Is ‘handmade’ an expensive indulgence ?

Nov 14, 2013 in Chris Tribe Blog | 5 Comments

I’ve been listening to Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures on BBC Radio 4 recently. I’m a bit of a fan – more of his ideas than of his art – especially since appearing on Radio 4 with him one Saturday morning  (pre-recorded alas). I was impressed by his ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ exhibition at the V&A in 2011, in which he honoured the work of craftsmen and women across the world and through the centuries; as a craftsman myself, I can’t argue with that ! His Reith lectures also hit the spot when he stated that wood and beards were both ‘authentic’ – two more points for me !

His Reith lectures, which I recommend for their entertainment value if nothing else, consider ‘what is contemporary art’; he concludes that it is a ‘baggy bag’, containing most things and in danger of spilling over. ‘Even pottery has been declared art’. Unfortunately he isn’t specific about whether furniture is ‘in the bag’, and whilst, in many respects, this doesn’t matter, when it comes to getting publicity, gallery space and grants to develop one’s business, it does matter.

In his second lecture, Perry skirts around the issue that so often confronts designer makers – are we artists or craftspeople ? He refers to crafts as ‘the suburbs of art’ and to the snobbishness of artists who look down on craftspeople. However, in an article he wrote for the Guardian newspaper in 2005, Perry reveals that he himself regards craft as ‘the pretentious next door neighbour’ of art.

This newspaper article is more revealing, and more provocative, than his Reith lectures on the topic – perhaps he has mellowed with age. In the article he expresses the opinion that,
‘Although there are some very good things being made, the craft world at the moment is set up to preserve something that can’t look after itself. The last bastions of hand-made work – Saville Row tailoring, high-end car manufacture and bespoke furniture – are disappearing because they are so expensive and the mass-produced is so good in some fields….. The handmade is an expensive indulgence’. Unfortunately, this may be true.

But ‘handmade’ isn’t the only marker of craft. It goes without saying that a craftsperson has skill and a thorough knowledge of their material, but s/he also has ideas, imagination and passion. And this is where I think craft can justifiably enter the world of art. Art expresses ideas and feelings, and a good craftsperson is so in tune with their material that they can do the same – ‘thinking with hands as well as head’ (Mark Jones, former director of the V&A). To quote another heavyweight, David Revere McFadden of the New York Museum of Arts and Design rates craftsmanship highly in his definition: It is ‘the profound engagement with materials and process that is central to creativity [and through which] form, function and meaning are made tangible’. So there, Grayson.

Do we really want to be part of the art world ? It often involves a lot of pretension, but it also attracts money, and it definitely has a future. I’d be interested to know what you think.



  1. Ross Bennett
    January 26, 2014

    This is a popular discussion which I remember having with various makers including yourself.
    I am of the opinion that Art is the mechanism in which people can turn an idea or thought into something that can allow another person to interact with in the form of touching, listening, or seeing (struggling to think of a word that covers all these!).
    Surely the “Art” of Furniture-Making falls into this category and makers would wish to be included as part of that world. Any thoughts?

    • admin
      January 26, 2014

      Thanks for your comment Ross. I agree that art expresses ideas and feelings, as I said in the original blog, and that a good craftsperson is so ‘in tune’ with their materials that they can express themselves through those materials, even when the material is something as solid and inflexible as wood. I suspect that untrammelled self-expression in furniture making would result in very ‘unusual’ pieces of furniture which would be regarded as ‘art’ rather than as serious furniture. Perhaps our role is to express our love of wood, and our knowledge of its properties, by cutting, shaping and finishing it in ways that reveal its beauty; and, at the same time, produce a functional piece of furniture.

  2. Mike Tysoe
    March 16, 2014

    Hello Chris,

    It seems to me, that Perry is a very poor potter. He has effectively circumvented the need to master a skill, ‘doing the 10,000 hours’, by hiding behind the mantle of ‘artist’. The pots he makes are technically crude and he admits himself he could not be bothered to learn how to wheel throw a pot. He can justify being less skilful than a wheel potter and charging more money for the outcome by perpetuating the nonesense of artist somehow expressing feelings in their work and that is of high value.

    Ironically, if he were a skilled potter, he would realise that being technically proficient does not preclude being artistic and being able to incorporate artistic expression in the work. A potter working directly in the clay can make a flaccid, lumpen form just as easily as a slender, graceful one, and the difference can be all but imperceptible, so where does the difference come from, but from the feeling the potter imbues to the work, directly from mind to hand to wet clay. This is not something that is learned from a textbook, or at technical college. Look at the form of Perry’s pots, I’ve not seen one as graceful as Grecian coil formed clay pots from antiquity. Are we getting worse at making things but better at justifying it? He would not get away with spouting this sort of piffle, even just 50 years ago, when the majority of the Western workforce were makers of some kind, and were more accustomed to spotting form, proportion, tension, grace…. The technical skill to make these would be expected as the minimum standard and therefore invisible to to outcome; not as the reason for doing something, but the vehicle by which it is done. Now the majority of working populous is largely in the service sector and a generation or two away from those who made things, Perry’s ludicrous contentions slip by, all but unnoticed.


    • admin
      March 26, 2014

      Hi Mike
      Thanks for your characteristically combative comments. I must admit I have never considered Perry to be a craftsman and I’m not sure he makes that claim himself, so to criticise the technical merit of his pots may not be relevant. But I find a lot of what he says about craft interesting, and he shares your admiration for the beautiful objects created by craftsmen throughout history – this is what his ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ exhibition celebrated: the common maker.

      I disagree with your contention that Perry perpetuates the idea that just because art expresses feelings it has high value. This is one of the reasons I have time for Perry; he constantly debunks the art world, poking fun at its pretensions and questioning whether much contemporary art deserves the title (let alone the price tag). Quite a brave thing to do when he is obviously part of that world himself. I would love to be a fly on the wall when he and Damien Hurst next meet up at an exhibition !

      But you actually missed the main thrust of my blog – Perry was just a starting point! I was asking whether there is a future for crafts when they are so expensive and we can mass produce similar objects. I agree with your hypothesis that most people are now out of touch with form, proportion, grace etc, and I think this is one of the reasons why we struggle to find a market for our pieces. (You may want to check out my next blog, ‘March of the Makers’, which will return to the theme of craftsmanship). It is because of this situation that I asked whether bespoke furniture should creep under the umbrella of Art (or ‘Design’), thereby justifying its cost. I think that I, for one, might prefer to stay out in the rain.

      • Mike Tysoe
        April 13, 2014


        The point I’m trying to make is that Perry is a craftsman, whether he claims to be, or wants to admit it, therefore he has no case to argue. He uses tools and clay and makes tapestries, how can he not be? The only pure artistic expression is a thought or a feeling; as soon as it is realised in paint or clay or wood, whatever, it involves a certain amount of craftsmanship. There is an element of craftsmanship in anything that is made, even if it is fine art as well as there is an element of art in a crafted object. Is your work functional and devoid of any aesthetic? Have you made a chair which can be sat on, but was also beautiful? Beauty is not necessary in a chair, so why did you include it and all the extra work that must have involved if it wasn’t for art’s sake? It was only until relatively recently that Applied Art and Fine Art were both held in the same regard; who separated the two and looked less favourably on the art that required artisanship over the one that did not? Fine Art dealers, perhaps?

        The economy is responsible for the high cost of hand made objects, not the makers desire to charge inflated prices as if in some sort of self important desire to imbue the work with some sort of Artistic relevance. If we only made things of equal value (simply functional, but nothing else) to mass produced objects, then Perry might have a point. It is obvious by his statement, that he actually cannot see the difference himself, which speaks volumes about him. Even mass produced articles are designed and often include aesthetic appeal; their designer was an artist. Though the artistic expression can not be extended into the making of the object as can be in a crafted object. I hope some people can see that difference, or artist/craftsmen are truly defunct.



Leave a Reply