“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tales (Norton) p. 195
You won’t find Talking Shop on many woodworker’s “must read” lists. I started it a while ago and put it aside, once I got the gist of it’s thesis. I was enjoying it, but it just didn’t seem relevant to the other craft reading I was doing until now. I thought of it soon after I finished Tarule’s book, because like another book I’ve read recently, it sort of degenerated into a sort of idolatry and presumption rather than making significant observations about craft.
It was a bit odd to think of Talking Shop while contemplating craft, because it’s really more about rhetoric than craft. But then it was the rhetoric of The Artisan of Ipswich that galled me more than real information about craft. From Talking Shop‘s jacket blurb:
“By arguing that what matters culturally, finally, is the representation of craft, the idea of craft, rather than the objects, Betjemann takes the whole subject of craft and stands it on its head. In doing so, he makes a substantial contribution to the cultural history of the United States, changing our way of thinking about craft by broadening its meaning considerably.”—Miles Orvell, Temple University, author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940
I’m quite familiar with Orvell from my studies in New Deal photography. He always irritated me too, because his primary focus was representation rather than documentary; to read most of the postmodern documentary critics the fact that people were suffering and well meaning people were trying to alleviate it was secondary to the oppressive nature of representing anything at all. This is uniquely unhelpful, and I suppose I was afraid that Betejemann’s book would be unhelpful as well. But it was really interesting to me at first, because it began with a long interrogation of Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography.
Cellini’s autobiography was on my nightstand for years, when I was photographing in nightclubs. I would come home and read it to unwind before I slept, I thought it was a real hoot. Betjemann’s use of it as a sort of 19th century lightning rod for descriptions of craft is apt. Cellini boasts endlessly about what a great craftsman he is, but he never really gets around to describing much about it. Instead, he’s too busy swashbuckling about having adventures and claiming that everyone else’s methods are inferior to his. What his method is, is of course ambiguous. Not many of his artistic works have survived, but instead his autobiography looms large as a sort of paradigm for the life of an artist.
Which is precisely Betjemann’s point. Craft remains outside, constructing a sort of platonic ideal which simply can’t be represented in the text except as a shadow doppelganger of a life fully lived. It’s the paradigm for modern DIY as well– grow your own tomato, make your own bacon, mill your own flour, bake the bread and make the condiments to produce your own BLT and only then will you be the consummate craftsman. The craftsman is involved, if not proficient, in everything.
I suppose Tarule’s book, as well as many others, follow a sort of Cellini model in resurrecting long dead craftsman. In a sense, the internet has created armies of Cellinis. Woodworking forums are filled with tool talk vs. object talk at the ratio of at least 100:1, not to mention digressions into cooking and other crafts at a fairly steady pace. Not much need to talk about the craft itself, because after all you just have to do it rather than represent it. To his credit, Tarule does talk about a single specific object and the construction of it— it is nothing if not object oriented and in that sense deviates from the Cellini model. It’s discussions of tools are only present when they have a direct impact on the object at hand. But hanging over it like a spectre is a sort of idolatry that is all too common. It was just the tone of certainty, built into a narrative of the consummate craftsman at work.
I’m really feeling chafed by this just now. I can’t agree with Orvell that removing the discourse from its context of the objects of craft is a great breakthrough. I think it’s useful in order to see how these discussions are so often derailed in various ways, and for that reason I’m now reading Talking Shop. The objects, and their places in our lives will always be more important than the things we say about them, just as documentary is more useful as a window rather than simply a fiction constructed about people outside our immediate sphere for political reasons.
Of course the window of documentary distorts, just as the narrative we construct about objects distorts.
There is much more to say, of course. But I wanted to get this off my chest. My primary concern isn’t really to classify things as good books or bad books, but rather to cross-connect some significant ideas.
I suppose it goes back to discovering David Pye’s Nature and Art of Workmanship. Pye takes Ruskin to task for idolizing “handwork” without developing a coherent theory of what handwork was. Betjemann’s book begins by examining the spread of Cellini’s “hand” as an object of admiration, and as such feeds into the Arts and Crafts movement. There are some important connections here, but with major differences in emphasis.
Betjemann’s task was to examine language, while Pye was examining workmanship. It really bothers me that the discussion started by Pye seems to have just been derailed and stagnated, buried by the weight of language. Contemporary writers on craft haven’t made much headway into theories of work and workmanship. More worrisome is that they really don’t appear interested in that at all, and would rather perpetuate a pantheon of artistic swashbuckling heroes.
I just finished The Artisan of Ipswich by Robert Tarule, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it. Paul Sellers mentioned it as one of his top ten, and Chris Schwarz has reviewed it postively as well. While it was informative, it just set off a bunch of irritations in me. I’d still recommend it to others, but the writing style just really got on my nerves.
The book begins like a dissertation that’s been converted into a book, full of numbing statistics and details. I really enjoyed that part the most, oddly enough. But compared to say, Tudor Monastery Farm or Tales from the Green Valley, it was dry as toast.
What irritated me most was when it switched into storytelling mode to detail the construction of a particular oak chest. It was a fanciful telling, marred with constant references to what the maker intended and why they made the choices that the did. The switch in tone was abrupt, and just grating. I found myself screaming “You just can’t know that!” or “How dare you use a dead man as a puppet for your own voice!”
I have no doubt of Tarule’s credentials, or his theories regarding the way the artisan worked. I have the greatest admiration for those who work to recover historical working methods. It was simply a “voice” thing. If one builds a historical piece using their technologies, one does not become that person. There are things that a person simply can’t know.
“PHILOSOPHY,” says Hegel, “is utterly useless and fruitless, and, for this very reason, is the sublimest of all pursuits, the most deserving of our attention, and the most worthy of our zeal” — a somewhat Coleridegy assertion, with a rivulet of deep meaning in a meadow of words. It would be wasting time to disentangle the paradox — and the more so as no one will deny that Philosophy has its merits, and is applicable to an infinity of purposes. There is reason, it is said, in the roasting of eggs, and there is philosophy even in furniture — a philosophy nevertheless which seems to be more imperfectly understood by Americans than by any civilized nation upon the face of the earth.
In the internal decoration, if not in the external architecture of their residences, the English are supreme. The Italians have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colours. In France, meliora probant, deteriora sequuntur — the people are too much a race of gadabouts to study and maintain those household proprieties of which, indeed, they have a delicate appreciation, or at least the elements of a proper sense. The Chinese and most of the eastern races have a warm but inappropriate fancy. The Scotch are poor decorists. The Dutch have merely a vague idea that a curtain is not a cabbage. In Spain they are all curtains — a nation of hang men. The Russians no [[do]] not furnish. The Hottentots and Kickapoos are very well in their way. The Yankees alone are preposterous.
I’m continually missing goals, shifting the target, and then trying again. This winter is getting a bit better, but not by much. I wanted to be able to post a newly completed project here at least once a month, but one thing or another always frustrates me. Right now I’m working on a big tool chest (basic anarchist model) and an Enfield Shaker cupboard. Neither project is really going well; nothing fatal but nothing really rewarding yet. I’ve not been able to finish much reading, and of course I haven’t been doing much writing either.
Splitting firewood and cooking occupies most of my time these days. Strange, but that is what it works out to. Maybe there will be something more positive to write tomorrow. I remember how I used to cope with “writer’s block” years ago in Arkansas. I would drive down the street and look around until I saw (or imagined) something worth writing a short blog post about. The key is just to face up to it, and place one word after the other— the only way out is through. Spring always happens eventually.
As for the projects, I go into the shop most every day. And if I fail, I at least try to fail differently than I did the day before.
I first glued up and cut the tops of these tables from a nice wide curly cherry board over a year ago. I cut them to rough size, flattened them, etc. and then started trying to figure out the tapered legs. The legs scared the heck out of me. They are only 1 1/8″ square tapering down to 5/8″ at the foot. It seemed nearly impossible to cut mortises on such a small leg, and to keep them straight and true. I threw up my hands when I got overzealous squaring up the stock I had, reducing it to 1 1/16″. I went in search of more leg stock, both for the first table and for a second one. I must have bought $150 worth of boards that weren’t quite right (or so I thought at the time). I wandered away to work on other projects, over the fear of those tiny legs.
At that time, I hadn’t even visited any Shaker sites, or looked at any of their furniture in person. I picked out these tables, mostly because I needed something that would match the bookstand I built for the guest room (my first bookstand), and they looked very simpatico with the Stickley #72 magazine stand that I finished a bit before starting to work on these. That stand was really a traumatic project, mostly because I tapered the legs before doing the joinery (big mistake). It marked the beginning of my transition into hand tool work. I screwed up at least 4 sets of legs on that one before I got it right, so I was really gun shy. That’s probably why I tabled these tables for so long.
When I resumed, I decided to go ahead and use the 1 1/16″ legs I’d already milled (they’re on the table on the left) and make another set the right size for the second table. After seeing many Shaker tables at Hancock Village, I figured out that minor differences in measurements really don’t matter. If you measure the real pieces there, you’ll find a lot of variation among pieces that look pretty much the same. I also got a lathe for Christmas, so this provided a good opportunity to make knobs, and of course no two of those look exactly the same either. It wasn’t really about “compromising” it was about just relaxing my fears about somehow getting it wrong. It’s about spirit, rather than machining to precise specifications— after all, it’s supposed to be woodworking, not wood-machining.
The other fearful part of this table was making the drawers. I have made many rabbeted drawers before with power tools, but this time I wanted to do hand-cut dovetails like the originals. I’ve done lots of dovetailing before, but not half-blind dovetails. I was worried about the tiny edges splitting out. It turned out to be okay, and though they’re not the best and did involve a few small patches to fill gaps, they do work and they are authentic. Overall, I’m pretty happy with them.
To explain my work for you, I have to build a room for you. A creative room with four walls which represents my boundaries, and actually my greatest freedom. Freedom of expression is not working without limits. Those limits are tools and material but within them I have incredible variety and diversity, and there I can be who I want to be, surolle, the craftsman. My aesthetic expression is formed by these four walls, and now I will describe those four walls. First we have the material wall.
. . . so, as the beat poet Jack Kerouac said, you’ve got to have the right beat to get life, right. Life has to sway and swing and rock and roll and I’m fine with that. It’s a process, you’ve got to have a dialog with the material. When I choose the material for my work wall number two comes in, and that’s tools and tool skills. I just love this surface coming from the cutting tool, a tool inherited for generations, a technique refined for thousands of years, a kind of assembled aesthetic form which is intimately associated with tools and technology.
. . .The third wall is behind me, and that’s tradition. The word sloyd refers to know how to, smart, or do it yourself, DIY and it’s still in our dialect in Västerbotten. It’s the viking age word slög, and it means crafty. But we never say that we are crafty, practical. We always say that we are not unpractical, not uncrafty. . . .And every day I work I am connected with my family’s ten generations of work with wood, furniture and household items and I have a deep respect for their tradition and skills because they knew that they had to live with what they had made for the rest of their lives. This is a sort of responsibility for themselves that they have embedded in the objects they have made., which is about love, about caring to pass on to the next generation.
. . .the three dimensional design was about people. And people, that’s the fourth wall, the folk-art wall. A story about all of you, about the longing, love, desire, incantations, spells and magic which is embedded in the handmade object. . . .So the fourth wall in the creative room is about communication between people, and art and design in traditional crafts is talking directly to the users: Use me, love me, take care of me. Because when I made it, I took care.
We live in a political world
Everything is hers or his
Climb into the frame and shout God’s name
But you’re never sure what it is
I was thinking a day or so ago about some issues that used to be on my mind. I had endless debates with a mentor in photography, Harry Wilson, about the relationship of art and politics. Harry’s work carried with it a degree of political charge, though it wasn’t necessarily jingoistic or even overt. I felt that political posturing is responsible for a lot of bad art. For example, it has taken me decades to warm to Robert Adams. His photographs always reeked with judgment about the man-made landscape, usually making it out to be an entirely negative thing. In contrast, in a more contemporary example, I don’t find that to be true of Edward Burtynsky. He photographs the man-altered landscape as well, and you are free to judge it as beautiful or ugly, necessary or a blight, depending on your own politics.
I’ll never forget a conversation with a director of the Kern County Arts Council around that time, where she related to me (to the best of my recollection) this statement: “I don’t mind politics in art as long as I agree with the politics.” Makes sense, I suppose, but it’s hardly that simple. For example, Harry always loved Les Krims (because of his humor, I think, rather than his conservative politics) while I hated his work. I never cared that much for the contrived. I was interested more in the real world as a thing in itself, rather than judgment of it. When I shifted my emphasis to photography in rhetorical studies, I wasn’t interested in politics for much the same reason. I didn’t want to produce any sort of writing that judged people for their political opinions and/or failings in that regard.
It dawned on me what the central issue for me is. While it’s possible to accept that we live in a political world, everything is not “hers or his.” I reject the idea that people and their relationships are the entire universe. There is a world, surrounding and dominating the political, that is far more interesting than the people who pass through it. People have an impact on it, to be sure, but understanding the world as it is (which includes people but also things) frequently involves agents and forces that are not human. Things matter more than politics, at least in my opinion. When politics distracts us from things, I think politics detracts from a complete understanding of the world.
The usual dodge “everything is political” is simply wrong. No, it isn’t. Everything can be savagely misunderstood and treated as a pawn in the pursuit of the political, but because the world is not merely of the people, by the people, or for the people— it isn’t exclusively or even dominantly political.
The top item was the first object I made on my new lathe that wasn’t a simple dowel. It was quite a learning experience, and I discovered just how hard it is to drill a centered hole in a round object without a large drill press. It’s crooked, which won’t affect it’s use, but still it bothers me. I also forgot to wire brush off the paint on the alignment tool and polish the ferrule that I made from a copper pipe fitting.
The second, lower version is much improved. To do it, I made a screw chuck so that I could use the lathe as a drill press giving me a nearly centered hole. I’ll probably redo the top one at a later date, because I figured out if I had a cone live center I could drill the hole before turning the handle and insure it being perfectly centered. It doesn’t take long to do this stuff, so it’s actually much easier to learn than furniture making. Successive iterations of a project take hours, not days and weeks.
I finally managed to steal enough time to complete my version of the Stickley #79 bookstand. It was a good learning experience and a really solid piece. The bottom shelf is just barely big enough for medium size art books; I’d like to build another bookcase simply for art books now; this one is just a trifle short on the second shelf for that. But what these book stand projects have really been about is exploring joinery.
I opted for pinned through mortises, which made it necessary to make some five inch maple dowels on my new lathe. It was my first turning, so to speak. I really hated trying to make dowels using a dowel plate. I’ve decided that I really don’t like the parts of woodworking that involve forcefully pounding on things. It’s loud and obnoxious.
I didn’t care much for the wedged tenons I used on a little shaker step stool a while back, but I think I’ll revisit those for my next book stand just because they seem to be a really popular contemporary choice. The pinned tenons were a little extreme due to the long dowels, but I had to give it a try at least once. They’d be fine for skirts and other shallower bits, but on shelves it seems like overkill. The center shelf and skirt pieces on this one are doweled with hidden dowels; I’m really comfortable with doing that.
I really enjoyed lining up the figure for the individual parts of this. I think it turned out quite well.