Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Ministry of Craft

Bryn Athyn Cathedral
Often we associate craft with the concept of mastery. A master is essentially a 'great man', in the sense that he has achieved a very high level of skill, he rests at the apex of a hierarchy of competence within his craft and among his fellows. Nevertheless, craft is also associated with the concept of ministry. A minister is a 'lesser man', someone who recognises and subordinates himself to something greater. In the case of the craftsman, masters included, this ministry is toward the greater culture of which he is a member. Early 20th century architect Ralph Adams Cram penned a series of essays exploring this ministry as exemplified by the architectural Arts & Crafts movement. Much of his focus was regarding the critical role of education for both craftsman and architect, an education that would prepare them as co-labourers, ministers in service to their fellowman.

Education as Cultivation

Building Arts, Bryn Athyn College
What is the end and objective of education? Cram answered this question with succinctness and resolution: "the building of character...the making, not of specialists, but of fine men and women, good citizens...conversant with all the civilization of the past and its monuments, trained and disciplined in all that pertains to intellectual and spiritual experience." And what might such an education consist of? He recommends "Greek, Latin, history, literature, philosophy, mathematics" as the culturally enriched humus from which cultivated men can germinate. To these he adds religion and the arts. Our particular interest in this essay may be the latter; however, don't imagine for a moment that religion and art are entirely separable. They both in fact are aligned in their general orientation towards what lies outside of and underneath human reason. Whereas religion acts this out through ritual and says what little can be stated through literal dogma, art provides "the symbolic expression of otherwise inexpressible ideas...the most mysterious and tenuous of which the soul has cognition."

However, Cram describes a new theory of art that came to the fore during the Renaissance, one that began to deny and abolish everything of its previous mysticism and sense of wonder. Formalised art education at that time began to turn away from expressing eternal truths, eventually to be taught as nothing more than "an amenity of life, a conscious product, and a marketable commodity." Such a desiccation of art to mere commercial value made a truly liberal education an impossibility. In his words, "without culture we are barbarians, however much the balance of trade may be in our favour at the end of any given fiscal year."

Understanding the Arts & Crafts

In an era of utter decadence where every aspect of human life is commodified, including art and education, I truly believe we inflict a great psychological childhood trauma, we manage to beat out of each successive generation an instinct for art and for craft that starts off as natural for children as eating, sleeping or breathing. As we prepare our children for a virtual world of complete abstraction, privileging literacy and numeracy, we deny them efficacy; we deny them an embodied understanding of the world that only the practise of the arts and crafts can provide. Without a doubt, we are victims ourselves. In our defence, it is difficult to feel the sense of loss of something you've never experienced yourself. So what have we been missing that the traditional arts and crafts singularly provided?

We can start by way of analogy, "Art is, therefore, a language, but it deals with emotions, concepts, and impulses that cannot be expressed though any other medium known to man, because these emotions, concepts, and impulses are the highest, and therefore the most mysterious and tenuous, of which the soul has cognition." In the practise of art and craft you regularly accomplish the impossible to explain. In the confrontation with what is at the very limit of human capability, certainly of your individual capability, the conscious thought must give way to subconscious action in complete absorption with the task at hand. Therein lies the encounter with the mystery that defies rational explanation. Yet not rational observation for there it is, the manifest creation, the work of art! This is the human being operating at a fuller state of consciousness than reason alone. Owing to this Cram understood art and craft as "a language for which there is no substitute, and he who is not learned that extent ignorant, unlearned, uncultured."

Courtesy of Historic Doors
The arts & crafts are nothing less than, "the visible record of all that is noblest in man." Furthermore, they are records that we can trust, oft times written in stone, a "true history of the true man; and its records are infinitely more reliable and significant than are those chronicles that concern themselves with the unimportant details of the rise and fall of dynasties, the fabrication and annulment of laws, the doings and death of kings." Who knows how much of written history is lies and misinterpretation but certainly the chisel did fall upon the stone by the hands of men just like you and I, of that we can be sure.

If the aforementioned reflect aspects of what art and craft are, then what might it be that they signify, what do they point towards? Something like a glimpse of heaven on earth, "the natural, and, indeed, the only adequate, expression in time and space of spiritual things...which may be called the Intimation of the Absolute, and beauty is the mode of its manifestation, art the concrete expression thereof." Additionally, the arts and crafts serve a very human purpose, "as an agency working toward the redemption of human character", a tangible record that there is goodness, beauty and truth in what we are, of which we are not always aware, or too inclined to forget or dismiss, "for the life-blood of art is the giving of something a little better than men consciously desire."

Bryn Athyn Cathedral

What has become of architectural art, why do we struggle seemingly in vain to reestablish a culture of craft? "You cannot sever art from society; you cannot make it grow, however zealously you may labour and lecture and subsidize. It follows from certain spiritual and social conditions, and without these it is a dead twig thrust in sand, and only a divine miracle can make such bloom." Therein lies the rub, the arts & crafts are a visible manifestation of living culture, of an internal health and vitality. You can't force it from outside upon a society, no matter the good intentions of movements and manifestos, anymore than you as an individual can will yourself better when down with a case of influenza; the fever must rise and break and the sickness run its course. Oh, how I wish it were different, how that I could change the entire cultural landscape by stalwart example and mere force of will!

And yet there remains for the arts & craftsman his ministry, "the same part to play here that was so splendidly performed by the monasteries of the Dark Ages. In his work, whatever it may be, he must record and preserve all that was and is best in a shattered era."

The Architect and Craftsman as Fellow Ministers

Ralph Adams Cram identifies 1825 as a pivotal year that precipitated a rapid decline of the traditional arts & crafts. A decade hence from the violent suppression of the Luddite uprising in England, the Industrial Revolution had taken firm hold both in England and New England of the United States. The state of the architectural arts after two generations of industrialisation was nothing short of dismal as the following excerpt from an early 20th century annual report from the American Institute of Architecture's Committee on Education clearly reveals, "our carving is butchered, our sculpture and painting conceived on lines that deny their architectural setting, our metal-work turned out by the commercial ton, our stained-glass work defiant of every law of God, man, or architect, or it is all reduced to a dead level of technical plausibility, without an atom of feeling or artistry." What was not butchered by uncultured, untrained hands was "frozen to death", emblematic of the mass produced machine chiseled carvings and dull, lifeless cast plaster ornaments distributed through catalogues. Professional architects had estranged themselves from the genuine arts &  craftsmen, retreating to their drafting boards, producing in essence, " academic essays in theoretical design expressing nothing but the genius - or otherwise - of the architect."

Courtesy of Glencairn Museum
Cram reminds us of how much had been lost, "Without the craftsman an architectural design is worth little more than the paper on which it is drawn; it is an ephemera, a simulacrum of glory. From a distance, or at first sight, it may have majesty of form, power of composition, impressiveness of silhouette, and richness of light and shade, but close at hand, it is a dead thing without a vivifying soul." And again, "We may sit spellbound before the august majesty of the École des Beaux will be of little avail if we cannot entrust our dreams and our working drawings to genuine craftsmen for the carrying out, but instead find ourselves compelled to the tender mercies of general contractors." I'm sure that last barb, dripping in sarcasm, hurts. The mercy of the craftsman is of a different sort, "when an architectural monument was a plexus of all the arts, the architect was pretty much at the mercy of the craftsman, and he still is, with a difference; for then every bit of sculpture or painting or carving or metal-work and joinery, and glass and needle-work, when these latter came into play, enhanced the architecture, glorified it, and sometimes redeemed it as well...can raise an inferior architecture to a level of credit that in itself it could not claim, while giving to an equally inferior civilization a glamour of glory that rightly could not proceed from its own inherent nature."

Two obstacles are highlighted by Cram as impeding the restoration of the intimate collaboration between the architect and the arts & craftsman: a disparity in educational resources and a lack of  autonomy for the craftsman. For the former he again references the aforementioned AIA report, "while we have the most copious and widespread architectural education to be found in any country, we have practically no agencies for the education of craftsmen. The result must be, and is, extremely injurious, if not fatal, to architecture itself." Cram elaborates of this report with some data of his own. The United States population of his day was approximately 100 million. Serving that population were a dozen architectural schools and practically no path for the education of traditional craftsmen. How are things a century later? While our population has nearly quadrupled, the architectural schools have multiplied tenfold with over 120 accredited programmes not to mention related programmes of historic preservation, architectural engineering and architectural history.

What about contemporary further education for arts & craftsmen? There are an handful of resources, emerging programmes such as The American College of the Building Arts, the department of Building Arts at Bryn Athyn College and The Center for Traditional Craft in Savannah, GA. Certainly this is something, more than existed twenty years ago; however, the disparity with the volume and resources allocated for architectural education as compared to craft is staggering beyond belief. There is an entrenched attitude on the part of many architects that real craftsmen no longer exist, inferring from that most questionable premise the conclusion that we ought to give up on any effort at arts & crafts and stick to an industrial built environment. Cram repudiated this argument already popular in his day as foolish, "if we have no artist-craftsmen, then it would be better for us to close up half the schools that are turning out architects and employ the funds for the training of the only men who can give life to the architect's designs." I truly believe Cram's admonishment was given in earnest and furthermore eminently practical. Reallocating a significant percentage of the abundant resources allocated to architectural education toward the education of genuine arts & craftsmanship will not diminish the profession of architecture, rather it will humanise architecture and redeem it to it's rightful position as mother of the arts.

Ornamental workshop, American College of the Building Arts

Regrettably, traditional arts & crafts is in a diminished state. To attain health again the minister is in need of being ministered to himself, "for it is the manifest duty of the architect to search out these individual craftsmen and to bring them into alliance with himself." Encouragingly, there are indications that this is beginning to happen. Many individual architects and firms are increasingly working with traditional arts & craftsmen; furthermore, architectural institutions such as The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art and The International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism are increasingly incorporating arts & crafts education for their memberships directly into their core curricula. Architectural media outlets such as Traditional Building Magazine have entire columns devoted to craft, regularly schedule craftsmen as speakers in their conference series and just recently announced a new category of "Craftsmanship" for their prestigious Palladio awards.

Education is vital; nevertheless, having well trained, technically proficient arts & craftsmen may be a necessary condition but it is not in and of itself a sufficient one to redeem architecture. For if the individual craftsman is not independent "we are left helpless and hopeless." What we need is an alliance, what Cram describes as, "the crux of the whole matter; whoever the craftsman is he must work with and not for the architect", the craftsman must preserve his identity in his work. In this spirit of liberty, autonomy yet free association I leave you the following parting admonition from one of the greatest allies ever to the American Craftsman, Ralph Adams Cram:

"What we are looking for, and what was always obtained in the epochs of high civilization, is not merely technical proficiency, but such proficiency united to creative capacity. There is no true craftsman who is not the personal designer of what he fashions."

Contributed by Patrick Webb

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