I woke up last night thinking about how, at a microscopic level, ceramics are about rearranging particles.
Platelets of clay and the minerals within them form a constitution. They settle in certain ways, they are then shaped by the human hand and become fashioned into durable objects. They are part of a process of craft and organisation, combined.
Most ceramic objects are acts of personal expression, forged by fire, that become built to last. Ceramics very often have a social purpose, as vessels that enable us to feed and as containers, into which can be poured the stuff of nourishment, be it practical or emotional.
Last summer, I was invited to prepare a piece to consider a question posed by The Young Foundation, ‘What lies beyond the meritocracy?’ and these ideas of organisation, expression and individual craft in the service of a social purpose became front of mind.
The process of thinking about a question like this led to creation of a work ‘The Bookends’ that is now to go on display at The Young Foundation, in celebration of the phenomenal legacy of the social pioneer Michael Young and the 60th Anniversary of his seminal work ‘The Rise of The Meritocracy’.
Michael Young, who became Baron Young of Dartington and died in 2002, helped establish The Consumer’s Association, The Open University, The University of the Third Age, The School for Social Entrepreneurs and many other institutions during his lifetime. The Young Foundation continues his work in making positive social change happen and in pioneering social innovation. It’s a thrill and privilege to have become a Lifetime Fellow of The Young Foundation, especially in this artistic context.
The Young Foundation have produced an Anthology, called ‘Beyond Meritocracy’ featuring a shortlisted series of terrific submissions by a range of contributors. Together, these contributors open up ideas that go beyond the ‘elitist pyramids’ that Young explored and that, he argued, were a stranglehold on society’s overall potential.
Michael Young’s book, ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ was a satire about how - whether through land, privilege or ‘lucky sperm’, as he called it - a few people were afforded the privilege of education and opportunity. It argued that, as things stood, elitist pyramids would always come out on top.
I thought about the pyramids of the ancients in this context, celebrating the individuality of absolute rulers but created by the masses. And I thought about how the ceramics and artefacts made by the artisans at the time are what have left us a window on their culture which, for all its greatness as a civilisation, was also brutal and authoritarian.
The irony wasn’t lost on me.
At the time I began the project, I was profoundly influenced by this film clip which was shown at the 2018 V&A Exhibition Frida Kahlo: Making Herself Up.
As Diego Rivera painted, he also shared an artistic philosophy. It inspired me personally, and is recreated as ‘lucky sperm’ text on 'The Bookends' as part of the answer to The Young Foundation’s question.
Diego Rivera himself fulfilled his purpose as an artist by painting on institutions. Recognising perhaps the enormity of the statecraft pitted against the individual at the time, Rivera imbued their walls with artistic and social expression as a statement.
Today, as the Merit Anthology produced by The Young Foundation as a whole points out, and Jon Alexander and myself both highlight in our pieces in it, there is far more scope for the individual to make a difference. The individual is being enabled by new, emerging forms of statecraft , digital tools and democratic avenues. Populist movements around the world are perhaps an early indication of that.
I genuinely see individual artistry as being essential to our future social prosperity. The human hand is our ultimate tool of agency, whether it be used in crafting a work like The Bookends, or on a keyboard writing code or articulating a point of view.
For me, this is a time when it would be easy to lose the sense of value and social connection that working as artisans in a bigger endeavour than ourselves provides. As a result, it feels more important than ever to put the ability that all of us have, to craft our futures, front and centre in a work like this.
Michael Young was one of the twentieth century’s great innovators. The Young Foundation continues his work in making positive social change happen and in pioneering social innovation.
My intention has always been to provoke and stimulate ideas as part of an ongoing conversation about what we can achieve as a society. It’s wonderful to see this work acknowledged as part of a tribute to his legacy.