There is no craft in the Pierre bar



'There is no craft in the Pierre Bar' Craft Victoria March/April, 22 (213): 5-7 (1992)

What's the time? You look at your watch. Most likely the watch was purchased in your own lifetime; after several years, when its accuracy falters, you simply throw it away and buy a new one. Consider the situation a century ago. Then watches were heirlooms, passed on through generations and carefully maintained by those expert in the craft of watchmaking. It's hard to deny that something has been lost today. Material things are no longer as important in keeping people together -- their disposability is considered more valuable than their durability. This picture reminds us of the inevitable loss of permanence that has accompanied modernisation.

Do you subscribe to this picture? The issue of how relationships between humans are mediated by the things they produce is an issue that provides a central role for the category of the crafts. What I'd like to do in this and two future articles is develop an argument about the place of the crafts in the contemporary world. These articles attempt to map the space in which the category of the crafts exists in our world today: Is it the space of art, business, production, recreation, service, fashion or politics? Taking a general perspective on the crafts will hopefully enable us to raise serious questions about its place in the 1990s and after.

We begin with the opinion that as moderns we have witnessed the decline of craft as an integral part of our lives. This opinion is not concerned with the actual standards of performance, but with the kind of attitude and work practice which is associated with the crafts. Before we identify what domain of life practice this might relate to, let's examine how this sense of decline is expressed.

The New York story

I would like to concentrate on two stories about craft's demise. The first is housed in the humanist tradition of the New York school, which includes writers such as Hannah Arendt, George Steiner and Richard Sennett. One of the major concerns of this school is the lessened power of the public realm in modernity and the anomie of urban life associated with the individualist ethic of capitalism. One of the theses of Hannah Arendt's seminal work, The Human Condition, is that modernity witnesses the transformation of work into labour. Work concerns the production of things whose durability and usefulness help cohere together a human society; humans who work transform material with a specific end in mind. Labour, on the other hand, is a quantifiable unit of energy not directly associated with any specific product; humans who labour apply themselves to a pre-determined routine which transforms itself abstractly into a weekly wage. The difference between work and labour is the difference between making and punching a clock. You might see how the transformation of work into labour is associated with a greater rootlessness: the tangible relationship between work and its product is lost -- `Thank god it's Friday'.

In our era abstract labour, the relationship between maker and materials associated with the practice of craft is no longer important. Such a picture of modernity is clearly critical of progress. It laments the weightless and careless atmosphere of an urban existence that is carried on by default. To give a sense of how this might be seen to pervade modern existence in general, I have a scene from a New York bar written by a friend of Hannah Arendt's, Richard Sennett. Sennett describes frequenting the Pierre bar (on Fifth Avenue at the beginning of Central Park) looking for `material', but is disappointed by the lack of sense in the stories:

Something was always left out in the account of the important deal that would explain why it might work, or a woman's `problems' would be alluded to, heavily but without specifics, as a man explained why he was alone most nights. The men in the bars lacked craft. And if indeterminate and illogical, these stories were also curiously neutral, the speaker seldom moved by his tale, at least audibly, the voices recounting problems with women or big deals equably, perhaps with the poise that polished repetition does give and also perhaps like Marcher driven by the compulsion to tell it once more in order that, by chance, the telling might suddenly reveal the hidden meaning of the tale. In the bars there is a place and a time for each man to recount his fragments as though they are just about to become wholes.[1]

Sennett presents us with a picture of a world devoid of permanence: fragmented stories are told over and over again with little possibility of reaching an audience. Significantly, what Sennett identifies as their lack is `craft':  it is the absence of `craft' which accounts for the pointlessness of contemporary public life. The pursuit of craft for Sennett is an essential part of being `centred' in one's life: `Making well is what keeps one sane, and how one finds a place in the world.'[2] What I will call the `New York story' associates the demise of craft in modern society with the weakening of ties and forms of exchange between people.

The Paris story

By contrast, in what I will call the `Paris story', the loss of craft is attributed to a surfeit of sociability. As you might know, the most infamous strains of French thought in recent times have been the radical writings of individuals such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. These thinkers present revolutions in common sense ways of understanding the world by arguing such propositions as: self is the product of power, not its origin; writing is prior to speech; humans are things before they have a consciousness as beings, etc. Their writing reflects this revolutionary impetus by adopting playful, experimental styles. Alongside these major thinkers, there are swarms of young acolytes who seem to do away with all traditional concepts of truth, nature and humanity. In this atmosphere of philosophical abandonment, there emerges a conservative voice, warning at the loss of meaning that will emerge in this contemporary trend.

One of these voices, J.G. Merquoir, sums up the Parisian scene:

Flaunt a method, proclaim a new theoretical paradigm, popularize some jargon and you may very well rise out of the ruck and become notable. Especially if, as in Paris, philosophers and social scientists were often expected to utter the High Talk of literary `prophets' instead of plodding through the prosaic researches of mere experts, stolid craftsmen of specialized lores.[3]

Merquoir divides the road to truth into two paths. There is the quick easy way, with fashionable devices and short-term fame. And there is the long slow way, involving lonely hours in devotion to one's discipline. The latter is the way less chosen, the way mourned by Merquoir. There are no longer the `stolid craftsmen' to provide the gravity which adds historical depth to research. Everyone wants to party -- no one feels like doing their homework.

The grand old patriarch of the Paris intellectual scene is undoubtedly Claude LJévi-Strauss, still writing at the age of 84. LJvi-Strauss holds fast to the notion that the human world can be understood with the certainty of a science. By contrast, the generation after him saw science as just another form of narrative: science produces rather than reflects the truth. For LJvi-Strauss, all communicative media have their domain of truth, even painting, but it requires users to respect and honour their codes. In an essay written in 1980, LJvi-Strauss decries the way modernism has focussed its attention on the formal properties of painting, at the expense of the subject matter which it might represent:

On the other hand, only if one continued to see in painting a means of knowledge -- that of a whole outside the artist's work -- would a craftsmanship inherited from the old masters regain its importance and keep its place as an object of study and reflection.[4]

What Lévi-Strauss identifies as a malaise in painting is the loss of the traditions associated with the function of art as a separate language for representing the world. Instead, it has been sacrificed for the benefit of individual style. Painting has lost the `dignity of a craft' (p. 257). LJvi-Strauss shows favour to the practices that offer enduring meanings, but today it seems as though everyone wants to be different.[5]

Brave new world

Both the New York and the Paris stories agree on the demise of craft in the contemporary world. Whereas the New York story finds the cause of this in the growing machinery of modernity, the desertion of young people from the fold in the Paris story is due to the lure of individual fame. Listening to both these stories, it seems at first difficult to disagree: they resonate with the nagging inadequacies of modern life -- the surly tram conductor, the avalanche of bills, the tastelessness of tomatoes, etc. It would be easy to continue on this track here and raise a local call for the revival of the `good spirit' of the crafts. But that would be too predictable and not provide too great a tax on our thinking capacities -- though things were a lot more certain back in the womb, it would be impractical to turn back now. What might was have gained from the demise of craft?

First, let's go back to the Pierre bar in New York and the scene of those sad monologues aimed over the head of Richard Sennett. The dreaded machinery of modern alienation has removed from these types their centre -- that singular focus of individual power that kept them tied together as persons with a coherent story to tell about themselves. But, you know, perhaps this is the way things are meant to be. After all, what is so important about working by hand and drawing on personal experience in the production of objects? Why should we always put ourselves in the centre? Machines, after all, are more reliable: an automatic door-closer is a much more reliable device for negotiating human traffic than a doorman.[6] Precision engineering will produce a more reliable engine than one constructed by human hand.

Indeed, for a moment let's look at the idea of craft as the retrograde nostalgia which wants to turn technology back to a time when humans could easily consider themselves to be in complete control of their worlds. If we follow this line of argument, it becomes possible to look on the crafts as a quaint game of `pretend technology didn't happen' -- a place where humans hide from their machine masters and exchange whispered words of solidarity. It's at this point one confronts the idea that craft is a diversionary hobby which has no real engagement with life as it is experienced in the working week. Wouldn't it be more honest to acknowledge the demise of craft and embrace the new possibilities it offers? Shouldn't Richard Sennett listen to those men at the Pierre bar with a more generous ear, admiring the free fall quality of their narratives -- their easefulness and very lack of centre?[7]

But what about the Paris story, where the scene is rendered meaningless by swarms of individuals deliriously proving their `uniqueness'. Isn't it laudable here to call back the craft ethic -- to restore some order, to give coherence and to enable the accumulation of learning? This is the opposite complaint to Sennett's: in the Paris story, craft represents a circumscribed power of the individual, rather than its restoration. Yet, more broadly, both speak for a renewal of social order.

But how much does that social order involve blind conformity to the past? This is certainly Nietzsche's idea of craft as he wrote about it in 1887:

Every craft [Handwerk], even if it should have a golden floor, has a leaden ceiling over it that presses and presses down upon the soul until that becomes queer and crooked. Nothing can be done about that. Let nobody suppose that one could not possibly avoid such crippling by some artifice of education. On this earth, one pays too dearly for every kind of mastery, and perhaps one pays too dearly for everything.[8]

Nietzsche writes like a sourpuss, certainly, but his main point prompts the onset of an important phase in the development of our argument. Nietzsche's philosophy aims to provide a means by which human existence somehow measures up to the openness of the world -- to transform being into becoming. Craft, in this picture, represents a static and constrained form of life: it repeats the same. Craft is mean minded, obsessive and close fisted. There is little opportunity for courage in following one's craft: the path is finely constructed and despite the difficulty climbing it, it is well blazed.

So here we end with two strands of thought about the crafts. Both associate the weakened ties between people with the declining role of the craft ethic. For one, the inhuman scale of modernism deprives us of the feeling of centredness necessary for good communication with others. This picture can be criticised as nostalgic humanism, assuming in an unreflective manner that what is valuable necessarily is what is most human. For the other strand of thought, the excess of individualism associated with modern capitalism leaves an absence of shared language, maintained over history. The antithesis of this thought accuses craft of a failure of will to confront the wildness of life's existence, to deal with the possibility of difference.

Disposability in modern life has a good side. Rather than crowding with world with things -- monuments to the ideal of human spirit -- useful items can be assembled and dismantled as they are required. After an existence of more than forty years, a settlement of 200 caravans in South Devon was removed overnight, all its materials being sold for scrap or recycling -- it's so ecological![9] Aren't the crafts a material burden by contrast with the ephemeral items offered by modern technology?

At this point that we have established certain lines of combat. On one side we have the crafts producing the durable reality that houses forms of human exchange. On the other, there stands the brave new world of modernity which ephemeralises material culture and so weakens the social bond, causing either urban anomie (New York) or individual anarchy (Paris). At the risk of leaving some readers unsatisfied, I'd like to keep the argument up in the air at this point. In my next article, I will attempt to determine what kinds of craft might be considered unique to modernity. Then we can see how well they meet the arguments against craft we have discovered in this article.

[1].. Richard Sennett The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities New York: Knopf, 1990, p. 68. `Marcher' is the main character in the short story by Henry James, `The beast in the jungle', who constantly defers responsibility for his life story.

[2].. The Conscience of the Eye 1990, p. 243

[3].. J. G. Merquoir From Prague to Paris: A Critique of Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Thought London: Verso, 1986, p.212

[4].. Claude LJvi-Strauss `To a young painter' in The View from Afar (transl. J. Neugroschel & P. Hoss) New York: Basic Books, 1985, p. 256

[5].. The lament of the French conservatives harmonises with the warning by Bernard Leach that the desire for individual fame runs counter to the essence of a craftsperson's lot which is the humble attitude to the wisdom of past practice and the daily discipline of repetitive making.

[6].. See Bruno Latour `Mixing humans and non-humans together: The sociology of the door-closer' Social Problems 1988, 35: 298-310

[7].. Please, I am not arguing this point. I am raising the question in order to provoke the future development of the argument.

[8].. Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science (transl. W. Kauffman) New York: Vintage, 1974, p.322

[9].. See Martin Pawley `High-tech architecture: History vs. the parasites' AA Files 1991 21: 26-29