What is Contemporary About Craft?

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The building of Electric Mountain, the Dinorwig hydroelectric power station in Snowdonia

In her 2013 essay ‘What is contemporary about craft’ Julia Bryan-Wilson puts forward eleven propositions about the nature of contemporary craft, encouraging debate about  the relationship between art and craft today. Many of the propositions are paradoxical – Craft is contemporary because it can be found everywhere in contemporary fine art/craft is irrelevant and a romantic leftover of the past. Craft is contemporary because it is a rebellion against capitalism/ craft is contemporary because it is thoroughly capitalist and obsessed with the market. Craft is contemporary because it embraces the digital/craft is contemporary because it retains its tactile quality and connects people in the flesh rather than the digital world.

In all propositions it’s possible to see both sides of the argument. However, I’ve been attempting to define which statements I agree with more and less in order to reach my own definition of contemporary craft. Proposition 5 is problematic to me. It puts forward the idea of craftivism as craft intermingled with activism, something radical and revolutionary. I like the idea of contesting the tyranny of mass production such and the advertisements run by members of craft collectives and the makers movements every christmas to buy handmade presents. Proposition 5 also states that ‘Craft is environmentally conscious and respectful of the earth’s diminishing resources’ which is something I vehemently disagree with. There seems to be some assumption in the ceramics community that what we do is somehow good for the environment because we are learning to be respectful of a natural material and are working ‘slowly’ or in alignment with a  philosophy of the vitality of things. How many ceramic students know exactly where their clay came from or where the cobalt, manganese, chrome oxide etc. was sourced or how it was processed? In the glaze room we are lucky enough to have jars of powders already ground down to mix into glazes but there is nothing to teach us what these materials looked like in their naturally occurring state. I don’t know anything about the workers involved in the chain of events that led to the materials reaching my desk at CSAD, the processes of purifying the chemicals, the impact of the processes on the environment. The electricity and gas used for the kilns are finite resources. The only way the work that would be environmentally friendly is if I dug my own clay, sourced my own glazes and used a sustainable method of firing e.g. using wood from sustainable sources. Close to my home in North Wales, hidden in the hills outside Corris is the CAT (Centre of alternative technology). I wonder if it could be possible to fire ceramics through truly renewable resources – harnessing energy from solar, tidal, wind or hydroelectric resources to fire a kiln without leaving an imprint on the environment.

Image source: https://www.dayoutwiththekids.co.uk/electric-mountain



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.


Results from the Anagama

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Calcium Carbonate (Whiting)     14
Potash Feldspar                              35
Kaolin                                               22
Quartz                                               27
Iron Oxide                                       0.52
Bone ash (Benaska)                       2

Soda Ash                                  8.1
Nepheline Syenite                  39.3
Spodumene                             30.6
Kaolin                                       4.8
Ball clay                                   17.2

Celadon recipe here