Sunday, 28 March 2010

craft, heritage craft, traditional craft, history and definitions.

So what is craft?

Most folk who work in the field have a pretty clear idea what they think craft is. I want to explore a little the history of the word, what it means and the way the things that come under this banner have changed remarkably over time. I also want to address the misconception that "Heritage Craft" must mean something backward looking, like a museum display of a dead craftsman's workshop, nothing could be further from the truth.

My main source will be a book which I highly recommend The Culture of Craft a collection of essays edited by Peter Dormer, and one essay in particular by Paul Greenhalgh on the history of craft.

Greenhalgh suggests that the current meaning of the word craft includes a quite arbitrary grouping of practices which first came together in the last quarter of the 19th century. Craft is in many ways disenfranchised art, that is it is the bits that were left out in the cold in the 18th Century when the "Fine Arts" were elevated to higher status but there are other layers too.

Greenhalgh analyses the history of the word by looking at three publications, all called "The Craftsman" published first in 1729, 1901 and 1981. Through these publications we see the name change its meaning, the 1729 publication which has no connection with making at all, and the word craft is related to modern "crafty" as in shrewd, business acumen. The 1901 publication was influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement with the first two issues being devoted to Morris and Ruskin. At this time however the word craft had much wider meaning than it does today and was used as freely in the context of opera or painting as within the tight confines we know today. By the time Paul and Angie Boyer launched their craftsman magazine in 1981 "The Crafts" were pretty much as we know them today. The verb had become also a noun and the constituency including only a narrow field of baskets, pots, weaving, metalsmithing stickmaking etc was established.

Greenhalgh then discusses what he calls "The Elements of Craft" and says "When the total range of genres presently described as crafts are put together and scrutinised, it becomes clear that there is a certain arbitrariness in the gathering." The elements that link them have only come together relatively recently, during the arts and crafts movement of the late 19th century, he defines them as Decorative Art, The Vernacular and The Politics of Work. When all three elements came together it created a movement of huge global importance, ever since the movement has become increasingly fragmented with each fragment only displaying one or two of the key elements.

The decorative arts are the arts that were left after the fine arts were elevated, everything from weaving, lacemaking and blacksmithing to calligraphy, upholstery and wallpaper printing. Various arts have been recognised as fine at various times, architechture is one that slips in and out as does sculpture and poetry but making useful, functional items is outside. This matters because of status, the fine arts have higher status and work sells for higher prices. For the last 25 years the innovative contemporary end of the craft world has tried to address this situation and gain recognition as an art form though it has never achieved the status of the fine arts.

Perhaps the most famous person working in a traditionally craft medium to achieve the status of fine artist is the Turner prize winning potter Grayson Perry, but he regards "The Crafts" as a sort of lagoon where less challenging artists reside instead of risking the open sea of the art world proper, excellent challenging article here.  Interestingly Grayson is a fan of what may be called vernacular art;

"When people ask me who inspires me, who my favourite artist is, I say it is an anonymous artist working before 1800 - ancient antique ceramics, prints, embroidery, folk art. Great craft objects once seemed to have sprung out of the culture spontaneously, to have been refined by tradition.

The vernacular is defined as the unselfconscious products of a society and tends to be associated with pre-industrial societies. William Morris was a huge fan of the vernacular and today we still have a sort of separation between "the rural crafts" and the rest. Indeed HCA patron Prof Ted Collins did an excellent report in 2004 (download free here) on the state of the rural crafts. One of the key recommendations of which was the formation of a Vernacular Crafts Council to compliment the contemporary artistic remit of the Crafts Council.

So to the last of Greenhalghs 3 elements of the word craft, and for me one of the most interesting "The politics of work." This is the element that is perhaps most difficult to pin down, it is the bit that made the crafts edgy and radical and is the element that most easily gets left out of the craft mix.

Many writers from Ruskin and Morris to Marx and Gandhi have discussed what good work is. My introduction to the idea probably came from watching the TV sitcom "The Good Life" in the 1970's and later EF Schumakers books "Small is Beautiful" and "Good Work"  led to me writing out lists of what I wanted out of a job and how it had to engage mind, body and soul. Generally the consensus seems to be that for work to be fulfilling the individual has to feel they are in control of what they are doing and there is also an undercurrent that favours the worker doing the whole job rather than a part of it. This led to Morris and Ruskin being very anti industrialisation yet I have visited huge iron foundries where a team of incredibly skilled workers have to all pull together doing their specific part in exactly the right way in order for the cast to be successful. There was a deep seated pride in work in those men. Perhaps his is a little like the difference between team and individual sports. So my manifesto for the politics of work would say that work is good when it involves a high level of skill and people feel that their skill is valued. I fear that the value of hard earned skill has been left out of modern craft, when you talk to craftspeople that pride is there and I suspect we are about to see it valued more highly again. I feel this is a major element that craft can offer to the world, a sense of value in good work. This was the mainstay of early craft education in schools such as the Sloyd system but again the politics of work seems to be the hardest element of craft for folk to understand and the easiest to jettison.

So now we have the history of craft understood what of traditional craft? and heritage craft? The HCA committee discussed these terms at length before deciding on a name for the organisation. Traditional tends to be used most often to describe the vernacular and often rural crafts, it has been used for many years and is maybe seen as rather safe, old fashioned and backward looking.
Around the world there is a movement to recognise craft skills as part of our cultural inheritance or heritage, 117 countries have signed the UNESCO convention which recognises this. The dictionary definition of heritage is everything that is handed down to us from previous generations including traditions and skills as well as things. In the UK heritage currently has a very narrow interpretaion, generally meaning buildings and museum collections, things rather than the "living heritage" of skills and traditions. HCA are setting out to change that narrow focus. There are many benefits to practicing craftwork but the HCA was first set up in response to a range of traditional crafts being in imminent danger of dying out. When we analised why it was we thought it was a problem if the last swill basket maker did not pass on his skills we all agreed that it was because it was part of our inheritance and as such we had a duty to pass these skills on.

We have chosen not to list crafts that we perceive to be heritage crafts, rather we have said that our focus is skill based crafts which tend to produce useful, functional work (though we would include some decorative crafts such as calligraphy and lace) This definition is different from the artistic end of the craft spectrum where the idea, originality and innovation has much more weight. So are heritage crafts the disenfranchised crafts that were left out when the artistic crafts went in search of fine art status? Perhaps, but I would also like to think we are getting back to the root of what craft was when it was a global force, to include again in one movement, the decorative arts, the vernacular and the politics of work. This is far from backward looking it is radical and relevant today.


  1. The Good Life has a lot to answer to for me too. And UNESCO's intangible cultures... fascinating stuff. Definately worth a look. What funny and inventive creatures we are!

  2. Daniel Carpenter29 March 2010 at 08:46

    Great post Robin. I'm absolutely of the mind that heritage crafts should not be static activities designed to freeze historial crafts in time, but living, evolving practices. With the legacy of crafts that have gone before we have a huge repetoire of skills and knowledge upon which to build the crafts, and the world, of the future. Without them we find ourselves disenfranchised from the world our ancesters have created, starting from scratch to make sense of the world and to try to regain the crafts that took hundreds and thousands of years to develop. Our ancesters were so much more advanced than we are in many ways. We owe it to them to keep these skills alive.

  3. yes, agree.
    'living in the past to learn for the future' is one of my favourite tag lines that you describe so well. Thanks

  4. Thought-provoking... I think that the susequent and enduring rarity of people who cab still accomplish the task of creating an object of both function and intrinsic beauty has a lot to answer for in this debate.

    Back when every self-respecting community would have had a smithy, a potter, chair maker etc. the concept of needing a catch-all term for these activities would have been quite alien. People need pots - there's a bloke who makes pots
    I buy his 'cos they're cheap and pretty - and he'll paint your name and a picture of your best cow on it.

    The dichotomy between what we now call 'craft' and 'art', I think is probably a class issue. (I blame the Normans). Where else is a neutral, descriptive term like 'peasant' quite as pejorative as here? And a word simply meaning a tenant farmer comes to mean thief and scoundrel. (Villain) Consider the popular attitude to folk song and dance in England - a symptom of the same cause, I'll be bound.

    Might I suggest offering,through the new 'national youth service' the option of learning a craft skill, if that policy is implemented?

    Cheers, Keep up the good work

  5. As most things evolve does all this mean the crafts can as well and still be considered as traditional? Is a potter using an electrically powered wheel but using otherwise traditional skills qualify as a traditional craftsman? Same for a woodturner, is a line drawn between traditional and modern depending on whether a pole lathe, treadle lathe or electric lathe is used? For me, after reading this article, the craft becomes traditional if the actual skill employed is traditional. Making something on a CNC lathe is not IMHO traditional due to the level of skill involved not the machinery, Based on this article I would therefore take pride in assuming that as a turner making both utilitarian and decorative items using tools and skills that date back many years on an electric lathe I could be considered to practice a traditional skill little changed for hundreds of years. Feel free to disagree