Monday, 18 February 2008

What role does the ‘craft’ of an artist play in excellence?

Justin O’Connor’s recent literature review of the Cultural and Creative Industries for Creative Partnerships traces the history of the terms creative and cultural industries. It’s a fascinating read – from Adorno through the GLC and cultural industries to the creative industries as conceptualised in the early years of the New Labour government and the recent interest in linkages to Innovation. (Innovation is, in all industrial sectors, this year’s Black, it seems.) It’s very readable and a good example of the kinds of research and thinking Creative Partnerships has done alongside its work with young people. I think it would be a good part of any induction at Arts Council or for local authority arts officers and other development agencies.

At the end of the report O’Connor makes a very provocative statement, though. He argues: ‘But maybe creativity is the problem. As we suggested, the creativity mobilised in the new spirit of capitalism is one based on a particular modernist artistic tradition, of rule-breaking innovation, of the shock of the new. Maybe creativity has stripped out certain values associated with ‘artistic practice’ – innovation, inspiration, intuition, rule-breaking etc. – in a way that leaves a scarred landscape of discarded artistic practices, poisoning the well springs of the culture whence they sprung. The older traditions of the ‘golden mean’, the Chinese ‘middle way’, balance and harmony; the idea of a life spent in the acquisition of a difficult singular expertise, the artistic sacrifice of other routes, other skills, in order to master one; the gradual abandonment of self-expression in favour of other formal languages and meanings – all these appear archaic, irrelevant to the incessant innovation drive of creativity.’

He suggests that the emphasis on innovation, newness, risk-taking is at the expense of the tradition, apprenticeship, and craft that some other (often non-European/Western) art practices would put at their core. Reading Sir Brian MacMaster’s ‘Supporting Excellence in the Arts’, with its emphasis on innovation and risk-taking, and nary a mention of craft, I wonder if we need to do more thinking to integrate the two strands.

Does privileging ‘innovation’ lead to the emperor’s new clothes syndrome many people suspect is at play in some parts of the arts? (The Arts Debate revealed a very strong public suspicion of conceptual art, for instance.) When does 'risk-taking' become an indulgence? Do the routes artists follow to become professional give enough chance to build up craft skills as well as to experiment? How do we better integrate innovation and the development of core skills? Innovation is vital, Brian MacMaster is right. But it’s not the only thing an artist needs and we should not forget to say that.

(Not the last time I'll touch on the McMaster Report, I'm sure. Arts Council will be responding formally very soon.)

1 comment:

tom harvey said...

My work is in support of the moving image sector in the North East of England. It's a sector that has been transformed through new technologies. It feels like a sector full of innovation. However, the innovation has been in the use of cheaper production technology and different ways of exhibiting work. The craft is still in the essential element of telling a good story well.

We work hard to encourage innovation around new platforms and technologies but also work hard to build traditional craft skills of writing, shooting, editing and story telling.

I wonder if this is the same as saying that in order to be able to paint you must first learn to draw?

In my sector, I struggle to see what innovation would look like without the support of the craft skills to back it up.

I seem to be agreeing with O'Connor, that to innovate, we need the raw materials to work with - finding new routes to markets or innovative methods of production means little if no one wants what you are creating.

Tom Harvey