The Craftsman

by Richard Sennett

The American Craft Museum changing its name to the Museum of Arts & Design in 2002, British ceramicist Grayson Perry winning the Turner Prize in 2003, the founding of online craft marketplace and community etsy.com in 2005. These are only three signs of a post-millennial resurgence of craft in the developed world. Others include knitting clubs, Ready Made magazine, a few self-proclaimed “radical craftsmen” and the many exhibitions, books and articles dedicated to the role of craft in the design and art worlds.

One would think The Craftsman, launched in 2008, would be the guide of choice to this phenomenon. But Professor Richard Sennett’s book not only provides few answers to why people – be it designers, artists or stay-at-home moms – have been turning to craft, it seems to ignore them completely. Perhaps because this book is more concerned with formulating a larger, philosophical question: what happened to our experience and understanding of work?

The Chicago-born, New York and London-based 66-year old sociologist has been writing for over thirty years on how matters such as respect, class, culture, capitalism and the city influence humans and the ways they relate to each other, their living environment and, above all, their work. The Craftsman, Sennett’s first volume of a trilogy dedicated to material culture – preceding the volumes Warriors and Priests and The Foreigner – is really just another step in that trajectory.

This 300-page exploration in the human endeavor of “making as thinking” has a conversational, almost pedagogic tone. Even if it’s not a difficult book, the myriad examples/case studies presented, while useful alternatives to the clichéd illustration of “the craftsman” – a white, old man lovingly carving wood in a sun-drenched workshop – make it at times a rambling, distracting read. Ranging from Bronze-Age toolmakers to Linux programmers, Voltaire to Stradivari, Adolf Loos to Julia Childs, the Suzuki Method to the British National Health Service, Sennett chooses individual and collective developments in human history that dignified, improved or questioned human existence through craftsmanship.

By embracing craftsmanship as man’s basic impulse, the desire even, “to do a job well for its own sake”, Sennett attempts to, in his own words, “rescue Animal laborans from the contempt with which Hannah Arendt treated him”. A professor of his in the 1960s, Arendt argued “people who make things usually don’t understand what they’re doing” and divided mankind into two dimensions: Animal laborans – people who make things and are reduced to being beasts of burden, immoral drudges condemned to routine who take work as an end in itself – and Homo Faber, whereby men and women harbor a higher way of life not concerned with producing, but with discussing and judging the (Animal laborans’) work. In this book, Sennett tries to bring the two divisions together, suggesting even “Animal laborans might serve as Homo faber’s guide”.

Many of Sennett’s critics say his defense of craftsmanship as ethical virtue is nothing particularly new; John Ruskin, William Morris and John Dewey shared the same belief in the values of craftsmanship and how it could steer society in the stormy times of technological and social change. By publishing his argument in a time – our time – when matters such as work, the workplace, career, education and learning (not to mention the pecuniary and symbolic value of labor itself), have undergone radical transformations, Sennett can indeed be blamed follow their footsteps.

But this self-confessed pragmatist doesn’t fall in the traps of romanticism of socialism – good craftsmanship can be compatible with both machines and profit. His ultimate critique is not of capitalism per se, but of our contemporary experience and perception of work. He refers to craftwork as a “turning one outward” experience, an extension of one’s training, skill or dexterity, but also of personal curiosity, independent spirit and humility. By focusing on the experience of work and the quality of its results, we give up, not in to our obsessions; we are proud of what we have learnt and done, not of what we claim to have momentously achieved. An appreciation for time, quality and generosity (in sharing, in teaching) should thus replace a quest for immediacy, hubris and celebrity, even originality. And that’s no small task.

Sennett also calls for a shift in the perception of work in our goal-obsessed, meritocratic society (think SAT scores, reality talent shows and CEO bonuses), where titles and results are more important than knowing what one actually does for a living. And that’s where the early-naught re-appraisal of craft proves that shift may be starting to take place.

First, ordinary people have been getting the tools and – digital – platforms to escape from conventional work and deeply engage with a meaningful activity, creating in the process a new kind of entrepreneurship. By relinquishing (or not being able to access) mass production, a growing number of designers have also began rendering a dimension of individuality and identity to objects, often of their own making. Craft-based artists and their work have regained value against the art of novelty and the “big idea”.

Again, The Craftsman does not address how craft made it back to the practice and discourse of contemporary – in the sake of our interest, applied – art. But it’s only telling how Sennett has, since the book’s launch, been called to take part in the debate – be it in interviews, discussions or lectures – that has been restoring craft’s reputation and place in our society.

 

The Craftsman
Richard Sennett
336 pages, Yale University Press
2008

This review was written for Shax Riegler‘s D-Crit class on Cultural Theory.

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