•1. Project title

Ideological Constructs – Past Visions/Future Possibilities: Evaluating the Minority Specialist Subjects in the Context of Emerging Global Sustainability and Environmental Agendas

•2. Research aims

The principal aims of this research are two-fold:

- to understand the ways in which the Applied Arts, as Minority Specialist Subjects, are being affected by, and/or are responding to, concerns represented by the emerging sustainability and environmental movements

- to explore whether the agendas developing around sustainability and environmental issues offer opportunities for the applied arts to (re)formulate new practices, identities, positions and markets, in ways that might reconnect them to contemporary social, cultural and economic imperatives, i.e. recover an ideological purpose

•3. Research imperatives

3i. Hypothesis

-that emerging environmental and sustainability socio-cultural and economic forces might lead to (and might already be supporting) the development of new socio-ideological rationales that can help redefine and reconstitute the applied arts as less marginal, more centrally productive forces in society.

3ii. Key question

-do emerging environmental and sustainability issues provide ground for a public re-engagement with applied arts practice?

3iii. Key objective

-to arrive at a clearer understanding of the performance of the applied arts in relation to these pivotal, and developing, societal and cultural-ideological agendas.

-to attempt to frame and understand the decline in public interest in applied arts

3iv. Secondary objectives

-to ascertain the potential for reframing aspects of applied arts practice; to ascertain the potential for reframing aspects of applied arts education.

•4. Introduction

The purpose of this scoping paper is to map the key features that constitute the background to the research. It will consider the journey through this first stage of research both in terms of concepts, ideas and areas covered, and in terms of the beginnings of an attempt to formulate a plan for future work based on the findings to this point.

In coming to this research position, which was intended to combine ideas about sustainability with the area of applied arts, I had more familiarity with the sustainability side of things. I therefore spent much of the first six to eight weeks also immersing myself in contemporary cultural debates within the applied arts, such as the art/craft divide, professional versus hobby crafts, crafts leaning towards the handmade or towards the design multiples model, and so on.

Initially the research began centring on historical craft movements as a lens through which we might examine the current applied arts climate. An evaluation of the Arts and Crafts movement – its history, its proponents, its ethos, and the historical and economic conditions surrounding it, seemed to have several very pertinent similarities to many aspects of the current debates around applied arts and around sustainability as well. Initially I saw this as potentially a chronologically-ordered study which might lead to similar studies of the Bauhaus, Futurist, and Modernist movements, culminating in a comparative review of how ideologically strong (or even ideologically-led) arts movements have fared through periods of rapid social change, and how these might reflect on current situations.

Gillian Naylor’s book The Arts and Crafts Movement[1] was a good initial introduction.

The Arts And Crafts movement was inspired by a crisis of conscience. Its motivations were social and moral, and its aesthetic values derived from the conviction that society produces the art and architecture it deserves…their endeavours were directed, ultimately, towards a social end, the establishment of a society in which all men would enjoy the freedom to be creative. Their concern, therefore, was not focused exclusively on end-products but on the society that shaped them, the men who designed and made them and on the people who bought them…to work towards the creation of an environment that would both serve and express people’s needs…they carried their banner in the name of humanity, but the new society that they envisaged bore so little relationship to contemporary reality, that its delights were a snare and a delusion, and possession of its products confined to an appreciative, affluent and intelligent elite. (xiv)

In initial discussions with the Principal Investigators (and Project Leaders) the above parallels were immediately obvious. Both the initial impetus for the movement – a dissatisfaction, perhaps even extending to disgust, at the prevailing social expectations of soulless and exploitative working conditions producing cheap and shoddy goods, facilitating an ability to respond to fads and fashions across all spectrums of society, leading in its turn to a throw-away mentality – and the concern that the alternative was elitist and unattainable for many, held clear similarities to contemporary concerns.

Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus movement with the aim of creating buildings as “holistic works of art”, which has links to sustainability ideals. His ideals were more intellectual, less social; although the Bauhaus movement under Meyer concentrated more on user requirements than on aesthetics. Worker housing was not the focus of the Bauhaus output, though it was an aspect of the ideology. One of the main similarities with debates around sustainability at the moment is the concentration on materials: for Bauhaus this was a fundamental design element; it is also one of the most visible and assessable aspects of current ecological debate.

The Modernist tradition, in which evolutionary theory, an emphasis on scientific progress, and an idea of economic growth as both enviable and inevitable, while still appearing dominant, is being questioned within the wider sustainability debates. There are inherent contradictions in the term “sustainable growth”. It is questionable whether we can live within ecological limits whilst maintaining an essentially optimistic view of progress. Future research in our project on this site will unpick what this might mean for craftspeople.

The potter Bernard Leach, speaking in 1962, compared the qualities of mediaeval English jugs to those made for the moneyed courtier classes. He equates these two kinds of work with a division between a countryside and an urban aesthetic. Once again, this is an area of debate which has similarities to debates played out in the sustainability arena; and Leach – in his gallery work – also embodies the distinction between gaining success in the applied arts by mastering such things as economies of scale versus maintaining a rigid, almost ethereal or instinctive qualitative measure of control.

For all the logical inconsistencies and generalisations, what this (speech)demonstrates is Leach’s willingness to place pottery at the centre of the kind of social debates that were occurring in the 1960s, just as he had done in the 1920s when he issued his first major essay on craft, A Potter’s Outlook. For Leach, the craft of pottery was a metaphor for the divisions between modern and pre-modern life, the city and the country, even man and machine. It was a way of life, and not to be taken lightly.[2]

The hard-edged embracing of mechanisation, technology, and development that was epitomised in the Futurist Manifesto, also epitomises the fall-back position that many people adopt when they are faced with the realisation that sustainable growth may not, indeed, be even possible, let alone desirable. “Let us leave good sense behind like a hideous husk and let us hurl ourselves, like fruit spiced with pride, into the immense mouth and breast of the world! Let us feed the unknown, not from despair, but simply to enrich the unfathomable reservoirs of the Absurd!’ “[3] It is this psychological aspect of this movement that was of interest in the initial stages.

In order to ensure research reflected current opinions and developments the internet was invaluable. I found many people interested in drawing similar comparisons; in fact, people seemed to be looking to some historical periods for ideological inspiration, which appeared to validate our original framing of the research ideas.

I’m curious to see whether the current economic upheaval will cause people to re-evaluate the Middle Ages and look to them for inspiration. I’ve noticed that some aspects of medieval culture, like the barter system, as the New York Times reports, are actually becoming much more widely adopted…. Outsourcing is a difficult concept for me. I would personally much rather spend twice as much for a quality product made by artisans than a cheap knockoff produced by workers in a foreign factory being paid pennies an hour. I firmly believe that unhappy workers cannot create beautiful work. It doubtless comes from reading too much William Morris, but I firmly believe in artisan work, and I don’t care whether it’s profitable or not! Morris and Company was always a profitable business, in that it did not lose money. But it also did not make the kind of obscene profits that most business today seem to believe they require in order to compete in the global marketplace.[4]

Harvard Business School’s innovation theorist Clayton Christensen would call Ikea’s business model disruptive innovation because it floods the market with the same design at a much cheaper price. Still, business success that relies on cheap labor and cheap materials has time and again been shown to plant the seeds of humanitarian and ecological catastrophe…We are also not proud of things that have a suspicious past. Cheap things don’t feel like luxury, because luxury is not just a sensual, but also a social experience.[5]

As I developed my reading of cultural topics, two main sources stood out for me. The first was the CraftAustralia website[6], which outlined, via discussion and conference papers, many of the primary concerns facing applied artists today. The archive papers in particular gave a broad outline of craft debates, from concerns about the production and marketing of indigenous work, to the placement of craft as a politically resistant undertaking, to the discussions around the placement of craft near the art or design spectrum, on its own, or elsewhere. These were deeper debates than those concerned with manufacturing craft out of renewable materials.

The second was The Persistence of Craft.[7] Again, a reader format representing the views of several experts in slightly different fields, made for a useful introduction to the main concerns and discussions in the subject. It gave examples of the conditions under which craft is categorised and criticised, including the alignment with art or with design which is still very much a leading debate at the moment; it also showed examples of conceptual work that might lead to an alignment with, for example, the relational aesthetics debates which draw on some sustainability issues. Other texts such as Laurie Britten Newall’s Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft, with examples of craft works which questioned the status and placement of craft, and Alasdair Fuad-Luke’s The Eco-Design Handbook: A Complete Sourcebook, very design-oriented but a useful overview from that standpoint of what current design concerns and understandings about sustainability are, were also of use; a full annotated bibliography is in development.

The main focus of the first two months of research was, therefore, to gain an adequate familiarity with the broad terms of the debates which form the locus and impetus for the research, alongside such basic problem-solving opportunities as finding out who was in charge of different departments with whom I needed to deal, ordering materials, basic working and storage space, and so on.

Within my first week of working I attended a college symposium which included guest speakers from various disciplines taught at the college. I attended a workshop led by slow craft thinker, Helen Carnac. She has a blog entitled Making a Slow Revolution, which is a collaboration with Craftspace and which explores the identity of craft within the Slow Movement. It champions – in a way very much related to the Arts and Crafts movement – work which takes time and care and which privileges the handmade and eschews the mass-produced. Carnac was impassioned and erudite, and inspiring.

The other main focus of my research in the initial stages was Richard Sennett’s book, The Craftsman; not only the book itself but the many responses to it.

Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman continues an argument begun in the 19th century, when writers such as John Ruskin and William Morris extolled the crafts remembered in our surnames (Smith, Cartwright, Thatcher, Mason, Fletcher) while lamenting the mind-numbing and soul-destroying labour of the industrial process which was replacing them. A long line of thinkers, from Hegel and Marx to Sennett’s teacher Hannah Arendt, have sympathised with the argument. But Sennett does not think that craftsmanship has vanished from our world. On the contrary: it has merely migrated to other regions of human enterprise, so that the delicate form of skilled cooperation that once produced a cathedral now produces the Linux software system. Linux, for Sennett, is the work of a community of craftsmen “who embody some of the elements first celebrated in the (Homeric) Hymn to Hephaestus”[8].

It very clearly touched a chord in many people’s thinking (about many things, including craft) and made me realise that this research has an element of zeitgeist about it. The concepts of reclaiming the word craft as meaning anything very well done, of refusing to see applied arts as less, somehow, than fine arts (or indeed, refusing for craft to use the same terms of engagement and debate as fine art as a kind of default due to not having a critical language of its own), the return to an appreciation of the handmade as an antidote to the fetishisation of the commodity – all of these ideas were enthusiastically taken up and debated.

In this initial stage I thought, also, of the debates in the area of ecology, wondering how they might relate to the applied arts. I made a map of theoretical and ideological concerns central to different branches of ecological thought. Some of them seemed rather esoteric and I wondered whether I would be able to find any connection with the concrete and material world of applied arts; but I felt that even the attempt would bear interesting fruit. (See map p 7)

Interestingly, as I got deeper into finding out about people such as Bernard Leach, some of the more initially esoteric-sounding aspects just fell into place: the idea that one should have a “heart” or spiritual connection to one’s work is a central tenet in all of his writings. In fact, this area was to open up a field for consideration which had only been obliquely mentioned in my previous ideas about how the research might proceed.

One very fundamental area for debate in ecological philosophies is whether to try to work within the current social model, or whether it is, in fact, far too fatally flawed – too sexist, too imperialist, too obsessed with power – to be changed. If that is the case, other alternatives need to be explored and promulgated. (William Morris himself came to the conclusion that a revolution was required.) This can lead to what seem to be weird, unworkable, or plain crazy ideas (there are, for example, survivalist groups in the United States who are waiting for society to implode, and they see if it does as their chance to start new societies, beginning with the invention of new, non-hierarchical languages which will be the basis for their societies of equality). Having said that, there is certainly an issue within the ecological and sustainability movements that the terms and conditions surrounding current research debates may be too narrow, too aligned with Cartesian/scientific models of “proof” to be useful in discussing areas that tend to the more qualitative, experiential, social. Therefore, a great deal of the wider areas of debate lie in realms that are currently (best case) unconsidered. For example, Permaculture is a movement which is conceptually and linguistically derived from the combination of permanent and agriculture, but has expanded to a design template for sustainable communities and societies. It has a basis in science and has few critics: but it also has very little mainstream attention. In the worst case, some areas of debate are completely unaccepted – as in the work of Wendell Berry, or Joanna Macy in the Great Turning, which is revolutionary and spiritual – by the scientific communities who hold influence within the current political decision-making structures. There is a fundamental question posed in the initial research proposal: whether there is any future for the applied arts at all within the current social paradigm. I wanted to question what might be underlying structures for this paradigm. Naylor, again, said

These were responsible men, intelligent and sensitive enough to understand that their concern with the values of the past might so conflict with the realities of the present that their work would be rendered useless…none of them were in a position to grasp the nature of the forces that were revolutionising society. (21)

It seems precisely the areas of debate which truly accepted, and in some cases embraced the challenge posed by, the unworkable nature of several current societal paradigms, which are ignored or blocked or ridiculed by the dominant framework. Though this is hardly surprising, it does make debate framed by these new or unusual paradigms much more difficult to engage in without sounding unacademic.

The current economic crisis has clearly demonstrated an unease with the current paradigms. What is less clear is whether what will develop will support a continuation of current practice, or a fundamental restructuring and rethinking of behaviours and beliefs.

•5. A working definition of sustainability

The World Commission on Environment and Development[9] defines sustainability as designing our lives, work, products, social systems, and relationships to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. (I think this is a fairly good definition, with the qualification that most of us are hard pushed to think more than two future generations in the future, whereas thinking seven generations ahead might make us think both more broadly and with more clarity about the consequences of our current actions. And certainly even two generations give a far wider result than thinking in periods governed by the span of a term in (political?) office.)

Breaking down the terms of reference further, and in particular allusion to this research, there are three main ways in which we might talk about sustainability: economic, social, and ecological.

Ecological sustainability can be defined as the ability of an ecosystem to maintain ecological processes, functions, biodiversity and productivity into the future[10]. Several measures of human interaction with ecologies show that economic growth is adversely tied to ecological degradation (though it is not within the remit of this research to explore this area – it will suffice here to note this relationship). Though a majority of scientific opinion has, in a few short years, recognised human-made global warming, there are no serious dissenters to the notion that we cannot, globally, continue in our consumption patterns. When “natural capital” (the sum of the earth’s resources) is used up faster than it can be replenished, the situation is unsustainable. The understanding that this is the situation we face at the moment is at the implicit heart of this research.

Social sustainability can be expressed [11] as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition contains within it two key concepts:

The concepts of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given, and:

The idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.

In other words, both the technology that we use and the social structures within which we operate can be damaging ecologically. Pearce, Makandia & Barbier (1989)[12] said,

Sustainable development involves devising a social and economic system, which ensures that…goals are sustained, i.e. that real incomes rise, that educational standards increase, that the health of the nation improves, that the general quality of life is advanced.

Here we start to enter into the less scientific, more qualitative areas of any ideological research which aims to assess things which cannot be easily measured. However, if we do allow ourselves to use metaphor and analogy, we might end up more easily drawing parallels between one area of study and another, and therefore, arguably, being able to think a little more holistically. Daly (1991) argued that:

Lack of a precise definition of the term ‘sustainable development’ is not all bad. It has allowed a considerable consensus to evolve in support of the idea that it is both morally and economically wrong to treat the world as a business in liquidation.[13]

In an economic sense, a business is sustainable if it has adapted its practices for the use of renewable resources and is accountable for the environmental impacts of its activities. It can be argued that “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron; that it merely means growth in a less ecologically damaging way. This idea of growth as a concept being problematic will be referred to more fully later: it is a debate which is often ignored, since it strikes at the heart of many Western institutions, and particularly financial ones, which have been allowed to run unchecked, unexamined, for many years now, so that they have a hegemonic hold over us. We simply cannot see how we might change them. (And yet – perhaps because of this – this sphere of the research was one which I found very fruitful indeed.)

Sustainability , then, can be a property of living systems, a manufacturing method, or a consideration as to a way of interpreting life. I have read many accounts that seem to attempt to “read” sustainability more narrowly, using only one of the three “pillars” outlined above; but it seems clear that the notion is only complete if it does take all three areas into consideration. This is also useful for looking at debates around sustainability as a lens through which we might view the Applied Arts.

•6. A working definition of the applied arts

For this project, the applied arts are defined as in the NALN Minority Specialist Subjects definition in the project outline above; but more specifically this project will focus on glass, ceramics, and small and large scale metals, since those are the areas in Applied Arts which are taught at Plymouth College of Art. However, it cannot help but include all the other areas; the implications can be read far more widely.

The discussions and debates that have surrounded these subjects for the past few years seem – to try to encompass many threads – to be about placement. Firstly, product placement: where are the markets for craft products? Is globalisation a friend, allowing products to be sold in worldwide markets; or is it an inhibiting factor that could be best answered by developing indigenous products – a kind of touristic exclusivity? What is the danger posed to professional craftspeople by the rise in do-it-yourself, guerrilla crafts, or the local craft market?

Secondly, conceptual placement. Is craft a kind of hands-on high art; ideas with added skill? Or is it to be more closely aligned with design, starting with a beautiful idea and leading to multiple manufacture? Or is it indeed a practice of dissent, to be slow and to make by hand as a refusal to accept the culture of the machine and of speed?

Thirdly, emotional placement. Is craft the thing that keeps us human in a mechanical age, the thing that we all do in order to be individuals after a day of working in anonymous positions and places? Is it the thing that only gifted people can make a living at, or is it the birthright of everybody to use this route to creative fulfilment? Is it necessary, or a luxury?

In much the same way that this research project rests on a supposition that our current way of life is unsustainable, it also rests on the assumption that the Applied Arts are valuable; though this understanding would not stand in the way of a clear-eyed acceptance of their demise if that were to prove to be the case. But whilst I am not going to question the notion of this value per se, I do want to explore some of the ways in which this value might be epitomised, portrayed, or explicated, through various approaches and positions. To draw out the field in this way will give a firm basis for the review of the second stage of the research, in which I will collect case studies of practitioners who may be working exemplars, developers, and hands-on theorists of how value is being provided in and by the applied arts, and in which ways and directions this might eventually expand.

Other research for NALN is being done on the level of the institution and by (for example) the Crafts Council on workforce initiatives – proposing that the craft sector has the potential to grow by 60%. I will not be looking at problem areas already identified, like lack of business skills or training in practitioners. In looking at the ideological values already being constructed, promoted, and developed by the applied arts, and in evaluating their success (or otherwise), we might begin a careful process of prediction or alignment with beliefs and actions which place the applied arts in the vanguard of a rapidly changing society.

6i. Economic Values

I wanted to question where the applied artist might place herself within the global economic system – if the aim is to make a living from applied arts. Economics, as we saw from the definitions of sustainability section, is a very big part of the research that has been and is being done in the sustainability movement.

The research in this area began by looking at different models of crafts businesses, initially following the interest in the Arts and Crafts model which held that a business, if successful, would eventually either produce handmade goods for an elite (as Thorstein Verblen so coherently argued[14]), or design prototypes for a middle class. I started to become aware of different types of markets, different types of marketing. But the need to look more deeply at economic sustainability than this micro-economic approach became obvious. The words “credit crunch” were becoming a daily mantra in the media. I thought it would be reasonable to try to pick apart the economic systems under which we all operate, to see how much control they exert over us. It seemed that it might be a good basis for evaluating how the different microeconomic approaches might operate against the wider backdrop. These systems seem natural, inevitable; they are invisible and hegemonic. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “We don’t know who invented water, but we’re fairly certain it wasn’t a fish.” Initially a basic overview of economic systems and how they might affect small (that is, most craft-based) businesses was anticipated. But it became apparent that this part of the research was going to be more pivotal than foreseen.

Economists such as Peter Victor, Margaret Legum, and others, have posited many different models for economic systems, or changes to our current economic systems, that range from the minor to the revolutionary. All are based in an understanding that unlimited growth is not possible and is indeed undesirable. Unfortunately this understanding is directly in opposition to the dominant economic paradigm of our time, that of economic growth. There are four main problems with the theory of economic growth, at least in western or developed nations: it has negative effects on the quality of life, which is not measured in growth indicators; it encourages the creation of artificial needs; it encourages a gap in the distribution of income between rich and poor; and its use of resources is unsustainable. Clearly any applied arts business is going to have to operate within structures of which we are barely cognisant and over which we appear to have very little, if any, control.

It is in the fourth area – that of resource use – that most sustainability issues are publicly debated. Recycling, renewables, mining conditions, ecological degradation, and so on, are in the public consciousness, with, for example, ethical jewellery companies Adili, Ingle & Rhode, and The Leakey Collection basing their marketing on their ethical credentials. What was becoming clear was that this is only one of a set of interconnecting issues which, together, might provide the ideological landscape this project was looking to scope. One way of structuring Stage 2 might be to try to find case studies in which each of the four problems with economic growth were being addressed.

The problem of the gap in the distribution of incomes, for example, has links to the anti-globalisation movement. One measure being debated is that of the Tobin tax, a tax on all trade of currency across borders, designed to stop short-term speculation on currencies. This could be seen by many as a government problem, irrelevant to the lives of ordinary people; until you realise that the tax would stabilise markets (not of major public concern at the beginning of this research project but of more interest now), fund global projects in developing countries, and still (in Legum’s proposition at least) be able to replace some or all private taxation.[15]

Whereas the usual primary aim of capitalist economics is to maximise the efficiency of production of goods, regardless of whether those goods are necessities for the poor or luxuries for the rich, and is technology-heavy, the main aim of Gandhian economics is to provide full employment for the poor, so that workers can provide for their own necessities, with dignity and without recourse to charity. This might entail a blend of technology and labour-intensive production. In other words, the amount of available investible resources must keep pace with the population increase of employable workers.

Capitalist economics does not care about the fate of the unemployed, because they cannot buy the luxury goods being produced anyway. If not enough people buy the luxury goods, which could happen if too many are poor, leaders of capitalist businesses put on expensive and wasteful advertising campaigns, to convince people that the luxuries are really necessities. Many, especially inexperienced young people, fall for this, and get themselves deeply into debt. This also applies to whole countries, which acquire debts so horrendous that they can never hope to repay them, and bankrupt themselves just keeping up with interest payments. Gandhian economics would strive for income and wealth equalization by providing productive meaningful work for everyone, even if the full use of the latest industrial technology is provisionally postponed.

Under Gandhian economics, fewer luxury goods would be produced, because the emphasis would be on producing enough necessities for everyone. This would simplify life styles, which could be of benefit in causing people to focus on the real values that produce happiness, such as family solidarity, devotion to the arts and sciences, and spiritual pursuits. Gandhi defined “happiness” as the ratio between want satisfaction and the number of wants. We can increase this ratio (and therefore happiness) either by increasing want satisfaction (as we are doing under capitalism) or by decreasing wants, i.e. living lives of voluntary simplicity.[16]

Corporate culture and the media machine are all about the creation of desire. At Plymouth College of Art this forms part of the teaching in the Critical, Contextual and Historical Studies department. All students are made aware of this manipulation of desire; very few of any of us are immune to it. But owning only the necessities – however these are defined – would certainly impact, in ways potentially both positive and negative, on applied artists. In The Masterless Way: Weaving an Active Resistance, Faith Gillespie describes the craftsperson’s position:

“There is clearly another imperative at work now in our exercise of the old crafts. It has to do with reclamation, with reparation. The world seems not to need us any more to make “the things of life.” Machines make more and cheap. The system needs us to do the maintenance jobs and to run the machines that produce the so-called “goods”, to be machines in the consumer societies, which consume and consume and are empty. Our turning to craftwork is a refusal. We may not all see ourselves this way, but we are working from a position of dissent. And that is a political position.” [17]

So there might be a political point of protest against what we might see as a meaningless, consumer-driven culture.

LowGrow is an interactive systems model of the Canadian economy designed specifically to answer the question: can we have full employment, no poverty, fiscal balance, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions without relying on economic growth? It is proposed by Peter Victor and is centred on three main changes:

Consumption: more public goods, fewer positional (status) goods through changes in taxation and marketing.

  • Environment and resources: limits on throughput and use of space through better land use planning and habitat protection and ecological fiscal reform.
  • Localization: fiscal and trade policies to strengthen local economies.[18]

This is a macro-economic policy model which echoes grass-roots initiatives such as the Transition Town movement, which encourages agency in individuals and communities and is centred (through permaculture principles) on the same changes as above.

E.F. Schumacher is best known for his critique of Western economies and his proposals for human-scale, decentralized and appropriate technologies. Whilst working in Burma as an economic consultant, he developed the set of principles he called “Buddhist economics,” based on the belief that individuals need good work for proper human development. He also proclaimed that “production from local resources for local needs is the most rational way of economic life.” His theories also encourage local governments to create self-reliant economies. Schumacher’s experience led him to become a pioneer of what is now called appropriate technology: user-friendly and ecologically suitable technology applicable to the scale of the community. Again, these theories are echoed in the above-mentioned Transition Town movement, as well as by, for example, celebrity chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver. There is clearly a groundswell interest in these sorts of theories and initiatives and it will be interesting over the life of the research project to see whether this is echoed in any new government initiatives or policy changes. Whether grass-roots or imposed from above, a localised, environment-aware, low-consumption model of economics would impact the applied arts.

The position of political dissent which emanates from a refusal to bow to current economic models is clearly based on the understanding that “more” does not mean “better” – or, in fact, “happy”. The government has an independent watchdog on sustainable development, The Sustainable Development Commission. Its Redefining Prosperity project is based on the understanding that money, in itself, does not equal happiness, and more money does not equal more happiness either.

The research headed into areas around wellbeing and consumption, because I think if anything can provide a way forward for Applied Arts within the context of sustainability, it will not be from a standpoint of renunciation of pleasures but rather from an understanding that our present ideas about consumption are actually making us miserable. At the moment the work is based on trying to develop a clarity and definition around how compatible (or incompatible) growth and sustainability and wellbeing are at the moment.

The Sustainable Development Commission, the Government’s independent watchdog on sustainable development, has a website on which they have published the results of work entitled “Redefining Prosperity”.

The economy is currently geared, above all, to economic growth. However in recent years, two other objectives have moved up the political and policy-making agenda: sustainability and wellbeing.

SDC’s project on Redefining Prosperity aims to map out the relationships between these three aims – growth, sustainability, wellbeing – and ask what issues are raised. Do we have to choose between these aims? Can we combine them? What sorts of policies or approaches would we need to have?

These questions go to the heart of what sustainable development is about. Does it mean sustainability plus economic growth? Or is it about finding a compromise or balance between some sustainability and some growth? Or does development mean something different from growth? Does it mean progress towards increasing wellbeing? And is it possible at all to define and promote wellbeing?

The project is divided into four main parts -
1. Visions of prosperity looked at different views put forward about what prosperity means. Economic growth, measured by increases in Gross Domestic Product, which basically means total national income in a year, looks attractive because it links closely with the assumption that most individuals aspire to increase their income. Researchers, on the other hand, have identified “alternative visions of prosperity”, which can be more compelling.

2. Economy Lite looked at the idea of decoupling – separating economic growth from the damaging environmental impacts it normally has. Can that link be broken, with cleaner, more efficient technologies? Is there any evidence that decoupling is already taking place in Europe and North America? Or is that an illusion created by the fact that we are increasingly importing manufactured goods from Asia and Latin America, giving them the environmental burden of our consumption?

3. Confronting Structure was about taking the arguments against continuing growth seriously and thinking through the consequences. If the economy no longer grows, or grows at a much slower rate, what happens to – unemployment, tax revenue, the ability to repay debt and pay interest, company profits and economic competitiveness? Can we imagine any government pursuing this line of thinking? Or will they be forced to because of economic pressures creating long-term recession?

4. Wellbeing Policy looked at the evidence about what contributes to people’s wellbeing, and asked – what follows? Should we wish for a set of economic policies designed to promote wellbeing? If so, would it differ greatly from economic policies intended to promote growth? What would the key differences be? Would there be a different approach to work and to the importance of the unpaid activities which keep community and family life going? Would the planning system give greater priority to local democracy and quality of life?[19]

If people are aware that their well-being is attached to their consumption in negative ways, instead of in the positive ways in which we are currently encouraged to view (over-)consumption, there is perhaps a very real potential for the applied arts to situate themselves as the ethical alternative, an alternative which would provide greater happiness for producer and consumer.

6ii. Developmental Values

I found myself very interested, also, in an aspect of what the process of craft might provide.

Learning is experiencing. Everything else is just information.

- Albert Einstein

Sustainability in education and importance of nature on child development provides interesting research on child development. Many researchers are looking at the need for children to have limits in their life – the need for them to test the limits of structures such as parental authority (including physical horseplay), the limits of their physical skills (the implication being that, in an increasingly sheltered and sedentary world they do not get to do so), the limits of a safe interaction with the world around them. More and more in a health-and-safety obsessed world, it is being observed that children are not being allowed to experience any of the above limits, and that this is adversely impacting their development. We may be entering a time when the only limits a child experiences are the limits of materiality: how far a piece of wood can be bent before it breaks; how clay behaves under stress. If these experiences in school are taken away, the child may not be experiencing any limits at all. As Piaget in his work on child development proved, concrete experience is necessary before abstraction can occur. Richard Sennett in The Craftsman talks about the effect of CAD systems on design, and we are expecting students to work purely in abstraction without experience of the concrete. Would we expect a child to do abstract maths without concrete experience?

But it’s not just about development, or a step you have to go through in order to do well at abstraction. Like forest schools, the experience of handling materiality is necessary for everyone – not just for rehabilitation or occupational therapy or for something for people to do because they can’t do anything else – it’s necessary for all as a developmental urgency.

“In another study of 10,000 children, using a standard test of perceptions of volume and weight, considered a fairly robust indicator of cognitive development, researchers have concluded…”…the performance of students has recently been getting stadliy worse. An 11-year-old today is performing at the level an 8- or 9-year-old was performing at 30 years ago…in terms of cognitive and conceptual development …The most likely reasons are the lack of experiential play in primary schools, and the growth of a video-game, TV culture. Both take away the kind of hands-on play that allows kids to experience how the world works in practice and to make informed judgements about abstract concepts…”[20]

“New neuro-scientific research such as The Neural Bases of Complex Tool Use in Humans (Johnson-Frey, 2004) is finding that using tools such as those in craft activities, involves the use and strengthening of “widely distributed, yet highly interactive, [brain cell] networks. Furthermore this tool use – described as “complex, real-world behaviours” – involves and stimulates “social, cognitive, perceptual and motor processes.” By using tools in this way, mirror neurons – specialised brain cells involved in observational learning and/or copying by example are activated. This is part of a greater civilising process, which serves “as a critical mechanism for the cultural transmission of skills”.[21]

In other words, without direct and sustained experience of materials – a fundamental of craft – the brain is underdeveloped.

Craft, then, is necessary for all. But I also wanted to look at craft within a much bigger picture.

6iii. Social and Symbolic Values

There are debates emerging in endangered subject areas which are still in a latent or nebulous form; they are tentative steps, not only because they are attempting – sometimes – prediction in an uncertain world, or sometimes attempting to solve the problems formed by one paradigmatic view of a society primarily by trying to change the paradigm – a massive undertaking. William McDonough says that our world now needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up, in the next Industrial Revolution: everything from products to cities to definitions of beauty and constructs of the human mind.[22] If that is going to happen – and it well might – then we have an opportunity in the crafts to find our own critical terrain, to position ourselves in a new critical landscape in the forming of which we have been influential. My own initial feelings about this – and I may well be wrong; it is well known you don’t do research to find out what you already know – is that it may well have to do with what I will try to call without embarrassment the spirit inherent in the handmade, in a residual humanity in things that are made with emotional intent.

The social and symbolic values given to the Applied Arts forms an important aspect to their significance. Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada made talk about integrity and the emotional pull of the handmade acceptable within ceramics, not only circumventing the more quantitative or economic debates but also providing a counterpoint to Verblen’s critique of the indecorous luxury of the unique and exclusive. When we ask that difficult question – what justification do you have for adding more objects to the world? – we might talk in terms popularised by Leach, and by those who currently reinterpret the spirit of his words.

The term ‘lasting value’ … can mean the use of high quality materials and techniques to ensure the longevity of an object. It can mean finding an afterlife for materials or components that would otherwise be discarded … But it can also mean the perpetuation of traditions and conventions valued in the past, now threatened by social, economic or other changes. Similarly, the phrase can pertain to the spiritual or symbolic meanings inherent in objects, such as their emotional associations or individual characteristics. For a discussion of craft, it must also mean the added value in a handmade object that we preserve and respect above mass-produced commodities[23].

Richard Sennett, as mentioned above, talks about craft in an exploratory way, trying to find out what such a term might truly mean. While we may argue about the name we give to the Applied Arts in order to reflect whichever practice or branch of art or design with which we wish to align ourselves, the term “craft” is undergoing a wider ideological investigation.

Aspirations towards art over time have affected a parallel relationship with design and production. Current dilemmas surrounding changes in perception are reflected, not without controversy, in changes in terminology used to describe the field, including crafts and design, contemporary applied art, contemporary art objects, arts and design, and sculpture-objects-fine-art. These efforts could perhaps be described as a re-branding to ensure a continuing ideological and economic place in people’s minds and in the marketplace. Yet, at the same time, respect for crafts values continues to be discussed not only in related creative areas like filmmaking, painting, writing and music but also, for example, in policy development and speechwriting. It is in these fields that the word, as an approach to a field of knowledge and a way of working, is most positively used. A crafts approach implies knowing how to do something very well. [24]

We can see how this approach to the notion of craft relates to the developmental approach. Craft, here, is about process, an approach to process as opposed to concentrating on objects produced. Relational aesthetics is a branch of art theory which prioritises the idea of process and people over product. Though written about (and named) by Nicholas Bourriaud, it can be seen as a development from the earlier “social sculpture” work of Joseph Beuys.

Mary Ann Davis: “What I’m doing when I make dinnerware is facilitating the people who buy my dishes to think more creatively about the way they entertain…I’m bringing people together. When I sell dishes it’s to encourage people to build community and friendships by social networks, by having a lot of contact with each other…You know, buy a lot of dishes, have a lot of dinner parties, save the world.”

Davis considers the ideas of performance and conceptual artist Joseph Beuys to be truth rather than theory: “Everyone is an artist and society is a sculpture,” she says. At the heart of the emptiness of modern life, Davis believes, is humanity’s having lost track of art, of having created a disconnection by separating art from everyday life.[25]

Whilst I do not think there are many Applied Artists working specifically (or perhaps knowingly?) within the specific theory of Relational Aesthetics, I do think that there are some whose work pertains to, contains elements of, or can be viewed with reference to the philosophy. Finding these artists will become part of the work of Stage 2 of the project.

Having spent time reading through the archives of the CraftAustralia website, where much consideration is given to the applied artwork of indigenous artists and the way in which it is received, marketed, and represented throughout its life, it became clear that Applied Art can also occupy the juncture between various aspects of art: the functional-practical; the ornamental; the spiritual; the ritual. Whilst it is easier to see how this may apply when looking at the most respectful and appropriate way to treat a traditional woven basket which might pertain to several of the above functions, it may be less easy to see how this would relate to a modern blown glass vase. Again, in Stage 2 of the project I am hoping to find artists who work in cognizance of the concerns articulated by Peter Hughes:

“The real answers to the problems arising from our profligate use of resources do not lie in recycling or eco-engineering on a global scale. Rather they lie in a rethinking of our relationship with both nature and the artifactual that entails a respect for the given and that does not see the world as an inert mass upon which we can indifferently impose our will. Similarly, an ecologically responsible craft would not necessarily assume organic forms or use motifs drawn from the natural world, as they have so often done in the past. They would be informed by their contexts of production and reflect their time and place of making in more complex ways that will encompass the given in the form of cultural as well as natural history.” [26]

The idea of the Applied Arts having inherent value will not be surprising to crafts practitioners. However, the hypothesis and the key question in this project is whether the public can be re-engaged via the more widespread concerns over environmental or sustainability issues.

•7. Intersections of the applied arts and sustainability issues

At the end of Stage 1, I am looking at several identified points of connection between the applied arts and sustainability issues. Some theories have been grouped together in a tentative early mapping of these points of connection, to be challenged on a case basis and further developed in Stages 2 and 3 of the research.

7i. Issues of Scale

Following on from the research on economies and the various theorists’ ideas about what is required in order to make production and consumption equable and sustainable, scale is a cornerstone of thinking. It is interesting that a few of the best-known and influential thinkers in ecological circles started out as economists. Probably the best-known of all is the previously-mentioned E.F. Schumacher, author of the pertinently-named “Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered”.[27]

Several of Schumacher’s ideas are particularly relevant to contemporary economic life. Perhaps the foremost among these is the idea of decentralization. Schumacher’s idea of decentralization is more complex than simply breaking up a larger unit into smaller units. Rather, Schumacher proposed the idea of “smallness within bigness”; in other words, for a large organization to work it must behave like a related group of small organizations. In discussing economic development and poverty alleviation, this philosophy prescribes an orientation toward “regional” development strategies, which involve primarily local production for local use. In the era of globalization, this philosophy entails a radical rethinking of the orientation towards exports so often prescribed by international economic institutions.[28]


“The billion or so people relatively affluent persons who mostly live in the long industrialised nations…for many people outside these countries the promise of benefits from global industrial culture are just that; promises. The general history tells of local and self-reliant economies and communities decaying or collapsing as they are displaced by monetary economies, media and consumer ideologies…the debate about the balance of benefits and disadvantages from these changes has been intense for thirty years.”[29]

In fact the whole notion of unfettered capital movement globalisation is increasingly under attack. Large, multinational behemoths can get away with a lot, but one thing they can be vulnerable to is public opinion. In the past it has been seen as savvy to buy a very cheap dinner service from a large company; but the lure of the local might begin to apply to more varied Applied Arts than those produced for tourist markets. (As a foreigner, I view with regret the homogenisation of much of British life over the past twenty years in particular).

To renew a sense of the desirability of the local is one way of dismantling the over-enthusiastic application of economies of scale as the best way to work. But removing subsidies on cheap oil, or a post-peak oil scenario, might do this as well. What the woman whose husband makes baskets which everyone admires at fairs but who walk away when they see the price needs is a calculator that tells us exactly how much subsidised oil is aiding the price of imports. It might be so that the price of labour is much lower in China but if we compare each basket with the actual embedded energy cost of the oil included, the difference may be much smaller, and make the handmade here more cost-effective and competitive.

The ecological idea that bioregionalism allows a greater margin of safety in case of crop or species failure can be related to these localisation movements. But Vandana Shiva also questions whether it is actually true that centralisation increases outputs or efficiency. She says small farm units actually produce more, if the many smaller outputs are considered rather than just counting how much of whichever monoculture is produced. Perhaps a similar measure of output could be applied to crafts? (Quite apart from the suicide-inducing effects of forcing small producers into monocultures…)There is another way in which issues of scale might affect the way Applied Artists work. If we apply the values inherent in the World Commission’s definition of sustainability we might decide we need to set up our workplaces (or other systems of organisation, production, or distribution) in a more systems-based or collaborative form. Collectives of makers have a great history in this country and are still being developed.

7ii. Technologies

Closely allied to the idea of appropriate scale is that of appropriate technology. Again, one of the primary thinkers on this (though by no means the last) is E.F. Schumacher.

In order to bring about…more fulfilling working lives, Schumacher proposes a radically different relationship between human beings and technology. The purpose of technology up until this point, he argues, has been to produce as much output per labor input as possible. The devices invented for this purpose, however, have not only served the dubious end of making many workers redundant, but their prohibitively high cost discourages self-employment. As a solution, Schumacher proposes an “intermediate technology,” one which can be easily purchased and used by poor people, and which can lead to greater productivity while minimizing social dislocation. Today, the Intermediate Technology Development Group works with agriculturists, food producers, small miners, and small manufacturers throughout the world to develop these tools.[30]

Again, as with appropriate scale, and with more and more public awareness of the environmental degradation caused by pursuing technologies which can only produce faster than regeneration can occur, perhaps a return to the small-scale, hand-made technology will make a return. Certainly it is easier to ignore the blighting effects of excessive technology when they are a long way away – we have just moved the “dark Satanic mills” overseas – but perhaps it is possible that we will value morality over cheap goods, if we are aware of our choices.

7iii. Consumption of Raw Materials

We might look at our raw materials – how they are collected, traded, transformed, as Jane Hope of Plymouth College of Art has done, looking at issues of Fair Trade silver in Bolivia – the study that initiated PCA’s interest in the intersection of Applied Arts and sustainability. Initiatives such as fair trade, recycled materials, second hand metals, safety and sustainable mining and quarrying, or even using (only) renewable materials, are parts of this debate.

“To what extent is the craft community willing to change its current practices and policy and develop a new pedagogy and related curatorial and research programmes capable of responding to the new discourses of agricultural change and environmental sustainability? I want to argue that we need radically to rethink current crafts practice and policy in this country, and bypass its current preoccupation with gaining credibility in the art world and also to wean it of its fixation with the unsustainable high-end designer/consumer market ethos; and seek new ways of realigning the critical energies, core traditions and inventiveness of contemporary craft practice with some of the strategic programmes now being proposed by governments, NGOs and communities world-wide to tackle the impact of climate change, depletion of fossil fuel stocks, rural development and agricultural change and environmental sustainability.” [31]

Sustainable makers, the Totnes group of applied artists, part of the Transition Towns initiative (a post- peak oil movement), aim to work in as ecologically sound way as possible, but also aim to provide local conference centres and other venues with multiples of their work. This is an initiative which potentially unites all of the above issues.

Changing the way we access raw materials can mean smaller environmental impacts – but much larger positive social ones.

7iv. Ideology vis-a-vis the Natural World

It could be argued that many of the above measures still reside within the social paradigms that some environmentalists see as unsustainable in themselves. There are some environmental philosophies which aim to fundamentally alter the relationship of humans to the natural world.

Deep Ecology is a way of looking at the natural world which recognises that humans are members of an interdependent community that includes not only humans, but, as Aldo Leopold said, “soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land.”[32] It is a subtle but major shift in perception to see a clean environment that supports health as a right for all life forms, not just that of humans. Deep Ecology sees that all disciplines, cultures, classes, genders, communities, and species, have something to add to the design of solutions that work for everyone. If we believe in this way of looking at the world, it becomes even more imperative that we close the gap between what we believe and the way we behave in the world.

This might manifest in public sensibility by aesthetic values of balance and social justice more than an overriding concern with the generation of capital. It has previously been seen as a religious or quasi-religious stance to value ideas of “being”; but lately Deepak Chopra has been seen on television advertisements telling a huge audience that he is a human being, not a human doing, not a human thinking (and that he “is” a PC…small steps…). It is difficult to include terms such as morality in research but it is an imperative in issues around sustainability. Rather than ignoring or sidelining theorists who may be currently unsupported by scientific or mainstream paradigms, I have chosen to include them in research, because I think the paradigms are changing and will accommodate these theories eventually. The Queen’s decision to include no members of financial institutions in her most recent New Year’s Honours list is just one example of the widespread anger at and distrust of those who make decisions based only on monetary gain with no thought for other moral issues.

“…Schumacher’s most radical break with the mainstream of economic thought, however, comes with his willingness to sacrifice economic growth – for so long the Holy Grail of economic policy and strategy – for a more fulfilling working life. Perhaps more than any economist since Karl Marx, Schumacher called attention to the quality of people’s lives as producers, even stressing its importance over their lives as consumers. Work, rather than being, as in neoclassical theory, a “disutility,” becomes in Schumacher’s philosophy a means towards satisfaction, fulfilment, and personal development.”[33]

What does this mean for applied artists? Does it mean that we make objects to last? That we therefore perhaps make fewer objects? That we make objects that last in terms of component parts, a cradle-to-cradle stance in terms of what we produce? Does it mean that we look at the idea of re-imbuing the crafts with the values of the handmade, tracing a tradition and a value through time, history, and a shared humanity? Do we look at crafts as a political site of dissent; say that although we don’t need to make any more stuff by hand, we do it anyway because we reject the emptiness of endless consumption? Do we look at crafts as a process rather than place so much emphasis on the product? Or can the idea of personal development via making or consuming crafts survive the craft fair taint? These are questions which will be further explored and developed in Stages 2 and 3 of the project.

  1. Conclusion

8i. Intentions for Stage 2

The intentions are to continue to challenge and refine the above materials and positions, but to supplement and ground them with concrete case studies from the contemporary applied arts as practiced across the world which exhibit practices, identities, positions and markets that strongly relate them to the environmental and sustainability fields.

A potential framework for selecting case studies could be to base the selection initially around searching for examples which exemplify the initiatives, theories, or philosophies outlined in the above document. For example, if the framework is centred around the limits to growth economics, the case studies might be concerned with finding a ceramicist who is content to spend time making individual dinner services; a glassmaker who is searching for less environmentally-degrading ways of processing glass; or a jeweller who is questioning a concept of necessity as it pertains to her craft.

The permaculturist David Holmgren has developed a model for predicting future environmental scenarios – and predicting social scenarios based on these predictions – by juxtaposing on an axis the two main dangers to the environment as he sees them. This model then gives rise to four possible future scenarios which, once predicted, can be prepared for, mentally and physically. Potentially this could be one way of preparing for the secondary objectives of the research. Stage 2 would also, in this case, be concerned with finding two primary areas of importance to intersect.

8ii. Stage 3 workshop

Planning and preparing for the stage 3 workshop is the other primary intention for Stage 2.

This workshop will consist of 6 to 8 invited participants, identified during the Stage 2 research. These participants will each give an overview of their work and underlying ethos, and there will then be a discussion and debate between the participants, which will be documented and published on the website. This workshop will provide a good opportunity to survey the field of current practice in the applied arts as it pertains to current sustainability debates.

[1] Naylor, Gillian The Arts and Crafts Movement Studio Vista: London 1971

[2] Moon, Damon “ACROSS THE DITCH: Australian Ceramics in the Post War Period”, accessed 25/11/08


[4] accessed 14/12/08

[5] accessed 14/12/08

[6] (particularly the forum on contemporary craft in a digital future,

index.php, last accessed 22/12/08)

[7] Paul Greenhalgh(ed) London A&C Black 2002.

[8] Roger Scruton, The Sunday Times, February 10, 2008

[9] The Brundtland Commission, formally the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), known by the name of its Chair Gro Harlem Brundtland, convened by the United Nations in 1983; the report appeared in 1987. The commission was created to address growing concern “about the accelerating deterioration of the human environment and natural resources and the consequences of that deterioration for economic and social development.”

[10] (US regional ecosystem office definition- accessed 15/12/08)

[11] Brundtland, 1987

[12] accessed 10/10/2008

[13] accessed 10/10/2008

[14] In The Theory of the Leisure Classes Dover Publications New York 1994

[15] See for a Canadian currency revenue projection

[16] accessed 26/01/09

[17] Gillespie, Faith, The Masterless Way: Weaving an Active Resistance, In: Elinor, G., Richardson, S.,Scott, S.,, Thomas, A. and Walker, K., ED Women and Craft. (Virago, London, 1987) pg. 178.

[18] 2006 P. Victor and G. Rosenbluth, “Managing without Growth”, Ecological Economics. Peter Victor has also created HappyGrow, a simulation model showing the limited contribution status-centred consumption makes to our sense of well-being.


[20] (Shayer, et al, 2007, Shayer, 2008)

[21] Dr Aric Sigman, Ruskin Mill Educational Trust

[22] William McDonough and Michael Braungart Cradle to Cradle/Remaking the Way We Make Things North Point Press 2002 New York

[23] Gareth Williams, “Creating Lasting Values, in The Persistence of Craft, ed Paul Greenhalgh A & C Black Ltd 2002 p62

[24] Grace Cochrane,

papers/paper004.php accessed July 23 2008


lifeinthebalance.php accessed August 16 2008

[26] accessed July 18 2008

[27] Schumacher, E. F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.

[28]Enelow, Noah Center for Popular Economics Thursday, February 5, 2004


[30] Enelow, Noah Center for Popular Economics Thursday, February 5, 2004

[31] Dr Ian Hunter, Director of the LITTORAL Arts Trust, 2003

[32] Sand County Alamanac, 1947

[33] Enelow, Noah Center for Popular Economics Thursday, February 5, 2004