Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Craftsman - getting craft on the cultural radar

It is an eternal complaint of the craft communities that craft is marginalised, ignored, and simply not accepted as a subject worthy of attention by the media, policy makers or critics. But over the last two weeks, craft has been discussed in the pages of The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times, New Statesman, Daily Telegraph, and Times Higher Education. BBC Radios 3 and 4 have also been discussing craft. Indeed, a monastic retreat or diet of tabloids are the only two reasons why a person in the UK can have avoided at least a fleeting brush with the art of the potter or the notion of tacit knowledge in the last couple of weeks.

The reason for this new found interest in the handmade is the publication of The Craftsman by Richard Sennett.

This excellent book has attracted considerable attention because it is a significant work of scholarship, it is hugely readable and it presents a compelling case for the contemporary relevance of craft.

As Edwin Heathcote writes in the FT: "At the heart of the book is an idea that work need not be about making money but can be about something more existential and profound. In a charmingly (and often slightly ramblingly) eccentric journey, Sennett takes a look at great craftsmen over the ages, from the workshops of Antonio Stradivari and of Renaissance goldsmiths to the strange set-up and motivations of the National Health Service."

According to Lynsey Handley in the New Statesman, Sennett approaches his subject with passion and commitment: "Sennett's goal is to remind us that skill - technique, to use his preferred word - is the result of hand and brain informing each other, through repetition and decision-making, to create a unique, solid and easy flow of knowledge between the two. Mastery, in other words. It is an open letter to us all, reminding us that we can shape and craft our own lives, and must not allow wider forces over which we have little control to rob us of that awareness. Our hands can both anoint and kill, but with practice, understanding and the help of others, can be turned away from destructive purpose. Literally, the future is in our hands."

Writing in The Guardian, Fiona MacCarthy explains how "Sennett alters one's view of craftsmanship by finding so much meaning in the detail. The grip on the pencil, the pressure on the chisel: he persuades us that these things have real significance. The Craftsman is one of a trilogy, with volumes to come on ritual and craft, and craft and the environment. This first instalment is so good it will be difficult to wait."

Indeed, he promises two further volumes. Warriors and Priests will explore ritual as craft, while The Foreigner will tackle the issue of environmental craft, arguing that "craft is now foreign to us." But for now, it is The Craftsman that provides more than enough to stimulate, challenge and provoke.

The Times set the tireless champion of conservatism Roger Scruton the task of reviewing The Craftsman, which he began with clarity and a degree of objectivity: "The Craftsman continues an argument begun in the 19th century, when writers such as John Ruskin and William Morris extolled the crafts remembered in our surnames (Smith, Cartwright, Thatcher, Mason, Fletcher) while lamenting the mind-numbing and soul-destroying labour of the industrial process which was replacing them. A long line of thinkers, from Hegel and Marx to Sennett’s teacher Hannah Arendt, have sympathised with the argument. But Sennett does not think that craftsmanship has vanished from our world. On the contrary: it has merely migrated to other regions of human enterprise, so that the delicate form of skilled cooperation that once produced a cathedral now produces the Linux software system. Linux, for Sennett, is the work of a community of craftsmen “who embody some of the elements first celebrated in the (Homeric) Hymn to Hephaestus”.

However, Scruton could not avoid using the review to pursue his own argument on modernist culture, concluding thus: "Architecture succeeds in its public task through humility and devotion, of the kind that can be observed in the moulding, firing and laying of a properly proportioned brick, but which is violated at every point by Frank Gehry’s bombastic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Sennett writes beautifully of bricks and their manufacture. But a residual sympathy for modernism leads him to praise Gehry’s costly extravaganza. He is entitled to his taste; but he should be clear that Gehry’s building is not an exercise in craft but an attempt at art, and exemplifies the same kind of “look at me expressing myself” that has led everywhere to the death of those virtues – humility, piety, obedience – without which no tradition of craftsmanship can really survive."

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Noel Malcolm gets his review off to a shaky start, in my view, by cracking gags about Polish builders. But this The Torygraph, after all, and it manages to get references to immigration and the BBC licence fee into just about everything, including the sports and gardening sections. However, Malcolm soon gets into a more balanced stride: "'Domain-shift' is one of Sennett's favourite terms, and there is some very energetic shifting on these pages. Sometimes the result is real insight, but all too often the whole procedure seems merely fanciful. Writing about how tools can be used for new purposes, he describes Christopher Wren's early scientific work using telescopes and anatomical dissections; then he claims that these were put to use in his town planning after the Fire of London, where his long straight streets would 'channel' vision (as in a telescope) and his overall plan involved thinking about the 'circulation' of people (as blood circulates in a body). But is this anything more than a clever association of ideas in Sennett's head?"

More serious criticism follows: "Sometimes the connections are not just fanciful, but obviously wrong. Having described how the Renaissance anatomist Vesalius acquired new skills in dissecting the human body, he then makes the startling claim: 'Modern mining technology derived originally from the bodily revelations of the scalpel.' The first modern treatise on mining, Biringuccio's Pirotechnia (1540), 'urged its readers to think like Vesalius, using mining techniques that stripped back strata of earth instead of simply chopping through them'. The reference he gives, to back up this claim, is bogus; Biringuccio's book makes no mention of Vesalius's work (not surprisingly, as the latter was published three years later, after Biringuccio's death); it is a treatise on metallurgy (smelting, etc), not mining, and has just a few comments in the preface on how to dig for ore; and what it says there is the opposite of what Sennett claims: 'You must work in a straight line, breaking through every composition of stone strata that you encounter…'"

Keith Tester, writing in Times Higher Education, introduces a further critique. "Sennett knows that there are threats to the craftsman, but his book never really confronts them. It is not really enough to say that: "Social and economic conditions ... often stand in the way of the craftsman's discipline and commitment." The point is that the institutions and enterprises of contemporary social and economic life are not primarily about creating opportunities for the nurturance of craft skills. They are about closing down the ambiguities of the world in the name of ever tighter efficiency (which nevertheless fails precisely because of the inescapability of ambiguity, and so the management consultants are called in again - and again), or they are in the business of profit generation. The latter is something that Sennett understates. He discusses Japanese car plants as if they were beacons of craftsmanship, and he says they used management styles that allowed all workers to localise, question and open up. But this is to miss the main goal of the car plants, which was to make profit."

Certainly, the book has flaws. When he links his thesis on craft to changes currently underway in the NHS, then the result is unconvincing. So is his treatment of CAD which is curiously uninformed by the work of craft practitioners who work with digital tools. But this is perhaps unsurprising when one considers the sources used by Sennett. There's no mention of Dormer, only a passing reference to Pye, and Malcolm McCullough's ground breaking work Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand is a further absence.

But to have a hugely well researched volume on craft that avoids Dormer, Pye and the other usual suspects is also refreshing. Last November at the Neocraft conference I said how the best contributions to our understanding of craft come from outside the cosy, cloistered world of craft itself. I was referring then to Harry Braverman and Mike Cooley, author of Architect or Bee. Richard Sennett, Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Professor of the Humanities at New York University, joins them in providing a perspective of craft that is timely, relevant and well argued. However, as I have explained elsewhere it is not that easy to get hold of.

The Craftsman has succeeded in putting craft on the radar of cultural commentary. For that reason alone it is a highly significant contribution.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading that review felt completely enriching and satisfying. Thanks for sharing it.

3:23 pm  
Anonymous Brad Johns said...

humility, piety, obedience?
What are we a monastic clan?

10:36 pm  

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