Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The value of Craft and the crafting of Value

In The Craftsman (2008), Richard Sennett expresses the view that craftsmanship has not disappeared, rather he says that craft belongs to the category of "social capital": knowledge and skill that are accumulated and passed on through social interaction, and which are easily lost when social customs change. Social capital is an example of what the scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi called "tacit knowledge": knowledge that exists in a social practice, but is not detachable from it. Sennett argues that craft does not need to be reinvented. It needs to be recognized.

Craft is something that is learnt by doing; it is essentially an adult extension of child's play. Sennett does not stop at potters making mugs or Moroccan leather grainers, though such people do come into it, but extends his warm embrace to the crafts of making music, cooking, the bringing up of children (let me say he is not particularly concerned with gender and always writes he never he/she).

Throughout The Craftsman, Sennett points to the importance of religion and ritual in the transfer of tacit knowledge, and he recognizes that the great craft cultures of medieval times, in which the legacy of tacit knowledge was kept in place by the self-policing guilds, went with a form of life that we, in the western hemisphere, can no longer recuperate. Civic pride counted more than domestic contentment, and the crafts themselves were fully incorporated into the religion of the town, taking their place among the rituals and sacraments whereby the community renewed its sense of legitimacy and its devotion to God.

Sennett's book is about perfectionist skills, the desire to do things well that (he thinks) resides in all of frustration, the damage and us once these urges are denied. The best craftsmanship relies on a continuing involvement. It can take many years of practice for complex skills of making to become so deeply engrained that they are there, readily available, almost without the craftsmen being conscious of it. An obvious example is the glassblower, dependent on tried and trusted ways of using tools, organizing body movements, understanding his idiosyncratic raw materials with a depth of involvement so complete the process of making becomes almost automatic. The same total mastery of technique can apply to music making, ballet dancing, writing. But our lives (in the metropolitan centre of the West) are so fragmented that it is becoming rare.

Sennett views the satisfactions of physical making as a necessary part of being human. We need craftwork as a way to keep ourselves rooted in material reality, providing a steadying balance in a world, which overrates mental facility. He traces these ideas back to 18th-century Enlightenment perceptions. Diderot's Encyclopedia presents manual pursuits as on a par with mental labour, describing the lives of artisan craftsmen to illustrate good work as source of human happiness. Here's a quote I often use:

CRAFT: This name is given to any profession that requires the use of hands, and is limited to a certain number of mechanical operations to produce the same piece of work, made over and over again, I do not know why people have a low opinion of what this word implies; for we depend on crafts for all necessary things in life.

-Diderot's Encyclopedia (1751-80)

How does Sennett's view of the Crafts differ or augment that which Glenn might have taken up in his March 5th lecture?

Sennett's ideas about the Crafts would appear to be very different from those expressed through Spectacle and Trash, a hands on rather than recognising conceptual strategies?

I took my own MFA students last week to explore:

Nicolas Bourriaud's
Altermodern - Tate Triennial 2009 at Tate Britain
4 February - 26 April 2009

Bourriaud (Bourriaud, Nicolas. Relational Aesthetics. Paris; Les Presses du Reel, 2002) is like Sennett as sociologist and is currently affiliated to the TATE as a Gulbenkian Fellow in Curating. In his press release he suggests that a new modernity is emerging, reconfigured to an age of globalisation -- understood in its economic, political and cultural aspects: an altermodern culture. This is due to increased communication, travel and migration that affect the way we live since, he argues, daily lives consist of journeys in a chaotic and teeming universe. What Bourriaud detects is that multiculturalism and identity are being overtaken by creolisation: Artists are now starting from a globalised state of culture.

"Today's art explores the bonds that text and image, time and space, weave between themselves.

Artists are responding to a new globalised perception. They traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs and create new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication".

Sennett's appears rooted in the primacy of skill and labour, meaning and value and what he describes as the transfer of tacit knowledge. Does this have any connection to globalised perceptions and knowledge exchange or are we over taken by creolisation? And what do you think he might mean by this term? Does this notion have any connection to the themes of practice you are engaged in or participatory networks which you might pursue?

In Relational Aesthetics (2002) Nicolas Bourriaud stressed that current practices are governed by a concern to 'give everybody their chance'‚ through forms which do not establish producer over consumer, but rather negotiate open relationships to it. 'Giving everyone their chance' implies a rethinking of the participatory and performance art works produced in post war art practices.

Is this approach simply a characteristic of performative practices seeking collective engagement?

Does this methodology reach the limits of art to have a social effect?

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