Articles Written / Changing Parameters in Education and Craft.

Lueckenhausen, H, Changing parameters in Education and Craft.
Craft Victoria, vol 28, no 236, 1/1998, pp 16-18

Craft in the sense of works based on skill, materials expertise and one hopes, intelligent reflection on material culture is one of the areas of endeavour struggling to maintain a niche in a vastly changed (and continually changing) system of education in Australia.

The colleges of advanced education, the technical stream of tertiary learning rooted primarily in a teaching culture (within which the last vestiges of the atelier model of art learning maintained a struggling presence) have now become new—or been absorbed by existing—universities. The end of Australia's binary system of tertiary education, when the two streams were melded, heralded a struggle between a complex range of imperatives, amongst which vocational training has proven to be most vulnerable.

It is not only craft as a category of creative product, but craft as a generic term for the skills base of a whole range of professions and pursuits, that is now challenged by a dominant culture of quantitative (and to a lesser extent qualitative) research most familiarly presented via text and proven via publication. The various study areas within my own school, the National School of Design at Swinburne are cases in point. Gone are the days when art, design and craft courses provided an alternative path for creative but academically undistinguished students. This has resulted in both a change in the nature of the student attracted to (and able to gain entry into) courses and considerable change to the nature and the methodology of the work undertaken.

TAFE (Tertiary and Further Education) colleges and university divisions, now gradually, and probably more correctly, being referred to as the VET (Vocational Education and Training) sector are assumed to be the correct place for skills training. The most optimistic interpretation of this state of affairs is that the two parallel but unequal streams of the past (technical colleges and universities) have now developed into a structure, which offers pathways between VET training and higher education. Those who have spent a lifetime struggling for recognition of the arts as work, of craft within art and design, of creativity and making within an intellectual framework, understand the complexity of the thinking-creating-working continuum and are probably less likely to believe the parts are entirely separable in any sector or at any level.

Layered over educational philosophy and discourse are the pragmatic concerns of public funding, and in Australia's case, the way in which successive governments have chosen to diminish the education gift within a policy of transforming the citizen into a consumer. Universities, particularly the newer universities which were previously the teaching colleges, are busy developing corporate cultures within which courses must be financially viable (that means bums on seats) or they must go. Around the country we witness smaller courses, expensive courses, courses with too few applicants and courses struggling to develop research profiles being scaled down and even cancelled. Strong, vocational studio majors are being changed to large, theory-based minors, and I don't mean theory in the best educational sense, but in the 150 students packed into a lecture theatre sense.

As the head of a school with primary responsibility for the budget I am the focus for the dissatisfaction of students and staff with school resource issues. The university is consequently the focus for my dissatisfaction and entreaties, and the Department of Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (DEETYA) and therefore Government, is the focus for the university. However it's no good those of us interested in the continuance of quality craft education banging our heads against a wall. We need to identify those areas where we can have influence and attempt to understand the challenges. The situation in which craft and craft based study now finds itself is also the result of the manner in which we professionals, practitioners and educators have chosen to interpret and confront these challenges in the past.

In the first instance, universities and colleges aside, how have we positioned craft practice?

The heady (and never resolved) art craft debate had the fine arts taking the intellectual high ground, claiming the academy and the public space and developing a contempt not only for craft objects but craft skills even within their own practice. The arts developed the vocabulary for critical discourse and controlled the debate. Craft and design practitioners were not only late in engaging in the discourse, we made the mistake of attempting to colonies a discourse that was predicated on the moral and intellectual superiority of the fine arts. How naive were we?

Post modernism, one interpretation of which allowed for an eclectic celebration of decoration, colour, theatre and object, breathed new life into the crafts struggle for a place in the built environment. Other interpretations allowed for the re-evaluation of the status of previously marginalized practices and more fluid models for how we perceived parts within a cultural whole. The reassessment and recontextualization of the hero object (and as a consequence, the hero artist) within a social narrative, diminished the idea that crafts, or for that matter any area of human endeavour, could be mindless doing.

Crafts organizations, for example Craft Victoria, witnessed the designer/maker phenomenon within their spheres of interest and moved the craft as art argument towards that of craft as design. Ministry policy evolved from public service to industry sector leadership and Craft Victoria toed the fine line stretched between public funding and private practice. People who were perceived as being able to bridge crafts and design practice were invited into the organization. I am an example of that and so are a number of people who preceded and followed me.

At the same time it became clear that in a classical Marxian division of management and labour, craftspeople, sometimes through a self-destructive anti-intellectualism, had allowed themselves to be distanced from the discourses where the rules of purpose, practice, status, and rewards were established, reinforced (and enforced). Inevitably, a practice that was as firmly rooted in an educated, advantaged middle class, as our particular manifestation of crafts was and is, developed a vanguard of people eager to engage. One of the many tactics developed by Craft Victoria (then still the Crafts Council of Victoria) was to encourage the crafts community to look at itself through the critical eyes of other (possibly related) professions. The tactic of engaging writers and eventually curators from non-crafts backgrounds has become fashionable and proliferated; an example is Sue Rowely's Interventions conference, which solicited comment from occasional as well as committed observers.

The policy of encouraging engagement with crafts by non crafts professionals (and as a consequence, by whatever constituency to which that professional had access) has been reasonably successful, even if one accepts that several notable writers, curators and bureaucrats seem to lose their interest in crafts at precisely the same moment as crafts cease to be useful to them. The level of writing about craft has been upgraded several levels and some cross-platform writers, such as Kevin Murray maintain a long-term commitment. Looking back, the questions we ought to ask are: have we improved the position of crafts practice and to what extent are craftspeople further empowered?

An early curatorial project of Kevin Murray's was Symmetry, a vehicle through which a variety of crafts practices were paired with a complementary profession. On the opening night at the Ian Potter Gallery Hillary Mc Phee made a telling opening address. Hillary waxed lyrical about every imaginable aspect of the exhibition; she spoke at length about Kevin, about his ideas, about the gallery, about the designer and layout of the
exhibition and about the lighting. She also complimented and thanked the director of the gallery. The only people who escaped any mention whatsoever were the craftspeople themselves.

An increasing (sometimes bizarre) array of curatorial engines now drives many craft exhibitions. The survey has become passé. We seem less interested in exploring the subtle location of individual crafts practice within the larger context. The context is now being invoked early to pre-determine the craft. The '97 Fresh (student survey) exhibition, for example, leaves me with some disquiet. Wasn't the idea to survey the best of the next generation? Isn't it somewhat arbitrary to invent a story independently, and even after the making, and then impose that criterion on other works? One wonders whether we are being apprised of the doctrine of curatorial infallibility. The questions with which we are left are: is there still space in the classroom, in the studio and in the gallery for non-mannered production work? Is the craft maker, the producer, the person making a living from craft making still in the loop? Who calls the shots? Who decides what is made, what is exhibited?

This point of how we define and position practice (in all its manifestations) is the link between individual work, the policies of organizations such as professional bodies, boards and councils, and the assumptions underlying educational programs. Craft Victoria's commendable lecture presentation series (and follow-up publication) Cultural Theory and Craft Practice is an example of sharing the responsibility to educate. It is also an example of the difficulties that an implied hierarchy of expert opinion brings with it. The benign picture consists of a level field of players—makers, critics, writers, curators, consumers etc.—contributing to the game. A less benign picture still places the power to decide and shape, to fund and exhibit, in other words to control the field, in the hands of everybody but the makers.

People who design, make, create and do are not usually afraid of intellectual engagement. In fact, as Mike Press, Professor of Design research at Sheffield Hallam University says, "it is not just a question of the people who practice craft being depicted as witless toilers. The act of making … is a highly distinctive and intelligent practice" (Press, 1997:43). Nor is the place and opportunity of further investigation, traditional text-based research and/or critical debate denied. The suspicion is that a new layer of heroes is being created with whom to short change the makers—the hero critical theorist, the hero curator. The suspicion is that as older power elites give way to the new, practitioners will remain at the labour end of Marx's spectrum.

It is at this point that professional concerns overlap so clearly (and appropriately) with those of education and training.

Craft educators are not alone in their dismay as applications drop and university administration and policy makers reduce staff, contact hours and even cancel courses. The liberal arts, particularly languages, some engineering courses, and in two cases of which I am aware, interior design and even the popular graphic design course, are being scaled down. We live in interesting (read: reductive / downsizing) times. Public service, social cohesion, cultural development, are all difficult to identify as user pays outcomes. The most useful way to proceed is to locate the continuum of concerns of the art, design and craft professions firmly within, and not in opposition to, university traditions of scholarship. Those aspects of university tradition that are antipathetic to the arts, while no small hurdle, will eventually bend (and to some extent have begun to).

The record to date of the nurturing of art, design and craft scholarship, within which both education and training can be located, has been mixed. Exemplary models exist and the field is expanding rapidly but great harm has also been done by educators allowing the lines between practice and research to be fudged, and even worse, between busy work and research. A quick reading of some of the material entitled research outcomes from art, craft and design courses in Victoria and elsewhere shows a disquieting confusion between substantial research and critical investigation and what is actually doggerel, artificially inflated philosophical shibboleths, navel gazing and plain artistic posturing. Intellectual rigour has many manifestations: quality professional practice is not possible without a measure of intellectual rigour. Successful models exhibit critical rigour, and that part of intellectual rigour, which questions the field, places the work within that field and makes some critical conclusions.

The reality is, only courses of study which can successfully negotiate the pitfalls of the crisis in public education funding, locate their vocational and professional concerns within the mores of the modern university, create flexible career pathways and consequently attract students will survive.

Ernest Boyer, President of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, USA, in his book Scholarship Reconsidered, recognizes the full range of scholarly activity by university educators. Boyer questions the university model that privileges research and publication over teaching and learning and suggests four inter-related categories of academic endeavour: the scholarship of discovery, the scholarship of integration, the scholarship of application and the scholarship of teaching. (Boyer, 1997:15-25)

The first, discovery, comes closest to the traditional concept of research; that is, the advancement of knowledge. While it is here, particularly in post-graduate study, that the greatest confusion between heightened levels of practice and actual new knowledge occurs, it should in principle relate beautifully to creative study, development and innovation.

The second, integration, may be the most challenging. It involves making multi-disciplinary connections and asking what discoveries or findings may mean.

The third, application, is about the service that knowledge, skills, and talent can perform. This is the area in which scholarship can be linked to vocational, applied outcomes, providing the location for the traditions and essence of crafts making which retain contemporary relevance, and for the potential loss of which so much concern is currently being voiced.

The fourth, teaching, similarly links the teacher's knowledge with the student's learning. It is a dynamic, intense activity and does more than create a neutral intellectual space, it fills that space. The old art school model of occasional oversight by the master is not sufficiently pro-active to qualify. That is the hard lesson for teachers struggling with rapid change.

Clearly the challenge is to position crafts practice and craft education via the same guiding principles. Firstly, we don't panic. If the craft making and consuming section of the broad band of material culture were that fragile it would have disappeared already. The actual existence of craft practice is beyond policy makers to determine. Secondly, we embrace and (in the best sense of the word) exploit contemporary manifestations of scholarship and intellectual engagement to further evolve the hand-to-brain critical thinker and problem solver of the future. This is the area that represents the greatest challenge to course leaders and senior faculty. Diminishing opportunity for craft study shows it has not been well met. Thirdly, we do our best to make sure that in a significant proportion of cases those hands and those brains are not sorted into separate classes, nor attached to separate bodies.

My thanks to Marion Marshall and Andrea Hylands for their time and considered opinions.

Ernest L Boyer, (1997) Scholarship Reconsidered, Jossey-Bass Inc., California.

Mike Press, (1997) 'A new vision in the making', Crafts (UK),
July/August, 42-45.