Craft - a refuge for artists who play it safe
I see the craft world as a kind of lagoon and the art world in general as the ocean. Some artists shelter in this lagoon, because their imagination isn’t robust enough to go out into the wider sea. Although there are some very good things being made, the craft world at the moment is set up to preserve something that can’t look after itself.
Perhaps our modern western emphasis on the individual has distorted our idea of the crafts. People want a direct contact with the maker, want something that hasn’t got the impersonal perfection of the manufactured. Often what we call character or spirit in an object, especially a functional one, are basically mistakes. I’ve recently had a Saville Row suit made, and what sets it apart are the things you might call mistakes. It is softer round the edges.
And yet, the traditional craft areas have dried up. The last bastions of handmade work - Saville Row tailoring, high end car manufacture and bespoke furniture - are disappearing because they are so expensive and the mass-produced is so good in some fields. There’s no need for humble tableware or woven hand-made rugs: there’s always a manufactured design alternative. The handmade has become an expensive indulgence.
But craft isn’t just a synonym for the hand-made. It is about technical skill but there must be a good idea guiding it, either traditional or innovative. I love craft objects to look at, but for me the best thing is a combination of its meaning, its beauty and its craftsmanship. It is all these things combined that make art exciting.
The essential distinction between art and craft is that art has an emphasis on feelings and ideas and the crafts have an emphasis on technique. I always give things the Antiques Roadshow test: would an object be interesting if it came up on the programme? Can I imagine a Sarah Lucas tin can cropping up on Antiques Roadshow and us looking at it in awe? It has to have something of quality about it, either the craftsmanship or rigorous ideas or strong feelings. My least favourite outcome is the beautifully crafted ugly thing.
But the history of the handmade is littered with some very profound objects, and what is beautiful about them is that this profundity is not as self-conscious as a lot of contemporary 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.
Craft has lost its way and become precious; self-consciousness is one of its great cankers. Sometimes there are peevish voices in the craft world demanding respect from the contemporary art world. It is a bit like an Englishman in France shouting in English. If you want to be accepted in the contemporary art world, you have to accept its culture and speak its language. I see the craft world as the pretentious next-door neighbour. It is failed ambition: you either are an artist or you aren’t. Don’t train yourself as a crafts person, exhibit in the crafts world and then complain.
One of the major difficulties crafts people face today is a definition of what they do. Nowadays craft overlaps with design and contemporary arts, and there is little territory that is actually crafts. Are websites crafted? Is craft making a TV programme, or writing an article? They all have a craft aspect. To call something craft is just to say it is physical. But craft is a hot word in the art world at the moment, because people are tired of conceptual art where the ideas aren’t even that good, ideas that wouldn’t stand up outside the flimsy theatre of the gallery. Once people saw art as a career, it attracted a lot of chancers. A lot of painting I see would probably qualify as craft.
Although I use the emotional and intellectual framework of a craft medium, as a potter, I see myself as an artist, not as part of the crafts movement. Pottery is older than painting, with just as venerable a history, but if you look at the big prices in auction houses, if that is any measure of worth, paintings get the big sums. The crafts have an audience of people who make crafts, in the same way as the theatre has an audience of out-of-work actors. There aren’t any superstar crafts people, any Sam Taylor- Woods. And there aren’t the high-profile collectors in the world of crafts. The craft world has become a refuge for the
less challenging artists.
Grayson Perry is the 2003 winner of the British Turner prize for contemporary fine art. He is the first potter to win this prestigious award.