I am unsettled by the work that sits between art and craft because I think craft and tradition are very firmly linked and that must not be denied. That is one of the great things about it, and craft, by definition, is something that can be taught to someone else, you know, you can teach someone how to throw a pot and they will become as good at it as you if they’ve got the necessary. Whereas art is very much linked to the individual and their vision and it’s not necessarily something that can be taught or passed down. You can be derivative and take up parts of someone’s vision but you can’t become that person. I think that therein lies the rub, that craft, in its very essence, the minute you invoke it … you’re saying, is this art or is it social work? You know, is it art or is it fashion? It’s like there’s a tension in that their values by their very nature are pulling apart from each other.
And for me, you could say now that painting has practically become a craft, it’s on the way to becoming a craft. I think that post-Duchamp, it’s so old this argument … because anything goes is a really old idea now, and since Duchamp the notion that you can teach craft as part of art. You can teach the philosophy of craft, once you’ve set what you’re going to do - whether it’s piling up bits of plastic or doing a poo or making a video – is what you’re doing for your art, then do it really well. But I think when we talk of craft we talk of a certain set of processes, whether that be clay or glass or jewellery or textiles and we look back through history instantly. It’s quite interesting when things start to become kind of less relevant in the modern world, that’s when they start becoming kind of nostalgia-ised. Like, say, old-fashioned photography is now very rapidly becoming a craft because with the plate and developing and all that sort of thing. And it will be fetishised by a group of mainly men probably who’ll kind of like become all train spottery about old techniques of daguerreotype and, oh yes, this is Kodak film and you can’t get this anymore.
The big challenge to visual culture is probably digital and I think that craft will grow up within that. But what I think is tricky about the digital revolution is that it’s intangible. It’s the fact that whatever you do with a computer you only ever interact with the computer as a go-between, between you and the finished thing. I’ve done works which are digitised and there is something very different in the relationship to the finished product. It’s not a kind of organic relationship of mutual impact that you might have with clay, where you want to do something with the clay but the clay says, no, I don’t want to do that. Whereas with the digital thing … you know what it can do, you can see that you want that thing to be that blue and you just alter that blue until it’s the perfect colour blue and you push a button and it goes blue … People who are like computer programmers, they talk about code as being almost organic because … you’re dealing with such vast quantities of information that it has unpredictable consequences quite often, in the same way as … when you’re carving a piece of wood that has a grain, you might find a sudden knot in it. People talk about computer code in that way. So maybe we are entering an era when the people in Pixar Studios or whatever are the craftsmen, they are the Michelangelos of the twenty-first century, rather a galling thought, maybe. They are the people I regard as cutting-edge craftsmen.
There’s a counter movement against digital culture which I think is very healthy. When you think of folk/music festivals, live theatre, live events of all sorts, live activities like craft, do have a balancing revival. How kind of deep that is, I don’t know, but I trust that human nature will out, and that we will get what we want, or deserve, or need.
In our lifetime we have seen our relationship to making things change. My father’s generation, utility man, could mend anything in the house. He could build a wall, he could install the central heating, he could rebuild the car engine, he could even have a tinker in the back of the telly because he was very good at that sort of thing. So we’ve gone from that to a point where people can’t change a plug. It’s regarded as kind of a skill if you can bake bread or something really basic like that. The fact that now we have this constant … these trends … like knitting suddenly becomes fashionable. There’s about half a dozen magazines about scrapbooking. That’s a shocker to me. Scrapbooking used to be something you mucked about with as a kid, you cut up old magazines, now you go to the shops and you buy scrapbooking supplies. It’s happened so fast. I think that one of the great empowering things about learning craft is … it’s almost like a manifestation, a physical manifestation of, I can change the world. Whereas perhaps children now, I’m being very out there in thinking this, perhaps now they’re thinking, I can change the virtual world. Meanwhile their real world around them, they’re powerless. That’s the extreme view, but I don’t know, I wonder.
The Museum of Savage Beauty interactive web feature explores the hidden stories and craftsmanship behind some of the most remarkable objects made by Alexander McQueen and his creative collaborators. Here the designer's iconic pieces are placed alongside historical objects from the V&A’s collections, which represent some of the many design traditions that inspired him.