Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The Awakened Craftsman


Prometheus Creating Man in Clay
The cultural inheritance that remains to us today of Western civilisation is the culmination of a millennia long process of integration of predominantly Classical, Judaic, and later Christian traditions. All three traditions share a view of the transcendent, the highest ideal likewise as being the omniscient source of knowledge and Creator of man. This is perhaps most strongly expressed in the Judaic tradition where God is metaphorically addressed as Master Craftsman: "And now, O Lord (יְהֹוָ֖ה; Yahweh), You are our father; we are the clay, and You are our potter, and all of us are Your handiwork" - Isaiah 64:7 Tanakh.

The idea of man as crafted in the Great Potter's image has certainly instantiated itself deeply in Western culture. Like the dear Lord himself this image of ourselves "doth giveth and doth taketh away." An example of one of the gifts might be the Western legal system that grants due process and a presumption of innocence until proven guilt on the basis that the individual, as an artifact of the divine, has intrinsic value and inalienable rights. Even most of those who have rejected the inherited view of God maintain this positive view of individual worth. However, whereas man was said to be crafted in the image of the divine, nothing else in nature was so claimed. So we in the West have likewise been bequeathed a sense of separateness from nature and, being artifacts, an alienation from the divine source.

For the most part human beings lack qualities typically attributed to God, notably omniscience or omnipotence. Nevertheless, there is one capacity that does appear to clearly distinguish us from at least the rest of nature: self-consciousness. Each of us to a greater or lesser degree is awake.

The Waking State


Certainly, if nothing else human beings are uniquely conscious of their mortality to an often painful degree. However, I find it interesting that the purported source of light and wisdom, the indefatigable divinity awake like no other, is expressed repeatedly in Western culture as a master craftsman, essentially a sculptor. Perhaps this can be taken as an encouragement to pass our waking hours in more noble pursuits than anxious preoccupation over our inevitable demise.

There are several levels of consciousness, of becoming awake that human beings can realise. Such levels of conscious awareness have been described in religious traditions as knowledge, understanding and wisdom existing alongside the philosophical and secular analog of perception, apprehension and comprehension. Knowledge and perception are at the very edge of awareness and are associated with youth, the initial collection of 'facts' or experiences. Knowledge acquisition continues naturally but with more time and experience there is the possibility of conscious growth towards understanding, the apprehending or grasping of meaning emanating from the disparate pieces of knowledge acquired. After further acquiring knowledge and drawing understanding, it becomes possible, though not inevitable, through incredible struggle to collate experience and meaning, to privilege relevant material and establish  holistic connections. To truly comprehend is the mark of wisdom, a meta-understanding of the processes that generate meaning.

It is interesting to follow the traditional path of an apprentice to master craftsman as a great awakening.

The Apprentice

An apprentice within a traditional atelier is much like a very young child. Just as an infant is wholly dependent upon and completely identifies with the mother so the apprentice finds himself in a similar situation; he is in the realm of the unknown, everything encountered represents hope and anxiety, promise of success or threat of failure. So the young apprentice must rely completely on the Master and takes the conveyance of tradition as gospel truth. He is essentially possessed by the spirit of the Master, all his efforts are directed towards imitation until sufficient experience is achieved, enough knowledge acquired that more responsibility can be taken and a measure of freedom given.

What the apprentice represents to the Master is potential. As is the case of a mother with her beloved child, potential is to be worshiped. So it is that nothing less than the best of himself, his revealed wisdom that the Master metaphorically places upon the altar in sacrifice for his foster child.

Courtesy of Finch Woodworks

The Journeyman

To become a journeyman is to hold and share an identity, to join a brotherhood. A journeyman knows the means and methods, the tools and the medium; he knows what to do and why. He has submitted to discipline; his craft is a ritual, a reenacted drama pregnant with meaning and value to himself and others. He's embodied all the lessons the Master had to teach and is exactly what the culture expects from him. As such he is welcome in any workshop where there is work to be done.

This represents a significant step in his development as a craftsman obviously but more importantly towards maturity as an individual. However, more is expected. As the name implied he is encouraged to journey, to serve under a number of masters. There is good reason for this. Exposure to a single approach to creative problems can deaden the mind into an inflexible, lethargic state. Many masters stimulates capacity for invention, provides exposure to various methods for approaching a given task. A journeyman will be of even more value to his culture if he continues to adapt, a lesson best learnt early.

The Master

What does it mean to be a Master?

The very word has become acid in the ears of modern man. Mastery is represented as an old, feeble, and conservative elder clinging with gnarled hands to the tired traditions of an exhausted past. While the world hurtles apace in the name and glory of progress (towards what end we're never sure), Mastery it is claimed can't hope to keep up so it responds by dragging the world down through oppression, domination and authoritarianism, an avatar of power that is the embodied enemy of liberty and freedom.

So modern man's response has been to idolise the stars of his own collective whim. A churning chaos of fickle popularity, a continuous upheaval of perpetual novelty instinctively abandoned at the first sign of maturation. There is no longer allowance for a social hierarchy based on competence neither the acknowledgement for competence of the individual. Freedom from being subject to or developing judgement and discernment dissolves the blossoming individual subsumed by arbitrary assignment of some group identity; a rejection of the very process of maturation impoverishing a society that slumbers on till midday like a middle school adolescent.

What is no longer well understood is that the Master craftsman was never master over his apprentice or any person, rather he was the master of the very process of growth itself. Long prior to mastery he himself had submitted to a discipline, he had thoroughly absorbed his culture; only with such hard won wisdom inherited or discernment newly acquired does he transform into the steward of tradition. Rather than identifying with his craft, something already pertaining to the past, the master identifies with the process that generates craft. This process is tradition, literally the "giving across the threshold."

Sculptor Alexander Stoddart

Masters may embrace responsibility for tradition in numerous ways. Below are three typical examples.

By establishing a workshop (business in modern parlance) they address practical concerns providing an environment for apprentices to mature and journeymen to practise, providing the community of which they are a member valuable service.

As previously discussed the Master is intimately involved as a teacher in the development of both apprentices and journeymen. This is an additional burden and sacrifice. To be able to clearly articulate craft in guided verbal instruction and demonstration far exceeds the level of competence required of practise alone.

Perhaps the most noble pursuit of mastery is to conceive, to give birth metaphorically, to bear, to take on voluntarily. Both the physical world and human culture are dynamic, ever changing. Past knowledge is always insufficient. Masters take on the responsibility of expanding the domain of knowledge and understanding of their craft. Sometimes this entails adaptation to changed circumstances by reevaluating means and methods. However, often the boundaries to be crossed and explored are artistic.

While we are neither omniscient nor omnipotent; nevertheless, each and every one of us have the gifts to acquire knowledge and exercise power. What the Master Craftsman represents is a time tested, verified path of transforming human potential into individual actuality. In essence, the light we could become if we would articulate the highest ideal we can conceive, disciplining and orienting the very best within us to that end. Awaken yourself, awaken the world.



Contributed by Patrick Webb





2 comments:

  1. What does it mean to be a master? Ah, how many times have I asked myself that question...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you! Great thoughts for the first work day of the new year, here in my architecture studio. I do have the privilege of working with some fine craftsmen in my practice, and am hoping to bring some beauty of a classical sort to some projects in Berkeley, where the new 1% for art ordinance requires adornment of new structures for the public's pleasure. They don't state it that way, but never mind.

    ReplyDelete