Knowledge and Power

And underneath the flutter leaf
The reams of dreams array
Melting into make-believe
I hear you gently say
Oh please let our people say
Just how hard they want to play
For you know very well Judas is betraying them tomorrow

I’ve been thinking about the imagery in this tune for a while. It was a work in progress when this was recorded, and in his lyric book, The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper omits several of the lines, including “melting into make-believe.” There is a line that he added that explicates the image more deeply, “I hear our likeness say.”

“Flutter leaf” is either a metaphor, or an English variant of fly leaf (the blank page that begins a printed book). In The Passions of Great Fortune, Harper doesn’t comment on the lyric much but does illustrate it with pictures of protest marches, and given the timing of the song it’s easy to see it as a celebration of the great “hippie” awakening in the late 1960s. The way I read these lines, it’s as if “today” is a book which begs to be read optimistically, and “our likeness” (the representation of our world as it is, as in hippie solidarity and the power of people) invites us to dream of a better world, as futile as that might be.

The literature of power, to use Thomas DeQuincey’s term, is powerful in that it invites us to dream of things beyond ourselves; it is polysemous, filled with multiple meanings that invite us to play with them. The working title of the song, “The Garden of Gethsemane” is taken from the site where Jesus rested before he was crucified, a place where 900 year old olive trees are said to grow. Cultural traditions, religious and otherwise, exert a sort of gravitational pull.

The gravity of these literary images is refracted by the other reading that I’ve been doing. As DeQuincey puts it,  “No man escapes the contagion from his contemporary bystanders.” Or, better still, I keep viewing them through  a Claude glass. There was a series of blog posts initiated by Joshua Klein, on “Real  Craft.” It’s not an academic discussion, and academic precision and pedantry is anathema to most craft workers. Interestingly, Peter Follansbee took great exception to a minor point of definition:

He “state(s) the obvious: craft implies tradition.” His words, his emphasis. I don’t necessarily understand why or how that’s obvious. Nor do I think it’s true. To me, craft/crafted means made by someone – the action of someone making things. Pretty broad definition.

Klein says that “craft implies tradition.” If he were writing academically, would have said “craft connotes tradition.” It’s in the cultural baggage that attaches itself to the term, a baggage that Follansbee wants to distance himself from, as he continues:

“Traditional” is one of those terms that means one thing to one person, something else to another. I make 17th-century style furniture, using only hand tools – but some of mine are now/have always been, more modern versions of period tools. I know I have used the term “traditional” before, I might still. But I’m nowadays pretty careful with the use of words like that – because of their shifting and varying meanings. Or perceived meanings.

Commenters (perhaps of an academic bent) suggested that using the term techne might be better than “craft” to resolve things more finely; I’ve written on that extensively over the years, and in a nutshell it means an ability to make with an awareness of the thing being made. That’s only slightly more specific than what Follansbee suggests, leaving room for interpretation but transferring craft from verb to noun; craft is, I think, more than just an action. But that’s just a substitution of a specific word for a general one, it doesn’t address the relationship between craft (as a knowledge) with tradition.

I think that Klein was not nearly so off base as Follansbee suggests; it’s polysemy at work. But, his point is an interesting one and a point echoed numerous times by Roy Underhill. In essence, he wants to be thought of as a woodworker of today, not yesterday. However, I think it’s inescapable—today is yesterday, as Roy Harper so succinctly puts it.

For some people, “tradition” connotes stability, strength, and connection with heritage. For others, it connotes rigidity, inflexibility, and slavery to an idyllic conception of the past. Choosing words carefully matters, because when you invite people to dream you don’t want them to have nightmares. But the oscillation between two different sets of connotations can be simultaneously true and false. It’s a paradox, and a productive one; in a sense, it’s the power, or “wind” that fills our sails, as DeQuincey would have it, demonstrative of words (literature) to move us to deeper understanding.

The literature of knowledge is different. To “know” things rather than drawing strength and inspiration from them means having a precise understanding of what the words you’re using mean. DeQuincey’s benchmark for that is the encyclopedia. Not fun to read, but useful. Much of craft literature falls in that category, but as DeQuincey also notes, there is a hybrid literature that qualifies as both.

It isn’t pedantic to consider definitons. Even when we’re not composing dense academic treatises, it isn’t counterproductive to insist that words denote things. Their likeness (which shifts across time) says volumes about what matters to us, but their metaphors, the riddles of connotation, gives us the space to play until our definitions collapse, replaced by new and improved ones.

I have no interest in defining “real craft,” because it suggests a false dichotomy between authentic and inauthentic craft. However, I am interested in paging through the book of craft both seeking precise meanings and spaces where the reams of dreams melt into make believe. Continuing Harper’s biblical motif, I’m also drawn to DeQuincey’s reference to a prayer box in summarizing the literature of knowledge:

The knowledge literature, like the fashion of this world, passeth away. An encyclopedia is its abstract; and, in this respect, it may be taken for its speaking symbol — that before one generation has passed an encyclopedia is superannuated; for it speaks through the dead memory and unimpassioned understanding, which have not the repose of higher faculties, but are continually enlarging and varying their phylacteries.

Devout Jews literally bind their tradition to their bodies, but for everyone, response to tradition is inevitable. This entire exercise, I suppose, is best summarized by the central paradox: Today is yesterday.

Satire of Trades

Beginning of the teaching made by the man of Tjaru (?) called Duau Khety for his son called Pepy
It was while he was sailing south to the Residence
to place him in the writing school
among the children of officials, of the foremost of the Residence

He said to him
I have seen violent beatings:
so direct your heart to writing.
I have witnessed a man seized for his labour
Look, nothing excels writing
It is like a loyal man.
Read for yourself the end of the Compilation
and you can find this phrase in it saying
‘The scribe, whatever his place at the Residence
He cannot be poor in it’

He accomplishes the wish of another
when he is not succeeding
I do not see a profession like it
that you could say that phrase for,
so I would have you love writing more than your mother
and have you recognise its beauty
For it is greater than any profession,
there is none like it on earth
He has just begun growing, and is just a child,
when people will greet him (already).
He will be sent to carry out a mission,
and before he returns, he is clothed in linen (like an adult man)

I do not see a sculptor on a mission
or a goldsmith on the task of being despatched (?)
but I see the coppersmith at his toil
at the mouth of his furnace
his fingers like crocodile skin
his stench worse than fish eggs

Any craftsman using a chisel
is more exhausted than a labourer.
His fields are the timber,
his plough the metal.
No nightfall rescues him,
when he has done in excess of his arms in production;
In night he has to kindle a light

Continue reading “Satire of Trades”

Going underground

The deep, rich movements, which produced the Dipylon vase, the Doric column, the Chartres cathedral, the Katsura Detached Palace, all were significant in their youthful vigor and simple creativity. May we return to that spirit. It is not man’s prerogative to destroy himself. We can only believe in the warm golden light in darkness.

Since I am a woodworker, the practical aspects interest me primarily. The materials used, the utility of an object, the forms developed are vital. The necessary skills and the resultant beauty must be there. Arts and Crafts should be based on pure truth, taking materials and techniques from the past to synthesize with the present. We should be content to work on a small scale and integrally with nature and not violate it.

In a personal way my family and I have gone underground, since we have little relationship to contemporary mores, institutions, economy, or systems. Ours is a search for pure truth in the most realistic ways—the making of things.

There was no other way for me but to go alone, secure with my family, placing stone upon stone, seeking kinship with each piece of wood, eventually creating an inward mood of space, then bit by bit finding peace and joy in the shaping of timber into objects of utility and perhaps, when nature smiles, beauty.

George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree (1987), p. 194

Descended from a samurai and a graduate of MIT, it’s hard to square George Nakashima’s rhetoric with the actuality of his achievements. Most of his pieces sell for six figure sums, and are shipped around the globe. This is hardly the small scale local operation he speaks so glowingly about. Yes, his family operates outside of contemporary mores in the sense of its inclusion inside the stratospheric orbit of high dollar collectors, foundations and museums. But somehow, when you read his book you don’t expect that it fronts for such a bourgeois enterprise; the rhetoric is just the opposite.

I’m starting to do more reading in this direction because it seems to me to be a fate common to the explosion in folk arts in the early twentieth century. Gustav Stickley took Morris’s utopian rhetoric and created a huge business empire that went bust; scratch the surface of any of the utopian communities and there is a finely tuned capitalist machine underneath. The sad fact is that not simply that these enterprises are “artisanal capitalism,” but that frequently they are exploitative, oppressive, and imperialist. I don’t want to always reduce things to these terms, but when you’re preaching to the “common man” practices and products that no common man can afford, there’s a rupture.

The narrative always goes something like this: our current age is decadent and we’ve lost the good things in life. We must reject all contemporary forms and revert to some sort of golden age model to base our decisions upon. There’s always an aristocratic overtone, an implication that aristocratic tastes can refine our being if we allow ourselves to be cultivated. We’re supposed to be inspired by are the rude crafts of the ordinary folks, but of course the ordinary folks just aren’t aware of what’s really good— they need the rich consumer to validate them.

I did some research on the Nakashima family and found that yes, Mira still maintains the family business employing about 12 people. The eldest grandchild is a partner in a different shop, and I found a newspaper story from 1990 about another grandchild, who said that the family had gone through a period of crisis when the older generation, including George and his original helpers, died. She was at that time returning to the ashram in India where George found his original insights. I’m not sure if she returned to the firm.

I don’t know why I didn’t take too much note of the fact that the ashram in Pondicherry where Nakashima found his spiritual awakening was also host to President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter, which speaks to the elite nature of his spiritual heritage. It’s far easier to renounce culture when you have the means to do so.

Does this erode the populist logic of these craft theories? I suppose it does, and I’m trying to figure out how a coherent approach to tools and materials might be wrought after addressing the gaps left by what they chose not to say. I’m not interested in animism— wood spirits and that sort of thing— but I do believe that their can be such a thing as truth in materials.


Kamikaze Girls
I had meant to only stop for a moment on the Lévi-Strauss, but there is a part that I just can’t seem to let go of. It popped out at me again after watching a cute movie from 2006 named Kamikaze Girls. Momoko, a “Rococo Loli,” (I had no idea this was a thing) is antisocial, shunning conventional friendships, preferring to dream of a life of frills and decadence. It’s not that she’s obsessed with French culture of the Rococo period as much as she’s obsessed with the style. It occurs to me that this style, across the ages, is transmitting a message which resonates with Momoko. That’s where the Lévi-Strauss comes in.

706160 In a somewhat tortuous bit of prose in The Savage Mind, Lévi-Strauss outlines a semiotic take on the craft of the bricoleur, suggesting that the craftsman works with signs rather than concepts. In a leap along the linguistic analogy, he proposes that scientists and bricoleurs are constantly on the look out for messages. The messages collected by the craftsman/bricoleur are already transmitted in advance by “the commercial codes which are summaries of the past experience of trade and so allow any new situation to be met economically provided they are of the same class as some earlier one” (20).

So, the message received by Momoko from the French Rococo period was of use to her in meeting her present situation in some way. Given the narrative arc of the film, it makes a certain amount of sense; it seems to me that she’s looking for something genuine to latch onto while being raised by a father who made his fortune selling knock-off Versace. The decadence of two eras, mashed together in a truly bizarre fashion. Against a backdrop of cabbages and scooters, no less. No wonder the netflix robot picked it out for me.

The engineer/scientist looks for messages in a different fashion from the craftsman, “always on the look out for that other message which might be wrested from an interlocutor in spite of his reticence in pronouncing on questions whose answers have not been rehearsed” (20). Concepts are used to “open up” a contingency. The bricoleur “builds up structures by fitting together events, or rather the remains of events,” as these Japanese girls have; a human message, albeit a purely aesthetic one, feeds a culture centuries after its extinction in a diachronic chain of use and reuse. On the other axis, the engineer/scientist instead seeks to derive a synchronic structure from events. Lévi-Strauss turns to an earlier period in France to discuss the sort of messages one might get from a painting by Clouet.

Elisabeth of Austria

The painting is chosen to discuss “the very profound aesthetic emotion which is, inexplicably, aroused by the highly realistic, thread by thread reproduction of a lace collar” (22). The painting is a miniature, which  provokes Lévi-Strauss to observe that it is a case of knowledge of the whole preceding knowledge of the parts, an illusion “which gives rise to a sense of pleasure which can be aesthetic on these grounds alone” (24).  Science would have worked on a real scale, inventing a loom to reproduce the collar while art produces “an image homologous with the object,” a metaphor rather than a scientific metonym.

Lévi-Strauss makes an interesting move to break the binary opposition of science and craft while discussing this painting. He places art in the place of mediating science and craft:

For if it is true that the relation of priority between structure and event is exactly the opposite in science and ‘bricolage,’ then it is clear that art has an intermediate position from this point of view as well. Even if, as we have shown, the depiction of a lace collar in miniature demands an intimate knowledge of its morphology and technique of manufacture (and had it been a question of representation of people of animals we should have said: of anatomy and physical attitudes), but it is not just a diagram or blueprint. It manages to synthesize these intrinsic properties with properties which depend on a spatial and temporal context. (25)

This passage reminds me of a conversation about poetry I had with a professor years ago: it was his contention that poetry required a level of expertise and knowledge about everything. While it seems unlikely that a painter of figures would be as aware as a doctor when it comes to anatomy, there is a grain of truth in the idea that they may actually better observers of anatomy than doctors when it comes to the minute particulars of an individual. It’s a grasp of something more than a diagram or a blueprint, but not perhaps as fine-grained a knowledge of say, vascular anatomy. But we are speaking here of a craft product:

The final product is the lace collar exactly as it is but so that at the same time its appearance is affected by the particular perspective. This accentuates some parts and conceals others, whose existence however still influences the rest through contrast between its whiteness and the colour of the other clothes, the reflection of the pearly neck that it encircles and that of the sky on a particular day and at a particular time of day. The appearance of the lace collar is also affected by whether it indicates casual or formal dress, is worn, either new or previously used, either freshly ironed or creased by an ordinary woman or a queen, whose physiognomy confirms, contradicts or qualifies her status in a particular social class, society, part of the world and period of history . . .The painter is always mid-way between design and anecdote, and his genius consists in uniting internal and external knowledge, a ‘being’ and a ‘becoming’, in producing with his brush an object which does not exist as such and which he is nevertheless able to create on his canvas. (25)

The crux of this mediation is summed up as a balance between natural and artificial structures and natural and social events. The emotion, according to Lévi-Strauss, comes from a union between “structural order” and the order of events; in the case of the artist, it’s a contrived circumstance that makes us aware of possibilities.

What does the lace mean? Obviously, in its actuality and not just in its artistic representation, it’s a matter of its ability to sustain echoes of culture, of feelings transmitted through structures. This, I think, makes tradition not something that we should be slaves to, but something we should be attentive to in order to maximize our possibilities. Far from constraining us, tradition  affords us new universes that are not just echoes of dying cultures, but moments of feeling that keep us connected. It’s not simply the painter who is mid-way between design and anecdote; we all are.


The Nature & Aesthetics of Design

The Nature of DesignIn 1964, David Pye published his second book, a slightly longer (91 page) volume called The Nature of Design.

I haven’t tracked an original down to look at it, though I’m curious about the differences between the original and revised edition. There are references to computers in the revised edition that I’m sure probably weren’t in the subsequent expanded edition.

the nature of art and workmanshipThis was followed in 1968 by The Nature and Art of Workmanship, the canonical text that ends up on most woodworker’s reading lists.

One difficulty in looking at mid-century craft theory is the fracture between design and craft. Pye was a pioneer in theories of both, and because he sought to tease out differences he was instrumental establishing these pursuits as separate. Pye’s writing presents, for me at least, the most lucid and structured attempt at a non-economically based theory of work. However, the division is problematic.

Dividing things in this fashion has advantages over the holistic approach of Morris et al., because it allows for fine grain consideration of various aspects of the problems that artisans and designers face, but it also reifies the divide between modern machine culture and earlier forms of craft.

Most productively though, it opens a space for the popular (not just “professional”) interest in emergent trends in design and consumer products. This echoes his earliest writing. Nonetheless, the division presents problems on where to “sort” certain aspects of the artisan/craftsman skill set. Pye’s final words on the problem come in the revised edition of his second book.

The Nature & Aesthetics of DesignThe book was issued in a revised and expanded edition in 1978 which adds “aesthetics” to the title and contents, stretching it out to around 160 pages. The growth in his theories is apparent from the frameworks he’s established—aesthetics appears not in the volume on workmanship, but attached to design.

Of course aesthetics is present in varying degrees in all his writings—it is after all “the art” of workmanship— but after reading Bernard Leach, this decision makes more sense.

It may be that workmanship is equivocated with technique, and thus skill; this undercuts the core performance of the designer, who has offered his own aesthetic perspective by his choices, prior to the execution of workmen. Obviously they can work in concert, or at cross purposes, but no workman can really rescue or compensate for ugly designs.

Leaving workmanship aside for the moment, what I’d first like to look at is the development of Pye’s thinking regarding functionalism and aesthetics that began with The Things We See No. 6: Ships.

To summarize his early position, design operates by making changes within constraints; design choices are not logical or rational, but represent aesthetic decisions that have their own mechanism which cannot be elaborated using words or logic. Aesthetic experience is what enables and improves the ability to make these choices. Function presents constraints, but does not negate nor enhance the aesthetic viability of a design. Something that functions can be either beautiful or ugly; that depends on the choices made by the designer.

Sleeping on this, I wonder if it might be more productive to think in terms of affordances rather than constraints, but that’s really a topic that deserves its own essay. It’s best to get through where Pye actually went with this first.

Although the importance of design is realized, the essential nature of the activity seems not to be understood except by designers, and they have not formulated what they know. It is not of the slightest use for us to ask ‘what is good design?’ until we can answer the question ‘what is design?’

The thing which sharply distinguishes useful design from such arts as painting and sculpture is that the practitioner of design has limits set upon his freedom of choice. A painter can choose any imaginable shape. A designer cannot. If the designer is designing a bread knife it must have a cutting edge and a handle; if he is designing a car it must have wheels and a floor. These are the sort of limitations which arise, as anyone can tell, from the ‘function’ of the thing being designed.

Little is ever said which touches on the fundamental  principles of useful design, and what is said is often nonsense. Most of the nonsense probably starts at the point where people begin talking about function as if it were something objective: something of which it could be said belonged to a thing.

The dictionary defines function as ‘the activity proper to a thing, the mode of action by which it fulfils its purpose’. What on earth can that mean? Surely if there were activities proper to things, and if things acted, and if they had purposes, Newton might have been relied upon to take note of these facts? ‘Function will not square with physics. And if function is a fantasy, what of functionalism —the doctrine that form follows function? (11-12)

The point of departure, that useful design is born from constraints is unchanged, but the assertion that there is no “activity proper to a thing” is new.

What is the activity proper to a straight cylindrical bar of steel a quarter inch in diameter on cross section and four inches long? What function is this form following, or ought it to follow? What activity exclusively or distinctively belongs to this thing, is in other words proper to it? There it lies on the bench, what are we to say? ‘Well, it isn’t active. You could make it active if you heated it enough. Otherwise it will not do anything unless the bench happens to collapse. Of course you could use it for an enormous number of different purposes, but then for nearly every one of them you could use something different equally well . . .’ the question still has to be answered, ‘what is the function of this thing?’

Now plenty of people do really believe that form can follow function; that if you thoroughly analyze the activity proper to the thing you are designing then your analysis will provide all the information needed, and the design can be derived logically from the function. Plenty of people still believe that ‘purely functional’ designs are possible, and believe that they themselves produce them, what is more! But none of them has yet divulged what an analysis of function looks like and what logical steps lead from there to the design. All you will get from them is talk about the purpose of the thing, which, as we shall see, is a statement of opinion and can never be anything else. (12)

Pye writes this so forcefully and convincingly that it is clear that he hasn’t stopped thinking about these issues since 1950. The clear development here is that function is framed as an opinion; opinions are not logical— they are rhetorical, function is an instance of endoxa, commonplaces that we accept that are not necessarily true or false. It is important for designers to have a clearer sense of what is happening when we evaluate designs. These issues are also interrogated in courts of law with the legal commonplace, “fitness for purpose.” It can be litigated in contract law, but ultimately it is an opinion, not a physical fact.

Someone will reply ‘This is all pedantry. Think out what the thing has got to do, design it in the simplest form which will will do that and there you have a purely functional design; and what is more it will look right.’

This sort of question raises three questions:

  1. How do you determine what the thing you are going to design ‘has got to do,’ and what ‘activity is proper to it’, what ‘it is for,’ what ‘its purpose is?’

  2. Having done so, does the information you have gained govern the design and determine its form, or does it merely guide it, restricting the choice of a form and setting limits within which it can be  varied at will?

  3. What does purely functional mean? (12)

The initial answers that Pye proposes are “arbitrary,” for the first question, “it merely guides it,” to the second and for the final question his answer is a bit more flip: purely functional means “‘cheap’, or else ‘streamlined’, or else more rarely ‘light’.” The implications of these answers are treated at greater length in the remainder of the work. The core sentiment, and point for this excursus is to propose something quite remarkable:

Whenever humans design and make a useful thing they invariably expend a good deal of unnecessary and easily avoidable work on it which contributes nothing to its usefulness. Look for instance, at the ceiling. It is flat. It would have been easier to not make it flat. Its being flat does not make you any warmer or the room above you any quieter, nor yet does it make the house any cheaper; far from it. Since there is a snobbism these things flattening a ceiling is called workmanship, or mere craftsmanship; while painting gods on it or putting knobs on it is called art or design. But all these activities: ‘workmanship’, ‘design for appearance’, ‘decoration’, ‘ornament’, ‘applied art’, ’embellishment’, or what you will, are part of the same pattern of behaviour which all men at all times and places have followed: doing useless work on useful things. If we did not behave after this pattern would indeed be poor, nasty, and brutish. (13)

What a powerful description of the human condition: “doing useless work on useful things.” That’s one of the best descriptions I’ve read in a long time.

a civilization ‘outside in’

Ceramic tile screen  by Bernard Leach
Ceramic tile screen by Bernard Leach

The art forms of a community are the crystallizations of its culture (which may indeed be a different thing from its civilization), and pottery traditions art no exception to the rule. In the T’ang period it is not difficult to recognize the Chinese genius for synthesis, here reinterpreting Greek and Buddhist ideology in terms of contemporary need, and combining these elements within the native framework of Taoist and Confucian concepts, thus fundamentally modifying and extending the boundaries of their ideas of beauty and truth. In the greatest period, that of the Sung dynasty, all of these different influences are welded together in one, for unification was then supreme. Until the beginning of the industrial era analogous processes of synthesis had always been working amongst ourselves, but since that time the cultural background has lost much of its assimilating force, and the ideas we have adopted and used have been molded into conformity with a conception of life in which imagination has always been subordinated to invention and beauty to the requirements of trade. In our time technique, the means to an end, has become an end in itself, and has thus justified the Chinese criticism of us as a civilization ‘outside in’.

Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book (1976) p. 14 (originally published 1940)

I first became interested in Bernard Leach because of his relationship with Yanagi Sōetsu. He introduced Yanagi Sōetsu to William Blake’s works and Yanagi later wrote a book on Blake. He also introduced Yanagi Sōetsu to the western world.

What is most compelling to me about this particular quote is the dual ideas of imagination subordinated to invention and beauty to trade. Another curious thing about this bit is that productive tradition is framed as a process of assimilation, whereas most “traditionalist” would see assimilation as destructive of tradition, a diffusion of cultures rather than a focusing and synthesis. There is much to unpack.

The idea of imagination destructively being subordinated to invention is counterintuitive to the standard definition of imagination, which is frequently defined as the “invention” of new ideas from old, or the creation of new data beyond existing sense data. In either case, these definitions of imagination necessarily entail invention. What sort of imagination can exist without it?

It seems to me this can be answered without resorting to too many contortions through William Blake. One of the first things we read in my undergraduate seminar on Blake with R. Paul Yoder was his letter to Dr. Trussler from 1799, which begins:

Revd Sir

I really am sorry that you are falln out with the Spiritual World Especially if I should have to answer for it I feel very sorry that your Ideas & Mine on Moral Painting differ so much as to have made you angry with my method of Study. If I am wrong I am wrong in good company. I had hoped your plan comprehended All Species of this Art & Especially that you would not reject that Species which gives Existence to Every other. namely Visions of Eternity You say that I want somebody to Elucidate my Ideas. But you ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care. The wisest of the Ancients considerd what is not too Explicit as the fittest for Instruction because it rouzes the faculties to act. I name Moses Solomon Esop Homer Plato

I still remember those days fondly: “That which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care” was a great way to start my first formal training in a poet which I had read since I was a teenager and barely understood. Of course it wasn’t easy: it wasn’t supposed to be. You’ve got to admire the balls on a guy who can write a letter to a guy who rejects your work that opens this way. What is most important about these contradictions is that they “rouze the faculties to act.” The key section in the letter, however, comes just a bit later:

I percieve that your Eye [s] is perverted by Caricature Prints, which ought not to abound so much as they do. Fun I love but too much Fun is of all things the most loathsom. Mirth is better than Fun & Happiness is better than Mirth–I feel that a Man may be happy in This World. And I know that This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity & by these I shall not regulate my proportions, & Some Scarce see Nature at all But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. (Erdman, 702)

Too much fun is loathsome; happiness is better than mirth, and to see the world imaginatively is the greatest happiness. The happiness that Blake speaks of here is seeing the world itself, not something foreign that has been invented and brought into it in the conventional sense— “Nature is Imagination itself” . To see things as they are sounds a bit like Bacon, whom Blake loathed, but Blake doesn’t fit into the empiricist frame. For Blake, “As a man is, So he Sees”—the man of inspiration and imagination is not the same sort of man as the man who refuses to see. Reverend Trussler had clearly fallen out with the spirit world: to truly see the world, for Blake, was to see God in the world.

Thus, the modernist impulse towards “making it new” sits  uneasily against Bernard Leach’s more Blakean view of imagination as nature. The subjugation of imagination to invention moves in lockstep with the dissimulation of beauty to the requirements of trade in Leach’s construction of the state of the arts, no doubt under the influence of William Morris: “In our time technique, the means to an end, has become an end in itself,” here, again, the modernist celebration of new and better machines seems to chafe in the mid century. Morris saw the structure of society as an unavoidable matrix which art emerges from: if society is shallow and obsessed with surface character, then so goes the arts. Leach references Morris, as the my leading quote continues:

Since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the reaction started by William Morris has been taking place mostly outside industry and has culminated in what I have called the individual, or artist, craftsman. Beginning in protest against the irresponsible use of power, it came to an end in pseudo-medieval crafts little related to national work and life. Thence has arisen the affirmation of the mechanical age in art—functionalism. This, through let us say, Picasso, le Corbusier and Gropius of the Bauhaus, is having its effect on all crafts. A movement which however is based by its initiators on a new and dynamic concept of three-dimensional form, tends among those who attempt to carry over the idea into industry to an over-intellectual effort to discover norms of orderliness and utility. Such a process limits the enjoyment of work to the designer, and overlooks the irregular and irrational element in all fine activity including the making of pottery. (14-15)

It is important to remember here that Blake rebelled strenuously about conventional, mechanized regular typesetting choosing instead to write backwards in etching fluid to create his plates for his poetry. Both Blake and Morris tend to harken back to the earlier tradition of illuminated manuscripts as an antidote to industry. Though I do think Leach rightly indicts the degeneration of Morris’s arts and crafts movement to nonsensical medievalism. Interestingly, Leach’s attack on functionalism is picked up again by David Pye in 1962, which is where I have a mind to turn next.

The relationship/definitions of beauty and imagination play a key role in defining “happiness” in this pursuit of the “simple life” that I’ve been on about for the last bit. That’s the reason for these monumental digressions. Eventually, I’ll get back to William Morris: I really believe that his approach, and its fracture across the twentieth century, deserves a closer examination.

The Way of Craftsmanship

Yanagi Sōetsu, (March 21, 1889 – May 3, 1961)

I have been writing for a long time about crafts, digging into almost virgin soil, and what I say may seem strange to unaccustomed ears, dubious, and difficult to accept because it is contrary to prevalent thought. I have continuously received a flow of doubting enquires from friends and strangers alike, so I decided to gather my ideas together into the form of a series of questions and answers reviewing the bone structure of my arguments.

Q. What are crafts?

A. Things made to be used by people in daily life, such as clothes and furniture. Something different from fine arts, such as pictures made to be looked at.

Q. What is the particular kind of beauty in crafts?

A. Beauty that is identified with use. It is a beauty born of use. Apart from use, there is no beauty of craft. Therefore, things made that do not stand up to use or that ignore utility can barely be expected to contain this kind of beauty.

Q. What is the meaning you attach to the word “use”?

A. The word is not to be understood merely in its materialistic sense. The reason for this is that mind and matter must not be thought of as separate. Use therefore covers both. Such objects are to be looked at and touched with a responsive feeling of pleasure in use. If crafts are only designed from a utilitarian point of view, then pattern, for example, is uncalled for. But good pattern adds to the function of that utensil. It becomes an indispensable part of use. On the other hand, however useful an artifact may be, if it causes in the mind a feeling of ugliness, it detracts from total service. The issue becomes clear in the province of food. Satisfying the demand of hunger is not the sole province of good cooking. We need good presentation and good flavours—that helps our appetite. Again, use that fulfils the mind alone is meaningless, like a wax replica of food. By use, then, I intend the indivisibility of mind and matter.

Q. What is the special quality of beauty in crafts?

A.  The special quality of beauty in crafts is that it is a beauty of intimacy. Since the articles are to be lived with every day, this quality of intimacy is a natural requirement. Such beauty establishes a world of grace and feeling. It is significant that in speaking of craft objects, people use terms such a savour and style. The beauty of such objects is not so much of the noble, the huge, or the lofty as a beauty of the warm and familiar. Here one may detect a striking difference between the crafts and the arts. People hang their pictures high up on walls, but they place their objects of use close to them and take them in their hands.

The Unknown Craftsman, 197-8

Additional material of interest can be found in “A Japanese William Morris: Yanagi Soetsu and Mingei Theory

Productive Slaves

Part of the problem in looking to Plato or Aristotle for theories of “craft” is the low social status of artisans in their schema of a perfect world. It’s a class thing, and people who made things were beneath the heads of household that made up the polis in the ancient world. It’s confusing, because both might occasionally speak glowingly of techné (art and craft) one moment and then speak as if artisans were barely a step above slaves. The difference, as I see it, is a thorny distinction between productive and practical crafts. But determining the difference difficult: rhetoric, for example, is classed as productive by Aristotle although it’s product (persuasion) is hardly tangible in the same sense as say, pottery.

In the Nicomachean Ethics 6:4 Aristotle defines techné as a “reasoned habit of making,” as distinguished from habits of doing. In other words, action is a separate matter which though it might require reasoned habits as well, but doing is separate from making. Things that come into being by accident are atechnic, while things that are consciously brought into being are the result of a techné. You’d think that being excellent or skilled as a maker of things would be well respected, but they aren’t— there’s an anxiety that is hard to figure out.

The problematic passage that has occupied me for several days is 1:12 of Politics. It begins:

Thus it is clear that household management attends more to men than the acquisition of inanimate things and to human excellence more than the excellence of property which we call wealth, and to the excellence of freemen more than the excellence of slaves. A question may indeed be raised, whether there is any excellence at all in a slave beyond those of an instrument and of a servant— whether he can have the excellences of temperance, courage, justice, and the like; or whether slaves possess only bodily services. And, whichever way we answer the question a difficulty arises; for, if they have excellence, in what will they differ from freemen?

It’s a thorny issue, given even greater depth as artificial intelligence makes it possible that “thinking machines” will soon work along side us. If machines or tools have “excellence” then at what point do they have the same privileges as the masters? Aristotle argues from what he considers to be a “natural” hierarchy, for differences in kind and degree:

All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet says of women, “silence is a woman’s glory” but this is not equally the glory of man. The child is imperfect, and therefore his excellence is not relative to himself alone, but the perfect man and his teacher, and in like manner the excellence of the slave is relative to a master.

It’s my understanding that the introduction of differences in kind was a move to distance him to the simple distinctions of degree in Plato’s Republic, but it’s obviously a difficult move to support. One of the problems of this argument from analogy is trying to introduce degrees of slavery. That’s where the artisans come in:

Now we determined that a slave is useful for the wants in life, and therefore he will obviously require only so much excellence as will prevent him from failing in his function through cowardice or lack of self control. Someone will ask whether, if what we are saying is true, excellence will not be required also in the artisans, for they often fail in their work through a lack of self-control. But is there not a greater difference in the two cases? For the slave shares in his master’s life; the artisan is less closely connected with him, and only attains excellence in proportion as he becomes a slave.

Now it might be possible to read this generously that being a “slave to art” is a good thing, but the next line makes it clear that Aristotle isn’t thinking of that:

The meaner sort of mechanic has a special and separate slavery, whereas the slave exists by nature, not so the shoemaker or other artisan. It is manifest, then, that the master ought to be the source of such excellence in the slave and not a mere possessor of the art of the art of mastership which trains the slave in his functions.

The distinction is that the slave is “natural” whereas the artisan pursues his special form of slavery by choice. To the degree that the artisan (as a special slave)  is subservient to the master/purchaser of his wares, he might become excellent. The argument seems particularly weak here. The best selling (or at least those who sell to the best people) are therefore the best?

Holt N. Parker reads this a bit differently, distinguishing two analogical chains:

Master -> slave -> tool -> product
Craftsman (ἀρχιτέκτων) -> assistant (ὑπηρέτης) -> tool -> product

The move, as he sees it, is distancing the master/craftsman from the tools through an intermediary, literally keeping their hands clean:

Between the master and the tool is the slave/assistant, a tool for using tools (1253b33)49. The master does not weave: he orders the slave (the ensouled/intelligent-at-least-to-the-point-of-understanding orders/endowed-with-a-soul-albeit-a-defective-one possession) to weave on a loom (the tool) which produces cloth, another type of possession. Aristotle then reverses this argument by analogy. Since slaves are the ones who handle tools, anyone who handles tools ought (in a well-run polis) to be a slave. (87)

Curiously, this argument isn’t sustained through the Politics. Aristotle reverts to a body/soul analogy to argue for natural slaves. In short, any hierarchy in service he could marshall to support the status quo. I was really most amused by Parker’s notation of Eric A. Havelock’s observation regarding the Politics in a footnote:

The Politics is an arid treatise, intensely condensed and codified, the work of a mind that has now perfected its own self-analysis and brought every one of its prejudices and moods to total abstraction (382)

Women, slaves, artisans— Aristotle clearly wanted to look down upon them all.

Robot action

Now instruments are of various sorts; some are living, others lifeless; in the rudder, the pilot of a ship has a lifeless, in the look-out man a living instrument; for in the arts a servant is a kind of instrument. Thus, too, a possession is an instrument for maintaining life. And so, in the arrangement of the family, a slave is a living possession, and property an number of such instruments; and the servant himself is an instrument for instruments. For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which says the poet, “of their own accord entered the assembly of the gods;” if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre, chief workman would not want servants nor masters slaves. (Aristotle Politics 1:4)

Aristotle may not have anticipated robot hotels and bank tellers per se, but he did set forth a condition where slavery would be superfluous. It’s a technological problem, in this view. But from the perspective of the slave, as “an instrument for instruments,” the path doesn’t seem that clear. The development of machines that can read emotions is not targeted at easing the burden of the human race so much as a way of filling a labor shortage and improved robot stamina is destined to increased productivity, not quality of life.  A comment in “Industrial robots steal a march in east Asia” from the Financial Times this morning gets right to the point:

“Doubling productivity takes a long time,” he said. “Doubling computer power takes just two years.”

Robot servants aside, the arena where robots are likely to have the first and greatest impact is manufacturing, but just what is being produced at such an increased rate? Possessions to be consumed and deployed. Obliquely addressing the question of whether we need to double productivity at this accelerated rate, Aristotle teases out differences between types of possessions:

Now the instruments commonly so called are instruments of production, whilst a possession is an instrument of action. From a shuttle we get something besides the use of it, whereas of a garment or a bed there is only the use. Further, as production and action are different in kind, both require instruments, the instruments which they employ are likewise different in kind. But life is action and not production, and therefore the slave is the minister of action. (Aristotle Politics 1:4)

Aristotle goes on to elaborate on the details of slavery: “he who is by nature not his own but another mans” A man who does not possess himself is in turn a possession, and for Aristotle this is simply part of nature. Because he can then be separated from from his possessor, he is “an instrument of action.”

The key thought for me, however,  is that life is action and not production— therefore production does not in any way equate with a better life.

Tumbling drunk into the fire

“Even such things as this,” he wrote of one quarrel, “the army setting off to conquer all the world turning back to burn Jack’s pigstye, and tumbling drunk into the fire—even this don’t shake me: means one must use the best one can get: but one thing I won’t do, wait for perfect means are made for very imperfect me to work with.”

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011- originally published 1955, 1976), p.425

It took me about three weeks to finish Thompson’s book; I still haven’t read the afterword. It’s hard to figure out where to begin discussing it. The thing that has struck me the most is the change in my own attitude about the critiques of the arts and crafts movement (though arts and crafts moment is probably a better description). I used to think they were fairly accurate (thinking of David Pye, among others) but now I see that they pretty much stress John Ruskin as the sole font of theoretical groundings for the movement. Because of that, they miss a lot of development and fracture of Ruskin that is far more interesting. Perhaps the idea of a coherent theory of hand work is not as far fetched as it sometimes seems.

Morris wasn’t systematic in the slightest, nor was he (despite his laudatory essays on Ruskin)  simply a blind disciple at the feet of Ruskin. There is much in him to admire, and much more work to be done to develop his theories on work. Thompson has made a good beginning in this book, although it wasn’t his primary intention. His focus was on Morris as a socialist/communist. Understanding why and how he derailed his entire life in support of that cause is essential to making sense of his theories, however. His passion for the socialist “movement” was consumptive:

“You see, having joined a movement, I must do what I can while I last, that is a matter of duty . . . All this work I have pulled upon my own head, and though in detail much of it is repulsive to the last degree, I still hold that I did not do so without due consideration. Anyhow, it seems to me that I can be of use, therefore I am impelled to make myself useful. . .

You see, my dear, I can’t help it. The ideas which have taken hold of me will not let me rest: nor can I see anything else worth thinking of. How can it be otherwise, when to me society, which to many seems an orderly arrangement for allowing decent people to get through their lives creditably and with some pleasure, seems mere cannibalism; nay worse . . . is grown so corrupt, so steeped in hypocrisy and lies, that one turns from one stratum of it to another with hopeless loathing. One must turn to hope, and only in one direction do I see it— on the road to Revolution: everything else is gone now . . .” (424)

For 200 more pages, Thompson goes through the ins and outs of Morris’s relationship with the failed socialist league in the UK. This sort of reading usually just bores me to tears, but I fear I am indeed tumbling backward into the fire. It’s hard to understand theories of work without dealing with the axis of socialism/communism/anarchism, etc.. I’m pretty much of the “count me out” school when it comes to revolutions.

Nonetheless, dealing with this text has altered my perception of Morris as a florid manufacturer of chintzes and books that only rich people could afford. I didn’t like the hypocrisy of being a “man of the people” while making products that ordinary people could never afford (I have much the same problem with certain strains in modern woodworking, i.e. tool fetishists).   But clearly, Morris wasn’t this. He was aware of what he was doing, and what his place in it was. There is much, much more to say.