Sing, clear-voiced Muse, of Hephaestus famed for inventions. With bright-eyed Athena he taught men glorious crafts throughout the world, – men who before used to dwell in caves in the mountains like wild beasts. But now that they have learned crafts through Hephaestus the famed worker, easily they live a peaceful life in their own houses the whole year round. Be gracious, Hephaestus, and grant me success and prosperity!
~ ‘Hymn 20: to Hephaestus’, from The Homeric Hymns
Glorious craft is everywhere, in the objects we own and the buildings we inhabit. What a country makes becomes part of its fabric and identity: see the Celts: Art & Identity exhibition currently on at the British Museum. So what is its place in today’s world? How is it considered: as an intrinsic part of human behaviour or something once learned that now risks being forgotten?
One place in which it currently thrives is within the realm of adspeak as a lamentably over-used buzzword.
The juxtaposition with “swoon” is particularly fitting, feeding into the fetishist perspective of craft as something personal, doted upon lovingly with human hands, taking time and care to accomplish. Like its sister-words ‘artisan’ or ‘bespoke’, it pops up to beguile passers-by and profit by contrast to the indifferent anonymity of mass production elsewhere. Crafty indeed. It would be entertaining to make a search engine poem from all the various entries that come up for “handcrafted”, from coffee to haircuts (In fact, I’ll give a prize to anyone who does!):
An excellent rebuttal of this kind of bogus appropriation comes from Matthew Crawford in The Case for Working with Your Hands, Or, Why Office Work Is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (recommended by Wonder Will of the Poetry School). Crawford interprets craftsmanship as “knowledge of the ways of one’s materials”. It is meaningful work that engages an individual’s human capacities as fully as possible and can only be cultivated through long practice.
It’s something we can all aspire to – not by stocking up on Martha Stewart crafts books and joining a guild, but in becoming “master of your own stuff”. An empowering self-reliance in opposition to our ‘if it breaks, buy another’ throw-away culture, where I for one am desperately aware of my vulnerability each time a computer crashes or phone malfunctions.
As championed in a book of similar concerns, Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman, Crawford maintains that we all share a basic human impulse not only to make things outside of oneself, but to do it well, creating a sense of pride and communal admiration. This “wisdom of the hands”, enjoyed for its own sake, strengthens our intellectual and moral virtue as humans.
Defences of craftsmanship and the handmade appear when our sense of humanity is most challenged. For Crawford in the early 21st century, the threat comes from digital technology. John Ruskin bemoaned the machine and its soulless demand for perfection in the 1850s. In a manifesto on typography in 1931, Eric Gill also highlighted the human element at the heart of craftsmanship, while outlining its mortal enemy: “the power of industrialism”.
The conflict between industrialism & the ancient methods of handicraftsmen which resulted in the muddle of the 19th century is now coming to its term. But tho’ industrialism has now won an almost complete victory, the handicrafts are not killed, & they cannot be quite killed because they meet an inherent, indestructible, permanent need in human nature. (Even if a man’s whole day be spent as a servant of an industrial concern, in his spare time he will make something, if only a window box flower garden.)
~ Eric Gill, from An essay on Typography
(It’s true; I feel a deep-rooted care for the condition of my houseplants.)
And what happens if the craftsmen themselves have become ‘industrial servants’? Gill asserts that in his age, workmen can no longer be artists but are treated as the tools themselves. It’s interesting to relate this to today’s critical shortage of builders and skilled tradesmen.
Gill prophesised that the worlds of “mechanised industry” and the “humanity of craftsmanship” would grow more distinct. Was he right?
“Poster boy for the handmade” Grayson Perry sees a positive blending of the worlds, where digital technology offers new tools and creative opportunities that craftsmen can use in combination with their old, familiar techniques. He actually goes even further than this:
So maybe we are entering an era when the people in Pixar Studios or wherever are the craftsmen, the Michelangelos of the twenty-first century. Rather a galling thought, maybe. They are the people I regard as cutting-edge craftsmen.
~ Grayson Perry
If craftsmanship is, as Crawford suggests, a mentality or a way of working, then the chosen materials themselves are irrelevant. Whether an ardent member of the Crafts Council, stalwart attendee of craft fairs, exhibitions and workshops, or one of the quietly content like me at home making things and fussing over window boxes – we can all be crafty in what we do. It may improve our moral virtue, or it may encourage the “craft and subtilty of the devil”; the main point is that now, as throughout human history, we make craft and craft makes us.