Christopher Frayling

from The Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain 9. 1988 ISBN 0 521 32765 2 - Page 185

The craftsman’s artist

In the tenth anniversary issue of Crafts magazine, published by the Crafts Council in April 1983, several well-known artist-craftspeople (as they had come to be called) were asked ‘which books have influenced your thinking and working during the last ten years?’ Amongst many of the replies, the writings of John Ruskin, William Morris, C>R>Ashbyee, George Stuart, Bernard Leach and David Pye were not mentioned once. Instead the furniture designer and maker Fred Baier (whose reply was the first to be quoted) wrote:

“I’m not a great reader of books, especially not ones without pictures . . . As far as books and work, the first one that springs to mind is Groucho Marx’s Letters . . . At college we were spoon-fed Nikolaus Pevsner and Herbert Read but they never really got to me. One that did was The Principles of Art by R.G. Collingwood. I remember enjoying the Collingwood.”

For the generation which had been at art college, or had just left art college, when the ‘Objects USA’ exhibition was touring Britain, and when the ‘Craftsman’s Art’ show opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum (both in 1973) the ‘brown grey’ aesthetic of the latter-day inheritors of the Arts and Crafts tradition was of little interest – except, perhaps, as the subject of the occasional ironic reference; and that tradition’s emphasis on skill – as a statement about the ‘de-skilling’ tendency which seemed to be turning the industrial worker into ‘a mere cog in a machine’ in society at large – was there to be rejected, or at least pushed to one side, as an unnecessary obstacle to aesthetic experiment. The crafts weren’t a solace any more – they simply provided a ‘language’ (to use the then fashionable terminology of structuralism) through which young artists could express themselves. Bernard Leach may have turned the ‘artist-craftsman’ into a heroic figure, but his emphasis on the morality of that project had still left the ‘artist-craftsman’ as a second class citizen, where the fine arts were concerned. The ‘Craftsman’s Art’ people who were the products of craft and applied art departments in urban art colleges of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and who had no wish to decamp to Cornwall after they left – wanted to be taken seriously as artists as well as craftspeople.

The ‘action-crafts’ of 1950s America (which had abandoned the traditional values of good practice to emphasise craft as an abstract art) and the ‘funk-crafts’ of the 1960s west coast America (which had been allied to the pop art movement, with a shared interest in the imagery of mass culture) had introduced the concept of an avant garde into the crafts for the first time and, as a result, had decisively blurred the boundaries between the ‘fine artist’ and ‘the craftsman’. The artists (such as Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson who moved into the craft world in the 1950s and 1960s) seemed to be free from (or ignorant of) the holy writ which said ‘there is no beauty without utility’. The west coast craftspeople who moved into the art world at the same time, with their ceramic Micky Mouses and their funky versions of everyday objects, were probably aware of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts (or rather, of a hippie version which made bizarre connections between Morris and Zen Buddhism), but they weren’t going to allow that to restrict the aesthetic possibilities which were open to them. And in any case it wasn’t their tradition. The commonsense folk definitions of ‘craft’ (as virtuoso skill) and ‘art’ (as self expression) were beginning to distract from the appreciation of modern work – such as the sculptural furniture of Wendell Castle. The ‘Objects USA’ which resulted from this radical redefinition were dismissed by Machael Cardew as ‘Rubbish USA’.

Illustrations of this work circulated in Britain at a time when developments in the fine art world – notably conceptualism and minimalism – had created a new space in the galleries for the artist-craftsmen to inhabit (as Misha Black’s lecture ‘Craft: Art or Design?’ had suggested). The consequence was, in the words of one critic, ‘a paradoxical renaissance’:

The 1970s saw the upthrust of a second Art and Crafts movement, which was very different from its predecessor. There were a number of reasons for this revival. One was the fact that pop art’s self-identification with mass-consumerism began to seem unattractive, whether or not it was tinged with irony, in a world where the environment was increasingly at risk from industrial process. At the same time, there began to appear a hunger for physical virtuosity in the handling of materials, something which many artists were no longer happy to provide. The result was a renewed fascination with the figure of the artist-craftsman, who replaced the Pop painter or sculptor as a fashionable culture-hero.
(Edward Lucie-Smith, The story of Crafts, p. 274)

In Britain, it wasn’t so much a question of fine artists choosing to express themselves through a range of new media – like Picasso making his paintings on ceramic bodies – it was more a question of craftspeople turning their objects into critical and expressive statements, with a new emphasis on sculptural form and on decoration which didn’t ‘fit the form’. And a question it undoubtedly was. Fred Baier’s choice of Collingwood’s Principles of Art (1938) as an influencial text was very significant, since it was Collingwood who in 1938 had tried to define the boundaries between ‘what I shall call craft’ and ‘art proper’ in a philosophically defensible way – from the point of view of the artist. For Collingwood, writing in the wake of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, there was a prevailing misconception which encouraged ‘people who write about art today to think that it is some kind of craft: this is the main error against which modern aesthetic theory must fight’. This misconception he labeled ‘the technical theory of art’ – a theory which implied that art activity had something to do with ‘the power to produce a preconceived result by means of consciously controlled action’, and it only succeeded in confusing ‘what I shall call craft’ with ‘ proper art’: ‘a technician is made, but an artist is born’. If the ‘theory of art’ continued to lay so much stress on the mere craft technique, Collingwood concluded, ‘it is no more to be called art criticism, or aesthetic theory, than the annual strictures in the Tailor and Cutter on the ways in which the Academy portrait painters represent coats and trousers’. The words ‘artist’ and ‘artisan’ may have had the same linguistic origins, but that is where all similarity ended.

So it is not surprising that an artist-craftsman who emerged in the 1970s, such as Fred Baier, admitted to ‘enjoying the Collingwood’ in preference to Pevsner’s Pioneers of the Modern Movement and Read’s Art and Industry (both of which were, at one level, moral tracts about design). Baier’s own statements about his furniture (pieces such as the extraordinary Tartan Cabinet, Bay City Roller, and the Whatnot in wood) shared many of the same or similar assumptions about ‘the technical theory of art’:

For me it is not the making that is the driving force. The only reason I make is because I can’t afford to pay anyone who is sufficiently good to do it without worrying myself to death. Colour is one of my prime concerns . . .

Where the young artists of the ‘Craftsmans Art’ generation were concerned, the ‘rules’ which had been taught in craft and design faculties of post-Coldsteam art colleges in the late 1960s and early 1970s –that ’less is more’, that ‘the pattern should fit the form’, and above all (following Leach and Cardrew) that ‘there was no beauty without utility’ – were all open to question