Friday, 17 December 2010

Ed Vaizey in praise of craft

Article in Dec 2010 GQ by Arts minister Ed Vaizey.

HCA met Ed November 2009   when we presented the case for traditional crafts, perhaps we planted a few seeds.

"Nudge is no  longer the hottest book in political circles.  Policy wonks now eagerly discuss The Case For Working With Your Hands by the American academic philosopher Matthew Crawford. Crawford, who also runs a motorcycle repair shop in Virginia, has penned a nostalgic/futurist homage to the virtues of craftsmanship, the joys of making things and fixing things. It's a riposte to what he sees as an increasingly remote society, where jobs are offshored, one-to-one customer care is processed and automated and the computer says "no" far too often.
Crawford's book is one of a number of recent works that have taken the same line, from Richard Sennett's The Craftsman to Alain de Botton's The Pleasure And Sorrows Of Work. Tangentially, a book with more subtle cultural focus is the potter Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes, a family memoir that brings alive the history of Europe from the end of the 19th century to beyond the end of WWII. De Waal's ancestor, Charles Ephrussi - a friend of Proust and one of the models for Charles Swann in A Remembrance Of Things Past - bought 264 Japanese netsuke (exquisitely carved objects of wood and ivory), including the hare of the title. The netsuke hold De Waal's tale together, as he charts the rise and fall of his family. They remain the only survivors of the family fortune, hidden from the Nazis by a family retainer as the rest was expropriated, travelling back to Japan, and eventually being passed down to De Waal.
De Waal and his contemporaries should be much better known in a country that has always celebrated craft. Maybe they will be. Craft is enjoying a bit of a Zeitgeist moment. Global brands are acknowledging this: Camper with its Extraordinary Crafts campaign, Levi's with its Craftwork campaign and Louis Vuitton's plans to have craftsmen working in selected stores to convey the craftsmanship of the brand.
The Victoria And Albert Museum in London has recently refurbished its ceramics galleries, with the "Signs And Wonders" installation by De Waal as one of its centre pieces. (You'll have to look up - it's a series of pots on a shelf just below the gallery's rotunda.) The V&A is the world's greatest museum of the decorative arts and was founded in London specifically to educate people about crafts.
The School of Design, which had been located at Somerset House, London, was transferred to the new museum and renamed the Art Training School. Today it is the Royal College of Art, training everybody from studio ceramicists to painters to jewellers to industrial designers and it is still in a fruitful relationship with the V&A - the RCA's rector is a trustee of the museum, and a joint history of design course exists. It remains one of the foremost design schools in the world. Queen Victoria, in her last public appearance in 1899, took part in a ceremony to rename the South Kensington Museum as the Victoria and Albert. The London Gazette reported that the V&A would "remain for ages a Monument of discerning Liberality and a Source of Refinement and Progress".
As David Hockney (who made the newspapers when he graduated with the gold medal from the RCA in 1962, aglow with brilliant-yellow hair and a golden suit) said, "You can't teach the poetry, but you can teach the craft." And it was the socialist polymath - designer, poet, writer, businessman, dedicated to the making of things - William Morris who said, "If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
Morris was the central figure in the Arts and Crafts movement (praised by Crawford in his book), which flourished in this country at the same time as Ephrussi was buying his netsuke. His company, inspired by Ruskin, made wallpaper, textiles, furniture and stained glass, and inspired architectural and design movements that still resonate today.
If you ask most people today what they think is meant by "crafts", you would probably get a scornful reply. Yet the most celebrated architect in the world today, Frank Gehry, for all his computer-aided design, starts off playing with bits of paper, the Japanese craft of origami, to shape and visualise his early inspirations. Craft resides in white-cube spaces as much as it does in local knitting groups. One of the UK's leading ceramicists, Clare Twomey, created the installation "Trophy" in 2006 where she filled the cast courts at the V&A with 4,000 Jasper Blue ceramic birds and, in 2009 for the Possibilities And Losses exhibition at mima (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art), she created "Monument", an eight-metre high mountain of thousands of pieces of broken ceramics cascading from the gallery ceiling.
In a country which celebrates its huge leadership in design, from the iPod to the Aston Martin, it is worth remembering that it all begins with the craft, the object, working with your hands. There are 35,000 craftsmen working in Britain today; they turnover £1bn a year. Serious people take the crafts very seriously.
So when the kids turn their hand to woodwork, and those lumps of Plasticine, remember it all does start with the handmade: craft, and the making of the well-made thing is what distinguishes us from other life forms. Take the crafts seriously, too. The market for craft is growing with the Crafts Council's annual fair Collect at the Saatchi Gallery, generating huge sales each year. Go out and buy a pot, and show you're part of the Zeitgeist."

Ed Vaizey is the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries.
Originally published in the December 2010 issue of British GQ.

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