Conference Papers
  Ends and Beginnings
Emmanuel Cooper

  A couple of years ago I was on a radio discussion programme with the art critic Brian Sewell. One of the questions for discussion was the status of craft – could it – Laurie Taylor asked (he was chairing the discussion) - be art? To Brian Swell the solution was obvious – art, he said, by definition is useless, craft is useful. Therefore, anything that can be used is craft; anything that cannot, can be thought of as art. It is a definition, which while begging the question of what constitutes use – and there is always plenty to say about that – has at least the virtue of neatness and brevity.

This exchange came to mind when planning this talk, Ends and Beginnings, the context for which is the merge between the Crafts and Arts Council. Here I want to look at the origins of the Crafts Council in the 1970s, its development, and the moves within the last ten years that have brought us to where we are now. I want also to look at our present situation, and consider very briefly what we should expect or desire in the future. In what is still a highly fluid situation I will consider what this means practically, and its implications for contemporary practice across the spectrum of craft.

First a bit of history
By the early 1970s there was a feeling that the crafts were very much alive and kicking, having found new energy and direction. Craft had become trendy. Broadly speaking it attracted two types of maker. One was made up of makers who saw ‘craftsmanship as an experience’, to quote Bernard Leach, who added ‘work which is one and the same time recreation and labour, and in which use and beauty are inseparable’. Leach was speaking at the Royal Society of Arts in 1948. Many identified craft as counter-cultural, a way of producing things by hand that were practical and to some extent gained makers the reputation of long-haired, sandal-wearing hippies. Pottery and weaving were two such crafts that appealed more to rural rather than urban workers.

The other, broadly speaking, was more concerned with the conceptual aspects of craft. It was much more sophisticated in its aspirations, attracting young artists who were disenchanted with the hard-edged abstraction and minimalist forms of fine art, finding them too distancing, disaffected by the de-skilling of art, and were looking for something more accessible, tactile and free of critical discourse. It was a field wide open for experiment, and paid scant attention to the question of function.

Pressure was brought to bear on government support for what, by 1970, had become a rapidly growing and thriving movement. At the time organisations representing craft had no single focus, but was made up of many disparate bodies. These included individual single craft organisations such as the Craft Potters Association which covered the whole of the country, and multi-craft organisations such as the Society of Designer Craftsmen and British Craft Centre (now Contemporary Applied Arts). There were also regional, multi-craft bodies like the Devon Guild and single-craft regional groups such as the South Wales Potters. In an attempt to bring all these various groups together they had set up the Federation of British Craft Societies, with a degree of success, in the hope that the government would see it as a basis for a funded national body.

Lord Eccles, then in charge of the arts in the Conservative government, wanting to provide help for the crafts, ignored all these groups in favour of a single body which he set up entitled the Crafts Advisory Committee (now the Crafts Council). This came into operation in 1971 to care for and nurture the crafts. I cannot recall Lord Eccles ever saying – or maybe he was never asked – why the remit of the Arts Council should not be extended to include crafts, but my guess is that he saw crafts as being essentially functional, and therefore falling outside the remit of the Arts Council. How the crafts would have fared within the art department of the Arts Council at that time is a fascinating area of speculation, but it is one that we do face today. Lord Eccles held the view that crafts were fundamentally functional, and I can recall him complaining bitterly, for example, that potters never made containers for plant pots, which he said were hard to find.

By crafts, the Crafts Advisory Committee was not referring to traditional or artisan crafts such as thatching or saddle-making which, though highly skilled, were thought too steeped in tradition and perhaps too steeped in function, but the new or so-called fine crafts. Here artist-makers have appropriated traditional skills, techniques and processes used in the past to make primarily functional objects as a basis for producing expressive and individual objects. Such objects may or may not be useful, though most acknowledged function as a basis for their design. Certainly they could not, nor were they ever intended to, compete with industrially manufactured goods, especially in ceramics. In fact studio ceramics, along with many other crafts, was a significant part of the counter-cultural revolution in offering a more personal alternative to the anonymity of mass-produced objects as well as a way of life to exist alongside.

When the Crafts Advisory Committee received its Royal Charter in 1982 its name was changed to the Crafts Council, thus intending it to sit alongside the Arts and Design Councils. It also issued a charter, laying out its aims and ambitions.

The object of the Crafts Council, as currently laid out, ‘shall be to advance and encourage the creation of works of fine craftsmanship and to foster, promote and increase the interest of the public in the works of craftspeople and the accessibility of those works to the public’. In short, the three principle aims can be seen as:

  1. Professional practice
  2. Education
  3. Marketing

and by and large this is how the Crafts Council continues to operate. It has a chairman and a council of fourteen, drawn from the worlds of craft, education, commerce and art, and has senior staff of about eight and a total staff of about thirty-five.

By the nineties, the certainties on which the Crafts Council was set up – that there are clear distinctions to be made between fine art and fine craft – were beginning to be seriously challenged. Along with so much else that was happening in the world, old distinctions were being seriously questioned, whether within art, science or medicine. Even definitions of life and death were suddenly blurred within the development of advanced medical procedures. Within the wider remit of visual art, photography and sculpture were merging in a fascinating way; photography and painting were nudging into each other, while performance, installation and video were often difficult to distinguish as separate practices.

Within the crafts, makers coming from craft backgrounds began to look more specifically at what the objects were about as well as the materials and techniques they used and the skills involved. This is not to suggest that such concern was only invented in the nineties – far from it. One only has to think of the work of ceramists such as Hans Coper, Gordon Baldwin and Gillian Lowndes to realise that such interests had always been an important thread within the so-called craft world, but through considerations of scale and abstraction, their work remained within the boundaries of craft.

The new wave of ceramists began to seriously challenge the conventional concerns of craft, with both scale and figurative references the response to this. In 1994 I curated an exhibition On the Edge, Art Meets Craft, for a collaboration between Kettles Yard, University of Cambridge, a venue that had hitherto totally ignored craft but was now willing to investigate it, and Aberystwyth Art Gallery, which rightly took pride in showing art and craft alongside each other. The exhibition featured work that crossed boundaries that did not fit into conventional perceptions of craft, but was concerned as much with ideas as with form. It was not about process or material, both of which can be important elements in conceptual work, but was more concerned with structure and metaphor. The two ceramists included were Paul Astbury, who exhibited Garden pieces that took the idea of clay and earth as metaphors for the cycle of life in a meditation on gender characteristics, death and rebirth, and Julie Wood, who showed rounded, pebble or body-like forms. All the objects were placed on the floor, there were no plinths or room dividers; in other words, the pieces were presented as fine art objects and had to be seen as such.

Needless to say, when the show was put on at the Crafts Council – I think rather bravely given the exhibition’s difficult status in questioning the concept of craft – it received almost totally unfavourable reviews. At the risk of embarrassing myself with what was written at the time, I think it is worth spending a moment to consider what the principle objections were. In discussion Paul Greenhalgh– with Foucauldian logic – had questioned the concept itself, pointing out that there was no edge to be on, but craft and art are a part of a continuum and as such the exhibition was setting up a false argument, but neatly skirting round the fact there was an Arts and a Crafts Council which in a sense the exhibition was about. Bill Feaver in the Observer, one of the few nationals to review the show, was mystified by what he saw, but the most spirited objections came from Peter Dormer writing in Crafts magazine, who saw On the Edge as undermining virtually everything that crafts stood for. His major points were that:

  1. Craft should not need complex explanation – what you see is what you get and this is an intrinsic part of the qualities of craft
  2. The work was pretentious in claiming to be art
  3. That it did not investigate the craft in so-called art objects
  4. Concluding that the whole show should have been consigned to the abyss the show opened up.

There is not the time here to look at Peter Dormer’s thoughts but, as curator, the show represented to me what was going on at least in one part of the craft world at that time, and as such should have been taken seriously. My impression was that like a critic going along to a concert by Handel and complaining that it was not by Bach, he and others were attacking it for what it wasn’t rather than what it was. In many ways maybe it was a show in the wrong gallery at the wrong time. If it had been presented on the South Bank, the Serpentine Gallery, Camden Arts Centre, or any other fine art venue, visitors would have come with a different set of expectations and been prepared to look more sympathetically at the work, even if they were just as critical.

Recalling Henry Ford’s maxim location, location, location, this more than ever serves to illustrate the importance of context. Within the craft world, protests that the work is really art, the age-old argument, tend to fall on deaf ears. It was such a realisation that prompted artists such as the jeweller Susanna Heron and the ceramist Jacqui Poncelet to act when they felt their work had become more art than craft. They refused to show in anything that could be seen to be a craft context, withdrew their names from the Craft Council index, and would henceforth only show in fine art contexts. If you want to be an artist, they argued, then be one. Andrew Lord, since leaving art school in the early 1970s, showed his ceramics, all based on vessel forms, only in fine art contexts, and has always been seen as a sculptor rather than ceramist.

Yet, despite the lashing that On the Edge received, it was part of a wider movement within craft that represented a seismic shift of concerns. Craft was suddenly refusing to lie down on the bed that had been made for it, and was demanding more freedom in both what it could do and the way it was perceived. Since then, there have been many shows looking at the interface between art and craft – including exhibitions in art galleries of art moving toward craft. At the Richard Salmon Gallery there was Craft. Glasgow followed with a wonderfully ambiguously titled exhibition ‘Love Craft’, while last August the South London Gallery put on a show called Domestic Bliss, which was about art merging into craft. Perhaps significantly, none of these shows, as far as I can recall, showed any work in ceramic, an indication perhaps of the way that material can also be a big defining element in the way people approach art and craft.

In 1992 a realisation that the existence of a separate body caring for the crafts was maybe something of an enigma occurred to the then Tory Arts Minister Richard Luce, who proposed that the Crafts Council should merge with the Arts Council. This, rather than being a part of a recognition of the changing status of craft, a sort of coming of age to mark the twenty-one years of the Crafts Council’s existence, was proposed as part of a cost cutting exercise. There was almost universal opposition as makers saw all the gains made by having a separate body being lost within the more anonymous and impersonal Arts Council. At a packed meeting at the V & A a few brave speakers dared suggest that it was a good idea, a way forward that opened opportunities, offered new horizons and took craft out of the rather cosy corner into which it had fallen. If I remember correctly these included Alison Britton and Paul Astbury. The idea was quietly dropped by the government. Had the proposal been couched differently, i.e. that craft could now stand alongside other visual art forms, then the idea would have been taken more seriously.

It is a mark of the profound change in those intervening years that when Culture Secretary Chris Smith proposed such a merge in 1998 the situation had been totally reversed and there was virtually no opposition. A meeting at the Crafts Council to consider such a move was almost unanimous in welcoming it.

Modern times
The Arts Council of England, or ACE to give it its acronym, is, it claims, an ‘independent, non-political body working at arms length from the government’. Its mission is ‘Developing, sustaining and promoting the arts’, and its aim is ‘to promote access, education and excellence in the arts through partnership’. All are not so different to those of the Crafts Council. ACE’s five key priorities are:

  1. to reach a wider audience
  2. to encourage individuality and experiment
  3. promote creativity across the generations
  4. recognise cultural diversity and
  5. explore new forms of expression.

Again, there is no difficulty in craft acknowledging such priorities.

The merge took place nearly two years ago. So where are we now? The current situation is that the Crafts Council is funded by the Arts Council of England, but retains its own Charter and Council. Responsibility for educational research has moved from the Crafts Council to the Arts Council as has funding for national touring craft shows, which now have to compete with all applications for touring shows within the visual arts budget. The Art department more than ever merits the title of Visual Arts to indicate its concern for all art forms. I was appointed onto the visual art panel in 1998. Jeremy Theophilus, a senior arts officer at the Arts Council, has special responsibility for the crafts. Last September I was appointed to serve on the Arts Council. What is clear from my involvement with the Arts Council is that ACE is conscious of crafts and the needs of makers working through various bodies both in and out of London.

The merge has achieved four important things:

  1. Signalled crafts coming of age. Craft now has the opportunity to stand alongside and compete with all visual art forms, and like photography, with which it has much in common, it has to embrace and recognise rather than ignore its diversity, from function at one end to individual expression at the other.
  2. It gives crafts access to larger sums of money. The current budget of ACE is two hundred million, due to rise to three over the next three years. In addition it distributes large amounts of lottery funding and I hope crafts is set to take a larger part of this.
  3. Bringing crafts within ACE means that it is no longer the care of an outside agency but is a central part of ACE and hence is accountable to craft in the way it is to other art forms it represents. In other words craft can no longer be ignored.
  4. There are new opportunities for collaborations and cross-overs between art and craft, and we must look for connections and similarities as well as differences. For example, between the Arts Council Collection of fine art, and the Crafts Council Collection of craft, bringing the possibility of touring shows that include work selected from both. What is evident, and it has been manifest in several recent conferences, such as the one at the London Institute and Object and Idea at the Victoria and Albert Museum last November, is that craft is not a single, united entity. It embraces many sorts of practice, from domestic pottery to ceramic installation, all of which require different approaches, whether in the showing and display of work, or in critical writing around them.

Within craft, makers and public bring to it a whole range of preconceptions and ideas, and whenever we talk about craft, we need to bear this in mind. For some it is about history, about being part of a long tradition and as such has a known and respected place. Some see craft as nostalgia, a wistful reminder of times when art, craft and function were all happily united, and like to root craft in a ‘happier’, more unproblematic time. For others, the new or fine crafts are a part of progress, an area to colonised, developed, even exploited, open to interpretation and discovery open to new ways of thinking.

Within these three considerations there are three other issues. These include the question of aesthetics – is there, for example, a craft aesthetic or do crafts fall within wider aesthetic considerations? There is also the question of commodification – makers make objects to sell, raising questions of how such considerations affect aesthetics. Related to this, for example, is the issue of whether there is aesthetics of the market place. Thirdly, there are the social aspects of craft, craft as a communicator, a signifier, whether of values, ideas, materials or ways of life. All are a part of what makes up the complex area we call craft.

Finally, as both a maker and a critic, I want to talk briefly about some of the implications of the merge as I see them, and this has principally to do with crafts coming of age, with being given the key of the door and the freedom to relax and enjoy the strengths and qualities of craft. One of my concerns is to ensure that the makers – those whose work touches on functionality without necessarily being totally functional – do not loose out in the shift to amalgamate, when there is often a tendency to focus on more controversial, provocative work. When Yanagi, the Japanese writer and craft aesthetician was asked what it the special nature of beauty in crafts (another highly loaded and emotive concept and one to which a whole day could be given), he replied ‘Friendly beauty’ and I briefly want to consider what this might mean with regard to ceramics or even that most questionable word pottery.

  1. As part of crafts coming of age we can be more relaxed about allowing ourselves to enjoy its qualities. It is not always necessary to show craft in the cool, anonymous space of the white cube of most art galleries. Teapots, cups and saucers do not always sit easily on plinths – and may indeed give the wrong message.
  2. Pots can be presented in other contexts, which will retain their associations with the domestic environment but may also indicate how they can enhance and animate a space. There have been one or two examples of pots shown within the domestic settings as objects to live with, savour and enjoy. Edmund de Waal showed in High Cross House, Darlington last year, and Magdalena Odundo is to show her magnificent forms in July in Blackwell House, Lake District. Pots can be photographed in domestic contexts rather than be isolated in the regulation fading out background.
  3. Few of us can open a magazine these days without coming across the dreaded concept of Lifestyle be they called Home or whatever. Maybe we can now relax and use such opportunities rather than bemoan being ignored by the arts pages. I must make it clear that I do bemoan the lack of critical attention by writers on fine art who ignore the crafts and do not see Lifestyle as an alternative to critical debate, but it is useful for some crafts. Equally, I do regret the reluctance of fine art spaces to show craft – but my impression is that the merge will filter through and change is on the way. Crafts is a multi-faced discipline in both its intention and form; it is open to interrogation and critical analysis as well as offering the sheer pleasure of well made objects. Let us enjoy and celebrate its diversity – critically and aesthetically.

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Camberwell College of Arts, London, UK

15 January 2001

Overthrowing Tradition
Alison Britton


Action - Reflection: Tracing Personal Developments
Neil Brownsword


Ends and Beginnings
Emmanuel Cooper


Radical Pots
Edmund de Waal


Studio Ceramics: The End of the Story?
Jeffrey Jones



Ends and Beginnings Issue 2