The Death of Art and Crafts

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Whilst science is typified by knowledge, art can be distinguished as having something to do with imagination and skill – an essence not bounded by rationality, but alight with passion and emotion. If one were to separate art and knowledge at two ends, somewhere in the middle you would find craft: where art, knowledge and skill interlace.

Britain has a rich history of craft. We were once a craft nation; a people of blacksmiths, stonemasons, luthiers, carvers, thatchers, glass-blowers, potters and shoemakers. Skilled craftsmen were powerful, trusted and highly respected members of every community for their ability to harness nature’s materials to create things of function and beauty. Sadly, these crafts are disappearing. It is not simply that not enough people are taking them up, the places where they still can be found – in trade and art fairs, folk festivals – are fading away too. As Sir Paul Smith – the British fashionista – has lamented, ‘To be a stonemason and only carve as much stone as your hands can manage isn’t attractive anymore’. [1] This life has all but disappeared, but it is not due to it going out of fashion, more that, as Smith notes, there is a pressure for the young to ‘earn a certain amount of money or to achieve a certain status’ [2]. A social psyche that is orientated towards production and profit: leave school, go to university, get a job, work your way up and retire.

Fundamentally, our society is not geared towards the arts and crafts anymore. Technology, industry and science have taken precedence over arts, and without the monetary support it is not financially feasible to make a living from a craft, which has led to the situation in which the word ‘craft’ or ‘craftsman’ is subsumed to hobbyist – a recreational pursuit that it is good for the soul, but not much else.  Successive governments have turned its back on arts and crafts to the big money of industry. This is an extremely sad affair. To have a trade, or a craft is a brilliant and extremely rewarding thing to have, a job in which you can have great pride in your work. It is the ideal mix of knowledge and skill. This is why craftsman were once so respected. In our technological, material, order-in, import world we have lost the beauty of what it is to have or hold a craft.

Yet, this is by no means a new grievance. This lamentation echoes the cries of the arts and crafts movement of the late 19th century. Inspired and led by the likes of John Ruskin and William Morris, this movement criticised the perceived loss of arts, crafts and creativity in an increasingly industrialised world of mass-production. Timeless skills were being lost to modern, automated machinery and large-scale factories with lowly paid, unskilled workers. This movement was not just about art; it was deeply political, built upon primarily socialist ideas, which sought ‘new principles for living and working’, advocating ‘the reform of art’ [3] with a concern for the conditions of working people and the freedom of the craftsman. Unfortunately, this is somewhat of a forgotten period of British history, perhaps because, ultimately, the movement failed, despite it catching on as far as America and Japan.

However, our hyper-industrial and globalised society today could learn a lot from this movement. Promoting crafts could have great social benefits. As an essay in the New York Times notes, manufacturing, labelled as ‘the first cousin of craftsmanship’, ‘spawns innovation, brings down trade deficit, strengthens the dollar, generates jobs… and kindles a recovery from recession’ [4]. I believe today, more than ever, there is a cause to be critical of technology, globalisation and our materialistic, un-sustainable, selfish lives. ‘The general public, Mrs. Dennett said [leader of Boston Arts and Crafts Society], must be educated to an admiration of craftsmanship rather than “lifeless trappings.” [5] – The same can be said today.

The simple, easy answer to the death of craft is to say ‘the government should do more to promote craft’ or ‘there needs to be more apprenticeship schemes’. This is what another Boston Society of Arts and Crafts member Denman Ross thought in the early 20th century; that one might be able to educate people into crafts [6] – and it is tempting to conclude that the answer to the death of arts and crafts in Britain is a call to education. However, as Mary Ware Dennett noted, if we educate people how will they make a living? This has more truth today than it did when she made this point a hundred years ago. It is very well creating more skilled people, but if there isn’t any work or job opportunities for them, why bother? This is why craft has become more a hobby pursuit than a career. No, the answer is unfortunately much grander and derailing: the solution is ‘a matter not of school curriculum, but of life itself’ [7]. It requires a whole social and economic restructuring – a society in which people with a skill can freely create and exchange goods for a fair wage, without having to succumb to the powers of industry.

Regrettably, this arts and crafts inspired vision, like the movement at the time, is easily battered away as being utopian – idyllic, but unreasonable and somewhat absurd. Especially in our globalised, hyper-industrialised society, such a way of life looks increasingly untenable. Yet, with that said, disillusionment with our economic, social system has never been so high. In the 99% and Occupy movements and anti-globalisation movements you can see the lineage to the political ideals of the arts and crafts movement. It is not yet completely crazy. I for one lament the decline of arts and crafts, not just in Britain, but across the Western world. Thus, I somewhat pessimistically hope that arts and crafts will see a return to the centre of society soon, yet it is a call I cannot envisage happening anytime soon.

Article by George Richards. Edited by Ben Mackay.

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[5] Winter, R. (1975) ‘The Arts and Crafts as a Social Movement’, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, 34 (2) p.39.

[6] Ibid., p.38.

[7] Ibid., p.39.


  • James

    Given that our entire society relies on mechanization and industry to continue to exist, a wholesale return to the ‘Crafts’ of our forefathers would be catastrophic. Unless you have a way to reduce the population to just over a billion or so…

  • George

    Then you aim to achieve a society that does rely solely on mechanization and industry to exist. But this is why I’m so pessimistic in my article, as I cannot really envisage this ever happening, or sadly it even being possible.