Craftivism: how pottery became sexy

BBC4’s Story of Clay showed how rewarding it can be to turn a substance that is ‘literally earth’ into an object of beauty.

David Bowden

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Forget Rihanna’s topless run-in with irate farmers or the furore over stripping students at Stringfellows, anyone looking to report inappropriate material to David Cameron’s new online complaints site ParentPort would have done worse than take a glance at BBC4 this week. The supposedly highbrow channel has been filthy as muck lately. It was urging us to put our hands here, our fingers there, to touch this while it was warm, mould that until you screamed out to God. Phwoar!

The Story of Clay was dirty and earthy stuff, although arguing that it was ‘inappropriate material’ might have raised a few eyebrows. After all, the episode was part of a new series entitled Ceramics: A Fragile History and, well, the creators clearly figured clay was a very appropriate material to discuss.

The sexual overtones were all there though. They’re a very sexual bunch, potters and ceramicists. Ceramicists are apparently pretty hot right now. Grayson Perry is one of the few Turner Prize-winning artists who can claim a genuine popular appeal (he has just curated the new ‘Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ exhibit at the British Museum), although perhaps he is more famous for his frocks than the pots he paints. Award-winning ceramicist Edmund de Waal, meanwhile, is currently collecting prize after prize for his book The Hare with Amber Eyes, which combines family biography with observations on Japanese netsuke sculpture.

Clearly tapping into a certain cultural mood, Ceramics is the first instalment of a year-long season on BBC4, in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, celebrating the decorative arts. That it’s entitled Handmade in Britain, and follows on so swiftly from Evan Davis’ book and series on the state of British manufacturing, indicates that all of that breathy talk about moulding clay is not the only ‘sexing up’ on display.

From ‘grow-your-own’ allotments to eco-chic fashion and anarchist knitting circles, ‘craftivism’ is one of the latest hip radical trends (apparently). Since the recession hit, we’ve been inundated with books from unemployed office workers and academics suddenly rediscovering the forgotten virtues of handiwork, or ‘soulcraft’ as Matthew B Crawford has it.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s own ‘Power of Making’ exhibition, supported by the UK Crafts Council, has attempted to tackle the trend head-on with an enjoyably eclectic selection of 100 objects highlighting the best of contemporary manufacturing: from lace fences and unwearable beautiful shoes through to 3-D printers and ultra-realistic bionic limbs. It’s a sort of flamboyantly futuristic version of recent Radio 4 series History of the World in 100 Objects.

That said, it does contain a rather surprising amount of coffins: a reminder that, historically, those involved in the crafts movement have always had a very curious attitude towards the future and modernity. Much like Tate Britain’s recent retrospectives on the Futurists and Vorticists, those contributing to the V&A’s celebration of the craft movement have to tackle its fair share of reactionary politics and fascist sympathisers.

Ceramics is a fairly sensible starting point of the new BBC4 season, although kicking off with the Anglo-Saxon heritage of British pottery didn’t exactly assuage some of the dubious whiff of islander nationalism. Yet, as the programme explained fairly quickly, learning how to manipulate clay doesn’t merely involve a straight line between cavemen and Patrick Swayze’s sexy dead pottery in Ghost (an image not touched upon here, although itself an interesting addition to ceramics’ fascination with morbidity).

In fact, the history of clay started to get particularly interesting when it moved from being used for dainty handicrafts to playing a part in the thumping industrialisation of large-scale Victorian engineers: not just Wedgwood (the subject of the series’ next episode) but Bazalgette and Crapper. The story of the development of modern sanitation is a surprisingly fascinating and important one, although given much closer scrutiny in the highly entertaining film Flush It!. But here it was deployed as a useful reminder that there are some tasks inherently enhanced by reducing the involvement of hands as much as possible.

When one of the talking heads assured us that working with clay ‘made you feel like God’ it was difficult to avoid rolling your eyes. By the end, his incredulity about how the ingenuity of human creativity could mould a substance which is ‘literally earth’ into objects of exquisite beauty and phenomenal use was much easier to comprehend. Of course, today, it would be difficult to generate that much excitement over the idea of shaping the world to our own ends and benefits – even if purely aesthetic – and contemporary equivalents would invariably involve considerable less handicraft and more intellectual capacity.

I’m not convinced that today’s brand of craftivists aren’t just nostalgically stuck in the past, but at least being backward-looking makes you a keen student of history, and this was a thoroughly absorbing approach to the topic. Quite why we’re so fascinated by ceramics today is perhaps a different story and one which, I suspect, the remainder of the series may not interrogate as thoroughly as it should.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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