Imperialism, Morris saw, was the inevitable and most vicious outcome of the “Century of Commerce”. He denounced it both in artistic and political terms. “While we are met here in Birmingham”, he said at the beginning of 1879.
“to further the spread of education in art, Englishmen in India are . . . actively destroying the very sources of that education—jewellery, metalwork, pottery, calico-printing, brocade weaving, carpet-making—all of the famous and historical arts of the great peninsula have been . . . thrust aside for the advantage of any paltry scrap of so-called commerce.”
At the end of January 1880, in a lecture which was probably designed for some working class Radical Club in connection with the election campaign, and which was devoted to combating “the tribe of Jingoes”, and the slogan, “Our country Right or Wrong” blazoned upon their banners, he declared:
“England’s place—what is England’s place? To carry civilization through the world? Yes, indeed, the world must be civilized and I doubt not that England will have a large share in bringing about that civilization.
“And yet, since I have heard of wine with no grape juice in it, and cotton-cloth that is mostly barytes, and silk that is two-thirds somach, and knives whose edges break or turn up if you try to cut anything harder than butter with them, and many another triumph of Commerce in these days, I begin to doubt if civilization itself may not be sometimes so adulterated as scarcely to be worth the carrying—anyhow, it cannot be worth much, when it is necessary to kill a man in order to make him accept it . . .”
E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011- originally published 1955, 1976), p.260
I’m around a hundred pages in on E.P. Thompson’s massive study of William Morris, and so far I’m really impressed.
It cites his letters and minor publications profusely, and though it’s obvious that it has the major goal of establishing Morris as an important communist/socialist, so far it’s hitting right at the heart of what I’m looking for in Morris.
I’m really looking for his attitudes toward craft and labor. Though I’m really not that interested in politics, I am interested in the things that constrain our lives. Morris was too, as indicated by this excerpt from one of Morris’s letters (1883):
“In spite of all the success I have had I have not failed to be conscious that the art I have been helping to produce would fall with the death of a few of us who really care about it, that a reform in art which is founded on individualism must perish with the individuals who have set it going. Both my historical studies and my practical conflict with the philistinism of modern society have forced on me the conviction that art cannot have real life and growth under the present system of commercialism and profit-mongering.” (98)
Thompson observes that what drove Morris into his political views was actually the success, not the failure, of his commercial ventures. It’s easy to look at a rich man like Morris, making niche products for rich people, as someone detached from social problems. His fortune came from coal mining, initially. Something that Thompson spends much time establishing the background for, as well as his escapist tendencies. But when it comes to craft, Morris seems grounded and well informed. It isn’t clear if this bit comes from the same letter (I need to locate the volume of letters to check) but I appears as if it is:
“It would be well if all of us were good handcraftsman in some kind, and the dishonour of labor done away with altogether . . In each several profession, no master should be too proud to do its hardest work.” (99)
There will be a lot more to say about this tome, at 800+ pages it’s going to take a while to sort through.
At the utmost, the active minded young man should ask of his teachers only the mastery of his tools. The young man himself, the subject of education, is a certain form of energy; the object to be gained is economy of his force; the training is partly the clearing away of obstacles, partly by the direct application of effort. Once acquired, the tools and models may be thrown away.
The Education of Henry Adams (2007), xiv
In the author’s preface, Henry Adams sets up a model of the author/narrator as a mannequin, a stand-in that should be discarded once an adequate level of skill is achieved. This device has replicated itself over time, but has frequently been ignored or overlooked. Chris Schwarz, in his first book The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, declares his “anarchist” manifesto with the admonition “disobey me.” It is difficult, however, to discard or disobey his assemblage of a tool kit that he substantiates historically, even annotating it across other authors covering centuries. Just what does “disobey me” mean when all paths, apparently, lead to the same conclusions as he has reached?
I think I have read the opening chapters of Schwarz’s book a few dozen times in the past few years. In fact, I am putting the finishing touches on the sort of English tool chest he describes right now, not because I think it’s the best solution to the problem of tool storage but simply because it seemed like the right thing to do. He’s right of course, this sort of chest makes a lot more sense once you start to use it. It’s rich with the sort of “economy of force” that Henry Adams was on about. The patience and practice that you acquire while pursuing this sort of project is priceless, really. But the fact that Schwarz looms large as a person instead of a persona obscures the “anarchist” agenda that he seeks to pursue. The more I visit the book, the more I see how he got there. Like his basic tool assortment, Schwarz’s anarchist disposition is an easy journey to support historically.
Right about the time of the first publication of The Education of Henry Adams, at the dawn of the twentieth century there was a basic shift in the perception of “craft” among its proponents. William Morris, a devout socialist saw the onslaught of industrial production driven by capitalism as an evil to be defeated by traditional crafts. Interrogating the social benefits of “hand” crafts versus machines was a the center of a lot of writing in the late nineteenth century (particularly Hawthorne). However, as the Arts and Crafts movement began to falter in the early twentieth century, socialists were replaced by anarchists (and capitalists like the Stickley brothers) with a more machine friendly stance.
The anarchist Herbert Read, writing in Art and Industry (1949) suggests that Morris was simply asking the wrong question. We shouldn’t be asking if the machines are damaging our society, but rather if the machines can give us the art we need. He thought yes. The merits of individualism/anarchism vs. socialism frequently generate ripples across the discussion; they are models that seem to consistently provide a sort of touchstone to rub. Is this really useful in the long run? I have mixed feelings. As Henry Adams remarks, politics as a practice has always been the systematic organization of hatreds (6). However, as the truism goes, the personal is always political.
For myself, perhaps the strongest urge is always what I’ve come to call the “hunter gatherer” impulse. The draw of The Anarchist’s Tool Chest is its well researched set of tools; most people reading the book, I suspect, use it as a starting point to figure out what tools they should be proficient with. It’s much easier to hunt and gather tools than it is to develop skills, so we gather them up and then and only then attempt to use them. Overcoming the frustration when they don’t work the way we think they should, well, that’s a problem.
Schwarz is really no help there; he and most of the dons of the the woodworking forums online suggest that you simply must have the best tool. There is no substitute. Schwarz, as he so succinctly points out in his book, due to the circumstances of his profession, found himself buried alive in tools. His book is about stripping away those things that he found he didn’t need, including “tool-resembling objects.” For most, readers they’re gathering tools, not getting rid of them.
For some reason though, I just keep coming back to Schwarz’s first book. I’ve read and enjoyed his latest book, Campaign Furniture, and there is much to say about it. But the more I read around, the more I can see why that first book had to happen for him.
Manifestos usually bore me, but for some reason this one doesn’t; it irritates me in the best sense of the word. I constantly wonder if there is a better way to get there. The path that his education follows is fairly straightforward, and in its own way traditional. But I do not think that you can cast away your tools and models once you get there, which makes it flirt dangerously with dogma.
You won’t find Talking Shop on many woodworker’s “must read” lists. I started it a while ago and put it aside, once I got the gist of it’s thesis. I was enjoying it, but it just didn’t seem relevant to the other craft reading I was doing until now. I thought of it soon after I finished Tarule’s book, because like another book I’ve read recently, it sort of degenerated into a sort of idolatry and presumption rather than making significant observations about craft.
It was a bit odd to think of Talking Shop while contemplating craft, because it’s really more about rhetoric than craft. But then it was the rhetoric of The Artisan of Ipswich that galled me more than real information about craft. From Talking Shop‘s jacket blurb:
“By arguing that what matters culturally, finally, is the representation of craft, the idea of craft, rather than the objects, Betjemann takes the whole subject of craft and stands it on its head. In doing so, he makes a substantial contribution to the cultural history of the United States, changing our way of thinking about craft by broadening its meaning considerably.”—Miles Orvell, Temple University, author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940
I’m quite familiar with Orvell from my studies in New Deal photography. He always irritated me too, because his primary focus was representation rather than documentary; to read most of the postmodern documentary critics the fact that people were suffering and well meaning people were trying to alleviate it was secondary to the oppressive nature of representing anything at all. This is uniquely unhelpful, and I suppose I was afraid that Betejemann’s book would be unhelpful as well. But it was really interesting to me at first, because it began with a long interrogation of Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography.
Cellini’s autobiography was on my nightstand for years, when I was photographing in nightclubs. I would come home and read it to unwind before I slept, I thought it was a real hoot. Betjemann’s use of it as a sort of 19th century lightning rod for descriptions of craft is apt. Cellini boasts endlessly about what a great craftsman he is, but he never really gets around to describing much about it. Instead, he’s too busy swashbuckling about having adventures and claiming that everyone else’s methods are inferior to his. What his method is, is of course ambiguous. Not many of his artistic works have survived, but instead his autobiography looms large as a sort of paradigm for the life of an artist.
Which is precisely Betjemann’s point. Craft remains outside, constructing a sort of platonic ideal which simply can’t be represented in the text except as a shadow doppelganger of a life fully lived. It’s the paradigm for modern DIY as well– grow your own tomato, make your own bacon, mill your own flour, bake the bread and make the condiments to produce your own BLT and only then will you be the consummate craftsman. The craftsman is involved, if not proficient, in everything.
I suppose Tarule’s book, as well as many others, follow a sort of Cellini model in resurrecting long dead craftsman. In a sense, the internet has created armies of Cellinis. Woodworking forums are filled with tool talk vs. object talk at the ratio of at least 100:1, not to mention digressions into cooking and other crafts at a fairly steady pace. Not much need to talk about the craft itself, because after all you just have to do it rather than represent it. To his credit, Tarule does talk about a single specific object and the construction of it— it is nothing if not object oriented and in that sense deviates from the Cellini model. It’s discussions of tools are only present when they have a direct impact on the object at hand. But hanging over it like a spectre is a sort of idolatry that is all too common. It was just the tone of certainty, built into a narrative of the consummate craftsman at work.
I’m really feeling chafed by this just now. I can’t agree with Orvell that removing the discourse from its context of the objects of craft is a great breakthrough. I think it’s useful in order to see how these discussions are so often derailed in various ways, and for that reason I’m now reading Talking Shop. The objects, and their places in our lives will always be more important than the things we say about them, just as documentary is more useful as a window rather than simply a fiction constructed about people outside our immediate sphere for political reasons.
Of course the window of documentary distorts, just as the narrative we construct about objects distorts.
There is much more to say, of course. But I wanted to get this off my chest. My primary concern isn’t really to classify things as good books or bad books, but rather to cross-connect some significant ideas.
I suppose it goes back to discovering David Pye’s Nature and Art of Workmanship. Pye takes Ruskin to task for idolizing “handwork” without developing a coherent theory of what handwork was. Betjemann’s book begins by examining the spread of Cellini’s “hand” as an object of admiration, and as such feeds into the Arts and Crafts movement. There are some important connections here, but with major differences in emphasis.
Betjemann’s task was to examine language, while Pye was examining workmanship. It really bothers me that the discussion started by Pye seems to have just been derailed and stagnated, buried by the weight of language. Contemporary writers on craft haven’t made much headway into theories of work and workmanship. More worrisome is that they really don’t appear interested in that at all, and would rather perpetuate a pantheon of artistic swashbuckling heroes.
To explain my work for you, I have to build a room for you. A creative room with four walls which represents my boundaries, and actually my greatest freedom. Freedom of expression is not working without limits. Those limits are tools and material but within them I have incredible variety and diversity, and there I can be who I want to be, surolle, the craftsman. My aesthetic expression is formed by these four walls, and now I will describe those four walls. First we have the material wall.
. . . so, as the beat poet Jack Kerouac said, you’ve got to have the right beat to get life, right. Life has to sway and swing and rock and roll and I’m fine with that. It’s a process, you’ve got to have a dialog with the material. When I choose the material for my work wall number two comes in, and that’s tools and tool skills. I just love this surface coming from the cutting tool, a tool inherited for generations, a technique refined for thousands of years, a kind of assembled aesthetic form which is intimately associated with tools and technology.
. . .The third wall is behind me, and that’s tradition. The word sloyd refers to know how to, smart, or do it yourself, DIY and it’s still in our dialect in Västerbotten. It’s the viking age word slög, and it means crafty. But we never say that we are crafty, practical. We always say that we are not unpractical, not uncrafty. . . .And every day I work I am connected with my family’s ten generations of work with wood, furniture and household items and I have a deep respect for their tradition and skills because they knew that they had to live with what they had made for the rest of their lives. This is a sort of responsibility for themselves that they have embedded in the objects they have made., which is about love, about caring to pass on to the next generation.
. . .the three dimensional design was about people. And people, that’s the fourth wall, the folk-art wall. A story about all of you, about the longing, love, desire, incantations, spells and magic which is embedded in the handmade object. . . .So the fourth wall in the creative room is about communication between people, and art and design in traditional crafts is talking directly to the users: Use me, love me, take care of me. Because when I made it, I took care.