A Kind of Manifesto

I want to seem to digress a little to start with and I want to use food as an analogy. I think it’s an apt one and I hope you’ll allow the seeming randomness of the start.

Where, and when, I was growing up, I mean up until the age of about thirteen, the height of good, sophisticated food was called a mixed grill. It consisted of various pieces of meat, blasted with heat to almost the point of incineration, accompanied by maybe some fried mushrooms and tomatoes, and topped by a lovely slice of tinned pineapple.

Yummy.

At some point in my youth, the idea of this sort of food being the apotheosis of yum started to undergo a radical cultural change. The quantity of food on the plate became less and less the measure of the quality of the dining experience. More attention was paid to the provenance of the food, to the skill and art of its combination, to its presentation and to its place in a holistic dining experience. There was an attitude shift, and people started to care about food in a different way. I began to have dining experiences that still make me wistful with longing when I remember them. In the space of about ten years the food in my country of origin went from being the butt of jokes across the world to being one of the main reasons I get homesick.

I see the same thing happening here; it has been happening for some time now. While it’s never possible to track with certainty any social change, my own observations relate it to the Mediterranean aspirational drift that’s been paraded before us for the past twenty years or so, with its relaxed, inclusive lifestyle aura around its food and drink, to the celebrity chef phenomenon, and on the other hand to the common and increasing scare stories surrounding the food we eat, somewhere between Joe Jackson’s “Everything Gives You Cancer” and “Fear and Loathing in Tesco’s”. Lately Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver held up a mirror to our eating habits, with immediate effect. People started to become more aware in general of the things I’ve just mentioned in a dining experience, and there’s been a cultural change in this country. Caught in a pincer grip between fear and aspiration, there has been a paradigm shift in our relationship to food.

Now (finally) I’d like to refer to the Applied Arts. It’s our contention on this research project at Plymouth College of Art that the problem with Applied Arts in terms of being Minority Specialist Subjects is that it has lost relevance to the wider public. Like food in a time of heathens, it seems that people require quantity and cheapness over quality and provenance in the craft work they buy. The care we put into the things that we make is somehow absent from the notice of the wider public. We think that people have lost any reason to value the handmade, and we therefore think that, in order for the Applied Arts to survive and thrive, a paradigm shift has to occur. Now, we accept that it’s pretty much beyond us to actually cause this paradigm shift; but what we are very interested in is to track some of the emerging debates around the issue of sustainability to see if they are related or relatable to the Applied Arts, and watch what happens when the two are put together.

The terms of debate around sustainability are necessarily spread wide. The World Commission on Environment and Development’s definition of sustainability is “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”. There are a lot of ways in which we might approach this definition. We might, for example, look at our raw materials, how they are collected, traded, transformed, and apply to them the definition, see how they stand up. In this instance we might find ourselves, as Jane Hope of Plymouth College of Art has done, looking at issues of Fair Trade silver in Bolivia. I know her work has made me look at the silver I own, or might want to own, in a different light. We might look at the values inherent in the World Commission’s definition and decide we need to set up our workplaces in a more systems-based or collaborative form. Collectives of makers have a great history in this country and are still being developed. We might try to assess what it means for objects to be of “lasting value” – 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?

Or are there debates emerging in endangered subject areas which are still in a kind of latent or nebulous form? 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. 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; we all know 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.

Once my mother entered a competition to win a ring. It was gold, with freshwater pearls and tiny Argyle diamonds. Her name was not the one drawn out of the hat; she didn’t win the competition. But she had fallen in love with the ring, and because she had fallen in love with it, she did something that until then had been completely out of her sphere of reference. She commissioned another ring from the maker. To some people that might be normal; for her it took a huge shift in her thinking. It remained her favourite ring for the rest of her life. When she died she left it to me. I’m wearing it now. I won’t even begin to try to describe what this ring means to me. But I don’t think I love it more than she did. I don’t know why, in a life of supreme disinterest in jewellery, she fell in love with this ring. But she did, and I have a feeling that, if we can find a way to position the things we make so that people find a way of falling in love with them that goes beyond the merely acquisitive paradigm in which we seem to currently find ourselves – and it’s our feeling that that kind of positioning may well be to be found in or around debates on sustainability – then we will not have to worry about crafts being endangered any more.

Now I have already posited the possibility that we may be mistaken in this idea. We are very interested in debate on this issue and to this end are in the process of organising a conference to be held in Plymouth on the 17th and 18th of September 2009. Details can be found under the Conferences section on this website.  Please visit and let us know what you think.