Putting the art back into artisan: Class divisions and historical stigma lie behind the Crafts Council's latest exhibition, says John Windsor

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THE title of the Crafts Council's selling exhibition, On the Edge: Art Meets Craft, is misleading. The art displayed here is not 'meeting craft' at all: it is running a mile from it. The exhibitors are crafts people who, having taken an exhilarating leap into conceptual art, are being rescued by the curator Emmanuel Cooper from the corn-dolly and coil-pot image.

Craft, according to Mr Cooper, a 54-year-old potter, writer and broadcaster, is usually taken to be small, functional, devoid of ideas and cheap. The lure of this exhibition for the arty and crafty is that the exhibits are big, useless, full of ideas - but still cheap. They are to be had, not quite for coppers, but for about a quarter the price they might fetch if their creators had called themselves fine artists from the start. (Any vestiges of craft lie in their meticulous construction. Joints fit and there are no leaks.)

One exhibitor, Julie Wood, aged 41, made customised, lacquered furniture for a living before entering art school a decade ago. When she graduated her functional ceramic and plastic bottles and jars fetched a modest pounds 100- pounds 200 each. For her MA she designed pieces for competition, including a glass decanter, ceramic giftware and a washbasin, which were later sold. In the exhibition her smooth, anatomically reminiscent stone sculptures are mostly priced between pounds 545 and pounds 870. She told me what it means to be a craft person. 'It stigmatises me,' she said. 'It's price that creates the edge. The reality is that I can't ask for the right kind of money because of what I am and who I am in my career.

'If you come from a craft background, you produce craft. But if your name is Anish Kapoor, you produce sculpture. Because of the art establishment it is very difficult to alter the typecasting. It is an important issue.'

Caroline Broadhead, a 43-year-old jeweller, offers for pounds 1,305 a wire figure, Double Vision, covered with a translucent, ankle-length nylon dress - the only exhibit so far sold. Julia Manheim, 44, who also trained as a jeweller, has a wooden walk-in installation, The Beast Within, containing a tantalising enclosure with light shining between its wooden slats ( pounds 6,350). Its light had failed when I visited; I was escorted round other exhibits while it was replaced so I cannot tell you how many Crafts Council members it takes to change a light bulb.

There has been no sign at the exhibition of the Saatchi brothers - although pounds 50,000 of their money would go a long way there - nor anyone from London's Lisson Gallery, which has sold expensive, anatomical works by the Turner Prize winner Kapoor and whose young artists are the conceptual avant-garde. But the Lisson's director, Nicholas Logsdail, gave me his own lofty view of the art-craft border dispute. 'It's all to do with attitude of mind,' he said. 'Some people see themselves as artists and some as artisans. That's the key to it.'

The deftest escape from the craft stigma was made by the British Craft Centre of Covent Garden. If you have never heard of it, that is because it changed its name to Contemporary Applied Arts in 1987. Before that, its image was amply summarised by the customer who asked: 'Is all this work really made by blind people?'

Its director, Tessa Peters, said: 'In the more traditional crafts there is no evolution, no fresh cultural input. In the past 20 years, so many people in the professional crafts movement have begun to explore independent ideas that the word craft has became a hindrance.'

'Applied Arts' was chosen because the V & A, a frequent customer, is known as the museum of the applied arts. As for decorative craft and decorative art, you can argue endlessly about their definition. The only sure thing is that they are not fine art.

Until the early 15th century, artists and artisans shared equal status. Masons and goldsmiths were given the same respect as painters and sculptors. Then the Renaissance exalted painters, sculptors and architects to the status of creative genius. 'Masterpiece' no longer meant an artisan's test-piece for guild membership.

William Morris's late 19th-century arts and crafts movement heaped nostalgia upon the craftsman while continuing to underprice his work. In the Twenties, the Bauhaus insisted its students dirtied their hands at crafts - before filling their pockets by selling brutal architecture to New York. Neither movement succeeded in bringing art and craft together.

No wonder Robert Marsden, the silversmith who made the exhibition's biggest installation, Block 13, a Step in the Right Direction (13ft 6in high), is phlegmatic about the arts- crafts controversy. He said: 'The distinction's crazy. I don't give a damn about it. I just do what I want to do.'

Like Julie Wood, he studied at the Royal College of Art. But although his studio is in Hackney, east London, the ebullient Marsden has never fitted the image of the downtrodden artisan. His brass and copper abstract objects have sold for pounds 2,500 each at the CAA and his semi-abstract pair of silver cups commissioned by the crown jewellers Garrard's for its 150th anniversary this year have a price tag of pounds 10,500.

His breakaway from craft lies in his work's non-functional style and large scale, rather than price. On function: 'You can do a lot with a cup before you prevent it from becoming usable.' On scale: 'When does craft become art? After 2ft 6in?'

His Block 13 is priced at pounds 16,000. It is comparable in scale to the work of Richard Deacon, 1987 Turner Prize winner, which has sold for more than pounds 50,000 through the Lisson Gallery. Mr Logsdail of the Lisson pointed out that Deacon's work had been selling for only pounds 5,000 in 1980-82 when he was starting out. So Marsden's more confident starter price of pounds 16,000 may partly reflect his existing reputation for quite different work.

Contemporary ceramics has made the craft-art transition with great alacrity. The shapes of pots by Dame Lucie Rie or Hans Coper make no condescension to craft functionalism and sell for tens of thousands of pounds.

Which craft will be next to break its artisan bonds? My bet is textiles. The Crafts Council broke ground in 1988 with two touring exhibitions with the theme The Subversive Stitch, which challenged stereotypes about women and art. Now the council plans a Contemporary American Quilts exhibition, 15 July-5 September. Images will include the Gulf war and test tubes.

On the Edge, Crafts Council, 44a Pentonville Road, London N1 (071- 278 7700) until 4 July.

Also: The Raw and the Cooked by the Oxford Museum of Modern Art (0865 722733) at the Barbican, London EC2, 8 July-5 September.

(Photographs omitted)

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