“Who cares?” It is ironic indeed that this phrase, typically offered casually and off-the-cuff, has become synonymous with indifference. For this is perhaps the question of our time: who does in fact, care, and how much? Our moment in history suffers from a certain emotional extremism. Many of us inhabit cultures that are riven by dissent and riddled with distraction. We seem to care either far too much, or not at all. What we need to find instead is a middle ground, not so much between the politics of left and right, but between swiping left (“sorry, not interested”) and all-out culture war.
This is where craft comes in. Artisans have a justified reputation for caring, and caring a great deal. If they are any good at all, they will certainly know their materials, probably cherish their tools, and stand 100% behind what they make. But a big part of effective craftsmanship is knowing just when to care, and how much. Amateur makers do mostly work “off the clock,” free from the pressures of time and money. Not so for professionals. Every unnecessary hour lavished on an object, to get it just so, drives down profit. The same goes for material wasted on “seconds,” or indeed, on the scrap heap. Since time immemorial, the rigour of craft has not just been in getting it done, but getting it done right, and on time.
Thus the story of craft and care isn’t quite what one might think. It’s not the simple lesson that we should all just care more… whatever that would mean. Rather, craft is a generative tactical model. It shows us limited resources (time, money, materials) can be used to best effect. It is, in other words, the opposite of unthinking extremism. Refusing both apathy and zealotry – the two great maladies of our time – it instead involves a sophisticated, if often intuitive, calculation about how to direct attention.
Crucially, this finely-judged care does not stop at the workshop door. Read through the various statements contributed to the present exhibition, and you will find thinking that is expansive in its range. Our fragile and increasingly threatened environment, in particular, is an abiding concern for these artists. So too is their intended conveyance of emotion to the user (or beholder) of their work.
In 2020, a time of lockdown and social isolation, it is perhaps no surprise that so many craftspeople are focused on the connective potential of the objects they make. If ever there were a moment to uphold the values of care, this is it. But heartbreakingly, as so many front-line health workers have had to confront, just caring simply isn’t enough. We need to be smart, too, exerting our intelligence to the utmost, in order to properly guide collective action. What this tragedy demands of us, in other words, is a well-crafted response.
Every era has its own craft ethics, its own ideal. Sometimes this has edged into its own forms of extremism, fascinatingly unbridled utopian schemes. But what seems most essential about craft, right now, is its profound sanity. For a world in disequilibrium, it is the best possible medicine: because craft is, inherently, a balancing act.
Glen Adamson, curator, writer and historian