Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Defense of Craft


Traditional Timber Framing
courtesy of
American College of the Building Arts
Food, clothes and shelter. That's where it all started for us, as a species that is. Humans are otherwise fairly fragile creatures but with our ability to procure such basics needs we were able to not only survive but prosper. We got pretty good at it too and fast! Rapid developments in agriculture, husbandry, textiles and building laid the grounds for what we today call civilization.

Mere survival was good and fine but ultimately not all that satisfying. So we started cooking, mixing and flavoring our food and culinary traditions were born satisfying our senses of smell and taste. We weaved colorful, intricate patterns into our garments from the softest wool and the finest linen and a textile tradition was born satisfying our tactile and visual senses. And finally we began building shelters for families that we called homes and ornamented them with forms literal and iconic and we finally arrived to a place at once personal, secure and restful. I have no doubt it was good to be home.

I suppose I could go on about music, ritual, love and a dozen other human needs; however, I guess my contention is that nothing has really changed. We have not evolved in the past 200 years or the past 20,000. You and I today have those same human needs we've always had. I'm going to focus my attention on craft as applied to shelter not because it has any more merit than the others but because it is where my personal experience rests.

A Definition of Craft

Mimi Moore
Architectural Stone Carver
www.moorecarver.com

What craft means to different people today is quite varied. Perhaps its bringing back something old fashioned such as all the quaint craft breweries springing up (we have 6 right here in Charleston, a healthy sign of culture!) Or maybe it could be a hobby, something amateur that we do for fun like making wreaths for the holidays or a woodworking project in the garage. Occasionally it may be understood as something actually done for a living such as a stone mason or an iron smith.

Our word “craft” came into Old English by way of an older Norse and carried the meaning of “physical strength.” By Middle English the meaning extended to include “mental power and skill.” A related term arrived to English by way of Latin and Italian was “artisan.” It carried much the same sense as “craftsman*” but indicated one especially instructed in the arts. So historically the meaning of “craft” was anything but pastiche or trivial, it was a serious expression of man's physical and mental ability, it was if anything sacred.

Four Misconceptions Concerning Craft

The above definition aside, there are a number of ways in which Craft is misunderstood. As a craftsman I'd like to offer my opinion concerning some of the most frequent misunderstandings:
  1. Craft is not Labor
  2. Art is not Craft
  3. No one does that anymore
  4. Industry and technology is the future of production. Craft costs too much
Ornamental Forged Iron
courtesy of
American College of the Building Arts
Somehow as a society we have come to view sweating and exerting oneself physically outside of sport as demeaning to the human spirit, an indication of low social status and inferior intelligence (perhaps this mentality contributes to the fact that the baby boomers are believed to be the most obese generation ever). This “stigma” has led some craftsmen to insist on a strict demarcation between labor and craft. Not to say that there is not menial labor commonly found in industry and construction that meets the above description. However, one must always start off as a laborer in the process of acquiring the skill to grow to the level of a craftsman. There is nothing ignoble about it. Quite to the contrary, even in the daily routine of a craftsman he will find himself doing mundane tasks, sometimes very labor intensive and not particularly skilled. That's just life. Frankly, there are times when you appreciate the mental break so that straightening up the shop, sweeping the floor and taking out the trash is a comfort. Labor is only demeaning when there is a desire to progress but no ability and opportunity for advancement.

During the Enlightenment of the 18th century another line in the sand was drawn, this time between art and craft. Ah...so many artificial hierarchies! Craft was at that time condescended as a strictly technique driven, practical, functional work. By contrast, art or rather the “fine arts” were to be distinguished by creativity, uselessness and a conceptual nature. This was an entirely arbitrary distinction out of context with recent historical precedent and common sense. Sculptors, plasterers and painters such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Rafael all had to begin as laborers or apprentices before mastering the practical techniques of their respective mediums and ultimately expressing their skill in highly creative discourse. I would concur that much of the unskilled rubbish that passes itself off as contemporary fine art today is indeed “useless” in the most fundamental way, it answers no human need whatsoever. This is not intended to disparage many of the skilled artists working in paint and other mediums on conceptual works, rather to commend the skilled individual who has mastered ornamentation and the decorative applied arts and by so doing can fully express their creativity while bringing delight to their patrons.

Ornamental Plaster
courtesy of
American College of the Building Arts
“No one does that kind of work anymore.” I hear this all the time. I've heard it while I was actually on a scaffold doing that kind of work. Someone will pass by to ask me what I'm doing, perhaps I'm placing some plaster ornament, and they'll say, “too bad, no one does that kind of work anymore!” For a brief moment I think this person is either a complete idiot or trying to be malicious. That of course is usually not the case. This idea is so firmly entrenched that despite the fact that the person sees craft happening right in front of their eyes they still can't believe it. The educational system has told them that craft is dead so that's it. The reality is quite different of course. By and large, most architecture before WWII had a level of craft in its construction. That is a lot of inventory in the US that has to be maintained...by craftsmen. It is true that most new construction today primarily utilizes cheap, factory made materials designed to be installed by unskilled labor; however, in the natural and traditional new build markets craft continues to thrive.

There is the misconception that industry and technology are the future of production. I challenge this view. I declare that industry and technology are clearly the undisputed present of production and have been so for many decades. And so what world have they created for us to live in? A cheap one to be sure, though not so inexpensive. I'll state a few obvious facts. We know our contemporary homes are toxic. We know our contemporary homes are poorly constructed, unlikely to last the mortgage. We at least sense that our contemporary homes were poorly designed using cheap materials and cheaper labor. None of the above contributes to the good of society or our personal happiness.

“There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man's lawful prey.” ― John Ruskin

The Value of Craft

If you want a golden rule
 that will fit everything, this is it:
Have nothing in your houses
 that you do not know to be useful
 or believe to be beautiful
― William Morris
As a craftsman myself I see the value of craft as very personal. It has made me more materialistic. Not of course in the empty desire to acquire more, but a deep and profound appreciation for materials themselves, the delicate grain of walnut that tells the story of its life, the intricate veining of a precious Nero Portoro marble that fractalizes in a symphony of color and pattern, the smooth, sensuous feel of earthen clay shaped by the power of my touch. At once I am the creator and the humblest devotee.

You can always tell when a house was constructed on a tight schedule and a tighter budget, when the workers were squeezed and pressed. Get the job done, on to the next, it is a business after all. Nobody cared about you, that this was to be your home. It's palpable, you can feel it and it is a horribly oppressive place to live. The costs are exorbitant for something that contributes so little to our comfort and humanity.

Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth.” In harmony with these words I present an alternative: live honestly, with yourself and with others. Make no false justifications, build or refurbish an authentic home that you want to live in. Fill it with craft that is both useful and beautiful. Employ men and women who care deeply about their work and want to give you the best. It may be at first a daunting concept but eventually it is a liberation to realize that you can actually eat, drink, love and live in a place that contributes to your happiness.


*The terms craftsman and craftsmen are used throughout this article in reference to both men and women practicing craft. 



Contributed by Patrick Webb

8 comments:

  1. It's 'defence', unless you are from the U.S. (Signed, a true artiste).

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  2. The best way to describe a craftsman I have come across in a books on plastering that I came across a few years ago , I can’t remember the title of the book , but the definition has always stuck with me and I cascade this down to my students

    Definition of craftsman
    A manual worker works with his hands
    A tradesman works with his hands and his head
    A craftsman works with his hand, his head and his heart

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  3. Patrick,

    Highly readable. Thank you!

    Robert

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  4. Wonderful post, Patrick! I identify with and aspire to being a craftsman but I do wish there was a more gender-inclusive term. "Craftsman" sounds so distinctively male. "Artisan" makes it seem like a distinction from craft is being made. "Craftsperson" is clunky but might be the closest. Thank you for the thoughtful post.

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  5. I too have had the experience of overhearing someone below my scaffold wishing for people that still did that kind of work. I have been an ornamental plasterer for over thirty years and not one year has gone by in which I wasn't told that my craft was a "dying trade" multiple times. I love doing work that everyone on a busy construction site can't help but stop and watch. It's just a shame that some can't believe their eyes.

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  6. Words that need to be heard well said.

    -- Will

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  7. Thank you so much for your thoughtful insight. More people need to realize that creation is the highest form of praise and purpose.

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  8. Very nice post! Sometimes these are concepts that can be elusive to pin down but you summed them up very nicely. Will be sure to share.

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