The poppy installation at the Tower of London seems to have moved all who have seen it, capturing the immensity of the human cost of needless war. Certainly it triggered debate, which is always a positive thing.
The irony is that in the week this installation by ceramicist Paul Cummins captured the public imagination, so a campaign was launched to save yet another ceramic course threatened with closure – this time in Falmouth. Throughout the UK ceramics courses have been steadily axed over recent years. Apparently there is no longer any value in learning how to craft beauty and meaning, insight and inspiration from clay. However, the hundreds of thousands of people who have visited the Tower of London in recent weeks may have a slightly different idea.
Paul Cummins learned his craft at the University of Derby, where ceramics is still taught. If we value learning through making, if we value the unique objects and art works that only a mastery of ceramics gives us, if we value the imagination and power evident in the Blood-Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation at the Tower of London, and the sense of wonder experienced by all those who have seen this remarkable artwork, then surely we must defend the teaching of ceramic art and design.
Ceramics runs deep with us. It runs in our veins. Some of the earliest human made objects are ceramic, such as the 30,000 year old Venus figurine discovered in Moravia. The invention of the potter’s wheel in what is now Iraq around 6,000 years ago revolutionised the production of vessels and led directly to the establishment of cities. Then there is Josiah Wedgwood: a potter who invented the factory system, industrial design, the principles of modern marketing and laid the ground for the industrial revolution. Oh yes, he also helped abolish slavery and provided the money for Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. Artistic expression, the birth of cities, innovation, revolutionary change, social responsibility and evolutionary theory. Pottery. What’s not to like?
The craft of ceramics may play a vital role in our history, and can be used to remind us powerfully of recent historical events. But it is not consigned to history. Ceramic design is very much a practice of today – and it is vital for our future. At Falmouth, where the ceramics course is under threat, ceramic design researchers have been leading the internationally recognised Autonomatic Research Group, fusing craft and digital practices in highly relevant and innovative projects in partnership with programmers, cultural geographers, bio-scientists, journalists, social scientists, technology developers, museum curators, and artists. And of course they are doing this in Cornwall, a region where there is huge value in exploring new applications for making and craft.
If you’re still not convinced that an education based on making stuff has any value then perhaps you could imagine living without your phone. As Apple’s head of design, Sir Jonathan Ive pioneered the smartphone and the tablet, and provided the design expertise to make Apple the most highly valued company on Earth. This week he said “So many of the designers that we interview don’t know how to make stuff, because workshops in design schools are expensive and computers are cheaper. That’s just tragic, that you can spend four years of your life studying the design of three dimensional objects and not make one.”
Yes, it is tragic that those who are responsible for design education appear to have no idea of the educational, cultural and economic value of a learning that is based on making. But in most cases those responsible do not actually work in design education. It is part of their “wider brief” as senior managers in higher education who are given an art school alongside a clutch of other related (and usually less related) disciplines. In my experience, these “here today, gone tomorrow” managers have much in common with cabinet ministers who have responsibility for education: they have no passion, no interest and above all, no knowledge of their brief. But – and this is the real tragedy – they are making decisions that future generations will have to live with.
This week the UK Education Secretary Nicky Morgan spoke out unambiguously about the value of the arts and humanities: “If you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do…then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful – we were told – for all kinds of jobs. Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects.” In choosing the arts, she asserted, pupils are making choices that “will hold them back for the rest of their lives”. There is a poverty of knowledge and imagination behind these comments that is hugely dispiriting.
It is dispiriting because there is naturally the assumption that learning based on the arts – and making in particular – is somehow a bit dumb, and thus is something pursued by thick people. I don’t agree with this.
Craft is the one true alchemy. It is through craft - through learning based on making - that quality is found in the crudest of materials. From mud is created ceramic, from sand is created glassware, from ores comes metalwork and jewellery and from a sheep’s back comes woven textiles. It is through craft that pigments from the earth were discovered to have qualities of colour which could be applied as paint – to paint the sky. Craft is the process which takes the earth and paints the sky with it.
Learning through making fuses science and art, technology and culture. It defines our humanity and our values, it provides future visions and possibilities. It captures imagination.
It must not be lost.