The work of craft in the age of mechanical reproduction

Bernard Leach by Setsuo Kato

Bernard Leach by Setsuo Kato

The art of the craftsman, to use Herbert Read’s terminology, is intuitive and humanistic (one hand one brain); that of the designer for reduplication, rational, abstract and tectonic, the work of the engineer or the constructor rather than that of the ‘artist’. Each method has its own aesthetic significance. Examples of both can be good or bad. The distinction between them lies in the relegation of the actual making not merely to other hands than those of the designer but to power driven machines. The products of the later can never possess the same intimate qualities as the former, but to deny them the possibility of excellence of design in terms of what mechanical reproduction can do is both blind and obstinate. A motor car such as a Rolls Royce Phantom achieves a kind of perfection although its appeal is mainly intellectual and material. There I think we come to the crux of the matter: good hand craftsmanship is directly subject to the prime source of human activity, whereas machine crafts, even at their best, are activated at one remove—by the intellect.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book p. 2

I have a lot of difficulty accepting that our relationship with “mechanical reproduction” is primarily intellectual compared to intuitive or sensuous relationships with “hand” crafts. A potters wheel, to me at least, is at a basic level a machine. It enables reasonably  replicable  curves compared to strictly “hand” work, and is certainly “intimate.”

Where the eyebrow really goes up, though, is the use of Rolls Royce as an example. What set them apart in most ways also included hand work such as fine upholstery, etc..  As an American who grew up around bikers, I would select Harley Davidson or Triumph as my benchmark models for transportation design. I’ve known a lot of people who were attached to them, and their relationship with their machines was about the furthest thing from “intellectual” you could find. Triumphs always leaked oil and broke down. So did Harleys. They didn’t use the finest materials available, nor did they have superior engineering.

It’s possible to attach a nationalist agenda to either, for example defending “American” engineering  against the assault by the (then superior) Japanese imports, but it’s not what drew most of the people I knew to love those machines. The narrative of American or British superiority was a layer applied over the outside over what was really a deep love of a particular machine and how it felt and what it enabled. These machines were emblems and tools of freedom. Superior engineering was for accountants and academics, not for bikers.

Japanese motorcycles were nicknamed “sewing machines”  or “lawn mowers” for the way that they sounded and their emphasis on performance and utility; their mechanical precision was what marked them as soulless designs. It was the imperfections that made people love their machines the most— an anti-intellectual reaction to what was seen as an American (or British) tradition that was in need of preservation. A biker’s relationship with his machine was nothing if not intimate.

My dual discussion of Yanagi Sōetsu and Bernard Leach is necessary because the two seem in most ways inseparable, with both sides filling a need to identify a cultural “other” to demonize. What happened to William Morris’s socialist approach to Arts and Crafts in the 1930s is a bit shocking by any measure. Edmund de Waal has done some interesting work on it, and in an article from 1997  titled “Homo Orientalis: Bernard Leach and the Image of the Japanese Craftsman” tells a story of how the capitalist powers deployed these craft rhetorics to ultimately racist ends:

Since Leach had left Japan in 1920 the small metropolitan network of artists and intellectuals with Yanagi at their centre had changed. Where there had been transfixed attention paid to contemporary Western art and ideas there was now an evangelical nationalism. Yanagi’s Mingei or ‘art of the people’ group had burgeoned in the early 1930S in the climate of increasing nationalist fervour. It was now a substantial movement with a monthly illustrated journal, a regional network of associations, patronage from the powerful Tokyo department stores, and annual exhibitions:

They have their shops and press and sales and their work is on the point of really entering the households of taste of new Japan as an antidote to the wretched half caste and modern products which so sicken Western visitors to this country.

Journal of Design History, Vol. 10, No. 4, Craft, Culture and Identity (1997), pp. 356

The excerpt de Waal cites is from a letter from Leach, and the “wretched half caste” reference speaks volumes. Ultimately, it wasn’t just machine products that were the enemy, it was “impure” products from unworthy national traditions as well. It almost seems like Americans discussing the wretched half-caste AMF Harley Davidsons.

I’m having some trouble processing what happened to the populist/socialist slant in the late nineteenth century as it transformed into its variants in the 1930s and was subsumed by Japanese and American imperialism, National Socialism in Germany, etc.. I never would have thought it possible that such beautiful sentiment could be transformed into cold and calculated murder and oppression.

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