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.
How do we raise the status of studying artistic rather than pure academic subjects? There has been much discussion recently about how society values academic vs tacit knowledge, skills minister John Hayes said “In my view, the skills of a bricklayer are in no way less admirable and certainly no less hard-won than those of a stockbroker. Matt Crawford’s book ‘The case for working with your hands’ made a similar case but how do we convince parents and bright kids that a career in the arts, crafts or trades is a viable choice and not something for academic low achievers?
I just came across this wonderful witty ad campaign for the College for Creative Studies in Detroit mimicking anti drugs campaigns. Entertaining and makes the point but does it reinforce the image, challenge it or change it?
Talk to your kids about art school
Information / Credits
1 in 5 teenagers will experiment with art. Talk to your kids about art school.
Advertising Agency: Team Detroit, Dearborn, MI USA Chief Creative Officer: Toby Barlow Creative Director: Gary Pascoe Art Director: Vic Quattrin Copywriter: Joel Wescott Published: October, 2011
When a craft business that has a special part in our history is in danger of closing what should we do? How about buy it and spend large sums of public money on preserving the building, artifacts and accumulated detritus whilst letting the last skilled artisans stop work and walk away?
Two years ago I blogged about JW Evans Silversmiths in Birmingham. It had just been saved for the nation by English Heritage and at the time they said “at the heart of this decision is the desire to safeguard a skilled craft which is seriously under threat.”
Well after two years JW Evans is now open to the public for pre-booked tours, it looks fantastic and well worth a visit but how well do you think they have done at safeguarding a skilled craft? Seems that they have preserved all the fabric but lost the living heritage of the skills that made the place important. I feel we need a new way to look after this part of our heritage, apart from anything else turning businesses into museums is incredibly expensive. We could learn from the Spanish, I visited the knife making town of Taramundi where many small artisan workshops are open to the public on a sort of heritage tourist trail. This means they get lots of business which keeps the heritage truly alive rather than some preserved in aspic snap shot of how it used to be done.
More info and book your tour here