cost my cerebral friends a hefty gym fee. Here I am starting to demolish the old wall separating the old garage from the police station office, I reckon you could charge for this it was such fun.
Why is it that doing this stuff as part of the working day is looked down upon whilst paying to sweat in the gym is viewed as a good thing? This is all part of my philosophy of living a balanced life with work involving hand, head and heart.
We are approaching a very important centenary in the art world, the creation of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘fountain’, arguably the most important work of art of the 20th century. Was he taking the piss? and why should craftspeople have any interest in it?
The point of fountain was that Duchamp was arguing that aesthetics and skill were not what made art, it was the artists idea that mattered.
Under the guise of an assumed name R Mutt, Duchamp submitted a porcelain urinal as an entry for an open exhibition in New York in 1917. With this work Duchamp metaphorically urinated on the bourgeois art institution and its adoration of what he referred to disparagingly as ‘retinal art’. ‘Fountain‘ was “misplaced” for the duration of the exhibition and lost soon afterward yet years later it achieved seminal status. It was not the worlds first ready-made, Duchamp showed “bicycle wheel” in 1913 but it is fountain that became iconic.
So what is the relevance today? Well trace Duchamp ideas forward 100 years and we see a century of art where skill and aesthetics were not seen as important and where ready-mades and installation art were where it was at. That century is coming to an end and personally I feel that the current art world is as self obsessed and out of touch as the one which Duchamp so successfully took the piss out of 100 years ago. Frankly there is only so much navel gazing and exposing to public view the least pleasant aspects of your past that the public want to see and after a while does it have any relevance or serious message?
So who will be the new Duchamp? Who will challenge the current ideas of where artistic merit lies? And where will that merit be found? Personally I fancy we will see a return to or perhaps some new form of appreciation of aesthetics and skill. I think we will again appreciate an artist who can create something of great beauty more than one who presents ready-mades or installations with some art speak justification. Why will this happen? Well in part what we have always admired and valued throughout history has been rarity and today there are not many folk that can grind pigments, mix oils and paint a decent picture, nor carve a stone for a cathedral window, nor make a basket, nor forge a gate hinge, yet conceptual art is taught to tens of thousands of university graduates every year.
Satchi et al have huge vested interest in maintaining the artistic status quo and will rubbish any suggestion that these things have as much merit as Emin’s latest but I genuinely feel they have more to say of importance to today’s world than most conceptual art. They comment on how we make the stuff of everyday life, on working conditions and waste and sustainability. It will be a few years coming but my prediction is that we are approaching the time when someone who makes humble functional craftwork will be valued as much as someone who makes art installations. And the funny thing is that I reckon if Duschamp was around today he would be rebelling against today’s art institution as much as he did in 1917.
Last night a select group of craftsfolk from around the UK left their workshops and headed to a very posh hotel in London’s Mayfair (yes the one with the most expensive houses on the monopoly board and in real life too) We were at the Connaught to celebrate the winners of the Balvenie Masters of Craft Awards, I had the honour of being one of the judges and presenting some of the awards. We had a great judging team but craftsfolk are most likely to know Kevin McCloud off the TV and Nick Hand wonderful crafts photographer.
Well it was a wonderful evening, hosted by warm friendly folk from the Balvenie. The stars of the show though were the craftspeople so lets announce the winners.
Wood winner and overall Balvenie Master of Craft 2011: Christoph Gotting, violin maker
Christoph Gotting spent 20 years renovating the best 17th century instruments made by the like of Stadivari followed by another 20 making new instruments of the best possible quality. Apparently the ground and varnish are play a major part in the difference between a good violin and a great one. Christoph has undertaken 800 meticulously recorded varnish tests to produce instruments that are the probably the closest currently available alternative to an original Strad.
Emily Ruth Davey, shoemaker
Ruth operates a shoemaking business from her workshop on the mid-Wales coast. She says her customers range from dukes to dustbin men, from young to old, yoga teachers, artists, poets, doctors and even the odd film star. Testament to her success is her current search for an apprentice
Glass and ceramics winner: Stuart Hearn, glass blower
Stewart has been blowing glass for 28 years and runs London Glassworks. While his pieces celebrate traditional craft, they also have a strong contemporary aesthetic. Stuart is passionate about passing on skills and provides regular training and workshops
Textiles winner: Iain Finlay McLeod, weaver
Iain is the fourth-generation weaver in his family. On the Isle of Lewis, he and his team of five weavers create high-quality cloth on traditional looms over 70 years old. They sell their cloth to some of the best tailors and fashion houses in Tokyo, London and Beverley Hills
Stone winner: Jacqueline Cullen, jeweller
Jacqueline is a jeweller working with Whitby jet. Specialising in Victorian mourning jewellery, Jacqueline has developed innovative processes and formats that celebrate rather than disguise the inherent flaws of Whitby jet, allowing the natural beauty of the material to speak for itself
Leather winner: Deborah Carre, shoemaker
Deborah is a hand-sewn shoemaker. She is currently building a business that focuses on making bespoke men’s shoes by hand and has a new workshop on the shop floor at Gieves & Hawkes, 1 Savile Row, London
Metal winner: Wayne Victor Meeten, precious metalworker
Wayne is a silversmith, goldsmith and precious metalworker, who aims to push the boundaries of traditional smithing by using 21st century technology. His designs are contemporary with wonderful form, line, texture and structure
After the food and the awards we enjoyed some very fine whisky, my favourite of the evening being the 21 yr old Balvenie portwood, rather out of my budget but delightful to experience. It was quite moving to see how touched Christoph particularly was to receive his award and I hope this helps shine the light on these folks dedication and skills and raises the profile of craftsmanship generally.
Should we the craft community be celebrating the bicentenary of the 1811 Luddite rebellions?
In modern usage in the UK to call someone a Luddite can be a slightly derogatory term used to imply someone is against all change and blindly rejects any complex modern technology in favour of older simpler technology. Some people on the other hand are proud to describe themselves as Luddites and feel that it is about valuing the things that are important in life.
A very brief history of the Luddites; in the late 1700’s a host of new inventions threatened to transform the textile industry which up to then had been a skilled hand craft undertaken by self employed artisans. 1764 the spinning jenny, then Arkwright’s water frame 1769 installed in the first real factories just down the road from me at Cromford Mill. The mill started employing 200 people mostly women and children the youngest being aged just 7 years old.
At this time weaving was undertaken by highly skilled and respected craftspeople who served a minimum 7 year apprenticeship. 1785 the first power loom appeared, by 1850 there would be 260,000 in operation in England and in 1811 the writing was on the wall.
The change in lifestyle is hard to imagine, the hand loom weavers worked from home with their families around them. The looms tended to be upstairs in front of long windows since before electric light, natural light regulated work. This is Edward Eccles the last handloom weaver in Darwen, Lancs.
The weavers cottages are instantly recognisable today by the rows of upstairs windows.
Would you rather work in the home above as a self employed skilled professional or in the factory below as an unskilled machine minder with low wages and few employment rights?
History is often taught as if this change was a positive development as it helped UK Plc on its road to world domination and produced goods that could be sold for less money. I feel differently but will try to stay dispassionate. From the Luddites point of view it was not about being against all technology it was about working conditions, the replacement of highly skilled work with low skilled and clearly lower wages.
My personal view is that the loss of social status and the difference between doing a job that is valued, which you trained for years to be good at and valued for are as important as the money. It was about power, in the craft model the artisan was empowered, in factory production all power lay with the factory owner. So the Luddites rebelled. Violence against machines was not their first move but the last resort. As early as 1778 the stockingers had attempted but failed to get an act through parliament regulating the “art and mystery of framework knitting”. The Luddites were highly organised, they nicknamed their fictional leader Nedd Ludd to protect their anonymity. On 11th March 1811 they broke wide knitting frames at a workshop in the village of Arnold in Nottinghamshire, they claimed the frames made poor products devaluing the craft and the owner was employing workers who had not completed the 7 year apprenticeship required by law.
The actions spread to surrounding villages and across the neighboring counties of Derbyshire, Liecestershire and then into the cotton mills of Manchester. Social historians see this is a crucial turning point in the development of a “working class” who became organised and exercised some power. It can be seen as the first step toward trade unions and workers rights. Framebreaking continued for several years, some concessions were made in terms of wages, rights, and release of prisoners accused of being ringleaders and attacks decreased after 1814.
So how does this relate to our situation today? If I choose to use a technology that demands high skill level rather than capital investment and I value self determination in my work, working for myself from home rather than for someone else as an unskilled machine minder then perhaps I do owe something to Nedd Ludd whoever he was. How remarkably similar this all sounds to the words of William Morris 100 years ago, both the honour of handwork and the social effects of labour management. How similar also to the recent books by Richard Sennett and particularly Mathew Crawford, “The case for working with your hands, or why office work is bad for you and fixing things feels good”
If we do choose to celebrate craft and Luddism though I feel it is very important that we do not blindly reject new technology and we are not perceived as backward looking. The internet has enabled many people to take that step away from working in the office to working from home, new technology can be be a change for good or bad, it is up to us to choose an appropriate technology and look hard at who benefits and who looses out of the different options available. Today is little different in many ways to 1811, we have to choose how we want to work, we spend a significant proportion of our lives and energy in our work, it is important that it should be empowering, life affirming, useful and productive.
Lots of info on Luddites on the web but this is better than most.
For those that were not at the HCA skills forum at Chelsea College in 2011, or for those that were and would like a transcript, this is John Hayes speech. We felt it was enormously positive, at last we have someone in a position to make a difference who really understands and values heritage crafts.
John Hayes Speech at HCA skills forum
Good afternoon everyone. I am delighted to be able to send this personal message to your forum. Previous generations understood the value of craft, and I want you to know, that I know, that it’s value is undiminished. Those that are preoccupied with the soulless ubiquity which is the antithesis of heritage crafts won’t or can’t grasp the hunger for that which is made with care, precision and style.
It is through the union between art and craft that what we use becomes what we value. It’s time to relearn, there is much more to heritage crafts than a sentimental attachment to what was, they are for then and now and they provide markets for more than 10,000 businesses and work for nearly 90,000 people. The time when people are at last coming to realise that practical skills can provide a secure route to success in life, heritage crafts are living models of how such skills can be most effectively acquired.
Of course the heritage crafts do something more important even than that. They remind us of the British people’s latent capacity to acquire and apply skills in ways that made this country a great manufacturing power in the past and can, and will, do so again in the future.
Heritage crafts deserve to be encouraged and there are three basic ways which I want us to start to do that immediately:
First at present we have no clear picture of the sector skills needs including those of crafts which are in danger of dying out. and of where the strongest opportunities for growth and job creation lie. That is no basis on which to either make policies to promote craft or to encourage more young people to enter the sector. So there is an urgent mapping exercise to be undertaken and it will be undertaken.
Second we must make sure that everyone is made aware of the importance of heritage crafts in modern Britain, and the opportunities they offer to young people of talent and ambition. We don’t start from scratch here do we, for example the Balvenie masters of craft awards in which the HCA is collaborating closely will be bestowed at the start of June and will be a great step forward in raising the profile and status of heritage crafts. They have my full support. We should do much more to support and build on initiatives like this, and that’s why I am leading work to develop a new framework for the recognition and celebration of craft. The aim will be to raise the status of craft and make people know that achieving craft skills is as important, perhaps more important, than academic prowess alone. I want also to ensure that guilds and livery companies can help to sustain heritage crafts in the same way that bodies like the law society and the royal college of surgeons help to bind other professions together and protect their interests.
Third, we must ensure that heritage craft skills benefit from the full measures that are already in place, for example the government has protected the budget for informal adult community learning, and there is a great opportunity for heritage crafts here. Informal learning can be the first step towards discovering, or developing a new talent, an aptitude for craft and the start of the journey that leads to a new fulfilling career for some. The next step is often an apprenticeship. Apprenticeships of one sort or another have been the main route into craft since early times, and they remain a proven way to master a skill. The government has committed itself to building more apprenticeships in Britain than ever before. In the CSR and the budget we allocated extra resources to ensuring that apprenticeship opportunities are spread across sectors and across Britain. I want a new generation of apprentices , learning skills, getting and keeping jobs, building Britain’s prosperity. It is clearly in the heritage crafts interest to take advantage of that extra capacity.
You know heritage craft say much about our country. They illustrate just what can be done when people master a competence that has both utility and more than that has beauty. I make no apologies for making the link between craft and style.
I hope that brief summary provides a clear indication of just how seriously I take the issue of heritage crafts. Not just their preservation but the active promotion of craft skills. Craft is like a golden thread that links our past present and future and this is a timely reminder that the diversity and individuality of craft mirror the qualities of the British people themselves. I’m determined that the British people through the acquisition of practical skills should be given every chance to succeed.
John Hayes, Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning 11/05/2011