Traditional skills are being lost by designers relying on computers

Working digitally can be fast, low-cost and has endless scope for creativity and sharing content - but it's also a flat, two-dimensional medium.

The benefits of an ICT-based world have led to an inevitable switchover across all areas of people's lives, but particularly in work and education. And that means an essential change in skills, attitudes and capabilities that is a particular issue - and problem - for British creativity in art and design.

With the opportunity to cut costs by stripping out workshops and the pressure to focus on the English Baccalaureate or subjects that are felt more important than creative arts subjects, some secondary schools are phasing out any kind of hands-on craft and design from the curriculum. Universities have been busy closing departments like ceramics, glass and craft based material subjects for some time. Even art schools have been reducing the focus on the 'process of making' to chase the digital approach to design.

The UK has traditionally been very strong at making things, and working with real materials. The industrial revolution was made possible by capitalism - but perhaps equally by the stream of high-quality and practical craft and design ideas that were taught in the art and craft colleges found in virtually every town. ICT is a great tool, but that's all. The danger is that we let the tool become the main factor in shaping what's produced. Digital design is inevitably detached from any sense of the quality and characteristics of things and how they work, and is much the poorer for it. 

More and more products on the shelves have been purely designed via an IT screen, and you can tell - they possess no inherent material qualities. They might look well-finished but they are often unsympathetic to the materials used. For employers or universities looking at a portfolio from a candidate you can see almost immediately if they've actually spent any time working with real materials. This is why our university is sticking to its guns on keeping craft workshops open, for glass, ceramics, metals and wood, and balancing this appropriately with the use digital technology which is a great tool.

Beyond the loss of important skills, purely using digital media leads to a different mindset among students. ICT allows for instant 'cut and paste' results, easy changes and easy delivery. Consequently that can be what young people expect from everything they do. Making real things takes patience, physical skills, co-ordination and the maturity to cope with failure and difficult challenges.

Digital technology is a great leveller. That's good for access and participation, for opening up design to larger communities. Not so great for business and for the UK's position as a world-leader in art and design. The UK has traditionally had an influence entirely out of proportion with its size. A reputation for quality and consistency of new talent has kept us in the premier league. But for how much longer? The BRIC economies have caught on to the value of creative arts, not just in themselves, but underpinning many other industries, and are putting major investment into art and design education.

What's needed is digital understanding combined with craft and making skills and a sensibility rooted in the real world of things. We need it in schools and colleges and in HE if we're not to end up with generations of people incapable of 'making', and quality design becomes synonymous only with the industry for antiques.

Professor Mark Hunt is deputy vice chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts.

Students using lathes at a technical college in Bolton, 1966. (Photo: Getty)
RICHARD KOEK/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era