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by Richard Sennett
326pp, Allen Lane, £25
Richard Sennett is a prime observer of society, an American, a pragmatist who takes the nitty gritty of daily life and turns it into a disquisition on morality. His earlier books include The Fall of Public Man, The Conscience of the Eye and The Corrosion of Character. Sennett’s knowledge and interests range widely over architecture, art, design, literature and the ever fluctuating social life of cities. The components of the man-made environment enthral him. He is an enchanting writer with important things to say.
Typically his new book considers craftwork very broadly. 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. This is a book about perfectionist skills, the desire to do things well that (he thinks) resides in all of us, the frustration and damage once these urges are denied. When we downgrade dedication we do so at our peril, Sennett argues, in an erudite and thought-provoking work.
This professional sociologist-philosopher is also a musician. One of his most telling examples of the craftsmanship that verges on craft mania is a scene in a town’s concert hall. The visiting conductor of the local orchestra rehearses the string section, going over and over the same passage obsessively. Rehearsal time ticks by, the manager is getting restless. The conductor takes no notice, the orchestra plays on, caught up in the exhilaration of the enterprise, the painstaking process of improvement of performance. This is craftsmanship in action as “enduring, basic human impulse”; the deep inner satisfaction that comes from work perfected for its own sweet sake.
Such idealistic ways of making flourish most easily in settled social spaces. The quasi-domestic medieval workshop, containing at most a few dozen people, nurtured a tradition of perfectionism, allowing scope to care about the right choice of materials and methods of construction. These idyllic conditions of making were self-consciously recreated in the late 19th-century Arts and Crafts workshops and a surprising number of high-quality individual craft workshops still exist in the UK in 2008. But current economics work against long-term job tenure. Modern “flexible working” discourages pride in craftsmanship.
Pleasure in making comes from innate necessary rhythms, often slow ones. As we know in our own lives there is much more satisfaction in cooking a meal or caring for small children if we are not in a hurry. Doing a job properly takes the time it takes. Sennett argues in a fascinating way that, while we are working, submerged processes of thought and feeling are in progress. Almost without being aware we set ourselves the highest standard which “requires us to care about the qualities of cloth or the right way to poach fish”. Doing our own work well enables us to imagine larger categories of “good” in general. This of course was the belief underpinning manual work in many 19th-century utopian communities. But where is it now that pressure to deliver has diminished the capacity for contemplation?
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, organising 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 are so fragmented that it is becoming rare.
Sennett views the satisfactions of physical making as a necessary part of being human. We need craft work 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, compared with the predictable warm glow of steady marital relations as opposed to the more flashy sudden thrills of an affair.
Enlightenment thinking found a way of coping with the onset of industrial production. As summarised by Sennett: “The enlightened way to use a machine is to judge its powers, fashion its uses, in light of our own limits rather than the machine’s potential. We should not compete against the machine.” It was later, in the mid-19th century, that panic set in as more machines spewed out more goods in what seemed to social critics a reckless abandon of luxury and waste. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a crushing blow to craftsmanship, as the teenage William Morris seemed to know by instinct, remaining outside the Crystal Palace in a sulk.
By this time hopes had dimmed that artisans could find an influential place in the industrial order. Battle was joined. Sennett’s 10 pages on an almost crazily belligerent John Ruskin are as good as he gets. He loves the strange immediacy of Ruskin’s writing, pointing out that his prose has “an almost hypnotic tactile power, making the reader feel the damp moss on an old stone or see the dust in sunlit streets”. He comprehends the radical nature of Ruskin’s protest against his own “overstuffed” Victorian age, proposing the return to a pre-industrial past in which individual standards of work still signified. Ruskin tackled the by then fixed division of society into artisans who laboured and gentlemen who thought – or failed to do much thinking. Isn’t there still a residue of such class divisiveness about?
Sennett views Ruskin, unforgettably, as a man deeply aware of his own sensations and experience, making the appeal we might today describe as “get back in touch with your body”. Ruskin observed in Stones of Venice the draughtsman stopping, fumbling, losing temporary control over his work only to resume with new confidence. These are magic human moments no machines can replicate. Sennett makes a case for such “lost spaces of freedom”: spaces in which craftsmen can experiment with ideas and techniques, risk mistakes and hold-ups, lose themselves to find themselves. “This is a condition for which people will have to fight in modern society,” he writes. Indeed it is.
Sennett says of himself “I am a philosophically minded writer asking questions about such matters as wood-working, military drills, or solar panels.” One of his great strengths, the thing that makes his narrative so gripping, is the sheer range of his thinking and his brilliance in relating the past to the present. His search of NHS hospitals for any residue of craftsmanship, the special human quality of being “engaged”, makes depressing reading. Doctors’ and nurses’ attitudes to patients are innately craftsmanlike, driven by curiosity, investigating slowly, retaining an ability to “learn from ambiguity”. These special skills have been eroded by the introduction of health care targets that are entirely quantitive. No place for the craftsman’s subtle and practised “interplay between tacit knowledge and self-conscious awareness” in the brutal Fordism of the modern NHS.
On the other hand Sennett finds craftsmanship resurfacing in unexpected places. He argues that people who participate in Linux online workshops are craftsmen who embody the principles first celebrated in a Homeric hymn to Hephaestus, the master god of craftsmen. Does Sennett go too far in praising the Linux system of “open-source” computer software as a modern example of a public craft employable and adaptable by anyone, which users themselves donate time to improve? The best known Linux application is Wikipedia, the encyclopedia to which any user can contribute. But, as we all know, many Wikipedia entries are just rubbish. Linux workshops are still grappling with an underlying and often inflammatory problem in all communal craft workshops, that of quality control.
Sennett alters one’s view of craftsmanship by finding so much meaning in the detail. The grip on the pencil, the pressure on the chisel: he persuades us that these things have real significance. The Craftsman is one of a trilogy, with volumes to come on ritual and craft, and craft and the environment. This first instalment is so good it will be difficult to wait.
· Fiona MacCarthy’s Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes is published by Faber.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Practice makes perfect | Books