Art and Craft

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Without denigrating art, I think it is time to honour craft.

My Father’s Work

My father is a tradesman. He does repetition turning. This is making widgets on a lathe out of metal — usually round metal bars. He can make hundreds of the one thing in a day.

He is very different to me. I am clumsy doing most things with my hands. To his credit my father recognised that we were different from a young age. When I was choosing my subjects in high school and wanted to do metal work he discouraged me and said that I “had it in my head”. I chose metal work anyway and quickly established myself at the bottom of the class.

The kind of work my father does is often regarded as a necessary evil. Social critics do not lament this kind of labour being done by machines — saying that the people so freed will be able to engage in more creative (i.e., more human) pursuits.

This isn’t entirely the way my father sees it. He doesn’t find work to be exactly unrelieved ecstasy, but on the other hand he still does some of it most days (he’s 85); it does provide some satisfactions. What kind of satisfaction? I do have a clue. Recently we were talking about why he keeps working (the financial benefits aren’t huge) and the kind of work he does. He remarked, “People say, ‘Don’t you get tired of doing the same thing over and over?’ But that’s how you get better at something.”.

What looks to me, and certain social critics, as deadening monotony doesn’t look this way to him. For him it is a process in which he is engaged. Each widget brings its own small satisfaction — and hundreds of small satisfactions in a day is no small thing.

Drawbacks of the Breadwinner Model

My father’s attitude to work is quite usual for males of his age and younger. They grew up with the breadwinner model, learned to suppress their feelings, didn’t value the labour of wives which made the breadwinner model possible, and didn’t get to spend much time with their children and so on. All of this has been much criticised — and much of the criticism I agree with.

From my experience of this model it had some pretty bad results for families, children, wives and the husbands. It was a simply awful way to organise a society. (In Australia, it is currently being promoted by our Prime Minister in the name of ‘productivity’ — i.e., people should serve the economy rather than vice versa. The difference is that women are now expected to adopt this role also.)

Craft and Art

My father pursues a craft, his trade. This is different to art. The difference I think is that art emphasises the role of the person and the uniqueness of the object produced. Artists get to be famous for producing stuff that is different to other stuff (whether a painting, dance or a building — it may look like a ball of scrunched up paper, but it sure is different!). If my father delivered a box of widgets to his customer that looked different, the customer would not be pleased! In a craft, predictability and reproduction can be valued. The role of novelty and the individual (who produces the novelty) is not emphasised.

The Virtues of Art

In a situation where people feel constrained by social forces (the increasing length of time it takes to buy a house for instance), it is natural that people will feel drawn to assert their individuality. The individual, and the novelty and innovation that they can produce, is of irreplaceable value I think. If life at anything like a comfortable level is to be sustainable on our planet then we need innovation like never before.

This means giving a privileged place to trying out innovations. This means giving a privileged place to failure. Most innovations don’t work, but this doesn’t mean they are not valuable. Why something fails can be immensely instructive. We need places where individuals are supported to try things out.

And this means revising our systems of reward — everywhere from “schools” to government programs which want guaranteed outcomes.

The Virtues of Craft

A craftsperson does one thing repeatedly — making a widget, putting one brick on another, executing a dance: they do it over and over again, because this is how they get better at it. And that’s the payoff — the quality of what is done.

With a craft there can be quite useful procedures and drills. The tradition is emphasised ,and it provides a resource of ways to do what the craftsperson wants to do. There are vocal exercises to develop the voice, different openings in a chess game, different ways to use words in a poem. In art, the role of the individual is emphasised; with a craft, the individual is de-emphasised, and the focus is the quality of the product.

Craft emphasises the incremental and the long-term. It can take many years to learn a craft, and this is mostly time spent doing the same thing and getting better at it little by little. This can be a liberation for an individual. Someone pursuing a craft doesn’t need to produce something unique or revolutionary, just good work. If someone is willing to put in the time and effort, then they will likely be able to produce good work. In this sense craft is more democratic than art. It doesn’t, however, negate quality — every craft recognises good and bad work. Without denigrating art, I think it is time to honour craft.

I would like to hear about the role of a craft in your life. Do you pursue a hobby or trade? If so, how has it affected your experience? I am very much looking forward to hearing from you.

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