… It’s a given that a large percentage of enthusiastic Woodturners would like to see the craft progress; and evidence of this can be found all over the place, books, magazines, newsletters, websites, seminars Etc., and as one of those enthusiastic Woodturners, it’s a problem that concerns me, and is always on my mind.
But before my thoughts, some others.
Firstly, the first sentence above requires a few comments.
It is also a given that another large percentage of Woodturners are quite content to continue doing whatever it is they do, without any concern about the progression of the craft, and they have that right, and having that that right does not make them in any way wrong. Just different.
So I am simplistically breaking the whole of the woodturning fraternity into two groups. I know there are more. It’s just easier this way.
So, firstly, what do we mean by progression? In real terms I believe it comes down to money.
Unhappy with that? Then argue your case. I believe it is ultimately about money.
In recent years the call seems to have been for woodturning to be viewed as an art form, rather than a lowly craft, but I won’t go into that question again here; I think I’ve done that one to death on this Blog. The problem with this desire is that not all woodturning is what might reasonably be termed “artistic”. So it can never be a broad-stroke redefining of what we do; at best it will be a re-shading of some areas of what we do. But having said that, why would those whose work falls into that area wish for a re-defining of what they do? My contention is that the answer is “money”.
This is already beginning to sound derogatory, but absolutely isn’t intended to be!
There are of course other reasons why a creator of “artistic woodturning” might wish for a re-defining of what they do: personal satisfaction, a desire to be viewed as serious, considered, thoughtful and thought provoking, a maker with a voice and a message. And maybe there are those who would like to distance themselves from the now hackneyed and often maligned description of “craftsman”. It may also be true that some such practitioners are in fact artists who just happen to use the lathe in the making process, and are simply intent on distancing themselves from the tool of their trade and returning to the title of “artist”. But I believe there are a large number who see the quite obvious monetary advantages of having their work viewed as art, as opposed to craft. And I believe that this is a very good thing for the craft at foundation level.
It is another given that making a living from woodturning is a difficult thing to achieve. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for the hand turner to earn a living, fewer and fewer contracts for hand-turned goods, and apparently reducing markets in the conventional outlets for turned wares. And these factors result in virtually no opportunities for apprenticeships in woodturning in the UK.
A young person having been inspired by the craft of what we do, having pursued it, perhaps, to the point of high competence, is unlikely to then go on to try and make a living at it, and will probably leave the craft until many years later, when time allows for it to be re-kindled as a quiet, low-cost, hobby. And so the cycle of decline is propagated.
Imagine a situation where woodturning has been successfully re-defined, where some Woodturners are considered as artists, as makers of art, where their work is sought out by collectors, displayed in high-end retail galleries, exhibited in public galleries in “serious” exhibitions, and sold for figures commensurate with artwork from other disciplines, in other mediums, and by other “artists”. What would then happen to woodturning? What effect would this have on woodturning at foundation level?
My assertion is that it would naturally progress. It could not fail to.
Woodturning would become an attractive set of skills to acquire. Woodturning would become “cool” in the same sense that graffiti became cool after Banksy re-defined it from the socially unacceptable activity of the vandal to an activity of a socially aware commentator. Taggers no longer just bought spray cans, but nipped into the local art shop and bought canvases as well.
A young person beginning on the woodturning journey might just see woodturning as a possible career choice if the market was extended to include the art-buying crowd. It might also serve as an avenue of exploration for those young turners with an artistic bent, who had previously not settled on a methodology or medium. If a market already exists then people will exploit it quite naturally.
And this exploitation would filter down to the very foundations of the craft. A hobby watercolourist is always referred to as being an “artist”, and a certain weight is implied by the description, regardless of their particular ability set, or the degree of aptitude they display. The point is that what they do has a particular place in the public perception. What they do has value because art has value. Craft, sadly, is not always viewed in the same way. Craft is people beavering away in sheds and conservatories, on kitchen tables, and in the back bedrooms vacated by children long-since fledged. Craft is a time-filler. Art is a vocation. Craft is a little extra pocket money. Art is a living.
So if the public perception of at least one area of the craft is raised to that of art, then the appreciation will filter down. Raised perceptions will naturally result in the possibility of elevated prices, elevated income, and elevated levels of respect for practitioners.
And the point of this diatribe?
No matter what your personal opinion on the “artistic” in woodturning is, it is in all of our interests for the “artistic” in woodturning to prosper. It could well be that without the growth of the artistic and the implicit advantages this would bring, that woodturning will fail to progress. And if it does fail to progress, it may well die out, and if not exactly die out, it could certainly slump to the low take-up levels where tool manufacturers, magazines and book publishers, instructional DVD makers, and event organisers begin to view the market as being so small that it is no longer a viable market, and that itself would be a very bad thing for woodturning and its practitioners.
So even if you don’t like the “artistic” work being done by many turners, support their right to pursue it, support their work, support their desire to re-define it, support the possibilities this may bring, and enjoy the positive knock-on effects of their success when your work is viewed in a far better light at the next local craft fair you attend.