I attended art college during the seventies and graduated as a designer when there was still enthusiasm for crafts based industries, in England anyway. The idealism of William Morris endured in our education system, the belief that something hand-crafted from good and true materials would always hold more intrinsic value than anything a machine churned out. Thirty years on I feel this view has emasculated. There is a strong sense that anyone who works with their hands, regardless of skill, is somehow inferior.
Medway College of Art and Design was founded (in Rochester, Kent) on the beliefs and aspirations of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Teachers were chosen because their abilities were exceptional and every course was anchored in practical learning. For example the student jewellers made jewellery ‘at the bench’ under the tutelage of craftsman from the best workshops in HattonGarden. It wasn’t by chance the department cleaned up most prizes at the annual Goldsmiths Awards in London and was heralded as the best silversmithing and jewellery course available worldwide.
Working on the assumption that being taught by experienced professionals encouraged the best possible working practises the college had an outreach programme which permitted children (from the age of eleven) to attend Saturday morning classes. As a child I was fascinated by all things hand created and enjoyed the opportunity to experiment with many different arts and crafts (embroidery, millinery, figure painting, model making, textiles, sculpture) before finding design was my speciality.
During the thirty odd years I’ve helped run a small jewellery business I’ve seen the status of real craftsmanship slide to an all time low. Not only do people lack any concept of how long it takes to perfect the necessary skills they don’t seem to value that input. And the media doesn’t help. Television implies renovating a houses or garden can be done almost instantly so why not the making of a ring?
Are we no longer spellbound by a craftsperson’s mastery? Is there no sense of aesthetic pleasure in discovering something of beauty emerge from basic materials such as metal, clay, wood or stone? There is a theory amongst historians that the products created by a society reflect its wellbeing. I have always been inspired by works of fine craftsmanship just as I am by so-called works of art but I feel the erosion of status for hand skills doesn’t bode well for our future.