Header Image—detail of Mercury Window

Art and Craft Interface


It needs to be said that this ‘overview’ I have tried to provide, is far from complete and can only ever consist of fairly subjective and selected ‘vignettes’. I have focussed on European developments, not because I think them more important but, because they are particularly relevant to our considerations.

Until very recently the main criteria in assessing the evolution of humans seemed to focus on technical development. Brain-power gave rise to technological innovation, which then in turn made further increases in brain-power possible. There have been some radical re-thinks of late. Not least among them, the discovery of ‘Neanderthal art’ thought to be some 65,000 years old, in three locations in Spain; La Pasiegag b, Maltravieso and Ardales. They pre-date the arrival of modern humans in Europe by about 20,000 years.

Art was long thought of as the prerequisite of the more technically superior Homo Sapiens, whilst poor old Neanderthal was seen as a somewhat cloddish dead-end. Big-boned, strong and hairy, and although equipped with a slightly larger brain-pan than us, definitely on the slow side. What these discoveries seem to imply is that, art was there right from earliest times. It did not necessarily arise out of leisure won through more efficient hunting techniques, the products of a superior technology, it arose out of an inner compulsion, probably as focussed as the need to make tools.

Clear also, from those few ancient artistic remnants, is another dimension, that of religion. Religion in this sense does not mean some kind of formalised institution, but the intent of making sense of the mysterious universe, establishing a reciprocal relationship with it. It is my premise that we should unite all early forms of human innovation, be they technological, artistic or religious, as primary expressions of humanity. The difference between us and animals is not just that we make tools, but also that we paint, draw, make ornaments and bury our dead.

Technology, Art and Religion

Thus, we could identify three ‘strands’ of human creativity; Technology, Art and Religion which were at one time united. Tools were functional, (they had to be) artistic, they were well made, and cultic, had some ritual significance. One could argue that the act of tool-making in itself, separating the human from nature was an artistic and religious statement. Gradually in the course of time, these three strands of human creative activity separated.This was likely due to the evolution of more complex and sophisticated forms of human culture, that entailed greater specialisation.

In Hans van der Stock’s book, ‘The Spiritual Origin of Everyday Things’, he describes a process of secularisation; a thing starts by being an embodiment of an archetype, an altar or a throne, and finishes as a table and a chair.According to this scheme of things, the primary table was an altar, and the food-stuffs offered upon it, were sacrifices to the gods. Thus, a horizontal plane, a piece of ‘earth’, at first elevated above the ground to honour the gods, eventually is put to practical use, becomes a table. Even though there was this inevitable trend towards the functional, a direct link with the archetype had to be maintained.Thus, we have the creation of objects that are purely ‘ceremonial’ rather than useful.

The creation of the religious or ceremonial object entailed extra effort, time and ingenuity and was rewarded with high honours and status. In Aztec times the sculptor, commissioned to work on the holy images, was considered sacred. He left his family and lived a simple, austere life; food and drink were rationed, his entire purpose was dedicated to the service of the divine. On completion of his project, he was loaded with gifts, feather ornaments, and fine food. The space for making the sacred objects for the worship of the gods, was a separate space, one sundered from the everyday, the cultic objects themselves were the highest fruits of skill and achievement, different from the ordinary.What was true for the Aztecs was probably true for all ancient cultures. Thus, one could infer that the beginnings of art as entirely separate from craft, had at its root this leaning towards, nay ability to evoke the realm of the gods.


Perhaps it’s time to grope towards some kind of definition. What is the essential difference between craft and art? This is not easy. Mankind has had thousands of years when the distinction was more or less irrelevant. As I have posited; every human activity, whether it be tool-making, artistic or ceremonial, is at heart ‘creative’. Yes, craft has a strongly functional element, a jug, a basket or a cloak, have to ‘work’, it is this functional element that defines its purpose. And art has a separate function from the purely utilitarian, perhaps just as rigorously defined by its context and culture, but essentially non-practical. The elaborate, truncated and pictorial flint axes found in the Mayan settlement of Copan, were definitely ceremonial rather than functional. One could turn the argument around and say; both craft and art are art; craft is art whose purpose is defined by practical function, and art is art that, certainly in ancient times, was defined by its ceremonial or religious function.

Art and Identity

The entire Egyptian Epoch of 3,000 or so years passed, without the accomplishment of the next phase. This next phase was the mark of the individual, the identity of the individual maker, who rises up out of the vast anonymous ocean of human creativity.Greece in 6th centuryBC, provides us with the first examples of signed work in the painted pottery of Sophilos, Exekias and Kleitias. Sculpture is not far behind, though most exists only in Roman copy. Myron of Eleuthera, famous for his bronze discus thrower from the 5th century, and of course Phidias of Athens 493 to 430 BC, forever immortalised by his work in the Parthenon, the great temple of Athene. These two examples of pottery and sculpture form a kind of polarity. Pottery arose around 7,000 BC, and in the case of Greek civilisation, reached its final figurative, high-art phase in the 7th century BC. The pottery vessel (often a commemorative urn), becomes the canvas for artistic genius. Sculpture, in the form of small portable fetishes has been around far longer. The oldest undisputed representation of a human figure, carved in mammoth ivory and found in the Hohle Fels Cave in Germany, was made around about 35,000 BC.

Some individual Roman Painters achieved fame in their life-time, but little remains of their work. With the birth of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire, the Artist/Craftsman once again sinks into anonymity. The art of the Catacombs and of the so-called Dark Ages, is primitive compared to the sophistication of classical times. Yet it carries elements of religious ‘expression’, arguably more potent than the realism of Rome.

Craft into Art

Let us have an ‘intermezzo’ in our considerations of the rise of the individual artist in the development of European art and look at something else; the birth of two art-forms out of ‘crafts’. Literacy was preserved in the Dark Ages by monastic scribes, both nuns and monks. In the Celtically inspired illuminations such as the Book of Kells c 800AD and the Lindisfarne Gospels 715 to 720 AD, pattern and ornamentation predominate. One has the feeling that, this patterning has some profound significance that one is as yetunable to comprehend, that the relationship between so-called decoration and image is not random but has meaning. In fact, it is likely that ‘meaning’ existed on three different tiers of understanding; the scribed words, the narrative pictures and the ornamentation.

The Carolingian (780-900 AD) and Ottonian (919-1024 AD) illuminated works, seem to lay stress on ‘writing’ and ‘picturing’, decoration has less significance. The laborious and painstaking creation of illuminated books, did not only preserve literacy, it can also be seen as the seed-bed of European painting. The troubled and bloody years of the Dark Ages, did not give rise to large-scale altar or mural painting, but transmitted, in miniature form, firmly welded to the craft of book making and the text, the art of painting.

Sculpture was ‘liberated’ from its block by the Greek sculptors. Egyptian art was monumental and static by comparison. As an independent art form, it more-or-less vanishes from the European scene until the Romanesque and the Gothic era. The Romanesque era 1000- 1200 AD, which really saw an extraordinary revival of artistic and cultural activity in Europe ‘synthesized’ a medley of influences, Roman, Byzantine, Germanic and Celtic. Sculpture, certainly on any significant scale had died with the collapse of the Roman Empire. In the Romanesque era it is reborn, the child of architecture, the patterning motifs of illuminated manuscripts, and small-scale carvings in ivory. This process reaches its fulfilment in the Gothic, where the sculptures seem to step out of the architectural framework (the pillars) into a more independent state of existence.In both these examples; illumination into painting and architecture/ornamentation into sculpture, there is a shift from an activity that could be described as ‘craft’ to one that could be defined as ‘art’.

The Rennaisance

In the Renaissance, which can be seen as the dawning of our era, craft and art are sundered from each other, seemingly absolutely. The visual arts elbow for recognition and glorification in a hitherto unprecedented manner. Neither painting nor sculpture were included in the elite list of ‘Liberal Arts’, taught in the late Medieval School of Chartres. They now become the substance and framework of civilisation.

The fragments of past cultures bear within them the genius of a people. They were created by individual artist-craftsmen, but the overriding inspiration was greater and far more potent than the individual. They worked out of a totality of integrity, out of an instinctive service for the divine. Each cultural epoch brought something new, a form entirely suited to itself, but the people striving to manifest it, did not innovate or invent out of themselves. The Renaissance brought something entirely new into the world. It was possible for the first time in human history for an individual to represent a whole culture in themselves. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo (1475-1564) were geniuses in the fullest sense of the word. They attained a new pinnacle of human achievement hitherto undreamt of—a status and influence on a par with princes and potentates.

Art into Craft – The Baroque

Where to go from there? At first, there was the development of mannerism which was an attempt to win some quirky individualrecognition outside the glorious aura of the great.The religious unity of Europe was sundered forever through the Reformation and the Baroque style started in the early 17th century as a form of religious/artistic propaganda to counter its austerity. It can be noted for two seemingly contradictory elements; an attempt at absolute realism, seen for example,in the pithy and deeply human paintings of Caravaggio (1583-1610) and the creation of fantastical florid environments. And perhaps because,art had been drawn into the service of power, it became somehow compromised by all that gold and glitz.This is not to say that there were not great artists, there were many, but certainly what one can observe in the extravagant palaces and churches of the time is, a kind of blending and melding of art and craft. The emphasis was on ‘show’ rather than ‘inwardness’, craft, certainly within the context of architecture became more ‘arty’, and art more of a craft. Great stress was laid on ‘effect’, less on truth and honesty to materials.


An inevitable trend in art, is what my History of Art tutor in Cheltenham, Peter Gorge, would have called securalisation. Something, that starts off as a high and noble ideal, say the Sphinx in Gezeh, that great desert guardian, ends up as a merely decorative, kitschy motive on a 19th century chamber pot. With the development of the ‘individual’ on the Western European scene, and the loss of Church power and authority, came the inevitable separation of art and religion. The glorification of God, became the glorification of the human and of nature.Small beginnings had been made before but, particularly the Reformation in Northern and Western Europe, created a whole plethora of secular art. Portraiture (prominent in ancient Rome) came into its own, as did an interest in landscape, historical scenes and still life. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, art concerned itself with the world and with the worldly.

The Industrial Revolution and the death of Crafts

A direct consequence of the ‘freeing up’ of the human spirit, the development of humanism from about 1413 on-words, was the Reformation, instigated by Martin Luther 1483-1546. The great scholastic thinkers of the Middle Ages—like St Thomas Aquinas 1227-1274, had taught that thinking could be a tool for the understanding of God. For Luther, thinking, like most other human capacities had been corrupted through the Fall, and could not be relied upon to provide a reliable pathway to the Divine. The only legitimate means of reaching God was through piety and devotion. This ‘un-coupling’ of thinking as a godly-gift in the service of God, freed it up, directed it ‘down-words’ to the material world. Nature became objectified, the raw material of industry, the Industrial Revolution could happen.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution had gathered huge momentum. Steam trains and ships made travel fast, easy and convenient. The factory had replaced the skilled craftsman’s workshop. Skilled tasks formally performed by one person, had been contracted out in what was called the ‘division of labour’. Some people got very rich indeed, but many more lived in the most appalling squalor and poverty. Child labour was still the norm, where children had formally acquired the skills of their parents by degrees in a rural or craft setting, they were ruthlessly exploited for their labour. Children worked in all conditions, mining, industry and of course chimney sweeping.

Mass-production and the ‘division of labour’ led, inevitably to the death of crafts. The ‘Fine-Arts,’ catering for a wealthy elite, still had their place, but their sister the Crafts, became redundant and began to fade away. This book is very much about the consequences of this death, so I will not say much about it, except that more-or-less all the ills that beset our world are due to this disconnect with making things and with nature.

William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement

The time was ripe for a radical re-think of all the forces that were pushing civilisation fore-word in an uncompromising and one-sided manner. The ‘counter-movement’ came with William Morris 1834-1889, in the form of the Arts and Crafts movement and its associated group of Pre-Raphaelite artists. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founded in 1848, saw its inspiration as definitely, pre-Industrial and pre-Renaissance. It was a looking back at the ‘glory-days’ of the Middle-Ages, a time of Romance, Chivalry, King Arthur, a simpler life.

Morris was much influenced by the writer and art critic, social thinker and philanthropist, John Ruskin 1819-1900. Ruskin was a ‘champion’ of the pre-Raphaelite movement, giving substance and an intellectual framework to the ideals of pre-industrialisation. He emphasised the connection between Nature, Art and Society.

After his marriage to Jane Burden, a great beauty of humble origins, and the muse of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Morris built ‘The Red House’.This was a sumptuous palace of art with oak staircases, painted furniture, embroidered tapestries and stained glass. It was here that the ‘The Firm’ started.

The ideal of the ‘firm’ was to create an integrated world of craftsmanship in which the artist was the designer and the executer, creatively engaged in the whole process from start to finish. The artist called the shots, not the capitalist demanding quick returns for cheap shoddy goods. In Morris’ view, all arts were equal, there should be no distinction between artist and artisan; artists and craftsmen should work together and share their income.Thus, the Arts Crafts Movement like the Baroque (but in an utterly different manner), was a coming together of art and craft. Morris said, ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. Craft was indeed ennobled, shone with a robust decorative glory, but perhaps painting, became a little pale and insipid by comparison.

Morris led an astonishing busy and productive life, and although rejecting the fruits of the Renaissance, himself fulfilled at least some of the ideals of the ‘Renaissance Man’. He was a writer of prose-poetry, a researcher into ancient methods of manufacture, a lecturer, designer, translator and traveller. The work of the Firm created mural painting, wall paper design, tiles, furniture, metalwork, jewellery architectural carving and stained glass. Later, after a change of premises and expansion of the Firm, dying wool and carpet weaving were added to the list.When Morris died in 1896, aged 62, one doctor declared the cause of death as, ‘Simply being William Morris and having done more work than most 10 men’.Morris had strong socialist leanings, believing in evolution rather than revolution, and young orphaned boys from under-privileged backgrounds were apprenticed by the Firm. Inevitably, the success and fame of the Firm rode on a wave of bourgeois interest and commission, affordable artefacts went to those who could well afford them. Needless-to-say, the over-powering force of Empire and Capitalism could not be checked, and the Arts Crafts movement, although leaving a lasting legacy, lacked the influence to bring about lasting change.

Antoni Gaudi I Cornet

Arguably the most total and complete synthesis of art and craft was created by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). And a quote from John Ruskin, whose writings enjoyed immense popularity in Spain is entirely appropriate: ‘Ornament is the origin of architecture’. Gaudi, best known for his monumental work, the Sagrada Familia, was, not so much an imitator as a ‘vehicle’ of styles bursting out in the most cohesive, original and contemporary way.

Güell Park 1900–1914

To Gaudi’s total synthesis of art and craft were added two other dimensions, a working with nature, and the use of highly evolved architectural and engineering skills. Gaudi took longer and longer to create his master-pieces and worked much of them out as he went along. This gives an incredible organic cohesion to the structures, they were not just rolled out from the drawing board. Things were studied and contemplated as they unfolded and spontaneous decisions made.

Gaudi’s Güell Park, is an extraordinary convergence of the natural and man-made environment. It was conceived as a settlement by Güell, the wealthy Catalan businessman who was his staunch patron. Not quite social housing but, certainly a place in which ordinary people could be placed into a beautiful and aesthetic environment. It never became a settlement, only two houses were ever built. Gaudi moved into one of them and looked after his 93 year-old father.

The park was a barren waste-land almost entirely without vegetation. Gaudi devised ingenious methods of trapping water and irrigating the park. The natural organic environment developed or grew at the same time as the man-made one. Gaudi did not level or change the contours of the landscape; staircases, viaducts and cavernous half-tunnels were created to lead the visitor up and through the park. His starting point was respect for what is, a very different attitude to most building projects, where everything is radically bulldozed according to some concept. Nature is not overcome – Gaudi saw himself as its collaborator.

The park is surrounded by an almost un-climbable wall topped with rounded mouldings and mosaics. As one enters the gate, past the two pavilions, the visitor encounters an enormous stairwell. Double stairs divided by strange organic sculpture. Near the top is a gigantic dragon covered in mosaic and a snake’s head. These act like totemic guardians but also conceal cisterns for water storage. They are both functional and symbolic.

At the top of the double staircase is a temple like structure. A veritable forest of Doric type-pillars mosaicked around their bases. The outer one’s taper but the inner ones are all of the same size. The pillars support a mosaicked undulating roof. This temple is also a floor as it forms part of a gigantic auditorium half built on solid ground the other half resting on the columns.

The columns look solid but are in fact hollow. The floor of the above square is not concreted, water is absorbed into it and then gathers in specially designed drainage pipes. These have slits at the top and perforations at the base. The water trickles down through the hollow columns and into the cisterns, the one concealed by the dragon can hold 2,600 gallons of water.

The most famous feature of the park are the extraordinary meandering benches which ring the auditorium. They are covered in mosaic tiles (the ancestor of collage) and are at once a unifying principle and provide little intimate nooks for people to sit and chat.

The other important feature of Gaudi’s projects is, that they are dependent on the work of countless highly skilled craftsmen. Hundreds of people came together to realise Gaudi’s projects, one could say he was the instigator of an entire culture. A culture, which like the Arts and Crafts Movement was to have a lasting ripple-on effect but, could not turn the tide towards a more organic, sustainable, hand-crafted and nature-friendly building scheme. On the 5th of June 1926 Gaudi was hit by a tram and dragged along by it. Nobody recognised the shabby old man, and taxi drivers refused to take him to hospital. Passers-by carried the unconscious Gaudi to hospital where he died on the 12th of June. The funeral procession was two and a half miles long and consisted of thousands of mourners.


By the 1970s, certainly in the Western world and when I was at Art College, the divide between the arts and crafts could not have been greater. All elements of ‘craft’ had been ruthlessly eradicated from art. Skill was positively discouraged as where any notions of aesthetics, or ‘usefulness’ in a broader societal context. Art had gone the path of greater and greater reductionism, from minimalism, where something still existed by implication, to conceptualism, where ultimately, the work of art exists only in the head of the artist. When I wanted to learn stone carving, there was no one on the staff who could teach me. A mason from Gloucester cathedral had to come in and show me the basics.

Art had not only separated absolutely from craft, it had also parted with most people’s understanding of what art should be.It was a spinning off into a void, propelled by an inevitable trajectory of necessity and by having been forced into a corner. Just as the Industrial Revolution had sounded the death nell to the crafts, an increasingly technological society killed off the necessity for living art. All former aspects of the artist’s work were usurped by the clever inventions of science. Photography largely negated the need for painted portraits; huge advertisements for mundane products became contemporary paintings. Recorded music reduced the numbers of music-makers, musicians and composers. Television and screen culture made obsolete, home entertainments, visits to the opera, theatre and ballet. The artist, in a traditional sense anyway, lived and worked in a culture which had made him redundant and impotent.

The Artist-Craftsman

As a counter movement, the mid-twentieth century saw the rise of the artist-craftsman. Men and women who did not come from a craft tradition, but who through deliberate choice and conscious endeavour became artists in their craft. One such individual was the potter Bernard Leach 1887-1979. Born in Hong Kong and inspired by Japanese ceramics, Leach promoted pottery as a synthesis of Western and Eastern philosophy and art. His work centred around traditional Korean, Japanese and Chinese pottery, and combined with traditional English and German techniques, such as salt glaze and slipware. For Leach, pottery was a combination of philosophy, art design and craft – even a total way of life. Leach’s pottery was exhibited as art.

The present condition

To save itself from oblivion, art has ‘bled out’ into two seemingly contradictory spheres; technology and craft. Many artists have channelled their creative energy into new forms of expression, using video installations, lighting and sound techniques, computer graphics and sophisticated engineering. The great divide between art and craft has also largely disappeared, and ‘making things’ has become a legitimate art again.

Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry, born in 1960, embodies the fluid modern universal man. Not compressed into a ‘gender’, cross-dressing, acknowledging his feminine ‘alter-ego’ and expanding his creative interests into many different spheres. He is a writer, lecturer, film maker, tapestry designer and ceramic artist.

Perry’s ceramics reference into several traditions which include folk art and Greek pottery.He has said; “I like the whole iconography of pottery. It hasn’t got any big pretensions to being great public works of art, and no matter how brash a statement I make, on a pot it will always have certain humility … [F]or me the shape has to be classical invisible: then you’ve got a base that people can understand”. He uses the coiling technique, allowing for larger more organic shapes. Very complex surface techniques are employed, which include, embossing, incision, photographic transfers and glazing, they are works of great ingenuity, requiring several firings. Sometimes he will add sprigs and little relief sculptures will be stuck to the surface.Perry’s work demands enormous skill and involves layers of complexity and meaning. The high degree of skill required by his ceramics and their levels of meaning, distance them from craft pottery. Like the Greek pots of ancient times, they are not merely functional or decorative but express ideas.

Many autobiographical elements are expressed in his work. Perry reflects on his stepfather’s rejection, the lack of boyhood guidance in proper male conduct, the family and class.

This coming together of art and craft, really represents the only possible future for the creative survival of human beings. The two sisters of art and craft should support each other, nay become almost interchangeable. Craft needs to be imbued with individual intelligence and innovation, and art needs to take on board the acquisition of skill, knowledge of materials and a relationship to place and people.

Just do it!

Today, what is of overwhelming and pressing urgency (and is the purpose of this book) is to see art and craft as a process. Yes of course it’s good to saturate this dreary grey planet with works of meaning, beauty and skill, (there’s not enough of it), but all this is secondary to doing. To find our true identity, to function as human beings, and have a positive rather than a destructive relationship with the world, we need to make things. This is our birth right, which sadly and for all-to-long, has been neglected and denied. But to making, should be added another dimension, this is meaning. Not that the products of our doing should necessarily be profound, it’s not so much message, as meaningful process that matters. And here we have the rub of things; art and craft should unite, but so should the separated strands of technology and religion. By ‘religion’ is not meant anything churchy or denominational but religion as spirituality, a font of moral, spiritual, humanising and ethical ideals.

Art and Craft Interface
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