Suddenly the word craft has resonance. While not exactly on everyone’s lips, it has certainly won unexpected allies. Take the fashionable sociologist Richard Sennett. In his book Respect: the Formation of Character in an Age of Inequality (2003) Sennett seizes on what he calls ‘craftwork’ as a defence against a world dominated by audits and assessments in which comparatively few are singled out for recognition. By ‘getting the act right in itself…the craftsman can sustain his or her respect in an unequal world’.
But the term is a slippery one. Craft is being embraced by the art world in the form of DIY of the homeliest kind. Grayson Perry’s evening-class ceramics and Tracey Emin’s granny-craft stitching and knitting are just two examples of this kind of ironic craft activity. In both instances there is a disjunction between the familiarity of the medium and the uncosy nature of the message. Ideas about craft and the handmade are contingent in the extreme. Cheap plastic toys made in the backstreets of Karachi and Lahore using hand-operated moulding machines have been described as species of urban craft, while computer programming — demanding hours of patient handwork —has also been brought into the craft fold.
So where is craft, four-square and recognisable? Well, it can be found at its most beautiful at the Barrett Marsden Gallery, probably the best place in Britain to see studio ceramics, glass and metalwork. This is the arena of high craft, heir to a movement that got under way in the 1920s and which, in the case of ceramics, was seen as a counterpart to abstract sculpture. It is sophisticated and complex, with roots in modernism rather than in the fin de siècle preciousness of l’art décoratif. But its creative relationship with fine art has not been sustained.