…but is it art

Recent NSEAD facebook comments have prompted thoughts of craft, or rather the role of craft in the curriculum. The comments also drew my attention to some really excellent links and resources on the NSEAD Crafts pages.

When I started teaching, in a boys secondary modern school in Sidcup (1970), craft was genuinely at the heart of much of the daily experience of students. In the subjects of art, metalwork, woodwork, technical drawing, they worked as potters, painters, coppersmiths, carpenters, draftsmen. My first (art) room was fully equipped for bookbinding and marketry and little else (so I made sculpture with strawboard, linmarblin backing papers and wood veneers). The teachers (my new colleagues) had their formative experiences in the second world war and had entered education on leaving the army. They were clear about the purpose of their curriculum which was to provide a relevant education for their boys, many of whom, they assumed, would make their living working with their hands rather than their intellect. It was education in ‘thinking with your hands‘. OK, it was a curriculum forged in the 50’s, consolidated in the 60’s and out of date in the 70’s. Is it always the case that education will master a system at the precise point that it becomes irrelevant?

Craft, the valuing of technical skills and knowledge, the valuing of the handmade was a fundamental part of that educational experience, It no longer is. Even in art lessons back then it was more about the craft of painting (the formal elements used to depict drapes, wine bottles and skulls) rather than communicating ideas and understanding the role of the artist. It was some years later that Rod Taylor made the point that art education should really include what was then called, ‘critical and contextual studies‘ (‘Educating for Art, critical response and development’. Longman 1986). It is strange to reflect that as late as the 1980’s art education in schools seldom included a critical element and students did not need to know much (anything) about art or artists. Indeed there was much criticism of this position because it reduced the time needed to learn how to paint. After that Art education, although called “Art, Craft and Design” gradually became the study (and practice) of fine art.

It is hard to see how craft, as it was then, might regain a place in the curriculum, indeed I am not sure that it should. Our work today is firmly and properly underwritten by an understanding of the significance of art and artists in culture and society. We draw directly on the experience, aspirations and experience of artists and students work is expected to have purpose and meaning. Functional elegance is not one of the assessment criteria. However, Grayson Perry in his wonderful exhibition ‘Tomb of the unknown craftsman’, at the British Museum last year, made a brilliant case for the celebration of the work and achievement of ‘craftsmen’ (craftspeople). In this exhibition the work stood as culturally iconic, relevant and significant as any work of ‘fine art’. If I had time, and had bought a copy of the catalogue, I might have been able to present the case but I have neither so will have to fall back on some quick thoughts about craft in the curriculum.

Craftsmanship is time consuming; learning and reinforcing skills and techniques takes time. What happens when the 4th lesson building up a coil pot is observed? Do our lesson observation checklists allow for the slow incremental mastery of coiling for 3 lessons on the trot?

But is it art? Our assessment criteria really are firmly modelled on the practice of artists rather than craftspersons. At least they are in art, perhaps CDT is now better placed to nurture the crafts.

About Dan

Senior Advisor, Art Inspector, Member of the Expert Advisory Group for Art, Consultant working with NSEAD, IOE, QCA, UCE, UOG. Currently lecturer at UCL working on a project in Kazakhstan to develop text books for a new art curriculum.
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