Craft, Art and Design

At the start of the month we began as a group to consider the characteristics of what Natasha calls the ‘three old chestnuts’: craft, art and design in order to better understand in which field/fields we position our own practice.

The word ‘craft’ conjured up words like traditional, skill, accessible and multicultural. The biggest difference for me seems to be that craft is material or process-led in contrast to art and design in which the idea dominates over the material (see the sacrifice for art and craft). What differentiates my ceramics course from Stoke’s Clay College or an apprenticeship at Leach St Ives is that we balance a process and ideas-driven method of making – we are encouraged to constantly question why we are making rather than focusing on honing a skill through constant practice.

If design and art are at either ends of a scale craft may be somewhere in the middle, bordering both. While design is associated with function and art less so, for a potter considering functional ware, craft may be associated with functionality. Craft has connotations of humbleness and integrity and also a sense of being personal, similarly to art. Design on the other hand, implies less a focus on the individuality of the maker and more on the demand of the market.

Going back to ‘Sculptural Vessels across the great divide’ which I also quote from here, Anthony Gormley and Tony Cragg share a similar definition of what art does: ‘Whereas art, Gormely states, questions the world and complicates things, craft objects reconcile the needs of human life and the environment’ (pg.74 , Racz, I. Ceramic Reader), ; ‘Art, he feels, occupies a special category of objects that offers itself as ‘complex symbols for new experiences’ (Cragg 1985: 59, Ceramics Reader). Both speak of art as a complicating of things, often rich with symbols and layers of meaning. Words we associated with art included emotion, reaction, controversial, experimental and political. While craft is supposed to appeal to our senses, art nowadays with its depth of conceptualisation and minimalism is perhaps more inclined to appeal to our intellect. Many people have written about art’s oculacentric  hierarchy and preciousness over craft and design which give value to our sense of touch.

Design might make us think instead of mass-production and and an end-focused method of making rather than process-focused. Once striking difference between the three categories is that design as opposed to art and craft seems to be the most focused of the three on pre-design. While visiting the Leach Pottery in St Ives a couple of weeks ago we spoke to Clementina Va der Walt, a South African artist in residence there and she told us that she doesn’t like the way these terms craft, art and design are constrictive and considered separate. It’s a view many makers share from my experience. I consider myself to be all three. Since my work isn’t sketched out and planned meticulously (at least at the early stage of idea generation that I’m in ) I consider myself less of a designer and as the development of skill and links to traditional ceramics play an important part in my work I would say craft is central to my practice. However, if I’m asked I say I’m a ceramic artist or a potter. A potter because I am a vessel maker and an artist because my way of thinking about what I make is more aligned with fine art practice.




The Sacrifice for Art and Craft

I’ve just come across a text in ‘The Ceramics Reader’ called ‘Reconsidering “The Pissoir Problem”‘ by Bruce Metcalf. In it he describes conceptual art using the definition of artist-philosopher Adrian Piper who suggests we think of conceptual art ‘as being art that subordinates its medium, whatever its medium, to intellectually interesting ideas’.

Metcalf proposes that the difference between being an artist or a craftsperson depends on what you sacrifice. For an artist, the medium is subordinated by the idea. Art is intellectual, or according to Arthur Danto ‘art is embodied meaning’. Craft on the other hand puts the material first, the idea comes second since craft practice is more about labour. These days, Metcalf says, ‘everybody wants to be an artist‘. It’s something I feel resonates with me as someone who came to ceramics from a fine art background. Recently my work has become so much more about the idea than the joy of working with clay. I don’t want to forget what drew me to working in ceramics in the first place through. The ability wet clay had to reshape itself and ‘remake/re-model’ like the Bryan Ferry song (‘Next time, is the best time we all know’) drew me to it, perhaps as a metaphor for a way of continually reshaping and changing my own self. The stubbornness of clay I felt had a lot in common with my own stubborn attitude.

I began to define myself while at HDK as an artist who happens to work in clay. I realised from feedback in tutorials that a lot of the things I made could equally have been made in metal, wood or plastic. Superimposing shallow metaphors about clay suggesting the fragility of human civilisation onto these objects afterwards felt superficial and false. I realise I am starting to sacrifice my material for the idea. But the results from the anagama firing and the fantastic material qualities of the alchemy and metamorphosis of glaze and clay during the process has made me remember that this magic is the thing which really excites me, these objects mean more to me than anything else I made while in Sweden.