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

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.

Researching Ruskin

Newly discovered daguerreotype from John Ruskin’s collection

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.

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.

Locating David Pye

As I’ve deepened my readings/re-readings of David Pye over the years, some interesting things have started to pop out at me. He’s got an Aristotelian knack for taxonomies and frameworks, but there are some real prejudices in there that are troubling.

First, he clearly privileges the visual over the tactile; second, he’s strongly biased against his own peculiar reading of the Arts and Crafts movement. I’m finding some evidence from his family history, thanks to this interview in Craft found via his obit in the Independent:

Marigold Coleman: How did you come to work in wood? Was it an accident or did you make a deliberate choice?

David Pye: No, in a curious way it has been in the family for a long time. My father was always making something or other out of wood as an amateur, and my mother’s uncle was a great hand at it, and also a jeweller, as was my father. This was a William Morris tradition. My grandfather was John Brett the painter, and a friend of Morris’s, I believe, and of Ruskin and so on. Though he didn’t remain a friend of Ruskin’s! I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing round with bits of wood. There’s a nice story which may come in handy — my great-uncle, Uncle Pat, who was also my godfather, he was in the Dragoon Guards, I think, or anyway a very snob cavalry regiment which he couldn’t possibly afford. He went out to India the year after the Mutiny, then got some leave and went out again in 1862. He went out in a sailing ship and to keep himself amused on the voyage he provided himself with 12 dozen bottles of Bass and a wood-turning lathe, both of which he used throughout the voyage to Bombay, which of course took an enormously long time. I think that that flywheel there is from the lathe he took. A lot of these tools belonged to him, and some to my father and some to my grandfather. One way or another wood has been around all my life.

MC: So this is a middle-class tradition of inheriting what would normally be an artisan tradition?

DP: Yes.

MC: Wasn’t that very rare that early?

DP: It was probably the William Morris idea that did it. Quite apart from that, when I was four years old, I can remember to this day one particular piece of wood my brother brought back from school. I thought it was absolutely marvellous because of its surface quality. I think most artists are made by the age of four — they find out what they’re really interested in at an early age, fall in love with it then and it doesn’t alter much. They go on to think that they’re perhaps interested in an enormous number of things they’re really not interested in at all. There’s really only one thing they can do, and that’s true of most of us.

Note that his grandfather had a falling out with John Ruskin, though he maintained his friendship with William Morris. In The Nature and Art of Workmanship Pye demolishes Ruskin while leaving Morris untouched; this really strikes me as odd given that he is obviously familiar with Morris. The impact of World War II on his life is incredibly strong as well, given the loss of time it entailed in getting started on his life-long project, his “one thing”:

MC: How long does it take to find this out?

DP: A hell of a damn long time!

MC: How long did it take you?

DP: Till I was 30? I had a better chance than most — or my generation did — because of the war. I was out of everything for six years. When I got out of the navy I’d had time to think a bit. Anyway, the thing about wood which has always fascinated me is its surface quality. All the chaps who write about wood write about its tactile quality — well, what I’m talking about is decidedly not tactile, it’s visual. Wood has surfaces that are enormously subtle and varied, and that’s the thing that from the age of four I was really struck with. And then when I was about 14 or 15 1 saw a couple of chairs at a farmhouse, early i8th-century walnut chairs, country-made ones. I was really beginning to look at things for the first time, beginning to grow up, and I thought, that’s what I want to do, things like that. So I suppose that is how I came to be fascinated with it. I was brought up to be an architect, but I spent most of my time as a student building boats, a very eccentric thing to do then. My father was always doing it. That was how I started seriously using wood in a connected way. I learnt more from that than I ever learnt from my training as an architect. At the end of my time as a student and afterwards I started specialising in wooden buildings, inevitably. Then the war broke out. After the war there was no wood for buildings for a long time, so I thought I’d stick to wood and ditch buildings.

Marigold Coleman interviewing David Pye (1976) in Crafts no 217 82-4 Mr/Ap 2009

Note that the surface of wood is a visual thing for Pye, a somewhat unusual twist; nonetheless, it would make sense that he’s also a woodcarver because the play of light and shade is what makes carvings special. As my previous excerpt from the same interview attests,  his perspective is also driven by consideration of end products rather than processes; process is important only in that it is a vehicle to get somewhere.

This would tend to make his theory of work somewhat incommensurate with Morris, who emphasized the satisfaction of doing good work over the products. I begin to see Pye’s perspective as a weakness now, rather than a strength. Pye rightly tries to divorce the perfection of craft from economic constraints, but the emphasis on product I think works against him. One point is well taken though: “Anyone can learn to make things, it’s designing them and getting rid of them that’s difficult.”

Looking over on my shelf I see six bowls that aren’t’ good enough to gift to anyone, and don’t really have much use to me. That’s the problem of learning; there are surplus byproducts.

Public and Private Beauty

Graceful SimplicityThere is a distinct abuse of bulleted lists in Segal’s book. Nonetheless, many of the concepts buried in these bullets deserve close attention and comparison with other variations on the general ideas.  The “graceful” aspect of Segal’s formulation of graceful simplicity is steeped in aesthetic values which converge and diverge with earlier deployments of the concept.

It amazes me just how frequently these basic concepts can be traced directly to William Morris, Ruskin, and the intrusions of industrial capitalism. William Morris lamented the shoddy products of his time and the lack of aesthetic beauty in the lives of the many.

Segal implicitly agrees with Morris, though he never cites him. There are however many   divergences on a path to a quite socialist conception of the problems. Segal places the lack of the beauty into the public sphere, rather than the private though he does bulletize the household first:

  • Beauty must not be thought of as residing solely or even primarily within things. There is a beauty that is the architecture of time; it requires slowing down and doing things right, and it may call for less income and more time, rather than the reverse.
  • A life of graceful simplicity does not require that our homes be museums; it does not require that every artifact of daily use be striking. At the same time, from the point of view of gracefulness, a life that is aesthetically impoverished is abhorrent.
  • One dimension of graceful living is the awakening of aesthetic appreciation, and with that will come a selectivity that often, without any additional cost, results in attainment of things of beauty. Anyone who has wandered through flea markets and garage sales and thrift shops knows that there are great things to be found—beautiful objects, not noticed or not valued by others.
  • Things of beauty exercise a special power—they radiate within their spaceand as they draw us into their orbit they close our consciousness to that which is outside. Thus, it is not necessary that all our possessions be beautiful, only that some things are. (68)

The first point, about an “architecture of time” seems more unique, or at least reactive to the “slow” movements that were emerging around the time that he composed his book. The second, third, and fourth points are eerily similar to Yanagi Sōetsu’s concepts of mingei and the intimate nature of craft beauty, which probably had Morris as their original source. Ultimately, it seems as these concepts flow through many mouthpieces who differ largely only in emphasis rather than substance. Where Segal really breaks ground, in my opinion, is in next few bullets

  • One of the inexpensive sources of beauty is in our own creative ability. In part, this is a matter of tapping into our own latent abilities to take a beautiful photograph, to sculpt, to draw, or to play an instrument. These to some extent involve mastery of technique. But within the household, we are constantly engaged with the issue of design and arrangementwhether it be the utensils, the tools, the furniture, the towelswhat we find in every space is that beauty resides not just in the objects, but in how they are arranged with one another. Perhaps this is better understood by thinking about marketplaces. If one has traveled in the Third World countries and gone into marketplaces, sometimes one is stopped short by an exceedingly beautiful display, formed with fifty loves of bread or with a few dozen shirts. (68-9)

I’ve got some serious issues with this section. First, it seems really horrible to suggest that photography, playing music, sculpting, etc., are somehow latent in people and only need to be summoned by practice and technique. Photography, for example, is largely (in my opinion) a matter of disabusing oneself of the notion that you actually know anything about it simply because you’ve seen a lot of it. It’s not latent, in fact, it is perhaps the most opposite of a latent skill I can possibly think of.

Photography is a recording technology that you might think you understand by simply being exposed to it: it only takes a few stabs at imitation before you figure out that maybe you don’t know so much about it after all. It’s hard, at least if you’re doing it right. Skill isn’t an internal matter of getting in touch with yourself and your hidden talents; it’s about understanding a variety of technologies from the pencil to the chisel, including perhaps also the piano and the camera. Practice and education are far more constituent of “talent” than any innate quality, at least in my opinion. In design and arrangement however, things might well be different.


I remember stopping at Buc-ee’s in Lulling, Texas a while ago and being struck by this wall of products. It struck me then that it didn’t represent real choice, but rather the illusion of choice. Though there are a multitude of flavors listed, they’re pretty much the same product (salt, sugar, soy, etc.) with just a touch of different in the chemical/spice treatments added. As I’ve learned to do more with basic food products like rice (which comes in a myriad of varieties with completely different properties) it occurs to me that the knowledge of how to transform raw materials into meals presents a more impressive array of choices than the wall of flavor powders. But I digress: the display was beautiful in a bizarre way.

Though I find the reference to the beauty of Third World markets a bit condescending and imperialist (ah, those simple peasants and their displays), Segal is onto something with the beauty of arrangement. Of all that he’s mentioned, arrangement is as close to a “latent” talent that most people can be said to have. While it can be developed through education and practice, we all “know what looks right” if we give ourselves half a chance. The fact that he chooses an economic locus (the market) as an example of commonplace beauty is a bit like a Freudian slip; lusting after products in a shop window is a beautiful thing.

I recall my mother, being a woman used to living on very little, would just revel in moving her furniture around from time to time to “improve” her surroundings. Furniture arrangement was probably the only “artistic” pursuit she ever attempted. Crafts, like needlepoint or knitting, though popular with most of her sisters, always reminded my mother how much better they were at it. She didn’t find it relaxing in the slightest. But furniture arrangement, well, that was just her way of getting in touch with beauty. So, I think Segal’s point is a good one even if it is clumsy in its expression.

But the real breakthrough, I think, is in the final bullet of his list:

  • The beauty in our private spaces, inside our homes, is accessible only to us and our friends. But perhaps of more significance is the aesthetic quality of public space, be it the architecture of houses, yards, gardens; the pavement of the streets; the shops; the trees; the skyline; or access to the sunset. In economist’s terms, these are public goods, in the sense that the enjoyment of them by one person does not diminish their availability to others. They are not, in the ordinary sense, consumed.

It is this point that really merits discussion at greater length. It’s not really something that can be addressed by individual action. It’s a question of social beauty, not of individual or consumer beauty. I hadn’t really thought of beauty as a social concept before.

I must admit that I felt “happier” living in the Twin Cities*, though I was of lower economic means then.  With the highest per capita arts spending of any major metro area and a park system pretty much second to none, Upstate New York suffers by comparison. Natural beauty is widely available here, and wonderful— but the lack of civic beauty is hurtful to the spirit. I live in a beautiful enclave, accessible only to those with means. And my heart sinks when I step outside of it.

*There is a rebuttal to the linked article, but I stand by my opinion– it’s the best place I have ever lived.

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.



But, in the 1870s, Morris was coming to regard his writing as (in the words of Henry James), a sub-trade—a form of pleasurable recreation and relaxation from other work—rather than his central place of encounter with his age. He was coming to adopt an attitude towards his writing (drawn in part from his own version of Ruskin’s doctrine of pleasurable labour) which was incompatible with the fullest concentration of his intellectual and moral energies.

“I did manage to screw out my tales of verses, to the tune of some 250 I think”, he wrote to his wife in 1876 while working on Sigurd the Volsung. “That talk of inspiration is sheer nonsense”, he is quoted as saying in later years. “I may tell you that flat. There is no such thing: it is a mere matter of craftsmanship.” And again: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry he had better shut up; he’ll never do any good at all.”

Morris adopted this attitude partly in antagonism to the excessive airs of the romantically “inspired” and in part he was influenced by his earlier picture of the folk-poet, the scald, the bard who in earlier societies  could entertain the company in the hall or around the fire almost impromptu with an epic tale. But these poets, with every incident, every image and turn of phrase, every description of hero or heroine, were drawing on collected traditions of past singers, were evoking memories, associations and accepted judgements of a people.

E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (2011), p.188-9

Talking Shop

9780813931210You 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.