Saturday, September 28, 2019

A Week of the Divine

Man's possible relationship with the divine has repeatedly throughout culture been thought of in terms of possession. For the ancient Greeks and Romans to be "enthused" literally meant "the god's inside of you". So if you fall into rage you are for a time no longer just yourself rather possessed by Mars, the god of war or if you are enraptured by erotic passion you've been overcome by Venus, the goddess of love. That's not too difficult for us to relate to I'd say. When we've carried out some behaviour from the basis of intense emotional feeling (often with later regret) the defence we'll mount goes along the lines of, "I just wasn't myself" or "I don't know what came over me". Although it's all us, it feels like an outside influence.

These intense emotional states as manifestations of the divine were instantiated into the fabric of virtually all ancient languages and continue to reverberate among our contemporary languages today. This is conspicuously the case in the recounted cosmology of the universe, how man has counted time and measured the heavens. It's quite evident in the naming of the constellations and the planets as well as the naming of the months of the year and days of the week. We'll consider the latter which in Western civilisation draws upon two religious mythologies: Nordic deities for the English, German and Scandinavian speaking world and the Graeco-Roman pantheon for the Latin speaking world. There is a correspondence between the two pantheons, each day represented by a divinity that conveyed a certain spirit or emotional state towards the day in question.

Mars Attacks!

Oddly enough I'm going to start with Tuesday but there's a method to the madness; as well discover together Monday is just insane. So back to Tuesday which is literally Tyr's day. Tyr was the Norse god of war and strife but also law and justice. Apparently the ancient Norsemen didn't quite have the concept of the three branches of government down yet, just one big fat trunk that resembled a war hammer. His corresponding deity for the Romans was Mars, who pretty much dispensed with the law and justice attributes altogether. The word for Tuesday in Spanish for example is Martes, literally named after the god. Mars was not only the god of war but also pure rage. A martial disposition carries this sense of being warlike and bellicose but alternatively a more controlled and measured temperament characterised by sternness and self-discipline. This sentiment survives in expressions such as "martial law" or the "martial arts". The ancient Greek city-state of Sparta proudly built their culture around all of these characteristics holding Ares, the Greek counterpart to Mars as their principal deity.

Wednesday's Tricky

Wednesday is Odin's day, the all-father of Norse mythology. However, unlike Jupiter who we'll get to later on, Odin didn't assume that position by being merely the most physically powerful of the gods. He made his way to the top through guile, deceit and in general displayed a penchant for pure mischief. Odin was the magician, the iconic stranger, the wizened wandering traveler; an image that was most definitely drawn upon for Tolkien's depiction of the wizard Gandalf, another trickster archetype. His Roman counterpart was Mercury and the French version of this day of the week, Mercredi, is literally his day. Right out of the womb Mercury was up to no good, lying and thieving, stealing his brother Apollo's cattle. Rather than getting too angry, Apollo and the other gods seemed to admire this charming rogue and decided these criminal tendencies would make him the perfect god of commerce. So off he went, one disguise after another gleefully fomenting trouble for profit. The mercurial temperament reflects the god's inclinations towards volatility and unpredictability, one just never knows what to expect on Wednesday!

Thunder & Lightning

Like father like son. Odin's firstborn gets his own day of the week, Thor's day our modern day Thursday. His mother was none other than the giantess Jord, mother earth herself. With this combined heritage Thor becomes the most powerful of the Norse gods and giants and wields control of the very heavens, his name literally meaning "thunder". Despite his association with the sky, he has an affinity for all things of midgard that is to say earthly and is the great protector of mankind. Like many humans, he shares an affinity for drinking matches and is somewhat of a party animal. For the Romans, like sons like father. Mars and Mercury's father, Jupiter get his day of the week as well, Jove's day the Italian Giovedi. Jupiter (Zeus the father) is the invincible god of heaven wielding the mighty thunderbolt. Lightning for the ancient Greeks and Romans was Jupiter meting out divine retribution. That being said Jupiter had a jovial, humorous, fun-loving side to him which seemed to make him a real hit with the ladies.

The Girl's Clap Back

We've been talking until how about the fellas but the ladies represent during the week as well. Friday is Freya's day, goddess of all things feminine: fertility, beauty, sensuality. She is Vanir, from an entirely different pantheon of Norse gods distinct from the Æsir of Asgard. Closely connected to nature, it is Freya that brings magic into the world. One could say that she is thus magic embodied, an enchantress of gods and men. Venus is her Roman counterpart and we see this repeated theme of an origin apart from the other gods, a child of nature being born directly from sea foam as depicted in Botticelli's masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. Following the pattern of other Latin languages, Divendres is literally the day of Venus in Catalan. We initially associate the venereal temperament with sexually transmitted disease, not entirely unjustified as our word "venom" has association with the dark magic of Venus. However, the stronger connotation is that of uninhibited feminine sexuality, the fantasy awaiting fulfillment of every repressed desire.

Saturday's Gone

"A pleasure-seeker of dejection
Gazing into her looking glass

You got trouble far behind you
Well knows nothing's made to last " - Isobel Campbell

Cronos, Father Time, the Grim Reaper...old man Saturn's day isn't just the end of the week. With his scythe in one hand and his hourglass in the other he's coming for all of us. The precursor to Christmas, the Roman Saturnalia was a celebration of feasting and gift giving to celebrate the end of the year. In a perverse way Saturn was also associated with life. However, his scythe was used to symbolise the harvest of grain as well as souls. His hourglass marked the seasons as well counted down the end of every mortal's life. It is no wonder that the saturnine disposition is one of deep melancholy. Love conquers all...except time. Even Cupid's wings get cut by Father Time in the end.

Illumination and Lunacy

Sunday and Monday are intimately connected in both the Norse and Roman traditions. In both traditions the days are anthropomorphised as twin brother and sister but with some interesting variations. Quite unique among ancient mythologies the Norse had a goddess of the sun and from her we've inherited Sunna's day. She is purported to have driven her horse drawn solar chariot across the sky each day pursued by the ravenous wolf Skoll. Every once in a while Skoll would gain enough ground to take a nip out of the chariot, hence explaining the phenomenon of the solar eclipse. The Roman first day of the week was dies Solis, day of the unconquered sun god Sol Invictus, most notably associated with Apollo who was the son of Jupiter and himself a god of all manner of enlightenment: music, the arts, poetry, truth and prophecy. Just like Sunna, Apollo would drive his solar chariot daily across the sky. As Christianity displaced Roman religion, they appropriated much of the symbology associated with Apollo for Jesus Christ. Like Sol Invictus, Jesus became depicted with the radiant halo or nimbus and dies Solis was renamed Dominicus, day of the Lord.

Our Monday originates in the Norse Máni's day, in honour of the twin brother of Sunna. The wheels of his chariot of course were said to be the moon and he took over from his sister, driving his chariot at night. In the Roman tradition Diana virgin goddess of the hunt and twin sister of Apollo fulfilled an almost identical role in which she was known as Luna from which the Romanian day for Monday, Luni e.g. originates. In a closely aligned manifestation Diana/Luna was represented as the terrifying figure of Hecate, goddess of the crossroads and of all the magic, witchcraft and necromancy practised under the cover of darkness by the dim light of the moon. Hecate could incite nightmares and drive men to insanity. Unlike the sun, the moon has a cycle of waxing and waning. This inconsistency became associated with psychic instability, the victims of which being considered "lunatics".

You may have noticed the correlation between the days of the week, the sun, the moon and the five planets that were visible with the naked eye in antiquity. Likewise ancient myth imprints itself upon and in my opinion enlivens much of the vocabulary we use on a daily basis. As part of the hyper-rational disenchantment of the world, we've been generally taught that myths are nothing more than stories that are demonstrably false; however, I feel myths encapsulate what we experience psychologically and emotionally and thus can be a rich source of meaning in our lives if we approach them in the poetic, metaphorical in which they are offered.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, September 27, 2019

The Gnostic Craftsman

Courtesy of Philip Gaches
"Wow, this guy really knows what he's doing!"

This is a perfectly natural, expected reaction when listening to an accomplished cellist, a potter at the wheel, a smith at the forge or any master craftsman at work as our plasterer depicted here. What the aforementioned all share in common is that they all make an an extremely complex activity appear almost effortless. Their demonstration of competence commands immediate respect. We acknowledge that such mastery takes inner discipline, a substantial commitment of time as well as the accumulation of a fair bit of knowledge. Whereas English has only a few related terms, many other languages parse what we call "knowledge" into a number of nuanced meanings. In the process leading to mastery we can think of these manifestations of knowledge as incremental stages of development.

Second-hand, Given Knowledge

The Ancient Greeks placed the least amount of value on second-hand knowledge, doxa that is often translated as mere opinion. In its simplest form doxa may be nothing more than a narrative that we receive; that is to say, we "know" something because we heard about it. It's not the case that we've directly worked it out for ourselves or personally have done something. Rather, it consists in nothing more than a belief in or acceptance of something because it originates from an source in which we place trust. Closely related to doxa is the Latin term pistis, an intellectual and emotional acceptance of a proposition often translated as "faith" whereas doctrina referred to the articles or literal contents of faith (catechism) as taught by the Catholic Church. To "indoctrinate" maintains this negative connotation of the insertion of knowledge into an ostensibly intellectually empty human vessel.

In our more honest moments, I think we must confess that we depend upon this type of second-hand knowledge quite a lot. For example, whenever we read or listen to the news, accept reports regarding climate change from scientists or receive medical advice from our doctor, all of these reports represent doxa, forms of second-hand knowledge. The trouble arises because it's really easy to claim to know in a profound sense what in reality we've merely read or heard. In such cases what we're really doing is expressing a belief commitment. In our defence, there are tremendous constraints on how much we can personally learn and experience. We cope with this by outsourcing the problem socially and as long as our sources have real knowledge (are not mistaken) and are not trying to deceive or manipulate us it can be quite helpful, even necessary. However, we ought to be instinctively cautious of second-hand knowledge as mistakes, deceit or even our own misinterpretation tend to creep in and lead to paradox, literally "contrary opinions".

There are a number of ways in which craftsman can acquire this kind of second-hand knowledge. We  can certainly learn a few things about a given craft by reading about it. Likewise we can discuss it, having an experienced craftsman explain various aspects of the craft. Nevertheless, as craft is primarily experiential as opposed to being understood intellectually, literal and verbal explanations provide at best partial or low image resolutions of craft. Watching a craftsman at work or demonstrating his craft can add further insights whereas physically viewing, touching and measuring a completed work may yield a better understanding. Nevertheless, none of the aforementioned hold a candle to directly engaging in craft yourself.

First-hand, Acquired Knowledge

Two forms of acquired knowledge are necessary for craft. Both of these must be acquired directly yet are very different in nature from one another. Let's first address Theory. The Greek word from which our English word theory derives, theōria, literally means a kind of disinterested contemplation as a spectator may hold of a performance at a theatre. Just as there is no necessity or end goal of a performance, theory is a kind of knowledge for its own sake and pleasure. In Enlightenment language we might say that this species of knowledge is a relation of ideas held in the mind. The process of establishing truth claims built upon initial axiomatic presuppositions was known as analysis by the Greeks and scientia by the Romans. Both of these terms conveyed the concept of cutting apart mental constructs so as to reassemble them into ordered wholes. Geometry, deductive logic and arithmetic would be examples of such theoretical knowledge characterised by timelessness, universality and formality whilst being immaterial, that is to say creating no product nor engaging an action. Epistemology is one of the three main branches of Western philosophy that concerns itself with what constitutes knowledge. The Greek word episteme literally means to "stand over", implying a type of knowledge that stands removed, detached from the object or action of contemplation.

Courtesy of Hamza El Fasiki, Craft Draft
As craftsman we learn abstract systems of proportion and conventions when working inside of a given tradition. As a preeminent example, Classical architecture since at least the time of Imperial Rome has documented these systems into "canons", theoretical standardisations of its three principle orders, that is to say styles of building: the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. Likewise, other architectural traditions such as Islamic, Vedic, Gothic, etc. possess their own conventional systems whose theoretical knowledge was retained and passed on through various iterations of trade guilds and apprenticeship programmes. Design is initiated from a theoretical point of origin and extended into three dimensions as represented by line, surface and enclosing volume. The elements, that is to say the smallest components of an assemblage, are all derived from fundamental geometric principles such as the circle and the square as well as the various conic sections: ellipse, hyperbole and parabola. A master craftsman (technitês) must be able to perceive, literally "thoroughly grasp" (Latin percipere), such theoretical principles.

A second form of personally acquired knowledge necessary for craft is of course Practise. Our English word derives from the Greek praktikos meaning "to do" or "to act". Practical knowledge is contingent upon what the Greeks called a telos: a goal or function inherent to a made object. Unlike theory, practice is inductively applied particular knowledge of matters of fact to fulfill some specific need or desire. It is thus an interested form of knowledge tied directly to material and action, a knowledge for something's sake as it were. Rather than any universal truth, practical knowledge seeks an arete, an excellence of value in the action or object made. Of interest the very word "philosophy" originally meant a "loving", philo of "skill in handicraft and art", sophos as characterised by its use in Homeric poetry of ancient Greece before its meaning was extended to include a love of wisdom in a more abstract and general sense.

This kind of practical "know how" was best captured in the Greek word techne, the Latin word artes carrying a similar meaning. Philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle denigrated most craftsmen as mere banausikai techne, illiberal servants whose works were self-centered, of questionable merit and unbefitting of a gentleman. Aristotle in particular expressed that value rested only in the crafted object, not in the means of bringing the object into existence. This is a view that persists in contemporary times when far more value is placed on the end product and little concern given as to how that product is brought into existence. More often than not the process, tradition or training infrastructure required for skilled craftsmanship are ignored in favour of a dogged focus on bottom line price and schedule. By contrast, many Stoics held a more charitable view of skilled craft according value to practical experience, phronêsis as a virtue unto itself. All agreed that a master craftsman was identified by his sapientia, his ability to teach, furnishing a verbal or written account of the craft itself whereas a chief craftsman, architektôn further distinguished himself by his mastery of theory and practise combined with an ability to command others.

Innate Knowledge

In my own experience of teaching traditional plasterwork, the first thing I do is disabuse the students of the notion that I can teach them much at all. Like all traditional crafts, plastering is an embodied form of knowledge. Apprentices have to teach themselves or perhaps another way of stating it, they must unlock their already present potential to plaster thru repetitive action...craft as a form of ritual. I certainly can't plaster for the students; the most I can do is say a few words in the form of encouragement or critique and demonstrate actions whilst they observe. Learning a craft is more akin to a remembrance, the awakening of a capacity already present in the individual. The role of a master is less of a teacher as it is that of a spiritual guide. This type of knowledge has been described as empeiria, that is to say empirical knowledge. Unlike the aforementioned forms of acquired knowledge episteme which can furnish a verbal or literal account, empirical knowledge is internal, non-discursive and straightforwardly acted out. 

The ancient Greeks had a specific word for this kind of knowledge, gnosis. As you may already suspect this is the origin for our own English words "to know" and "knowledge". The sense of gnosis is quite intimate, more of a "knowing who" than a knowing how or what. It is the type of knowledge you'd have of a dearest friend or loved one. It's not a collection of facts about them, rather a deep connection that is shared.

To become an effective craftsman you must lose your mind. In the process of learning the student initially attempts to think thru and control his movements, ultimately a futile effort that leads to complete exhaustion. The student understandably wishes to know what to do in the sense of being informed of the correct materials, means and methods. Although there is a place for that, it is secondary in the learning process as information is always particular and soon becomes redundant. By abandoning oneself to the ritual of craft the student is rather transformed and an insight grows spontaneously from visceral, direct, embodied experience. For the master craftsman, knowledge sublimates into action, his knowing is making.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Natural/Artificial Distinction

Ophelia, Sir John Everett Millais
There's a lack of clarity surrounding the words natural and artificial in common, everyday speech. Perhaps natural carries this sense of everything that's not us, not human beings or human-made whereas artificial might refer more typically to things that are mechanical. Sometimes we'll describe the artificial as synthetic which just passes off the confusion since we're not clear what that means either.

A common argument against even considering this subject is that the natural/artificial distinction is meaningless for the simple reason that everything is natural. Nature is everything, humans are nature, ergo whatever we are or do must therefore be definition. Cars are natural, cities are natural, differential equations are natural, petroleum processing is natural, if we bring ourselves to extinction in a nuclear holocaust or environmental collapse well, that'll be natural definition. However, let's suspend just for a moment taking all the complexity of human existence and submerging it in the molecular acid of cold reason until meaning is reduced to one thing or perhaps nothing at all. Instead, we'll imagine for a moment that this distinction might exist and see what these terms could mean and where the boundary between nature and artifice might lie.

Watch your Language

A first step might be looking a bit closer and giving some definitions to the words under discussion. I appreciate etymology for that. Often the origin of words reveals their intended meaning even if that meaning tends to shift over time and place. Nature for instance originally referred to something born. We have the echo of this meaning in the words "nativity" and "natal" care. The Taoist of ancient China held a concept closely allied with this sense of nature called "wu-wei" (無爲), the "not doing" or "not making" yet implying growth as an internally generative cultivation. So perhaps we could come to a provisional agreement that "natural" indicates some thing or action unforced, not deliberate, that presents itself spontaneously, of its own accord.

So what about artificial? Artifice quite literally conjoins "art", which includes what we'd call today "craft", together with "making". As arts and crafts are already things that are made, this word really reinforces the notion that what is artificial is deliberate, intentional and purposeful, in some respects the polar opposite of how we previously defined natural. Yet as originally expressed, the artificial was also something quite human. Which brings us to the thorny question: What does it mean for a human being to behave naturally?

Well, no simple answers will be forthcoming; however, perhaps we'd benefit from looking at language itself as an human phenomenon. Language has been explained as a collection of symbols and signs that occasionally represent but more often serve as a token of or point towards some thing or action. A repeated and fascinating observation is that children instinctively sense which of the sounds around them have symbolic meaning and seem to learn the languages they're exposed to effortlessly. Furthermore, many children have been observed to spontaneously generate their own independent verbal and gesticular vocabulary shared in a subset of siblings and friends. I've vague memories of doing so myself and definitely observed this on a fairly sophisticated scale with my nephews when they were little just a few years ago. Language at some level does seem to be, dare we say, natural human behaviour.

Yet at another level language is confessedly unnatural. We subject our already verbal and often  literate youth to at least 12 years and up to as much as 20+ years of what linguists call codification: reading, writing, spelling, grammar, syntax, style and usage are just appetisers for specialised language of a given field. Essentially, years are invested in curbing the will of children to conform to a standardised system of convention. Then when every trace of spontaneity has been forcibly ground out of them, we make silly declarations such as "thought is impossible without language" and "literacy is the key to freedom". Well, that last one is particularly rich after two decades of stern obligation and six figures of inescapable student debt.

Language quite literally is based on ignorance; in adopting a language one ignores the vast cacophony of sound, rather privileging a select few of them for attention and meaning. It is widely acknowledged that there are two paths to knowledge. First it can be directly experienced, bodily and through the senses. However, knowledge can also be conceptualised and this is where language plays a major role. Therein also lies the danger, as we can expand our ignorance to the rich, often inexplicable embodied experience of life itself, instead privileging language with all its constraints as the primal reality we choose to acknowledge. Today we have constructed a highly sophisticated, intellectual, systematised, global society that essentially lives within its own codified projection of reality. My advice is: watch your language, living inside your head is dangerous.

Imitation and Imagination

Traditionally in the world of art, the tension between the natural and artificial was always present and self-aware. In a certain sense "art" is embedded into the word artificial; all art is artifice. Yet nature was revered as an object of study and likewise a subject of the most profound contemplation. How artists and craftsmen confronted artifice in their depiction of nature as you might suspect is a deep personal interest of mine. For the aspiring young apprentice becoming an artist involves a lot of copying, teaching the hand to render what the eye sees, be that the work of master artists or the ultimate wellspring of inspiration: nature herself. This continual act of copying we call imitation, the aspect of artifice that cleaves closest to nature.

Nevertheless, imitating nature is not that easy. Something as simple as a leaf contains a world of complexity. The more you look, the more you see. Also, the medium in which we're representing the the things we see provides further difficulty. Pencil and paper, paint and canvas can only represent in two dimensions what exists in three. Sculptural mediums such as stone, wood or clay are relatively clumsy materials that are incapable of conveying the delicacy, detail and nuance that exist in nature. All of these mediums can only capture a frame, a snapshot of what is most often a dynamic, living reality embedded in a particular time and place, full of smells, texture and temperature. This is where the simple, practical aspect of Imagination enters. The artist must first absorb the infinite complexity of the object under consideration in its context. Then in an analogy to language, the artist ignores all but a handful of qualities to privilege what he considers to be the essence of the thing, his representation is an act of human communication.

The lotus flower is one of the most prominently depicted motifs in both Eastern and Western art. The flower of the water lily has the unique characteristic of opening in the morning and closing in the evening. For the Egyptians the lotus was the ideal symbol of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It featured prominently on personal effects, furniture and great monuments of architecture. Although highly convetionalised, often in a regularised frieze pattern alternating blossom and bud, the lotus motif is unmistakably recognised as representative of the flower. The flower and other myriad features of the plant are not depicted verbatim. Rather, that which was felt best captured the essence of the flower was retained and given prominence, a deliberate series of decisions that we can appreciate even thousands of years later.

In Classical art there is no more recognisable ornament than the acanthus leaf. Furthermore, it is depicted in a dazzling variety of ways, most of which do not occur in nature. The structure of the leaf of the actual acanthus plant is unbelievably complex. There is no end to the detail. That it became the preferred inspiration for rendering in stone is therefore somewhat perplexing. Like the lotus the acanthus became a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. A hardy weed, it is in fact quite difficult to eradicate. Even when you think you've uprooted it completely, there it is again springing back to life the next season. Acanthus features prominently on the Roman Ara Pacis monument, both in the more literal leaf interpretation as well as the flowering stalk and conventionalised scrolling acanthus or rinceaux design. This is of course complete artifice as regards acanthus, adapted from other spiraling vines that are common in the Mediterranean. An artist both highly skilled in imitation of natural forms as well as having developed his imagination to adapt them to a highly stylised design thus created a composition that at once feels natural yet artistic, one could say perfectly human.

The great masters of the Renaissance are often regarded as humanists; nevertheless, they were certainly naturalists as well. It might well be said that their particular interest in humanity was a subset of their great interest in all of nature. Leonardo da Vinci is of course renown for his enigmatic capture of the human condition as displayed in his paintings such as The Mona Lisa or his fresco The Last Supper. However, what is less known about him was the intensity of  preparation invested in nature studies for his compositions. There are literally hundreds of his extant sketches of plants, leaves and flowers that have survived.

In one of Leonardo's most iconic paintings, The Virgin of the Rocks, the scene
depicts a great human drama with divine pretensions. The positioning and lighting of the subjects, the delicacy of the facial features, and the detail of the folding of veil and cloth indeed worthily capture our immediate attention. However, in a nod to nature, the more you look the more you see and we begin to appreciate how much work, experience and inherent skill is found in a painting like this. The foliage certainly was not a bit of filler, a mere afterthought. To the contrary we find the plants and flowers rendered both accurately and artistically. As such they would be immediately recognised by a botanist today. Here we see Imagination operating in its other, higher capacity. Unlike the reduction and conventionalisation typifying ornamentation, in this narrative scene Leonardo paints a picture ostensibly of what was yet in another sense a lofty depiction of what could be. It's an aspirational image that takes the very best of what is and pushes it to the foreground. In essence, we witness here a preeminent example of the distinctly human contribution to the natural.

botanical detail, The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci

Entropy and Generation

"The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum" - The second law of thermodynamics, Rudolf Clausius

During the Industrial Revolution scientists and engineers quickly turned their attention to difficulties with the machines that they were constructing. First, in the conversion of fuel into mechanical energy and again in the simple operations of the machine much of that energy was converted and subsequently dissipated in the form of heat. Secondly, the machines themselves would break down over time. In the mid-19th century Rudolf Clausius coined the term "entropy", meaning an "inner transformation", to describe this tendency for things to devolve from highly ordered and complex states into cycles of decay and eventual chaos. As the Enlightenment vision of nature at the time was materialist, this discovered "law" of thermodynamics was projected onto the entire universe. In an unwieldy union with the pre-exisiting Judaeo-Christian conception of God as the great potter and man having been made in his image, there was a correlation made between divine artifice (nature) and man's: it was all going to break down eventually.

To a large extent I believe humanity is still saddled with this world view. For example, the best concept that we seem to have come up with thus far to protect the natural environment is "sustainability". It's not a very good one. The main focus seems to be on improved mechanical systems that are more efficient, produce less waste and utilise cleaner sources of energy. These are directed in turn by self-enclosed control systems be they digital automation primarily associated with industrial production but now increasingly integrated into the state and corporate bureaucracies that constrain and encode behaviour through policies, standards, laws and codification.A vision of life and nature as a machine with systems and code to look after her. In this way of thinking, an improved care of nature comes from advancement in our mechanical models and efficiencies of control systems.

So what's the alternative? A bit of humility; look to nature and learn. Everything we've come to understand about nature indicates that it is the very opposite of entropic. Our universe has cyclically grown and expanded from a raw state of chaos to higher states of successively ordered complexity. Yet we don't have to look far into the infinitude of space to understand this, it's an ongoing process right here on planet earth. Life on earth is generative, so much so that we can see in human timescales the patterns unfolding before us. Land areas devastated by natural disaster or human exploitation heal rapidly if left alone; restated in technical language we could say that life is negentropic, manifesting a tendency to move from disorderly states of chaos to enriched, complex environments. Here is the hopeful part, human beings too are fully capable of being generative. We can and have nurtured for millennia animals and plants bringing land into higher capacities for both cultivation and richer environments for life to thrive. A seeming paradox from a mechanistic perspective, the key to being generative appears to be doing less, at least consciously. Like "nature", "to generate" has the same original meaning "to beget" or "give birth". This can be illustrated with a very personal example. The development from an embryo to a fetus to a delivered child is an extraordinarily complex living process which we still don't fully comprehend. Yet at another level we totally understand, we do it successfully all of the time! We know it so well in fact that we hardly have to think about it.

So once again, what does it mean then for a human to be generative, to act naturally?
I'll leave you to contemplate an ancient Taoist analogy:
"When in doubt look at water, it always knows what to do." Stop trying to flow upstream.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Red Dust

From the red dust, the stranger emerged
thoughts a dead husk, he sought to have purged
dust clouded his eyes, wormed into his brain
there'd be no demise, no end of the pain

the dust it now spoke, so seductively assured
salvation in smoke, a sacrifice of words:
"Come into me childe, why must you be?
Let go of the wild, strive to be free!"

The stranger fell grim, his soul overcome
yet earth did catch him, 'er a stream did run
for a moment's stay, sans push or force
the red borne away, to the watercourse...

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Counter-Culture: Cities Don't Protect Nature

"Big lies have little lies upon their backs to bite 'em, And little lies have lesser lies, and so, ad infinitum." -  Pseudosiphonaptera

Modern Lisbon
This new "Counter-Culture" series endeavours to unpack a number of false premises, sweet little lies that humanity as led by Western society has been telling itself over the last couples of centuries, lies that are fully entrenched in our systems of education, law and media to the point they are accepted as truisms, how things are and ought to be.

Lie #1: Civilisation is Good (Finally)

Civilisation is quite literally the process of seizing the savage, brute, barbarian and converting him to be a citizen, a dweller of the city. Historically this had never been a voluntary process. Ancient cities that arose in the Mesopotamia, the Indus and Nile valleys were renown for founding and enlarging their cities on the backs of slaves. Most often conscription to the city was accomplished by standing armies at the point of a sword. On rare occasion of extreme famine i.e., surrounding peasants would "voluntarily" sell themselves into an extended period of indentured servitude.

This general pattern continued through the rise of various Asian and American empires, the Persians, Greeks and of particular note the Romans from whom we're indebted to all of the Latin vocabulary we use in reference to the city. They all operated more or less the same. Sometimes offering the carrot, more often brandishing the stick in obligating their own people, then outsiders through conquest to support their cities. Neither is this a matter of just ancient history. Indentured servitude of the country peasant population into the cities of Europe was the motive force behind the (ongoing) Industrial Revolution. Chattel slavery as excercised by the Islamic and Christian civilisations was widespread in colonial Africa and the Americas for hundreds of years. Two world wars followed by a long cold war were fought throughout the 20th century over who had the right to reconcile unto their  vision of a brave new world what remained of the savage third world still outside of civilisation.

Certainly that was the past, a necessary if painful stage in human development? Perhaps the millions of corpses and inconceivable suffering experienced in the transition towards further civilisation can be counted against the uncivilised: those tribes, villages and aesthetic communities resisting such assimilation. After all, how can one deny the rise and dominance of civilisation as being that which is responsible for the rapid advances in human progress? The civilised are beneficiaries of higher education, longer life expectancy, reduced child mortality all accompanied by a resulting population explosion not to mention the material comforts of air conditioning, conveniences of modern transport and access to the sum total of human knowledge at our fingertips through technology. Don't we believe that we're better, superior, approaching the very pinnacle of what is is to be human...finally, to be good?

The aforementioned does seem to paint a grim picture of the rise of civilisation. To be fair it's not as though life outside of the city was free of conflict, pain and suffering. In many respects the attraction of the city is it's subjugation of nature, the offer of shelter from many of life's uncertainties. A sacrifice of autonomy and self-determination for subjection to a system of imposed order also promises protection from the 'other', alien if not outright hostile groups of human beings.

Lie #2: Man is a Domesticable Animal

It is hard to deny that mankind in general can be effectively coerced and manipulated. For example, the institution of slavery depended upon the cooperation of those enslaved (an highly unpalatable statement). Yet, it is impossible of have a system of slavery if everyone refuses to cooperate. However, the threat of death and torture against a man himself or especially directed towards his family is enough to get most men to capitulate. Of course, there is always a minority that will refuse under any circumstances but we know what became of them...a warning example to the rest. Nevertheless, the coercion exerted by slave-holding societies, totalitarian regimes and such like systems of direct oppression reliant primarily upon physical force for the control of population, is resource intensive and too costly to maintain for any extended period of time.

So that brings up another prominent feature of civilisation: education. The religious and aristocratic elite of ancient cities were the educated class. As such they were stewards of literacy and numeracy but also the narratives that provided an identity and structure for the common people to adopt. For thousands of years it was generally held that is was best to restrict education, that the commoners would be easier to control if they were ignorant of arts and letters. A major shift took place in the 19th century, spurred on by the need for laborers in the factories of the Industrial Revolution. State funded and state determined education for everyone became absolutely mandatory. Why the dramatic shift? As it turned out sequestering children away from their parents and communities throughout their entire childhood proved a very effective means of conditioning them for a lifetime to serve the needs of industry and the state above all other considerations.

Children are the most vulnerable members of a society. They have few rights, none they can assert on their own behalf. Of course, instinctively we know there is nothing more confessedly unnatural for a child then to have it sit down, be quiet and take academic instruction for 8 hours a day. Yet this is the standard programme from a minimum of 12 to upwards of 20 years. The ostensible subject matter of reading, writing, arithmetic or history are just of incidental practical benefit to industry, the state and other bureaucracies. What it takes a dozen or more years of costly investment to achieve is a broken spirit forever compliant to authority.

And even so humans rebel despite the uncompromising and powerful systems, all of the social pressures to conform. We know what to do with adults who won't conform; however, for children these rebellious traits manifest in school have systematically been classified as a disease. Parents are called upon to understand that their child is defective (not the system); however, there is a remedy with drug therapy as provided by medical experts. As of this writing the move is towards gene therapy as a final solution. How many parents have been so successfully educated that they now act as leading participants in the crushing of their own children?

Lie #3: The Density of the City Protects Nature

In the year 1800 only about 3% of the world's population lived in cities. Two centuries later, it's over 50% and over 75% in the West. City after city in the Western world exhibit a repetitive pattern. The historic city centers are significantly occupied by investors, many of them leveraging the properties as short term rentals to tourists. In Europe these city centres are eclipsed by a fat ring of industrial tower blocks where most of the population now live. In the United States and Canada this ring is more likely to be composed of suburban sprawl. Urbanisation in the United Kingdom finds itself somewhere in between. Meanwhile the countryside has emptied out, just a fraction of the population it once was in most places. Asia, the Indian subcontinent, South America and even now Africa are rapidly industrialising and following these Western models of urbanisation.

Most folks probably look at that as a good thing. God help us if all those people were spread out all over the world, there'd be nothing left! So I propose the initiating axiom of such or similar reasoning goes something like this: "Humans are locusts, consumptive destruction ensues wherever they go. Best to keep them contained. The density of the modern city is our best bet."

Perhaps it is possible for humans to become something like locusts, hordes of irreflective consumers of resources. However, I don't believe for a moment that is anything like our natural state of being. When Europeans arrived to the Americas they found the indigenous people to be indolent, lazy not having brought the land up in their view to its productive capabilities or having established a proper civilisation. However, the native tribes knew their home territory well and what may have first appeared to an outsider as men living as animals in wild nature was in fact a cultivated garden under man's influence. Not only was the indigenous American way of life sustainable, it was generative of life and of an enhanced productive capacity of their environment.

European village life prior to industrialisation provides another instructive example. Building materials were produced locally. Stone, earth, wood, thatch, terra cotta are examples of materials available in many areas. Villages grew spatially in adaptation primarily to the terrain as well as human and animal needs. Arable land was sacrosanct. Building often took place on areas more difficult to build and not suitable for agriculture. Architecture was not viewed as a consumable (like food) rather an heritable investment and was built in a way to endure and be expanded upon. Villages were spatially arranged so as to provide privacy as well as communal meeting places. The farmers and craftsmen that inhabited these villages did not simply look at their flocks, fields and forests as detached raw material to be exploited and consumed rather as a responsibility of stewardship that had been entrusted to them to cultivate and pass on to their children.

Cities and civilisation on the other hand has been consistently shown to shift the psychological state of man towards one of consumption. There is the physical daily separation from nature, from one's sources of food, clothes, shelter and medicine. These necessities cease to be things cultivated within the context of a community and instead are resources to be purchased and consumed within a system. After two or three generations of living in a tower block i.e., any cultural memory of the former possible way of life and accompanying capacity for living outside a prescribed system of law and codification is lost. Instead of being hyper-conscious of nature as it is embedded into your daily life, nature is thought of as something "out there" completely detached. In practical terms the countryside has been abandoned to coroporations that lead an extraction economy that feeds the endless hunger of a consumer marketplace.

This is not to hold up tribal or village life is an utopian ideal. However, they do serve as proof positive that man can be something other than a consuming locust; we have the innate capacity for stewardship and further generation of life. Tribes are all but extinct as a means of human society; however, we can still walk the underpopulated villages and extract valuable lessons in addressing our present problems of energy consumption, pollution and environmental degradation. Cities don't protect nature rather their detached systems exploit her; however, engaged and responsible human beings can heal and steward nature. That's the lesson to be learned from our forefathers.

 Contributed by Patrick Webb

Friday, August 2, 2019

Traditional Urbanism, Architecture and the Building Crafts

I had opportunity this summer to participate for two weeks in a Traditional Architecture Summer School held in the municipality of Valderredible in the region of Cantabria, Spain. Rural and remote is a conservative description for Valderredible which maintains a population of less than a thousand people in approximately 120 square miles of land area. First of all I'd like to express that the programme was exceedingly well organised and clearly well funded. We were quite literally wined, dined and otherwise had our physical needs well cared for in comfortable accommodations which facilitated the getting down to the business of the programme itself...well, that may require a bit more explanation.

What was a craftsman doing at an architectural summer school?

Although there is an open enrollment, the programme makes a concerted effort to encourage applications from current students of architecture or recent graduates; it's essentially structured for this demographic. Furthermore, the summer school's primary focus is on traditional urbanism which you could alternatively describe as how traditional villages developed and were arranged spatially using architecture as a means of societal organisation. At first glance, this sounds a long way off from my typical daily activity as a traditional plasterer and stone carver. However, a closer look at the institutions taking the lead in organising the programme is revealing.

The International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism (INTBAU) has incorporated into its very name the notion that craftsmen, architects and urbanists need to be networked for a resulting traditional built environment to be even possible. In that spirit the INTBAU chapter serving Spain and Portugal has gone so far as to organise an online Network of Traditional Building Masters. Earlier in the year, a member of the faculty had strongly encouraged me to attend the summer programme. As it turned out, I was called upon on numerous occasions to comment on the materials, means and methods of the traditional buildings, largely consisting of stone masonry buildings with earthen and lime based mortars and renders. This did seem practically useful to the students' understanding of how the architecture of Valderredible was initially constructed, how it functioned, what constituted proper maintenance and avoiding using some modern materials and methods that could damage these otherwise enduring structures.

Image courtesy of Christopher Miller

Nevertheless, there was perhaps other less tangible benefits from including the perspective of a traditional craftsman in the programme. For example, I personally learned a lot about how these very successful villages were put together. This is something I'd never studied formally and I would say my experience is typical of most traditional craftsman. The faculty clearly held a lot of insight into why the individual buildings were oriented in the manner they were, why and how they adapted to the landscape, how as an ensemble they created places ideal for human gathering and social interaction. This type of knowledge contributed to my own urban literacy, my ability to speak the same language for possible future collaborations with architects working in an urban context. Additionally, I was in turn able to share my perspective on the redemptive power of traditional handcraft, the concentration of human attention to the smallest parts being essential to the function and the lovability of the greater whole.

Why were any of us there?

So I've made a case for why I was there but perhaps the larger question is why any of us were there. After all, only a small percentage of the population lives in the countryside (Spain has moved from an urban population of 11% in 1800 to 80% currently). This valley in particular was massively depopulated, currently at just a 20% capacity of its former peak population with many buildings and entire communities simply abandoned despite an overall population increase for the country. Furthermore, nothing has been built with traditional materials such as stone and adobe in this valley for decades. The few new buildings or additions follow those of the modern city, constructed of the typical glass, concrete and steel of industrial construction. Similarly, any new urbanism projects center around a suburban "carchitecture" model based on automobile needs such as parking and traffic flow.

From a certain perspective, as I suspect is held widely by industry and the academy, such a study as led by our summer programme is a nostalgic, romantic waste of time. We're modern, humanity lives almost exclusively in cities now. Our architecture resembles our food, clothes and medicine: efficient industrial production from which there is no going back, only progress as led by further technological development. Except I think many people are increasingly beginning to question that narrative. Perhaps the most compelling motivation against this view is a rapidly growing panic that our current bureaucratic and industrial systems finely attuned for the maximum exploitation of the earth's resources are going to at worst get us all killed or at the very least leave an extremely diminished quality of existence for our children.

In my opinion, INTBAU and this summer programme is part of a larger counter-cultural movement that questions the direction the built environment has taken over the past century and dares to consider that there may be some wisdom in addressing our current ecological and social challenges by studying the lessons physically embedded in the traditional architecture of just a few generations ago, particularly in areas where it can still be seen operating in the somewhat preserved context as exists in Valderredible. Not that the traditional way of life there remains perfectly undisturbed. Far from it, all of the industrial ways of building and food production have caught up to the valley and the spiritual and social conditions that nurtured the former sustainable and human villages into being initially no longer exist. So our task there as architect, craftsman and urbanist might also have been akin to the archaeologist and anthropologist attempting to decipher from the physical vestiges that remain why folks built the way they did and how they were able to use the local resources at their disposal to create an almost entirely self sufficient culture, one that went beyond mere sustainability rather was generative of life. Not too long ago we could say the Valderredible fared better because human beings were there. That's a model worth paying attention to.

What did we accomplish?

Image courtesy of Christopher Miller
After a week of observation of the existing building details, architecture and urbanism of the municipality we were set about to put the lessons we were learning to use on an challenging proposal: How might the capital of the municipality, Polientes be expanded to accommodate a larger population? The implication was that the work on Polientes could serve as a model for a responsible expansion of the villages throughout the valley. The goal was obviously not to recreate or reinstate the past, rather to take it into account, adapting lessons of value from the past in the present whilst incorporating a few things of value that mankind has learned along the way. As it turns out this is not so simple, largely because I think what our forefathers accomplished there was exceedingly well done and sensible.

A number of questions arose that did not achieve complete consensus or conclusion. This I think is entirely understandable and to be expected when treating with a deeply complex environment. One ought approach such a place as Valderredible with a good amount of humility. One of those questions was whether or not we should build anything new at all? After all Polientes has a current population of about 200, probably about a quarter of its capacity of about 800 were all the existing buildings to be occupied. However, it was generally felt important for the students to incorporate the lesson of planning for additional building that respected an existing context so a large expansion of the village was decided upon.

Another question was where to build? An observation I and several others had made was that for the most part traditional buildings had been placed upon rocky, challenging land. Any arable land, either by the river or the sloping hills, had been reserved for husbandry or agriculture.

Then there was the question of what to build, more housing i.e.? A thriving, self-sufficient community has infrastructure needs beyond housing. My group in particular focused on buildings for craft workshops, bodegas for wine, storage for municipality equipment. Every village needs a good closet nearby to place the junk we need but don't always want to look at every day! Others focused on public, cultural institutions such as schools and museums.

Image courtesy of Christopher Miller
Many productive conversations revolved around how to build? As previously mentioned, the traditional architecture of Valderredible is exterior stone masonry utilising the local limstone and sandstone with adobe interior partitions, all of which receive earthen and lime mortars and renders. Doors windows and roof framing were all made from the plentiful oaks of the surrounding forests. The majority of roofing was terra cotta; however, there was some indication that thatch had been used previously. all of these materials had been previously sourced and produced locally. Unfortunately, from my inquiries it appeared that no traditional craftsmen or manufacturers of traditional materials remain in the valley. Nevertheless, perhaps that could be viewed as a future opportunity for a meaningful, contributing sector of the population to renew itself.

All in all I'd say that you can't look as carefully as we all did for those intense couple of weeks at this little chunk of paradise, nature under mankind's beneficent influence, without being profoundly affected. Architecture has the potential to be a very noble profession that carries with it aesthetic and moral responsibility. The way we build today affects peoples lives in very direct ways and often across multiple generations. At the conclusion of the programme the students presented some worthwhile ideas through lovely drawings at a well attended public event of the local population. However, I think all of us were most moved internally, more sensible to an inner narrative of truth that we can contribute in a positive way to society and create places worth caring about, places we would be happy to call home.

 Contributed by Patrick Webb

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Clayfest 2019

As a traditional plasterer based in the United States, I've been tangentially involved in natural building for many years, in both projects as well as gatherings. Of interest to traditional plasterers straw bale, light earth, adobe, etc. all involve coatings which typically include lime, clay or some combination thereof. However, natural building, contemporary traditional building and historic preservation (or what is called in the UK heritage and conservation work) remain parallel developing but largely separate sectors in the US. I've made a point in my writing and speaking to nudge these movements towards what I see as a natural convergence. To that end I was quite interested to see the state of affairs in the UK and to some extent the EU by attending Clayfest, an event sponsored by Ebuki and hosted by CAT, the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth, Wales. What I experienced was a bit unexpected.

The Encouraging

The aforementioned convergence between heritage, traditional new construction and natural building seems already well integrated in the UK and a number of the lectures were on this very topic. We heard form an heritage officer involved in organising training in traditional craft skills, a couple of traditional plasterers who work in and provide training to both the heritage and natural building communities as well as an academic from the University of York who's lecture was explicitly entitled, "Rethinking Sustainability as Heritage". Drawing from the vast inventory of traditional earthen buildings, stone masonry and timber framing in the UK and EU, I was left with the impression that the technical as well as embodied craft understanding of these materials and systems combined with the cross discipline communication puts these folks well ahead of where we are presently in the US.

The Disappointing

Day one was a lecture day. We sat in a lecture hall and listened to lectures...all day. There was supposed to be time for Q&A at the very end of each session but of course, as these things are wont to do, the speakers went overtime and hardly any audience participation occurred. I've no doubt that there were hundreds of years of collective wisdom within that room but the format did nothing to release it. I was really looking forward to the practical workshops of day two. However, the way these were structured also inhibited too much participation and there ended up being a lot more standing around than I'm used to seeing. These were nothing more I believe than structural impediments that could be easily addressed with some reorganisation. In that respect I think there have been some advances in the US with what is called the unconference or open schedule conference that allows attendees to think about what they might want to speak or hear about and participate in setting the agendas for smaller group discussions that reassemble later for strategy sessions.

The Troubling

You say you want a revolution 
Well, you know 
We all want to change the world - JL

The first thing I'll say is a bit intangible: I didn't feel welcome. That may not sound like much but it was jarring for me. I've always felt welcome in the natural building community. If I had a people, these would be them. Yet, something felt off from the moment I arrived. Where to begin...well, they're rolling out this train the trainers initiative and a common sentiment, practically an unofficial theme that I kept hearing over and over was along the lines of, "we have to train people to think like we do". I lack their certainty. I know I'm wrong (I strongly suspect they are too). I parade my ideas out there with the expectation and hope that I'll be told how wrong I am. Even if I'm right today, that answer will be wrong tomorrow; the world is dynamic, it's a living process. Oddly enough, none of the individuals seemed arrogant when talking with them one on one, yet this hubristic spirit hung over the entire proceedings.

You say you got a real solution 
Well, you know 
We'd all love to see the plan - JL

Getting a bit more specific, there were in my mind issues with some of the lectures themselves. The first of which was entitled, "What does an anti-capitalist building site look like?" I think one ought to be cautious about a negative title but fair enough, I personally hold the view that a capitalist economy is not going to be viable for much longer for humanity. I would've appreciated the speaker actually addressing the question and relating it back to earthen building. Instead we received an inundation of postmodernist philosophy, specifically a mash up of deconstructionism and feminism and poorly conveyed at that. A diatribe against an undefined patriarchy typified by white supremacy that painted two caricatures: the violent, aggressive, tyrannical masculine contrasted with the tender, generous and honest feminine. The solution? Again, the question was never addressed.

You tell me it's the institution 
Well, you know 
You better free you mind instead - JL

A second lecture, "Integrated technical training for women in northern Nicaragua", was delivered far more coherently and perhaps for that very reason, was more disturbing. Actually, the lecture had very little to do with technical training beyond its practical use as an instrument for feminist activism. I've no doubt that many women, have a hard life in Nicaragua and made even more so because they are women. Furthermore, I've no objection to support folks who are trying to develop their own capacities. It's the entire reason I teach, speak and write. However, it's one thing to support someone's personal development and another to indoctrinate and activate the young as avatars of your own ideology. It came across to me that the speaker was dripping in condescension of Nicaraguan culture. It's the same disastrous attitude the West has displayed internally and towards the rest of the world for almost a millennia, sending out our missionaries to convert and "civilise" the masses. That kind of "helping" has bred a maelstrom of resentment. Replacing the church with a secular ideology doesn't change the basic disposition.

But if you want money for people with minds that hate 
All I can tell is brother you have to wait - JL

In conclusion, I'll say this: the natural building movement grew into existence from the ashes of lost tradition, it came about organically. If we now attempt to graft to it postmodernism, feminism, socialism or any other rationally constructed ideology, it won't be racists, misogynists, industrialists or any "other" that will destroy the movement from without, but tragically it could very well be us that poison it from within. Please, let's not let it come to that.

Don't you know it's gonna be  
All right - JL


I noticed many folks at Clayfest had the pictured symbol on T-shirts or as badges. The extinction symbol, an hourglass within a globe, has been taken on by a newly formed social movement, Extinction Rebellion. I read their manifesto which actually came across as measured and reasonable. I'll be keeping an eye on how they interpret this manifesto and develop.

Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Las Esperanzas y los Miedos de la Artesanía

William Morris, En Memorium
¿Qué hay de la Esperanza? Mi esperanza por la artesanía no es más que una manifestación personal de una mayor esperanza para la humanidad. La artesanía es un esfuerzo tan intrínsecamente  humanista que se podría considerar como una medida preeminente, un barómetro, por asi decirlo, de la cultura humana. Sin embargo, las lecturas del barómetro metafórico del oficio son muy bajas, y así el pronóstico inmediato para la humanidad... tormentoso. 

La noción misma de "esperanza" indica que el camino a seguir no está asegurado. Así que, al esperanzador, le acompaña el temor y la inquietud. Un miedo a la pérdida no recompensado fácilmente, una tormenta que se esconde en sus nubes oscuras: la guerra, la pestilencia con la muerte siguiendo de cerca. Un día en que el cincel se calla contra la piedra, o que los fuegos de la fragua se han enfriado y el trabajo del hombre no es más que un recuerdo olvidado.

Entonces, ¿qué le queda al esperanzado para que le haga frente al miedo? Lo que hombres y mujeres de nobleza y propósito siempre han hecho. Luchar... con cada uno según sus dones. Hace más de un siglo, un ser humano sensible y reflexivo, un artesano muy talentoso, tomaría esta lucha con cada onza de su ser. Afortunadamente, la poesía y la prosa de uno de los fundadores del movimiento de las Arts and Crafts, William Morris * todavía sobrevive hoy. Voy a compartir brevemente y ampliaré algunos de sus escritos en este post.

La Belleza de la Vida


Piensa que el mayor pecado es preferir la vida al honor, y por la vida perder aquello por lo que vale la pena vivir.

Había una vez cuando la tierra era preciosa, tan viva. En algún momento del pasado no muy lejano, el hombre llegó a la escena. Bajo su influencia, la naturaleza salvaje fue domesticada y pacificada hasta cierto punto; a su vez, se podría argumentar que la tierra se volvió aún más bella y más viva durante un tiempo. Pero no más. El hombre que se ha multiplicado y extendido a todos los rincones, aumenta su poder destructivo mientras que la tierra se vuelve más fea y con menos vida cada día. Cuanto más se emplea la industria y la tecnología, la destrucción es más rápida y difícil de remediar. ¿Este estado nos hace felices? No lo creo, aunque muchos de nosotros estamos sumidos en la complacencia, la aceptación o la distracción.

Morris identificó este conflicto inherente de una creciente sociedad de consumo que fue possible gracias al auge de la industria, en contra de la naturaleza, expresándose así: "El último peligro con el que la civilización está amenazada, es un peligro de su propia cría: Que los hombres están en apuros por el logro completo de todos los lujos de la vida, y para ello la parte más fuerte de su raza debe privar a toda su raza de toda la belleza de la vida: es un peligro que la parte fuerte y sabia de la humanidad, al esforzarse por alcanzar una maestría completa sobre la naturaleza, debe destruir su forma más simple y sus muchos regalos.

Los últimos siglos han sido testigos de esta creciente desconexión exponencial del hombre con su entorno natural y los efectos devastadores para la ecología. Por supuesto, esta es una trayectoria suicida, ya que nosotros mismos somos naturaleza, al final nos estamos rechazando a nosotros mismos. Como artesano, Morris veía la naturaleza como el único estándar de belleza, intrínseco a nuestra humanidad con el atractivo universal de desviarnos de este loco camino: "Aquí está la raíz de todo el asunto, todo hecho por las manos del hombre tiene una forma que debe ser hermosa o fea; hermosa si está de acuerdo con la Naturaleza, y la ayuda; fea si es discordante con la Naturaleza, y la impide... Ahora, como artesanos el único modo en el que que podemos diseñar para poder lograr convencer a la gente a entenderlo es es seguir prestando atención a la Naturaleza; ¿a qué otra cosa nos podríamos referir para que toda la gente lo pueda entender?"

Un verdadero artista abraza la naturaleza y a la vida con todos sus problemas, luchas y dolores. A diferencia de esta cultura de mecanización y muerte, aunque esta última sea aceptada como fácil y pacífica.

El Arte de la Gente

Existe una ilusión persistente de que la industria y la tecnología han liberado a la humanidad. Los historiadores parecen registrar solamente la guerra, la pestilencia y el sufrimiento como si en el pasado solo existiera el miedo y el terror sin tregua, ni una pizca de alegría en la vida. ¿Debemos creer solo en la historia escrita y descartar la realidad encarnada en la arquitectura y los objetos artesanales de la vida cotidiana?

"Hubo una vez cuando los hombres se sometieron bajo la fuerzas de las tiranías, en medio de la violencia y el miedo. Hoy en día nos preguntamos cómo sobrevivían las veinticuatro horas del día, entonces recordamos que, como ahora, su trabajo diario era la parte principal de sus vidas, y  que ese trabajo diario fue endulzado por la creación diaria de Arte; y entonces¿nosotros que estamos liberados de esos males que ellos soportaron, viviremos días más tristes que ellos, ... elegiremos sentarnos y trabajar entre tanta fealdad? 

Abadía de Westminster
Eran tiempos difíciles, para lograr una vida duradera entre matanzas y alborotos, aunque las historia se lee casi como si fuera así; pero todos los días el martillo crujía en el yunque, y el cincel jugaba alrededor de la viga de roble, y siempre con belleza e invención y, por lo consiguiente, con algo de felicidad humana. Cuando los hombres dicen que los papas, los reyes y los emperadores construyeron tales y tales edificios, es una mera forma de hablar. Miras en tus libros de historia para ver quién construyó la Abadía de Westminster, quién construyó Santa Sofía en Constantinopla, y te cuentan sobre Enrique III, el emperador de Justiniano. ¿ Lo construyeron ellos? O, mejor dicho, hombres como tú y yo, artesanos, que no han dejado ningún nombre detrás de ellos, ¿nada más que su trabajo? 

La historia ha recordado a los reyes y a los guerreros, porque destruyeron; El arte ha recordado a la gente, porque crearon ".

Ahí radica otra gran entrega de la artesanía a la humanidad, la dimensión social, la capacidad de dar alegría y sentido al trabajo, el cual, ocupa la mayor parte de nuestras horas de vigilia. Sin embargo, el mundo 'desarrollado' se ha transformado de ser una sociedad creadora a una economía de consumo, produciendo industrialmente un millón de cosas que nadie realmente quiere. Meras distracciones de una vida monótona que carece de imaginación y significado. No habría mucha necesidad de 'escaparse' o 'vivir el fin de semana' si su vida diaria estuviera llena de belleza, creatividad y propósito, si mejorara su comunidad, si trajera placer a sus vecinos. 

Estudiante en
el American College of the Building Arts
"El arte real es la expresión del placer del hombre haciendo su trabajo", de modo que "Si un hombre tiene un trabajo que desprecia, que no satisface su deseo natural y legítimo de placer, la mayor parte de su vida la vive infelizmente y sin autoestima ". Sin embargo, la existencia vacía no es una inevitabilidad. Hubo un tiempo, no hace mucho, cuando todos compartían el arte, cuando "todo lo que tocaba la mano del hombre era más o menos hermoso", de modo que uno participaba en la creación de cosas hermosas o en el uso de las cosas creadas, aún más a menudo. Haciendo y usando ambos, para que todos compartan en el arte. "Dar placer a las personas con las cosas que deben USAR, esa es una gran oficina de decoración; para dar placer a las personas con las cosas que deben HACER, ese es el otro uso de ellas".

"¿Qué es un artista, sino que un trabajador que está determinado a que, pase lo que pase, su trabajo sea excelente?" ¿Nos estamos dando esa oportunidad? ¿Qué pasa con nuestros hijos y nietos? ¿O estamos fomentando un mundo basado en el consumo, la codicia y las ganancias? "¿Cómo Podemos soportar pagar un precio por una pieza de bienes que ayudará a molestar a un hombre, a arruinar a otro y a morir de hambre a un tercero? O, todavía más, creo que, ¿cómo podemos soportar el uso, cómo podemos disfrutar de algo que ha sufrido la pena y el dolor de su creador? ... El mal de la mayor parte de la población, es que está involucrando la mayor parte de sus vidas en el trabajo, y que en la mayor parte de los casos no les suele interesar, o les ayuda desarrollar sus mejores facultades, y en el peor de los casos (y eso es lo más común, también) es un mero trabajo servil no mitigado, hecho por pura obligación."

¿Podríamos seguir depositando nuestra esperanza en la industria y la tecnología para salvarnos de este embrollo aparentemente intratable? ¿Qué remedio puede haber para los errores de la tecnología?¿añadiendo más tecnología? No, la producción modernizada de las necesidades de la vida: la comida, la ropa y el refugio se han convertido en una injusticia altamente organizada, un instrumento de opresión que envenena nuestro planeta, despoja a la belleza de nuestra vida cotidiana y se opone al espíritu humano. La industria ha pasado el punto de la reforma, necesita ser derrocada ... la humanidad necesita una revolución post-industrial. Aunque no creo que estemos listos, nuestra vida todavía no es lo suficientemente fea. Es casi como si tuviéramos que completar el ciclo completo, el completo colapso ecológico y social de la sociedad. Quizás enfrentarnos a nuestra propia extinción sea suficiente para sacudirnos de nuestra complacencia lánguida.

Las Perspectivas del Arte en la Civilización

"No quiero arte para unos pocos, ni educación para unos pocos, o libertad para unos pocos".

Incluso si reconocemos que los costos ecológicos y sociales de la industria son demasiado pesados para soportar por mucho más tiempo, ¿quién puede pagar la artesanía aparte de los ricos, como pretexto del lujo? ¿Cómo podemos permitirnos comprar artesanía de nuevo? Con sencillez. El Sr. Morris nos recuerda: "El arte no nació en el palacio; más bien, se enfermó allí y necesitará algo más que las casas de los hombres ricos para curarla de nuevo. Para ayudar al arte a ser fuerte, este tiene que llegar a los lugares más simples

¿Qué es lo que realmente necesitamos para satisfacer nuestras necesidades físicas? Menos de lo que pensamos. ¿Cuánto espacio podemos ocupar, cuántos metros cuadrados necesitamos, cuántos hogares, automóviles, computadoras? ¿Barcos, televisiones, suscripciones por cable, ligas de fantasía? Un millón de cosas para distraernos y desperdiciar nuestra vida cuidandolas. ¿Alguno de los mencionados lujos mezquinos, pretensions de una exhibición de riqueza llamativa, enriquecen verdaderamente nuestras vidas? Yo creo que no. Estos productos son mera moda, vanidades que van y vienen en nuestras vidas ya que pronto nos cansamos de ellos. En nuestros corazones reconocemos que no tienen valor. Creo que la búsqueda drogada de querer MÁS nos roba a muchos de nosotros el tiempo para pensar y sentir, para transmitir la herencia de un mundo mejor que el que se nos dejó. Por el contrario, "el arte real es barato, incluso al precio que debe pagarse por él". Y "La simplicidad de la vida, incluso la más simple, no es una miseria, sino el fundamento mismo del refinamiento". 

Nuestra naturaleza física es solo un pequeño aspecto de lo que constituye nuestra humanidad. ¿Qué es lo que realmente necesitamos para satisfacer nuestras otras necesidades: intelectual, sensual y espiritual? Primero debemos reconocer que tenemos tales necesidades y también lo hace nuestro prójimo. Se nos impone una obligación moral de contribuir a una sociedad en la que se puedan satisfacer estas necesidades. Digo la verdad cuando le digo que realmente no puede disfrutar de algo sabiendo que su producción fué aplastada y se aprovechó de otras personas. Tampoco pude realmente atesorar tales cosas haciendo la vista gorda, en una ignorancia deliberadamente velada, solo sospechando que se hizo con gran injusticia. 

"Si no puedes aprender a amar el arte real, al menos aprende a odiar el arte falso y a rechazarlo. No solamente porque sea desgraciadamente tan feo, tan tonto e inútil , también te pido que ponas algo de tu parte; porque estos no son más que los símbolos externos del veneno que se encuentra dentro de ellos: mire a través de ellos y vea todo lo que se ha ido elaborando, y verá el trabajo en vano, el dolor y la desgracia que han sufrido sus compañeros desde el principio, - ¡Y todo esto por las cosas pequeñas que ningún hombre realmente necesita! Aprende a prescindir; hay virtud en esas palabras; una fuerza que si se usara correctamente ahogaría tanto la demanda como el suministro de trabajo mecánico ".

Este mensaje es ciertamente inconveniente y molesto para la industria, nada más que "mera arena y fricción en las ruedas de la máquina de moler dinero". Sin embargo, es hora de rechazar su tiranía, reclamar nuestra humanidad, defender a nuestros prójimos y aprovechar nuestro derecho colectivo a la felicidad, por "un arte hecho por la gente para la gente como una alegría para el creador y el usuario ... ¿Cómo podríamos guardar silencio sobre todo esto? ¿y qué voz podría decirlo,sino es la voz del mismo arte: y qué audiencia para tal historia nos satisfaría? Sería la de todos los hombres y mujeres que viven en la Tierra? Esto es lo que Arquitectura, el Arte y la Artesanía* * espera ser: tendrá esta vida, o bien será la muerte; ahora vivimos entre el pasado y el futuro para poder decir si vivirá o morirá ".

* Todas las citas son de William Morris a menos que se indique lo contrario.
** Texto añadido.

Escrito por Patrick Webb y traducido por Anna Castilla Vila.