Why we need to forge our own academies

Kevin Murray

19 April 2024

Universities have benefitted the crafts significantly, but we can’t rely just on them to define our field.

In Dickens’s Great Expectations, the orphan Pip is taken on as an apprentice by Joe, the blacksmith. Pip, however, yearns for something more.

“… My situation had none of the best comforts of home. As to the blacksmith’s work, Joe diligently instructed me. He had a strong idea of the smith’s business which consisted principally in hammering on iron… I was not supposed to be capable of any gentility refinements. Unless the hammered iron turned into money of its own accord (which it didn’t), I could see that I was likely to leave a good deal of the gentility refinement behind me.”

Dickens evokes contrasting worlds. The drudgery and neediness (“hungry work”) of the workshop are contrasted with Pip’s aspirations for learning, tied to his desire to rise in social status by acquiring the “gentility refinements”.

Today, Pip would find it much easier to gain the “refinements” of higher education. From the two universities of Dickens’ time, there are now 165 universities in the UK. India currently has 4,354 universities. Globally, it’s expected that by 2040, there will be nearly 600 million tertiary students.

This rise reflects what the sociologist Karl Polanyi describes as the “great transformation”, in which formal markets replaced communal relationships: in this case, certified teaching institutions replaced family workshops. Where learning was previously handed down personally by people like Joe, it is now standardised into accredited courses.

While traditionally serving professional careers, such as law and medicine, the scope of university education has broadened to include skill-based practices, such as the crafts. In Australia, this occurred under the Dawkins reforms of 1988 to make tertiary education accessible to the mass of the population.

There are clear benefits to this arrangement. Those craft specialists who take on academic positions can obtain a salary that enables them to specialise and develop their work further. Tertiary students can access scholarships and guidance from faculty at the critical early phase of their careers.

They also have access to expensive equipment, which is particularly important in media, such as glass. But more generally, the academicisation of the crafts helps them develop into unique creative fields with their own histories and creative conversation.

This kind of specialisation underpins the presence of craft in art galleries, which presume originality that is expressed in unique titles for each object. The value of such education is reflected in successful craft artists such as Mel Douglas, who completed her PhD at the Australian National University. This helped particularly stimulate her creativity:

“A university education provided me with not only technical skills but also critical thinking abilities, exposure to diverse perspectives, and a supportive community of peers and mentors that have been invaluable in shaping my artistic journey and expanding my creative horizons.”

Mel has built on this experience to exhibit at Sabbia Galleries and be selected as a Loewe Foundation Craft Prize finalist.

As documented by sociologist Raewyn Connell in The Good University, universities have become more corporate in recent times. This is reflected in neoliberal management that seeks to prioritise profit and streamline teaching for the sake of efficiency. Craft teaching is often targeted as an intensive use of resources compared to skills that can be taught online, such as Photoshop.

While there are complaints about the academic bias in university craft education, this is often an issue of the quality of theory. Craft students are usually provided with art history and theory that don’t address the unique questions within their craft fields. This has led to a homogenisation of theory, particularly around new materialism and identity. Without a clear idea of the field, PhDs are often diaristic, emphasising the personal journey rather than a contribution to the greater whole.

Much more work must be done to articulate the key questions that constitute the different craft fields today.

Much work has been done outside the academic world.

When he was manager of Art Jewelry Forum, Damian Skinner cohered practice around the concept of “critique of preciousness”, which framed an evolution from the elitism of traditional jewellery to the democratic works of figures such as Roseanne Bartley.

A parallel development occurred with the Journal of Modern Craft, initiated by independent writers such as Glenn Adamson. Here, the dynamic concept is “critique of modernity, ” initiated in the Arts & Crafts Movement. Adamson and others seek to deconstruct this narrative, showing that craft as we know it is actually a product of modernity. This argument is far from settled, particularly with the advent of ChatGPT.

Meanwhile, new models for craft specialisation have emerged.

Following the post-COVID popularity of workshop-based teaching, especially in ceramics, there are initiatives to develop a more specialised pathway. The UK Adopt a Potter program, recently launched in Australia as Foster a Potter, offers an apprenticeship position with a stipend to work alongside an experienced ceramicist for a year.

While these programs address the deficit of specialist skill-based learning in universities, they don’t offer the same kind of diversity that is useful for fostering creativity, as in the Bauhaus model. There are attempts to merge the two models. Hyeyoung Cho recently reported on the hiring of craft masters in Korean universities.

There have been similar attempts in Australia. For a while, RMIT University School of Art sought to develop a craft program where students could get credit for time spent in partner craft workshops. At ANU, Janet Deboos developed a “distributed studio” where students could access specialisations globally as part of their degree, including Canada, New Zealand and China. While the program was financially successful, it was taken over to solve the School of Art’s deficit: fees were increased, and content was put online, which led to a drop in student numbers. Janet feels this a great loss, “I think it was a great pity. It was known worldwide, and there’s not a week goes past when it’s not suggested it should be revived.”

There are heartening examples of universities that have sought to contribute to the craft field. Plymouth School of Art have just announced the next iteration of their Making Futures conference, with a continuing focus on sustainability. In September this year, Curtin University will host the Futuring Craft conference in partnership with the Indian Ocean Craft Triennial. One issue with these conferences, though, is the peer-review system. While this is necessary for academics, it can discourage more practice-based presentations.

  • Peer review for conference presentations should be optional
  • Authors of academic books more than $50 in price should find other ways to share ideas, such as podcast

India is often the source of alternative models for academic teaching. The most famous, Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan, was established by Tagore to provide for an organic education, which includes an open learning centre for local village children. Today, our partner MAP Academy in Bangalore generously offers a free course in Indian craft history.

At Garland, we’ve fostered the new path of thinker-maker as a way for recent graduates to use their unique combination of theory and skill. We’ve also sought to make a bridge with the Knowledge House for Craft, which offers an accessible association for developing the craft field. The Reinventing the Wheel events often feature academic authors whose work is published in books and whose high price limits readership to those with access to academic libraries. Later this year, it will host a discussion about the spatial framework for craft, developed back in the day at AJF.

Pip, the apprentice, would be encouraged today by Dr Mary Hackett, who completed a PhD in blacksmithing at the RMIT School of Art. She felt lucky to have a scholarship that gave her the space to explore new creative possibilities by “making mistakes”: “I loved it.” However, she is cautious about university education as a “money sponge” and describes being “a little bit lonely”. While she hasn’t found a platform to publish her work, she enjoys being part of a writing group set up by thinker-maker Roseanne Bartley.

Universities are the ideal spaces for constituting fields of practice. But as they keep growing and lose focus on specialisms, we must take responsibility for this ourselves.

Further reading

And from our friends at Formkraft:

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