With their bodies

Exhibition notice, Kawai Kanjirō

Exhibition notice, Kawai Kanjirō

We craftsmen, who have been called artist, have the whole world to draw upon for incentive beauty. It is difficult enough to keep one’s head in this maelstrom, to live truly and work sanely without that sustaining and steadying power of tradition, which guided all applied art in the past.

In my own particular case the problem has been conditioned by having been born in China and educated in England. I have for this reason the two extremes of culture to draw upon, and it was this which caused me to to return to Japan, where the synthesis of East and West has gone farthest. Living there among younger men, I have with them learned to press forward in the hope of binding together those elements from the ends of the earth which are now giving form to the art of the coming age.

I may tend to overstress the significance of East and West to one another, yet if we consider how much we owe to the East in the field of ceramics alone, and how recent a thing is Western recognition of the supreme beauty of the work of the early Chinese, perhaps can be forgiven for the sake of the firsthand knowledge which I have been able to gather both of the spirit and the manner in which the work was produced.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book (1940) 16-17

Sometimes it seems as if I haven’t had a good thing to say about Bernard Leach, but in truth his book has provided a lot of interesting food for thought. It’s actually a part of my process; I tend to absolutely hate those things that are the biggest influence on me. There are some interesting moves in Leach’s elaboration of his aesthetic, many of which I can easily see much merit in.

The idea of the “steadying power of tradition,” for example. I firmly believe that we make sense of new technologies, for example, by looking to what is now becoming a “technological tradition.” There are negatives to be sure, in any tradition. For example, I surprised that so few people question the now universally accepted “upgrade cycle” where we dispose of our phones, computers, etc. in favor of new ones. It’s now “traditional” to crave new devices. We make sense of things in terms of the ways that we’ve always done it before.

I realize that’s not what Leach has in mind here. Leach and Yanagi Sōetsu constructed an incredibly dense rhetoric of “tradition” which they together had a special purchase on. Edmund de Waal has been really helpful in sorting that out; he claims that they “anointed” each other:

What is of interest here is that the limits to Leach’s Japanese world, to his ability to speak, read or travel independently, to his knowledge of Japanese pottery traditions themselves, were unknown. Yanagi’s words, with their almost biblical cadences—’He lived among us as one of us’—were read without a clear knowledge of the ‘us’. That Yanagi’s salon, Leach’s Japan, was a small, attenuated group of elite, mostly English-speaking, metropolitan aesthetes was also unknown. As such Leach’s Japan must be seen as a closely mediated one, just as his projection of his Japanese life must be considered with great care.

“Homo Orientalis: Bernard Leach and the Image of the Japanese Craftsman” Journal of Design History 10:4 (1997) p. 356

This seems to be a common problem in writing about craft; there’s almost always a class/cultural disparity where the speaker attempts to establish the worth of what they’re reporting while ignoring their outsider status. In most of the cases I encounter on the cusp between the 19th and 20th century are usually chalked up to the naivete of the researcher/witness to disappearing cultures. It’s not malicious or imperialist except in retrospect, and it’s complicated when someone actually does the work to try to be “authentic.” Edmund de Waal’s observations pretty much get to the heart of it in his discussion of Leach’s teacher in the arts of Japanese ceramics:

But Leach not only employed Kenzan as a teacher, he also used him as a technician. It is ironic that Leach’s grounding in ceramics should have been in that of the most urban, urbane and complex of traditions-for the first Kenzan of 1720 is often referred to as the first-ever artist- craftsman. Irony lies here in that Kenzan was everything that Japanese craftsmen in Leach and Yanagi’s later normative frame of things were  supposed not to be. Kenzan’s ceramics were  jokey, with shapes derived from sources other than pottery: fans, quivers, lacquer boxes. And his ‘amateurism’ was highly self-conscious- living and working in a villa outside Kyoto in a seclusion easily reached by the well-to-do who patronized his work. This image of faux rusticity seems to have passed Leach by. (ibid, 357)

I’m sure that my experience of “swap meet shaker” and other rustic woodworking examples colored, and held me back from really appreciate this sort of “frontier’ crafts as I was growing up. I thought I was far too urbane for that, and threw out the whole rural tradition for that reason. My mistake. It’s also a mistake to throw out the entire of Leach’s aesthetic foundation for his embrace of what wasn’t necessarily “authentic.” Even if his ideas aren’t as “firsthand” as he might have thought, they are still interesting.

The manner, or technique, will be dealt with in the following chapters: hear at the outset I am endeavouring to lay hold of a spirit and a standard that applies to East and West. What we want to know is how to recognize the good or bad qualities of a given pot, and we are at least able to say that one should look first for the nature of the pot and know it for an expression of the potter in the background. He may be an unknown peasant or he may be a Staite Murray. In the former case his period and his culture and his national characteristics will play a more important role than his personality; in the latter, the chances are his personality will predominate. In either case sincerity is what matters, and according to the degree in which the vital force of the potter and that of the culture behind him flow through the processes of the making, the resulting pot will have life in it or not.

A Potter’s Book (1940) 17

Does an artifact reflect it’s maker and his nature and his civilization/culture? I suppose I can accept that without too many reservations. Where I have a problem is with the idea that an aesthete has any special purchase on that. I have no problem thinking that an archaeologist or sociologist might draw relevant conclusions regarding the object and its place in the life of a distant or present culture, but when a person outside a culture attempts to pronounce on the “vital force” that an object might contain, well, I choke on that.

Leach’s invocation of Kawai Kanjirō as a source of a reasoned path for appreciation of pots is fascinating for its embodied approach to aesthetics:

I have often sought for some method of suggesting to people who have not had the experience of making pottery a means of approach to the recognition of what is good, based on common human experience rather than upon aesthetic hairsplitting. A distinguished Japanese potter, Mr. Kawai of Kyoto, when asked how people are to recognize good work, answered simply, ‘With their bodies’; by which he meant, with the mind acting directly through the senses, taking in form, texture, pattern, and colour, and referring the sharp immediate impressions to personal use of use and beauty combined. But as pottery is made for uses with which we are all familiar, the difficulty probably lies in one’s ability to recognize proper adaptation of form to function than in other directions, primarily perhaps in unfamiliarity with the nature of the raw material, clay, and its natural possibilities and limitations, and also in uncertainty as to the more imponderable qualities of vitality and relative excellence of form, both of which are indispensable constituents of beauty. (ibid, 17-18)

The inability to recognize proper adaptation of form to function speaks directly to modernist concerns, but the real tone here is that of an aesthete. While Kawai’s suggestion has a great deal of depth, Leach’s directly turns to a rhetoric of the sublime, asserting the “imponderable qualities of vitality and relative excellence.” If these qualities so imponderable, why does Leach have such confidence, and why are we pondering them? All is not lost; he actually goes somewhere with this:

It must always be remembered that the dissociation of use and beauty is a purely arbitrary thing. It is true that pots exist which are useful and not beautiful, and others that are beautiful and impractical; but neither of these extremes can be considered normal the normal is a balanced combination of the two. Thus in looking for the best approach to pottery it seems reasonable to expect that beauty will emerge from a fusion of the individual character and culture of the potter with nature of his materials—clay, pigment, glaze—and his management of the fire, and that consequently we may hope to find in good pots those innate qualities which we most admire in people. (18)

That’s a pretty powerful observation, in my opinion. We like things made by people for the same reasons  that we like people. 

It is for this reason that I consider the mood, or nature, of a pot to be of the first importance. It represents our instinctive total reaction to either man or pot, and although there is no guarantee our judgment is true for others, it is at least honest and as likely to be true as any judgment we are capable of making at that particular phase of our development. It is far better to run the risk of making an occasional blunder than attempt cold-blooded analyses based upon other people’s theories. Judgment in art cannot be other than intuitive and founded on sense experience, on what Kaway calls ‘the body’. No process of reasoning can substitute for or widen the range of our intuitive knowledge. (18)

This dovetails fairly well with David Pye’s assertion that design sense is founded in experience; intuitive knowledge seems to be grounded in these theories not in some sort of “innate” sense but rather in experience; the more we experience, the more we can understand and judge the qualities of things. This works for me. This final section is uncharacteristically  modest and quite human.

Leach admits, at least in theory, that other people’s (non-blessed) judgements have the merit of being honest.

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Intrinsic Value


The quiet home, with his imaginative father and deeply religious mother, the ancient university at which he passed his most formative years, kept him apart from those freer and less exalted minds who advanced more rationally and patiently to their conclusions. But yet, the spirit of his time awakened within him, as a seed germinates in the warmth ‘of spring.

He apprehended facts which, equally from vehemence of spirit and from lack of specific training, he was unable to state with precision. For him, intuition supplied the place of genuine knowledge, as we may learn from even casual reference to his writings. As an example of his intuitional power in economics, may” be cited a passage of the “Munera Pulveris,” in which he assigns “values” with apparent waywardness. It reads:

“Intrinsic value is the absolute power of anything to support life. A sheaf of wheat of given quality and weight has in it a measurable power of sustaining the substance of the body; a cubic foot of pure air a fixed power of sustaining its warmth; and a cluster of flowers of given beauty, a fixed power of igniting or animating the senses and heart.”

In the old school of economists, such statements could not do otherwise than to excite mirth and contempt; for air and beauty were barred out from the things representing wealth.

Irene Sargent, “John Ruskin: a word regarding his life and public service”, The Craftsman November 1901 p. 3-4

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The Nature & Aesthetics of Design (2)

The Nature & Aesthetics of DesignAs I discussed earlier, aesthetics was added to Pye’s Nature of Design at a later date. That’s a thorny problem, and something that has always puzzled me is: just what makes something beautiful?

I grew up in Southern California, and I was surrounded by industrial design. It resonated with me in a way that flowers, trees, etc., never managed to.

To me, warehouses and refineries, parking lots and shopping malls,  were all beautiful in strange ways— though few people agreed.

This gave me problems as a photographer, growing up in the shadow of the California nature police like Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, et. al.. I just didn’t get it. I remember being so thrilled to see that Edward Weston photographed refineries near where I grew up, as did Horace Bristol.

Bristol is mostly known these days for traveling to the Central Valley taking photographs on the project that became The Grapes of Wrath with John Steinbeck. It’s possible to appreciate industrial beauty and natural beauty; a few people do. But I digress.

To David Pye’s credit (in my opinion) he first describes the aesthetic element as “doing useless work on useful things.” We’re compelled to, and the reason why isn’t as simple as most aesthetes claim, in my opinion. It’s a convergence of forces, social and natural. In the case of practical design, it’s always secondary. So what are the primary elements of design?

Part of what derailed me from continuing to hash through Pye is his first point in his bulleted list of the six requirements of design:

1. It must correctly embody the essential principle of arrangement.

2. The components of the device must be geometrically related—in extent and position—to each other and to the objects in whatever particular ways suit these particular objects and this particular result (Chapter 4).

3. The components must be strong enough to transmit and resist forces as the intended result requires.

4. Access must be provided (this is a special case of 2 above).

These four together will be referred to as the requirements of use.

5. The cost of the result must be acceptable.

This is the requirement for ease and economy.

6. The appearance of the device must be acceptable.

This is the requirement of appearance. (23)

Obviously, there’s a lot here to unpack (a book’s worth, really). Aesthetics comes in dead last in his principles of design, even though it almost seems like it’s first in one respect: Just what is “the essential principle of arrangement”? As far as I can tell, it’s the rhetorical device that Pye uses to avoid saying “function” when referring to useful objects.

One good example of “the principle of arrangement” would be the knife. Knives come in a variety of shapes and sizes and configurations but there is a sort of essential form. Knives have blades that cut, they have handles, they can fold (or not), etc., leaving us with basic forms pretty much unchanged (beyond embellishments and decorations) for centuries. There need not be a platonic ideal form for a knife that we strive for before we can say that knives have essential forms of arrangement. It’s not an aesthetic thing, it’s utilitarian.

The best way justify approaching it this way has to do with the slipperiness of talking about function.  Instead of saying that knives “must fulfill the function of cutting” is that by saying instead, essentially, that a knife must have the potential (in its designed form) for cutting in order to qualify as a well designed knife is that we can’t ever really know what someone will use that knife for.

Perhaps a user will deploy it to pry open paint cans, or turn screws. It may not be well suited for those jobs, but it may be directed towards those ends. Does failing to open the paint can make it  a bad knife? Not really, but since we can’t know for sure that a knife will always be used for cutting we can’t simply assume that it will. For example, a good bush knife might also be used to strike a flint and make sparks; the strength of a thicker blade doesn’t help the knife cut, but it does make it possible to use the knife for other things—even as a pry bar in some cases. It’s impossible to anticipate the entire range of functions that an object might be placed in.

The essential principle of arrangement for knives has evolved and moved through a variety of basic forms each one suited not only to a primary task, but also for secondary purposes which almost form new classes. One example that springs to mind is the butter knife. Is it a knife or a spreader? It doesn’t cut well, really, and yet we do cut with it occasionally and still call it a knife. The categories are hardly static.

Pye’s careful choice of words here is admirable. It makes it hard to parse in some cases, but he has chosen very carefully what he labels as “requirements.” I do wonder if, prior to the revision, he included “the requirement of appearance” at all.

A core choice worth noting: notice that he speaks of a “geometric” relationship between objects rather than any sort of mathematical or axiomatic relation? Think of a pair of scissors; we could specify a specific size or shape for that class of objects, but aren’t scissor’s better described by the geometric relationship between the moving parts? I think that’s just brilliant to say it that way.

I was reminded a few days ago somewhere on the interwebs that the root meaning of “tolerance” when it comes to woodworking is that we tolerate errors of a certain amount because due to shrinking or expanding materials (among other factors) it is impossible to clearly specify exactly what size something is supposed to be. We can, however, insist that for a good design the component parts (a drawer for example) be able to function in a precise geometric relationship with the other parts of a piece. That’s good design.

Pye’s discussion, following his list, doesn’t really address these matters in the same way I have here. To place it in context, the list is introduced following a discussion of the difference between invention and design. For Pye, invention is a concept pretty much culminating in a patent-like description of a potential system. Design, on the other hand, is the embodiment of that concept. Thus, it is required that a design follow the pattern and concept of the patent/description but it can deviate substantially and still fit the need and fulfil the concept.

In discussing the “essential principle of arrangement” of the particular design, Pye chooses instead to talk about the differentiation between the way a designer would approach the “shape” of something compared to a layman. Illustrating several wedge forms, he carefully dissects the idea that there is such a thing as a “wedge shape” because it has so many varied forms that are able to function as wedges; wedging is a function of a shape, not a coherent shape in itself. A wedge can come in many different shapes; it’s not a matter for aesthetics, but rather physics.

The only way of closely defining the kind of arrangement of matter that we call a wedge or a hook would be by referring to the way it transmits forces. A hook will pull. A not-hook won’t pull. Shape, individuality, doesn’t come into it.

Shape, for us, is what gives individuality to things. All of us are extremely expert in recognizing the individual character of shape in closely similar things such as human faces and hands of writing. The individuality of shapes is the stuff of art, whether in design, painting, or in any other field. It is our present concern to find out how far the designer has freedom to give devices a chosen character of appearance, of shape. The essential principle which he must embody in the device he is designing sets limits merely to the extent that if the principle requires ‘a hook’ then not-hooks are excluded. But there is precisely and infinite range of possible shapes for a hook. The limitations on freedom of choice, so far, are nugatory. (24-25)

I think I should start using the term “nugatory” in conversation more. The overall tone and care of David Pye rewards constant reading. In essence, it seems as if he is driven to make it clear that much of what we think of as superfluous in design is actually what design is. It’s about choices, within constraints—and those constraints are a lot less severe than we generally think. We choose pleasing shapes because, well, why wouldn’t we? It’s just natural to make a pleasing choice. That’s where the brutalist machine aesthetics of the early twentieth century seems more like an anomaly than the wave of the future.

Though aesthetics are the last item he lists among the “requirements” it is clear that they can be introduced in many of the choices along the way. The shape of something is its primary ornament, and that ornament is not something that is necessarily “applied” along the way; it can be part of the essential formal arrangement of a thing.

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My own start

Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera had made me think  meanly, if not meanly enough, of the school teaching that had been my work since 1878; and under the same influence of Ruskin’s book I felt that man’s only decent occupation was in handicraft. I shudder yet smile to think now what raw ideas swayed me then; yet the enthusiasm so ill reflected in them were the sweetness of life to me in every disillusionment that was to come. They saved me from the worst sordidness of business. Finishing my school work with the first term of 1884, namely the day before Good Friday, I took four days of rest (I was to have no more vacations for many years) and began work at the shop on Easter Tuesday.

I don’t remember what I did that day; but I do remember the grey and searching east wind that faced me at six o’clock that morning. There was a little over a furlong of street to travel, familiar enough, but I had never before seen it at that early hour.

George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop  (1921) p.12

It’s impossible to open any text concerning craft in the early twentieth century without finding a reference to Ruskin. Ruskin’s ideas on education in Fors Clavigera were a real find; progressive in their day (if not today, in this era of “common core”) and amazingly well thought through in my estimation.

As a writing teacher, I remember the reaction some students would have to my utter lack of grammar instruction; after several courses in linguistics/language I reached the conclusion (as many have) that it was probably the biggest waste of classroom time there is. I felt that the best way to learn writing was through practice, and discovering a good reason to write. Here’s Ruskin’s take, in a dutiful footnote:

I am at total issue with most preceptors as to the use of grammar to any body. In a recent examination of our Coniston school I observed that the thing the children did exactly best, was their parsing, and the thing they did exactly worst, their repetition. Could stronger proof be given that the dissection of a sentence is as bad a way to the understanding of it as the dissection of a beast to the biography of it ?  (255)

Truly fabulous way of putting it, in my estimation: better than Wordsworth’s “murder to dissect,” more pointed and directed to his end.  The shining moments, alluded to by George Sturt, who remembered this book fondly so many years later, include:

And it is in the wholesome indisposition of the average mind for intellectual labour that due provision is made for the quantity of dull work which must be done in stubbing the Thornaby wastes of the world. Modern Utopianism imagines that the world is to be stubbed by steam, and human arms and legs to be eternally idle ; not perceiving that thus it would reduce man to the level of his cattle indeed, who can only graze and gore, but not dig ! It is indeed certain that advancing knowledge will guide us to less painful methods of human toil ; but in the true Utopia, man will rather harness himself, with his oxen, to his plough, than leave the devil to drive it.

The entire body of teaching throughout the series of Fors Clavigera is one steady assertion of the necessity that educated persons should share their thoughts with the uneducated, and take also a certain part in their labours. But there is not a sentence implying that the education of all should be alike, or that there is to be no distinction of master from servant, or of scholar from clown. That education should be open to all, is as certain as that the sky should be ; but, as certainly, it should be enforced on none, and benevolent Nature left to lead her children, whether men or beasts, to take or leave at their pleasure. Bring horse and man to the water, let them drink if, and when, they will ; — the child who desires education will be bettered by it, the child who dislikes it, only disgraced. (258-9)

This is a line of reasoning missed by most utopian theories; people actually would prefer to work rather than be driven by forces outside their control. The idea that utopia is a land where people are couch potatoes, or poets and scholars, well, that’s obviously a fantasy. I do love that phrase that “That education should be open to all, as is certain the sky should be”—but that obviously (at least to Ruskin) doesn’t mean that everyone needs to go to college. There’s a lot of work out there to be done.

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Personality Crisis

New York DollsAnd you’re a prima ballerina on a Spring afternoon
Change on into the wolfman, howlin’ at the moon, hooowww

All about that personality crisis you got it while it was hot
But now frustration and heartache is what you got

Now with all the crossin’ fingers that mother nature says
Your mirrors get jammed up with all your friends

I doubt very much if Bernard Leach would have cared for the New York Dolls. And yet somehow, the conclusion of A Potter’s Book made me think about  “Personality Crisis.”  Civilization’s mirror is indeed jammed up with all our friends:

Personal relationships of a group of individual craftsmen are not easy to resolve. The inability to give and take seems to be more pronounced than in ordinary human contacts. In the East, restraining influences of tradition still enable people to work together as the limbs of a body under the directing mind, with us a more highly developed individualism, nowhere more conspicuous than among artist-craftsmen, tends to create an impatient and critical desire for independence.

Experience prompts me to advise any young potter contemplating sharing a workshop with others to choose untrained local labour. Likely boys learn the jobs quickly, enjoy them, and readily form a permanent team if sensibly handled. An older man, trained in the pre-War Winchcombe Potter making pancheons and flower-pots is an asset, for such men know their locality and set a standard of horse-sense and breadth of treatment necessarily lacking in art students. In many cases the latter are capable of doing excellent work under direction, or as moderately free members of a group which is held together by a living tradition, but it is quite another matter when they cast off their shackles and begin to make shapes and patterns of their own.

They then usually join the ranks of the thousands of indeterminate second-rate artists for which high industrialism is responsible. It stands to reason that only rarely does the work of a student from one of the Schools of Art bear the imprint of a character. It is difficult to advise those whom one feels practically certain will not achieve genuine originality. (257-8)

poindexter_inThe problem, as always, is who gets to say whether a unique moment in the history of craft (such as the New York Dolls) is “genuinely original”? I find it altogether too fitting that David Johansen’s next move was to appropriate a traditional form and re-introduce it.

This reminds me of a strange moment in my own history, during the heyday of Buster Poindexter. My friend Slim was appalled that I wasn’t familiar with the New York Dolls, and made it his mission to introduce me to a lot of the old school punks. We were listening to a Replacements album that I hadn’t heard that he bought me one evening.

The blinds were drawn, and a few minutes in there was a knock on the door. It was the police. They informed me that they were there to search the premises and did not require a warrant because I was currently sheltering a parolee (my first wife’s little sister).

As twenty policemen (I’m not exaggerating) filled my living room, they started looking at my walls and noticed the hundreds of photographs that surrounded them. One asked:

“are you a professional photographer?”

Slim, in his typically punk fashion, replied: “Oh, he’s just a second rater!”

It may sound odd,  but it was the biggest compliment that he could think to give me. I thought he was brilliant, and he was sure that all the best people were “second-rate,” at least when examined by people who were fans of the current popular taste. It became a bit of an inside joke between us; we were the “second raters.”

Bernard Leach, obviously, isn’t using it as a compliment, and doesn’t think the modern “personality crisis” is a good thing either:

In a machine age, artist-craftsmen, working primarily with their hands, represent a natural reaction valid as individual expression, and they should be the source of creative design for mass-production whether they work in conjunction with industry or not. The machine has split the human personality.

It has brought humanity within sight of safety and leisure for the first time in history, but at this moment fear of a universal disaster is upon us all, and the only leisure is of the unemployed and the rich and idle, because we have not learned how to use art, science, leisure, or real wealth. Instead, we increase the tempo of industrial slavery, and, refusing to distribute money equal in value to saleable goods and madly pursuing escapist pleasure, we allow under-consumption to be described as over-production, and as a consequence the sheer technique of living has overwhelmed life itself.

Under such conditions of national life artists and craftsmen are obliged to live and work parasitically or precariously because they have no recognized function. Evidence admitted by observers on all hands points to the end of an age. (258-9)

Herbert Read has a completely different take; he declares that the “humanists” have lost the battle and that the reigns of industrial design belong to a special class of abstract mathematicians, as rare as artists but even more precious. The designer is, according to all accounts at the turn of the twentieth century, something to be severed from the reigns of the average “artist-craftsman.” Even Leach suggests that only a few carefully selected traditions are worth of continuing into a new age.

Whether we shall emerge into a time of plenty and a unification of cultural values after violence, or by slower stages of decay and recrudescence, it is not for me to say. Not improbably those who seek the meaning and beauty of life through art may suffer an eclipse, but meanwhile let us ‘bring out weight and measure in a year of dearth,’ as William Blake urged amidst the blindness and apathy of early industrialism. (259)

I suppose that the New York Dolls/Buster Poindexter moment might be a perfect example of the “decay and recrudescence” that Leach is on about; Poindexter and the resurgence of lounge singers of the old school did indeed happen in the era of post-punk.

The Blake quote is quite interesting. It’s from “the proverbs of hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a series of aphorisms where only about half of them can be considered as useful: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” is another one. Really? Sounds like something Satan might say, which is of course what Blake was on about. It’s hard to tell the devils from the gods, really. Not exactly a set of prescriptions for the good life.

Bringing out “weight and measure in a year of dearth” would have been precisely the wrong move in reaction to the punk rock movement; some of the most raucous voices in the punk movement also turned out to be the most eloquent. Another “proverb from hell” springs to mind as I read Leach: “The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.”

Isn’t it ironic? And not in Alanis Morrisette’s usage. Leach’s personality crisis doesn’t seem as useful as David Johansen’s. Perhaps, like Rev. Dr. Trusler, he’s fallen out with the spirit world.



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Researching Ruskin

I’ve been researching the foundations of Arts and Crafts as a social movement off and on for over a decade now; a decade ago I didn’t even have that label to place on it. At the center, for most people, is John Ruskin. The problem is that I find Ruskin to be deadly dull. This year I figured out that William Morris wasn’t dull; I also realized that Thomas Carlyle also factors into this train of thought and I never found him dull either. Why does Ruskin bore me so? I still can’t answer that question. I can handle his thought when traced to other people, but by itself my eyes just glaze over.

I reached a bit of an epiphany the other day on one part of these questions—why is feudal art the golden age for these people, starting with Ruskin? It dawned on me that it could likely be a symptom of the anxiety over democracy and rule by the rabble which flows from Carlyle forward. The guild system is a system of maintaining authority over the production of goods. The “master” craftsman directs the workers under him in a system that makes sense to these aristocrats in a way that laissez faire capitalism or democracy doesn’t. It answers the anxiety without (in their opinion at least) resort to despotism.

That makes for a really easy  connection in the early twentieth century with nationalism and all its calls to authority, making  “culture” the central arbiter of quality in goods. For all its populism, it is fear of the crowd that drives these movements. Further, rebellion against “culture” by the modernists results in exchanging the aesthetes for technocrats/engineers/designers thus cloaking the “management” of the population by an  oligarchy instead of taste-mongers and power brokers. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

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Merton Abbey


The Pond at Merton Abbey by Lexden Lewis Pocock

Because his Queen’s Square workshops proved too small to weave carpets or dye textiles, in 1882 Morris consolidated all production processes, except furniture, at a new workshop about an hour away from London. Merton Abbey seemed a dream factory. About one hundred people labored there; a few were day workers, but most worked by the piece under special foremen for each branch of manufacturing: glass, dying, printing, and weaving. Set within a garden, “the low long buildings with the clear rushing little stream running between them, and the wooden outside staircases leading to their upper story, have nothing about them to suggest the modern factory,” J.M. MacKail, Morris’s biographer, remembered in 1899. “Even upon the great sunk dye-vats the sun flickers through leaves, and trout leap outside the windows of the long cheerful  room where the carpet-looms are built.” Business manager George Wardle recalled,” . . . it was altogether delightful. We had a spacious ground floor, well lighted, for the carpet looms, and, over it a ‘shop’ for the block printers.” Morris kept a personal studio and bedroom at the factory.

Many employees worshiped Morris. “One and all his workmen live back in the ‘good old days,’ as they call them.” reported the American designer Ernest Batchelder in 1905. One hardly has to ask why. Dressed in a workman’s blouse, his hands stained by dye, Morris shared the labor and understood the work culture of his men. He conscientiously strove to build into the work as much room for individual expression as compatible with aesthetic quality. Although he was able to affect “the more artistic side of the work,” like free-hand pattern copying, Morris felt that he “could not do anything (0r at least but a little) to give this pleasure to the workman, because I should have to change their methods of work so utterly that I should have disqualified them from earning their living elsewhere.” Such concern developed as much from working with employees on the same tasks as it stemmed from being a benevolent employer. Morris’s enthusiasm stirred his subordinates; later his sense of justice and socialist zeal would cement lasting bonds between them.

Eileen Borris, Art and Labor, (doctoral diss, June 1981) p. 26-27

The contrast between William Morris and Josiah Wedgwood couldn’t be greater. Interesting that Herbert Read fails to comment on Morris’s appropriation of useful factory labor practices (including using foremen, as initiated by Wedgwood) while grudgingly avoiding the same sort of specialization in the lines that might hamper the future employment potential of his workers. Wedgwood thought nothing of fractioning things out into specialized tasks that would quickly be rendered obsolete by changes of taste.

I must say that I am quite taken by Morris’s pragmatic approach. He may have idolized the feudal labor system, but he did not seek to recreate it in the capitalist world of modern business. He simply tried to use what he could of the existing system while preserving age-old techniques and practices. Hardly a “dilettante” in my estimation.

Read’s summary of the differences between the two approaches, it seems to me, couldn’t get much further from the truth:

It will be seen that Morris’s attitude was the inverse of Wedgwood’s. Wedgwood was the industrialist who thought art was something external which he could import and use; Morris was the artist who thought of industry as something inconsistent with art, which must therefore be abandoned or abolished. Of the two attitudes, Wedgwood’s is much the simpler—indeed, it is naive, Morris’s attitude is complicated by ethical concerns which most of us find sympathetic. (Art and Industry, 31-32)

Read suggests that the way to address Morris’s concern over the welfare of workers is to simply grant that industrial practices are better at providing “the means of life” while artistic practices furnish “the ends of life.” This rings hollow to me; to have a world where workers are berated and devalued, but allowed to go home to nicely appointed industrial cubicles to do their handicrafts denies the fact that people do indeed want to work, and work at rewarding occupations.

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Reading Josiah Wedgwood

rawlings-walter-statue-of-josiah-wedgwood-stoke-on-trent-staffordshire-england-united-kingdomOne of the most easily predictable things about late nineteenth/early twentieth century writing is the consistent call to dead white men for authority.

In Herbert Read’s case, the two major figures he summons are Josiah Wedgwood and William Morris. Morris, I have some familiarity with; Wedgwood was more of a mystery to me so I did a little research.

After flirting with Bernard Leach a bit, it’s fun to visit another potter. I found it intriguing that Wedgwood and Leach actually have some overlap in their attitudes toward labor. I’ll return to that later.

The epigraph that opens Part 1 of Art and Industry is from Lewis Mumford’s Art and Technics, which claims that in order to become more “profoundly human” we must learn the lessons of the machine; Wedgwood fits nicely into this, as he apparently brought the factory approach to the problem of supplying pots to a nation. The lessons of the machine that Mumford identifies are objectivity, impersonality, and neutrality. I begin to get suspicious any time the word “neutrality” is invoked.

What’s also curious to me is the way that Read refers to holistic aesthetic sources, such as Walter Pater, while attempting to divide and conquer the problems of aesthetics. Read fashions a history in which “cabinet painting” is evolved from book illustration; at one time pictures of patrons were woven into illuminated books, and eventually these portraits were separated from their (implied) public use to create a private genre. He suggests that it’s a case of the aesthetic being separated from it’s applied, holistic function in a useful object (the book). That stretches credibility for me, because it seems to me that wall painting precedes book illustration in human history, but that’s a qibble.

I think it’s a much bigger leap to suppose that aesthetic appeal can be divided into three categories:

  1. formal elements of dimension and proportion which have a direct sensory appeal;
  2. elements of emotional or intellectual expression which may be combined with the formal elements;
  3. elements of an intuitive or subconscious nature. (14)

Further, Read asserts that the elements that are not “humanistic” are then labeled abstract. Looking at this list, unless we’re opening up sensory appeal to the animal kingdom, all of these elements (as listed) are humanistic. Alternatives to “abstract” read lists as “nonfigurative,” “nonpictorial,” “nonrepresentational,” etc., which to me also read as human in a very direct sense. Later, he defines form as simply “shape.” which is indeed not necessarily humanistic. This is easier to abide by.

Turning from this naturally into proportion, Read assumes that mathematical proportions have a strong relationship with aesthetics, turning to the usual “golden section” argument, which is a historically mathematical concern rather than an aesthetic one. Of course, he is aware of the limitations citing Ruskin: “All beautiful lines are drawn under mathematical laws organically transgressed” (18). He also cites Freud’s notion of the subconscious, returning full circle to what appears to me to be a humanistic concern:

I do not raise these problems to present a solution; I merely wish to suggest that the question of form in art—even in industrial art—is not a simple one. It cannot be solved by a rule of thumb. If the Golden Section or some other canon of proportion were made compulsory for all industrial design, I have no doubt that the whole standard of production would be improved; but only at the cost of a profounder and more essential vitality. (20)

All proposed divisions aside, Read accepts that there is an “intuitive” side to art (but oddly, not a cultural one) that must be dealt with. Read pivots to the subject of ornament (or decoration) offering a distinctly Western upper class take on the subject:

At present, all I wish to insist on is that the instinct is not essentially aesthetic. All ornament should be treated as suspect. I feel that a really civilized person would as soon tattoo his body as cover the form of a good work of art with meaningless ornament. The only real justification for ornament is that it should in some way emphasize form. I avoid the word “enhance” because if form is adequate, it cannot be enhanced. (23)

It is to this end, and to address the issue of “decoration” that he summons Josiah Wedgwood and William Morris. The adulation of Wedgwood is palpable:

It would help at this point to consider two historical attempts to solve our problem. One comes right at the beginning of the industrial age, and is so interesting and instructive that it would merit a separate and exhaustive examination. All the problems that confront us now were obvious to Josiah Wedgwood, one of the greatest of industrial genuses, a man who in his own lifetime converted a peasant craft into an industrial manufacture, a man who, in whatever sphere he had applied his gifts for organization and rationalization, would have effected a revolution. (23-4)

Before Wedgwood, apparently, pottery was not worthy of notice, “a cult of few dilettanti” (24). The word choice is telling, because it shows up in Read’s description of William Morris. In fact, he can’t even stop talking about Wedgwood when he turns to Morris:

The case of William Morris, a century later, is equally instructive. He differed from Wedgwood in not being born to a trade. Wedgwood’s reforms sprang from an internal necessity of the time and the craft. Morris was external, dilettante. (29)

My jaw just dropped when I read that. There are many words that I might choose to describe Morris, but dilettante certainly isn’t one of them. Yes, he’s the son of a stockbroker. But even David Pye agrees that even an amateur (and Morris wasn’t even that) isn’t necessarily a bad craftsman. The more I read about Wedgwood, the more it seems like Read was willing to overlook what he would consider as grave sins (the division of form from ornament, for example) to adore his capitalist hero.

One of the primary themes of Read’s book is to argue against the separation of aesthetic qualities as separate from (0r applied to) products, and yet that is precisely what Wedgwood’s big innovation actually was. He had separate production lines for aesthetic or “art” pieces and “useful” articles. Read acknowledges this, claiming that while the “artistic” items were of little or no merit, his useful pieces were among the best ever made and destined to be emulated. It is primarily Wedgwood’s embrace of modern industrial labor practices and improved tooling that Read admires, feeling that it delivered quality products to the reach of more households than ever before, a problem that Morris simply didn’t address.

Morris actually did set up a working factory and embraced technologies that would improve the quality of his output, but that’s a subject for another piece. What I’d like to look at here instead is Wedgwoods employment practices and his contribution to the labor problems of the Industrial Revolution.

His designs aimed at a conveyor belt progress through the works: the kiln room succeeded the painting room, the account room the kiln room, and the ware room the account room, so that there was a smooth progression from the ware being painted, to being fired, to being entered into the books, to being stored. Yet each process remained quite separate.

He organized his men on the same basis, for he believed that ‘the same hands cannot make fine, & coarse-expensive & cheap articles so as to turn to any good account to the Master’. The ‘fine figure Painters are another ord(e)r of beings’ compared with the common ‘flower painters’  and must be treated accordingly—paid higher wages, set to work in a different workshop, and encouraged to specialize. His workmen were not allowed to wander at will from one task to another as the workmen did in the pre-Wedgwood potteries. They were trained to one particular task and they had to stick to it. Wedgwood felt that this was the only way to improve the quality of the ware-‘ We are preparing some hands to work at red & black… (ware)… constantly & then we shall make them good, there is no such thing as making now & then a few of any artcicle to have them tolerable.’

Neil McKendrick, “Josiah Wedgwood and Factory Discipline,” The Historical Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1961)

In essence, this is the Henry Ford assembly line operating in the late 18th century. He’s credited with inventing the time clock by instituting the ringing of a bell to mark work periods, etc, as well as conveyor systems. Like Ford, Wedgwood was concerned with behavioral engineering of his workers:

Wedgwood had not only to train a new generation of skilled potters, he had also to mould these workers to the needs of his factory system. It was not an easy task, for he had centuries of local tradition to oppose him. The potters had enjoyed their independence too long to take kindly to the rules which Wedgwood attempted to enforce-the punctuality, the constant attendance, the fixed hours, the scrupulous standards of care and cleanliness, the avoidance of waste, the ban on drinking. They did not surrender easily. The stoppages for a wake or a fair or a three-day drinking spree were an accepted part of the potter’s life-and they proved the most difficult to up- root. When they did work, they worked by rule of thumb; their methods of production were careless and uneconomical; and their working arrangements arbitrary, slipshod and unscientific. For they regarded the dirt, the inefficiency and the inevitable waste, which their methods involved, as the natural companions to pot-making. (ibid)

And of course, he ruled his factory with an iron fist:

There can be little doubt of his authority. The impact on his workmen of his almost brutal face-stern even when composed by a Hackwood or portrayed by the grace of a Reynolds-was clear even to himself: ‘my name has been made such a scarecrow to them, that the poor fellows are frighten’d out of their wits when they hear of Mr W. coming to town, & I perceive upon our first meeting they look as if they saw the D(evi)l ‘.His discipline was not, of course, universally accepted. Some found an irresistible challenge in the figure of Josiah. Like many men with powerful temperaments he evoked rebellion in the fractious. Like young bulls in the herd some of them had to try their strength against the old patriarch. Few came out of the contest well. There were a succession of such men-leaders of pay demands, subordinates with their own methods. But they were quelled and if not quelled, replaced. (ibid)

This is Herbert Read’s hero. A man who did everything possible to scare the humanity out of his workers and create an environment where men might be interchangeable like machine parts. However admirable the products might be, the process is something I find terribly abhorrent. For the modernists, the trains must run on time and with a profit.

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Art and Industry

Art and IndustryI wasn’t able to locate any decent scans of the 1961 American edition of Herbert Read’s book online, so I must apologize for the terrible snap of the cover. It’s interesting to me that the design of the book is as much a matter of discussion as its contents.

First published in 1934, it seems to be a point of convergence for several other theorists of design. I can’t recall exactly where I first encountered it, but I seem to remember it was a contemporary wood turner who suggested it as a major influence. It marks a pivot into an “abstract” conception of design in the twentieth century.

The Journal of Design History published an interesting article in its inaugural issue in 1988, focused as much on the design of the book itself as its influence. It was controversial from the start, and that’s why it’s covers were subject to so many redesigns.

Read’s introduction to the 1961 American edition asserts that his project isn’t bound by nationalist boundaries, and remarks that this edition has been augmented with a representative selection of recent American products.

It was my intention from the very beginning, however, to survey industrial design on a world-wide basis. From time to time the standard of design in one country may be leading the world, but there are no specifically national trends in industrial art; the same means of production prevail everywhere, and the general principles which I have tried to establish in this book are of universal application. (x)

Read’s book is useful to me on several levels, not the least because it offers a glimpse into the evolution of British thinking in industrial design in the early twentieth century; that’s his real point of reference. But to assert that he was aiming at something that wasn’t culture bound is significant given the explosion of nationalism across the thirties elsewhere. The great leveler, for Read, was the machine. He saw most of the aftermath of the arts and crafts movement as anti-machine, and his treatment of William Morris in particular is skewed and hardly accurate. In fact, it seems like my main project these days is collecting misreadings of William Morris.


But there’s a lot more to the book than that. It opens with an epigram from Frank Lloyd Wright about the birth of a new machine age, and proceeds to offer the justification of a new machine aesthetic from the perspective of an art historian.

The series of problems addressed by Read stem from the central questions “what is art?” and “can machines produce art?”.

The answer to the first question is a manifesto for new privileges to be afforded to abstract, non-figural or utilitarian, art.

The second is of course a resounding “yes” followed by an attempt at outlining a new sort of machine aesthetics.

These questions, with the onset of artificial intelligence these days, take on a new sort of relevance beyond the dehumanizing impact of machine production. The question now is almost evolving into “can machines be creative?” It’s the universality and omnipresence of machines that renders nationalistic concerns obsolete, Read argues; the real problem is not to adapt machine production to the aesthetic standards of handicraft, but to think out new aesthetic standards for new methods of production:

In other words, what is required as a preliminary to any practical solution of the division existing between art and industry is a clear understanding not only of the processes of modern production, but also the nature of art. Not until we have reduced the work of art to its essentials, stripped it of all the irrelevancies imposed on it  by a particular culture or civilization, can we any solution of the problem. The first step, therefore, is to define art; the second is to estimate the capacity of the machine to produce works of art. (xi-xii)

1944This is a direct jab, it seems to me, at the folk revival. Age old craft traditions become, in Herbert Read’s estimation, irrelevancies.

Needless to say, I have a lot of problems sorting out my feelings about this book. I am not a big fan of abstract art, or formalisms of most sorts. This is the root of Read’s approach, really.

What are the formal aspects of design and how might machines best be deployed to push these forms into the hands of the masses?

I give him major credit for actually addressing the problem of getting better quality products into the hands of the mass of humanity, but it seems like throwing out the baby with the bath water to demand that we surrender our deeply rooted cultural preferences to do so; this is to me modernism at its most heinous and reprehensible.

If we reject the aesthetic faith of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Ruskin, Morris, the Royal Academy, the Royal College of Art, and fifty-eight thousand deluded art students, and turn to the work of a few practical engineers and technical designers, it will be said that work so unconscious of aesthetic purpose cannot for a moment be compared with craftsmanship based on the tradition of five centuries. It will be seen that in the first place I question the accepted interpretation of this tradition; that I distinguish sharply between humanistic and formal elements in such art; and that then I would seem to reject the whole humanistic tradition, at least in so far as it concerns objects of use. (xiv)

The introduction is nothing if not polemic:

These false ideals are for the most part fostered by our academies, institutes, and schools of art. I am almost forced to the conclusion, when I came to consider the problem of education in this book, that on the whole we should benefit from the total abolition of all academic instruction in art; that the only necessary instruction is technical instruction, out of which practical questions of design automatically arise. (xv)

In short, you couldn’t find a better opposite to Jerome Segal’s position on education. It also mirrors William Morris’s desire that the arts themselves be left to rot with so much crap being foisted on the world.


Of course, Herbert Read is an anarchist rather than a socialist. This sort of railing against institutions is to be expected.

The first thing I would like to see in a book that celebrates a machine aesthetic is a clear definition of exactly what constitutes “machine” tools as opposed to basic hand tools. I’m not sure Read really accomplishes that.

However, he does at least a sensitivity to the problem the lack of a real definition might entail. The way the question is framed does call for a redefinition of “art”.

By the machine we mean an instrument of mass production. In a sense, every tool is a machine—the hammer, the ax, and the chisel. And every machine is a tool. The real distinction is between one man using a tool with his hands and producing an object that shows at every stage the direction of his will and the impression of his personality; and a machine which is producing, without the intervention of a particular man, objects of a uniformity and precision that show no individual variation and have no personal charm. The problem is to decide whether the objects of machine production can possess the essential qualities of art. (3-4)

The distinctions here are finely honed. Art, then, cannot be exclusively individual or even cultural. It cannot arise from a lack of uniformity (individualism) or error (imprecision). If this were true, machine products would be automatically excluded and the discussion would end here. Art must be an abstract concept that is adrift from the vagaries of culture and historical moment. This reminds me greatly of the high modernism of T.S. Eliot, and leaves me just as cold.

I suppose the one door left open to human influence in this formula is that of the designer/engineer, who would reign supreme over the machine products. Rather than Percy Shelley’s construction of the poet as the unacknowledged legislators of the world, in Read’s world view it’s the designer/engineer that rules the world, at least when it comes to “objects of use.”

Aside: One my weird personal “eureka” moments in the last few years was coming to grips with the natural qualities of eggs. The “white vs. brown” debate waged between me and my wife was actually more about the regularity of white “factory” produced eggs. I grew up with this uniformity, and preferred it to the many shades of brown. When we started buying our eggs from local producers, I discovered that there is no “natural” size, let alone color,  for an egg. They’re all different and never uniform unless they’ve gone through a machine sorting procedure. It took some getting used to, but I have to say I prefer it when all my eggs look different. Uniformity is not only boring, it’s stifling and unnatural when it comes to these common “objects of use.” Eggs are, as it has been described to me, roughly the same color as the chickens they come out of. Who wants all the chickens to be the same color? Not me.

1956The anecdote that opens the discussion in Art and Industry is a tantalizing one regarding the foundation of the National Gallery in 1832. It seems that even then, the UK felt inferior aesthetically while superior in engineering.

British manufacturing, though the envy of the world, could not keep pace with the consumer demand for pleasing products from the rest of the globe.

They were not, to put it bluntly “to the taste” of the buying public.

It was assumed that if a museum was funded and filled with representative art from around the world, the UK might improve its products by the imitation of more “artistic” designs:

“Lord Ashley observed, that the patronage of works of science and art, such as the calculating machine of Mr. Babbage, had collateral advantages. Some improvements in machinery had lately taken place in Glasgow from the contemplation of that machine. He considered that the erection of a gallery would be extremely beneficial for artists and mechanics to resort to, and he had reason for believing that it would be frequented by the industrious classes, instead of resorting to the alehouses, as at present. (6)

This of course also sets up the precedent of founding committees, setting up programs to educate the consumer regarding what products they should buy, etc. which continued long into the 20th century. What read points out here though of great value is that that this also set the precedent for thinking of art as something external to engineering and manufacturing, something to indeed be “applied” to an industrial product. The distinction between fine and “applied’ arts was born.

1965Which brings me back full circle to the matter of the design of the book and the article I mentioned at the onset of this discussion.

It seems as if the controversy engaged by the book, the matter of the “humanist” tradition vs. the machine age, raged on even in this books design.

It wasn’t designed to look like other books, and yet book designers couldn’t resist trying to make it conform to existing traditions in publishing.

Robin Kinross explains:

In devising this thesis, Read provided the British design movement with a theory of mixed benefits. The book was welcomed as a work of substance, with intellectual credentials: something that had been previously lacking in the British discussion of design under industrial conditions. The book did also present the vision of Central European modernism more clearly and with less dilution than any other published discussion had so far done. Here the book’s own design played its part.

In breaking with British traditional book design Art and Industry offered a provocation. Those critics who were most enthusiastic in praise of its qualities as a written discussion were also strongest in their disapproval of its material embodiment. Such a book was not self-effacing: the reader’s progress was impeded. These objections are the familiar refrains of British design: what is wanted is something that does the job, without formal indulgence. And the rejection of the book’s design seems particularly indicative of the literariness of British design circles: modernism as described in words, or even as embodied in certain objects, might be endorsed, but the form of books was established and inviolate.

When the book came to be revised for a new edition, it was returned—under the exigencies of war economies—to the conventions of British book production. And by then the formal radicalism that had been briefly smuggled into the country in the mid-193os (one thinks also of the Lawn Road flats and a few other icons) had been suppressed or left stranded.

(“Herbert Read’s “Art and Industry”: A History,”The Journal of Design History, p.48)

People won’t let go of humanistic traditions easily, even if they can handle the “idea” of it. The reality is really another matter entirely. I’ll revisit this book again, to get back to the misreading of William Morris. I fear I’ve already stretched attention spans too far.

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Graceful SimplicityOne of the weird ways that I deal with complex ideas is by reading multiple books simultaneously. When I find intertextual references that are unfamiliar, I have a huge compulsion to track them down.

In Segal’s  “interlude” chapter separating his discussion of a politics of simplicity and his discussion of philosophy, there are many.

In the prior chapter, Segal suggests that education in the liberal arts be given priority over math science (STEM) education. Funny, but in the decades since this book, no one has taken him up on that.

I realize that this is a popular press title, but the lack of rigor in his citations is a bit disturbing to this reader, who is indeed a qualified liberal arts graduate. He has big habit of citing texts within texts rather than the primary texts themselves; and relying on the secondary text’s reading as his guide for interpretation.

I wasn’t familiar with the Satire on Trades (called The Instruction of Duauf by Segal). It’s a Middle Kingdom Egyptian exercise that’ I’m shocked doesn’t crop up in writing studies literature more. It may be that there are too many variant copies of this thing to make clear readings possible. Disturbingly,  Segal doesn’t treat it as a satire, but rather unironically as a polemic regarding the superiority of books/writing to trade occupations.

Segal seems to believe that rather than pursuing competitiveness in science and engineering, we’d be better off with more philosophers and literature students. That’s a tough sell in any decade, especially when you misread your own evidence.

Reaching back to 2,000 BCE to find the attitude towards “books” that you’re selling is less compelling when that attitude is found in an exercise slavishly copied by students to please their teachers. Segal asserts: “It is this writing of Duauf himself that, for us, is the book that opens up the inner world of ordinary people at the time of the Pharaohs, opens up their beauty, their love, and their anxieties” (123). As a former writing teacher, you’ll have to imagine the smirk on my face when I read that.

I must admit, the text is a hoot. It’s pretty much a “don’t be a fool, stay in school” screed from antiquity. It shows up retold 200 BC in the book of Sirach, and one interpretation I read postulated that it was just one of many examples of a text reflecting an anxiety towards the manual trades in ancient Egypt, a representative of a “genre” as much as a glimpse into anyone’s “inner world.”  The fear of craftsmen and manual laborers is also present in the literature of ancient Greece, and I’ve been collecting examples for a while. Outright hostility towards artisans seems to be the rule of the ancient world, but this is more my research project than Segal’s.

Segal simply summons this parable as defence of the liberal arts model before launching into a discussion of “golden age” rhetorics and ideas of progress, an important component of any sort of philosophy of “graceful simplicity.” The ideas are fairly easy to accept and array in bullet points (I’ll spare you).

I was impressed to find that Thucydides tells of a transition from a subsistence economy in Hellas into a trading economy, framed as “progress.” I haven’t taken the time to track down Segal’s assertion that Thucydides embeds in his tales of “progress” a narrative of improvements in technology and custom to drive these changes. What I do want to delve into though, is his treatment of Seneca and the Stoics.

It took me to figure out where he was getting his text. Segal’s citation of Seneca comes from a reader on the idea of progress, copyright 1949. There is no other identifier of the source text or identification beyond the compilation. I finally identified the portion that most interested me as Seneca’s Moral letters to Lucilius/Letter 90.

Segal is interested in Seneca because “What distinguishes Seneca’s vision is that , unlike the seventeenth and eighteenth-century apostles of progress, in Seneca, and in the intervening centuries, there is no broad assumption that progress with respect to knowledge means in increase in human virtue, well-being, or happiness” (130). Citing the letter 90, Segal attempts to make the same tension I marked earlier, the separation of educated people from artisans, into something that is a completely different issue:

Here, 2,ooo years ago we have the link being made between a doctrine of progress and a philosophy of simple living. With progress in ingenuity, that is, technology, we have a variety of new products and processes. We have apartment houses and architects and aquaculture! Invention, mechanical skill, ingenuity, labor, or, to call it what it is: economic growth. All of this emerges from human vice and foolishness. Before such luxury we were free and there was little need for labor. The path of wisdom and happiness lay elsewhere. (131-2)

Seneca’s epistle is deliciously complex, ambiguous, and nuanced. It’s not at all about “economic growth,” it’s about the role of philosophia (wisdom) in human affairs. Yes, Seneca works at length to separate wisdom from ingenuity—but it comes across to me more as wanting to deny the artisan any purchase on wisdom. The foil for the letter, Posidonius, has proposed that wise men were responsible for the improvements brought about by craft/technology, either by teaching artisans or inventing the tools; Seneca argues that these developments are not improvements, simply examples of ingenuity that man has no need of. Wisdom is another matter entirely and has nothing to do with craft.

That’s fascinating to me, much more so than Segal’s argument. I’d like to examine this letter in some detail:

Accordingly, in that age which is maintained to be the golden age, Posidonius holds that the government was under the jurisdiction of the wise. They kept their hands under control, and protected the weaker from the stronger. They gave advice, both to do and not to do; they showed what was useful and what was useless. Their forethought provided that their subjects should lack nothing; their bravery warded off dangers; their kindness enriched and adorned their subjects. For them ruling was a service, not an exercise of royalty. No ruler tried his power against those to whom he owed the beginnings of his power; and no one had the inclination, or the excuse, to do wrong, since the ruler ruled well and the subject obeyed well, and the king could utter no greater threat against disobedient subjects than that they should depart from the kingdom.

In a sense, it seems as if that in this version of the golden age (a common mythos) that the “superior” wise men/kings ruled over the weaker/dumber/cowardly folks telling them what crafts and technologies were worthy of perpetuating, making for an ideal society where everyone has plenty and the worst punishment is simply to vote the offender off the island of perfect living. Seneca can go along with this, but he just can’t abide by the part where “they showed what was useful and what was useless” to the artisans, or addressed any other mundane concerns:

Up to this point I agree with Posidonius; but that philosophy discovered the arts of which life makes use in its daily round I refuse to admit. Nor will I ascribe to it an artisan’s glory. Posidonius says: “When men were scattered over the earth, protected by eaves or by the dug-out shelter of a cliff or by the trunk of a hollow tree, it was philosophy that taught them to build houses.” But I, for my part, do not hold that philosophy devised these shrewdly-contrived dwellings of ours which rise story upon story, where city crowds against city, any more than that she invented the fish-preserves, which are enclosed for the purpose of saving men’s gluttony from having to run the risk of storms, and in order that, no matter how wildly the sea is raging, luxury may have its safe harbours in which to fatten fancy breeds of fish.

It seems to be Seneca’s position that nature provides adequately for everyone without the interference of man. That the strong should rule over the weak, no problem. Who needs houses or delicious food though? These things are luxuries:

What! Was it philosophy that taught the use of keys and bolts? Nay, what was that except giving a hint to avarice? Was it philosophy that erected all these towering tenements, so dangerous to the persons who dwell in them? Was it not enough for man to provide himself a roof of any chance covering, and to contrive for himself some natural retreat without the help of art and without trouble? Believe me, that was a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders!

Apparently, sleeping on rocks under trees was just fine as far as the Stoics were concerned.

All this sort of thing was born when luxury was being born, – this matter of cutting timbers square and cleaving a beam with unerring hand as the saw made its way over the marked-out line.

The primal man with wedges split his wood.

For they were not preparing a roof for a future banquet-ball; for no such use did they carry the pine trees or the firs along the trembling streets with a long row of drays – merely to fasten thereon panelled ceilings heavy with gold. Forked poles erected at either end propped up their houses. With close-packed branches and with leaves heaped up and laid sloping they contrived a drainage for even the heaviest rains. Beneath such dwellings, they lived, but they lived in peace. A thatched roof once covered free men; under marble and gold dwells slavery.

Civilization, as we know it at least—not simply economic surplus—was what Seneca seems to be railing against here. It’s not just these opulent buildings, but buildings in general that he’s against. And as for technology, well:

On another point also I differ from Posidonius, when he holds that mechanical tools were the invention of wise men. For on that basis one might maintain that those were wise who taught the arts

Of setting traps for game, and liming twigs

For birds, and girdling mighty woods with dogs.

It was man’s ingenuity, not his wisdom, that discovered all these devices. And I also differ from him when he says that wise men discovered our mines of iron and copper, “when the earth, scorched by forest fires, melted the veins of ore which lay near the surface and caused the metal to gush forth.” Nay, the sort of men who discover such things are the sort of men who are busied with them. Nor do I consider this question so subtle as Posidonius thinks, namely, whether the hammer or the tongs came first into use. They were both invented by some man whose mind was nimble and keen, but not great or exalted; and the same holds true of any other discovery which can only be made by means of a bent body and of a mind whose gaze is upon the ground.

The real anti-artisan attitude shines here.

How, I ask, can you consistently admire both Diogenes and Daedalus? Which of these two seems to you a wise man – the one who devised the saw, or the one who, on seeing a boy drink water from the hollow of his hand, forthwith took his cup from his wallet and broke it, upbraiding himself with these words:  “Fool that I am, to have been carrying superfluous baggage all this time!” and then curled himself up in his tub and lay down to sleep?

Real men don’t need no stinking cups! That’s the Stoic attitude at least. Of course, having found this passage I then had to look up the story of the invention of the saw. It’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book VIII: 236-239

As he was consigning his unfortunate son to the grave, a noisy partridge poked its head out from a muddy ditch, and, called, cackling joyfully, with whirring wings. It was the only one of its kind, not seen in previous years, and only recently made a bird, as a lasting reproach to you, Daedalus. Your sister, Perdix, oblivious to the fates, sent you her son, Talus, to be taught: twelve years old, his mind ready for knowledge. Indeed, the child, studying the spine of a fish, took it as a model, and cut continuous teeth out of sharp metal, inventing the use of the saw. He was also the first to pivot two iron arms on a pin, so that, with the arms at a set distance, one part could be fixed, and the other sweep out a circle. Daedalus was jealous, and hurled the boy headlong from Minerva’s sacred citadel, claiming that he had fallen. But Pallas Minerva, who favours those with quick minds, caught him, and turned him into the partridge, masking him with feathers in mid-air. His inborn energy was transferred to swift wings and feet, and he kept his mother’s name, Perdix, from before. But the bird does not perch above the ground, and does not make its nest on branches or on high points, but flies low on whirring wings over the soil, and lays its eggs in a sheltered place.

Okay, that’s as far as I should go digging into this for today I think. The inventor of the saw, despised for his ingenuity, was transformed into a partridge. I think that pretty much illustrates my point about the perception of the artisan in the ancient world.

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