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The Craftsman (part 4)

July 21, 2009

“There is no art without craft; the idea for a painting is not a painting,” Sennett reminds us.  But the key difference between art and craft is “Originality.”  Craft changed slowly over long periods of time, whereas art, employing what Robert Hughes called the “shock of the new” and what Sennett, referring to Cellini’s gold saltcellar for Francis I, calls “an amazing blow, a painting in pure gold.” 

But Sennett, surprisingly, doesn’t discuss why new methods were regarded with suspicion in craft, or why it took centuries (in the case of his example of Salisbury Cathedral) for change to be incorporated into practice.  No doubt the fear of change, still endemic today, drove many who would have benefited from new methods to denounce them, as we see with the gold assaying techniques discussed earlier.  And there’s the tendency of guilds or monopolies or people in power in general to resist a new idea out of fear, founded or unfounded, that change might find someone who’s not you adopting and exploiting the new system or idea so well that they take your place at the top of the heap, regardless and sometimes in spite of how good the new idea may be in terms of the overall good of the craft, even of humanity.  (“That Muslim Socialist is coming to take away your health care!  Tell Congress you’d rather drop dead of a pre-existing condition than see the gummint runnin’ socialized medicine!”)

The tradeoff for the “autonomous” artist was that he wasn’t really relieved of the burden of authority; the burdeners just went from being the guild and its masters to the princes and popes upon whom the artist was dependent for his commissions and, when they felt like it, payment, and who could dictate the content of the piece.  An artist who wanted to paint something other than Bible stories would have a rough time of it making a living. 

Sennett lists a number of artists who were highly financially successful, many of whom trained as goldsmiths.  I have to wonder if the nature of the material they worked in made it more conducive to art – the cost of gold ensured that fewer pieces would be made than would be produced of any other material, and at far greater expense.  The sort of person who could commission a work in gold was therefore already in deep financially on materials, so to add to that the cost of making the piece beautiful was little matter.  And of course the whole point of acquiring such pieces, now and then, was to show them off to others, advertising both your wealth and your taste.  So you could make the case that the craft of goldsmithing almost inevitably led to the art of it.

The other tradeoff was that the artist lost the life of the “workshop,” a warm and close communal life (punctuated with bouts of family drama) where there were standards to be upheld but no pressure to innovate (and some pressure not to), a predictable rhythm of the same work to be done and the steady payments to be received.  The workshop was “a recipe for binding people tightly together,” whereas

a more secular age replaced these ingredients with originality – a condition separate in its practical terms from autonomy, originality implying in the workshop a new form of authority, an authority frequently short-lived and silent.

Short lived and silent,” because as Sennett notes, the artist’s studio differed from the workshop in a key way.  The artist, the Great Man, could supervise apprentices as they painted the bodies upon which he would place the heads, or prepared the wood for the violins which Stradivarius would assemble and varnish, but art unlike craft cannot be passed down – when Stradivarius died, his sons took over the business, but “he had not taught, he could not teach either of them how to be a genius.”  (Another example, not from the book:  A student of Mozart could “complete” some of his works, but even a close listener familiar with Mozart’s works can tell which pieces “sound like” the genius’s work and which are really his – the exuberance that can’t be duplicated by someone else, however familiar he might be with what sounds like a "Mozartian” pattern of notes.) 

Skill is passed along in workshops through

the absorption into tacit knowledge, unspoken and uncodified in words, that occurred there and became a matter of habit, the thousand little everyday moves that add up in sum to a practice…the master’s head becomes stuffed with information only he or she can see the point of…in a workshop where the master’s individuality and distinctiveness dominate, tacit knowledge is also likely to dominate.  Once the master dies, all the clues, moves and insights…gathered into the totality of the work cannot be reconstructed, there’s no way to ask him or her to make the tacit explicit. 

As Sennett notes, these secrets go to the grave with the master both because sometimes they are hard to put into words, and sometimes because “authority” depends on being the one person who can do it “right.”  In the sciences, successive generations can “stand on the shoulders of giants” because the “additive and accumulative” knowledge is recorded as part of the scientific process – what can’t be proven and documented isn’t science.

Up next:  “the machine” as friend and enemy.

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