Why heritage crafts are important

23rd January 2016  |  OUR STORIES

Keynote speech by Professor Ewan Clayton

Professor Ewan Clayton is a renowned calligrapher, Visiting Professor in Art, Design, Media and Culture at the University of Sunderland and lecturer in calligraphy at the University of Roehampton. The HCA was honoured that Professor Clayton agreed to speak at its forum for craftspeople on 23 March 2010 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In response to public demand, Ewan has kindly agreed to let us reproduce the full transcript of the talk here.

It’s great to be here speaking to you today. I suppose I don’t have to be too nervous because I am leading into a discussion, and if I put my foot in it that just means more discussion! Well I don’t intend to put my foot in it. I want to be sensitive and I think today is about building something, not about analysing things apart. It’s about discovering generative connections rather than the knockabout of critical debate.

So, my background – how do I come to be standing here? I think it’s because of two things really. One is growing up in Ditchling, where two generations of my family have been weavers in the Guild of craftsmen established on Ditchling Common by Hilary Pepler and Eric Gill. I grew up threading looms for my grandfather, going next door to the silversmith Dunstan Pruden’s workshop to watch what he was doing, or going to the workshop on the other side which belonged to a stonecarver, Gill’s first apprentice, Joseph Cribb. I remember he showed me at about four or five years old how to carve with hammer and chisel. I seemed to only make ashtrays – I don’t know why! They’re now doorstops in my parents’ house! But it was a really amazing place to grow up.

I went off to a monastery in my twenties and when I came out four months later I found myself in Silicon Valley as part of a new research project that was happening in Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre, which is the place where they invented the personal computer, the concept of Windows, the first use of the mouse, the laser printer – so much of what we use today. It was very disconcerting being a craftsman in a building with 350 scientists! The story of how I came to be there, and what we did, is immaterial at the moment.

The point is that I’ve got an interest in my craft (which is to do with communication, with calligraphy) that goes right back to the quill pen, but that also goes forward to the contemporary media. And I’m always trying to hold that balance between past and future.

As a child growing up in Ditchling I constantly asked myself ‘what place do we have in the world making these things’, ‘who are we making them for’, ‘what quality of life do we have’, and ‘what is quality of life’ – which seems to be one of the basic questions that you can ask yourself, and one that often orientates you towards being a craftsperson. Past, present and future come together. So that means I tend to have a rather inclusive view of crafts.

What I’m going to do here is in this little half-hour talk is not so much get into the detail of ideas – of what to do and how to do them – because that’s really a community project rather than an individual project. What I can do is perhaps just throw out some ideas, some frameworks, some ways of thinking. That’s what I see my role being in this forum.

I think the first thing is that I know from my craft (and from my experience of life) that all these things from different periods of history – the quill pen and the computer – they exist together at the same time. We’re not at the end of a point of progress where we only have the bottom point. We actually have an awful lot that comes down to, and still operates simultaneously with the modern, in our present society.

As a calligrapher you only have to walk into a bank and you pass stone carved lettering or bronze cast lettering on the outside. You go inside and you see inkpads and stamps being used, fountain pens and ballpoints. You see carbon paper, fax machines, computers, handwriting – it’s all there at the same time.

What I’ve learnt from my work in the States with new technologies is that new technologies don’t actually tend to replace things that have been there before. What they tend to do is to add another layer to it. All these things coexist. And although certain institutions look out on this world wearing very particular spectacles because of their history, I’m really advocating taking the spectacles off for a moment.

A really good illustration of this point happened to me the other day when I met a friend, who has worked for the Arts Council and the Crafts Council. He had just had the experience in India of running a project where craftspeople came to him afterwards and quite respectfully said to him ‘do you always have to look at the contemporary through the eyes of the modern?’

A very interesting thing – ‘do you always have to look at the contemporary through the eyes of the modern?’ – because of course modernism exists alongside post-modernism and nowadays post-post-modernism, as well as with the antique, with the Georgian, with the Arts and Crafts, and with the medieval. Within the crafts we have institutions that have spun off from that long story at different moments of its history and carried the agenda of those moments.

We have the V&A and the Royal College that spun off after the Great Exhibition of 1851, and carried the thought of design and industry together, and what that means. Or we have, for instance, the Artworkers’ Guild that spun off from the collection of people that included Cockerell, Lethaby and Morris. Or we have the Designer Makers who were originally the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society, who had their first exhibition in 1888 and hold the idea of the designer and maker being the same thing – that was a significant debate at that moment in history.

So we have all these things in the present – in a way, a cacophony of voices. In Ditchling, the group of people who formed the Guild of St Joseph and Dominic were influenced by the First World War, and they carried the agenda of building a new world. They’d been through terrible disasters, a lot of them in the army or the navy. They were building a new life. They were more radical actually than the first wave of the Arts and Crafts Movement. They thought the Arts and Crafts Movement had betrayed their original objectives. They went back to people like Ruskin and William Cobbett for their inspiration.

So why are all these things relevant today? I think they are relevant because the problems we once faced as a country – the first to be industrialised – are problems that today have a global dimension, like the ecological crisis or the instability of our financial world, or globalisation and its effects on local economies and environments and ways of life, or the ‘more, faster, better’ (1) consumer culture – these problems are not new. Rather, they’re the intensification of a process that’s been going on for at least two centuries, probably much more.

For instance, George Sturt, in his wonderful book The Wheelwright’s Shop – which looks at the story of the wheelwright’s shop in Farnham in the 1890s and the early part of the twentieth century – talks about problems with competition in timber supplies once the railways had opened up the country, ‘Dorset villages, Wiltshire villages, entered into the rivalry. Thanks to their lower wages and rents, and their far less costly timber …. it was worth the farmers while to ignore, or to sacrifice, the advantage of vehicles locally made with a view to local conditions’, (2) and of course this affected not only the local businesses but the local woods and landscape. That was a problem just happening within those counties of England, within that period in history. Now it’s happening at a global level.

Or again to Ditchling – they talked about globalisation in terms of the power of corporations. They talked about sustainability and ecology as a debate between the quality of town life and that of the country, or in response to financial instability (which of course they saw in the 30s, and in the general strike of 1926) they tried to redefine what wealth was. They looked back to John Ruskin and that famous book Unto This Last, a book about which Gandhi said ‘that book changed my life’. As Ruskin put it in that essay, ‘there is no wealth but life itself’ – so it was about quality of life (3).

Together, as this community of craftspeople, we embody several centuries of continuous reflection on these problems. And that’s why the embodied wisdom – that is embodied not just within us, but within the things we make, and our relationship with our environments, and the activities that use our artifacts in – is really a great cultural resource.

So why now? Why have the heritage or traditional crafts come up the agenda now? Well we could point to many things, We could point to the Heritage Lottery Fund for example, or English Heritage and its work restoring aspects of our cultural heritage. We could point to the television, to Monty Don’s programmes, to Time Team and the archaeological side of things – programmes that look at makers and objects. We could look at Crafts in the English Countryside, a report written by Professor Ted Collins in 2004, an excellent piece of work that identified an interest in rural crafts as coming up the agenda.

According to the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, as we become wealthier so psychological motives kick into guiding the things we buy. We no longer only buy what we need, but what gives us a different grounding, and the handmade (as opposed to the machine made) feels more prestigious. Or we can take a view from Tanya Harrod’s great work on crafts in the twentieth century, where she argues that the general fascination with crafts is a reaction to mechanization (4).

But actually what I think might be one of the other reasons for it coming up the agenda is environmentalism. As we’ve become conscious of the interlocking nature of the world that we live in, and we realise that species are disappearing, that environments are getting damaged, so we realise the vulnerability of our own human cultural heritage and of the intangible cultural assets that we carry as communities.

So I think environmentalism’s been quite important in this, and here are just two thoughts about that. Firstly, the notion of sustainability, of thinking about things over the long term, is one of the things that the heritage crafts (though I know this is a huge umbrella) carry with them. They carry a slightly longer sense of time about things than immediately responding to a market.

A building is in a sense never finished, it goes on being built. It has that initial phase, but then to keep it alive and functioning there is in fact continuous work, sometimes for centuries, that has to go on. We see it in our cathedrals most obviously. This is what the heritage crafts are involved in. The reason these buildings have this long-term life and continuous recreation of themselves is because they’re not immune from other life forms and other cycles of energy in our planet. Inorganic substances change over time just as organic substances do, as we know, and other life forms inhabit those buildings, and some of these minerals or organic substances corrode. We’re working with those buildings, and working with the cycles of the environment out of which those buildings grew, in order to maintain them.

So we have, I think, an interesting relationship to time, we have a long view. This is why when such skills become imperiled it seems so urgent, important and significant. And because of this long time scale I think that these crafts also carry with them a kind of – what the poet Alan Ginsburg called – a ‘beyond me’ quality – ‘I am one of several generations working on this project’ or ‘I am one of several generations who are handed this skill to pass this on’ – there’s a natural ‘beyond-me-ness’ when you’re thinking about traditional crafts, a sort of unselfishness that can be both wonderful and can also be abused.

Secondly, I think that the environmental movement has made us think about the organic, and about materials, in a different way, including our own bodies and our body’s quality of life. But it’s not just environmentalism that’s done that – there’s actually a much bigger cultural movement behind it. Feminism, for instance, from the 70s onwards, took apart some of the rigid constructions that we had built around the way the world was, some of the universalist perspectives on things, highlighting the particular, the organic, the local, and the cycles of birth and death that we’re all subject to. This has given many of us a different relationship to the world and to our own sense of ourselves.

This spins out into things like interpretative anthropology, into our exposure to other cultures and the way we think about what it is to be human, into philosophy – dare I say it, movements like phenomenology, which has become very important in the way philosophers view the world today. We’re re-appreciating our whole sensory involvement in the world – less weight to the mind and eye and a bit more to hearing, to the heft of things, to touch, to smell, to food, to taste.

Looking at those bigger cultural movements, one of my backgrounds (my first degree in fact) was in psychology. The latest developments in cognitive psychology are changing our understanding of what our minds are. Antonio Damasio, one of the leading experts on what consciousness is and how it works, shows that consciousness is a result of our brains putting together a whole lot of physiological responses, including our blood chemistry, feedback from our muscles and our organs, and knowing how our hearts and livers and things are. Our brains are monitoring that, and giving us a pre-verbal sense of feeling, so we know what’s happening and we know that we know what’s happening. And this is coming not just from our brains, it’s actually contributed to by our whole physical being (5).

So in the understanding of the experts we are indeed ‘body-minds’, or ‘minded bodies’, and we’re not split, as Descartes would have it, into body and mind. We’re actually the whole thing together. This is actually a radical shift because much in our contemporary world, even in our art and craft scenarios, is still positive on the body/mind split.

Raymond Williams, who’s a very well-known cultural commentator, dated the divisions in art to the moment in the eighteenth century when the Royal Academy refused to include engravers in their midst. There’s a very interesting parallel actually to the Crafts Council in the 70s, when they had a terrible dilemma about whether to include the conservation crafts or not. They decided to exclude them.

This is a constant debate, a fault line. Where it comes from is a tendency to distinguish intellectual from manual labour, and that comes from the distinction of breaking body and mind apart – thinking that the body hasn’t got the same intelligence, that intelligence is just for the mind. When this idea no longer holds, many things start collapsing.

But we must be aware of this dualism, because this dualism will affect both sides of the coin, as it were. Just as we may look at contemporary crafts as being individual, creative, innovative, forward looking, so we might also cast heritage craft in the shadow of that division, as timeless, rural, perhaps naïve, community rather than individual, kind of Arcadian. Neither is in fact true.

The latest studies of traditional crafts in Japan have shown that traditional ceramics are just as socially constructed, subject to the influence of patronage and self-preservation, as contemporary crafts are. (6) The beauty of the language of the Intangible Cultural Heritage UNESCO provision is that it makes some of these divisions redundant because it comes from a Japanese background, which is Buddhist influenced and thus takes a more all round and systematic view. It’s actually encapsulated in some of the provisions.

So, for instance, the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (the Japanese don’t like that word ‘heritage’ by the way. Their word is ‘properties’ or ‘assets’, because they see them as still living) states: ‘Any efforts to safeguard traditional craftsmanship must focus not on preserving craft objects – no matter how beautiful, precious, rare or important they might be – but on creating conditions that will encourage artisans to continue to produce crafts of all kinds, and to transmit their skills and knowledge to others.’ (the text can be found elsewhere on The Heritage Crafts Associations’ website)

I just want to show you a diagram, which I find quite useful to think about this sort of integrated structure. It is adapted from one made to explore the forces that generate the forms that documents take, and it originated from by my colleague at Xerox PARC David Levy.

What we’ve got on the left side of the triangle is artifacts, objects, things, genre. On the right side of the triangle is work practices – that is people, their activity and their skills and the institutions they form, their communities of practice, their guilds, their councils, and also their communities of interpretation, their galleries, their publications, their universities, their newsletters. At the bottom is technology, in which I include materials, substances, tools, machines, all that kind of raw material.

In my sphere of calligraphy and the world of communication the recent problem has been the introduction of new digital technology. The problem is that our present world always exists in a particular balance that’s been struck between the three sides of this triangle. If something new happens in technology, the other two sides cannot hold. What we see happening on the artifacts side is a new genre of artifacts coming up – we see the blog, websites, just completely different types of objects suddenly being made. In work practices, all the institutions that brought order to the previous way of being – the library, the law of copyright – they all have to respond. We see stories about this in the papers almost every day, about music being downloaded, about whether the libraries have a function in the future if the book doesn’t exist.

We can play this out any number of times. A few years ago I was at a conference in Kyoto about the crisis in traditional arts in Japan. One of the presenters, who had studied weaving in Kyoto, described what had happened when power loom weaving had been introduced to the community in Kyoto. Everybody started to compete with the power loom weavers, but power loom weaving had a knock-on effect, because the community of people over there found it less rewarding, because, along with power loom weaving, they were importing different work practices. You had to keep the looms working all night, but they didn’t want to work all night. There was less room for creative dimensions. People started leaving the industry. In fact production in 2004 fell to only nine per cent compared with 1987.

Then of course there was a problem of succession, of how to start communicating these skills. The net outcome of that was that they had to outsource their production to Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. But then the product was totally undermined, because they could no longer brand it as Japanese, no longer made in Kyoto. The whole thing was collapsing. (7)

This is a very useful way, I have found, of bringing this kind of integrated perspective to bear on an issue. Using it, we can see how the traditional artifacts of Japan that existed before the war owed their existence to a climate of patronage that was feudal. But with the war, and with democracy coming in, that went – the whole thing was connected.

Because of seeing things in this integrated way I suppose I now have come to see, counter to how Gill used to think of it, as craftsmanship involving not so much the mind imposing its will on materials by brute force, but rather that I’m a craftsperson who is existing within a field of forces (8), which I’m working with, as I go along in my engagement with the world, and my craft.

If we look at crafts like weaving or metal-smithing, they come from rhythmical movement. What that rhythmical movement depends upon – the hand coming down on the cooling metal and the human body controlling it, or the shuttle flying through threads in tension on the loom – is a kind of constant attention to what’s going on. One’s working within that field of forces rather than outside it. For this reason I feel that education in these kinds of crafts can’t be simply about the acquisition of a body of knowledge, but rather it’s an education of attention.

This integrated viewpoint (which is also behind the UNESCO document) makes it clear however how large-scale the challenge is before us. Because supporting our intangible cultural assets means supporting the entire cultural context in which they find meaning, or reinventing them. That’s a huge project.

So just like the violin finds its focus in the concert, or the saddle in horseriding, or cloth in human dignity, so we need to think about those environments in which our crafts meet our living (9).

One final point. As a traditional craftsperson it can sometimes feel dispiriting when we see the glamour and glitz of modern technology, which we see around us everywhere. We can feel we’re being left behind or not involved in what our children are discovering. That’s understandable. But I can tell you from the discussions I have in the United States, where I am frequently involved with a cross disciplinary team that looks at the development of digital technology, that those scientists at the very leading edge of digital technological development recognise that actually they have a problem that they have not yet solved.

The problem is not only that this medium speeds things up. There are attentional problems associated with it, or what they call a ‘quality of continuous partial attention’, that lies behind it, one experiences a certain dislocation in time and space. When you sit down in front of something like this you don’t know where you are, you could be anywhere in the world and it could be any time of day or night. This is a problem in the virtual world because it has created an addictive medium, a medium that disassociates people from their bodies. Internet addiction has been identified as the number one public health problem in South Korea and China.

Researchers are looking to people like craftspeople to balance this state of affairs. They actually look to us to feed ideas into how they’re constructing the technology now. Because if we are about anything, what we are about is embodied engagement with material things, the cultivation of focused attention, the ability to be present now in this place, at this time, responding to these conditions, coming through to us in all our senses (10).

So this intangible cultural inheritance that crafts carry is not only about our past – it’s about the vision of what it means to be human. It’s about now, and it’s about our future as well.

Thank you very much.

  1. An expression coined by Professor David Levy, The Information School, University of Washington, I am indebted to him for the basic thought about intensification in this paragraph.
  2. Sturt, George, The Wheelwright’s Shop, Cambridge University Press 1963 (first edition 1923) p. 199.
  3. Ruskin John, Unto This Last, ‘Ad Valorem’ Essay iv, section 77, 1860
  4. Harrod, Tanya, The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century, Yale 1999
  5. See Damasio, Antonio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. Heinemann 1999
  6. See Ianagi, Shigemni and Fister, Patricia (Eds.) Traditional Japanese Arts and Crafts in the 21st Century, International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, 2005, and in particular essays by Richard Wilson, Morgan Pitelka, Maria Roman Navarro and also Moeran, Brian, Folk Art Potters of Japan, Curzon 1997.
  7. Op cit as above, essay by Respicio, Norma ‘The Nishijin Tradition’ p. 321-339.
  8. My views in this and the next paragraph are influenced by the writings of the anthropologist Tim Ingold, see Ingold, Tim, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill, Routledge 2000.
  9. See the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann on ‘focal reality’ and ‘focal things’ in Borgmann, Albert, Crossing the Post Modern Divide, University of Chicago Press, 1992 pp 116-122.
  10. An accessible talk on problems of speed up and attention presented to Google researchers can be found athttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHGcvj3JiGA. The talk is by David Levy, a computer scientist who also trained as a calligrapher and bookbinder.