Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Nature and Art of Workmanship
by David Pye ...

David Pye, UK woodworker, philosopher and author explored the meaning of craftsmanship in his book “the Nature and Art of Workmanship”. The book questions many of the typical assumptions about the values inherent in work and the products of manufacturing and craftsmanship. Pye differentiates between “workmanship of certainty” in which the processes are mechanized, engineered and controlled to achieve a certainty of outcomes and “workmanship of risk” in which the outcome is less predictable and largely dependent on the attention and skill of the craftsman.

This morning as I was brushing my teeth, I couldn’t help but marvel at the simple invention moving through my mouth. It has an ultrasonic vibration that helps to remove microscopic particles, and it cost $3.87 at the local discount store. It is obvious that modern manufacturing is able to offer significant value in the goods made through what David Pye calls workmanship of certainty. If I were to attempt to make a simple toothbrush, I could spend much more than a day doing it, and still not be able to make one myself that would be so effective. Or, I might go outside and with prior knowledge and experience, simply choose something from the range of available natural materials that would suffice, but it would be far less effective than the tooth brush I used this morning.

The age of cheap manufactured goods has called the life of the craftsman or maker into question. It is an old problem, and one that John Ruskin attempted to address long before David Pye. How do we come to an understanding of the value of the handmade object? What are the attributes that give it value? In most circumstances, a handmade object can’t compete with a well-designed manufactured object in either usefulness or price. So where does it compete, and why would someone want to either make or purchase something made by hand?

If you are interested in this question, reading David Pye’s book is a good place to start. Personally, I think the answer lies in an exploration of our own values. If we are a “values damaged” society as suggested by Matti Bergstöm (see post of Thursday, September 14 this blog) and are only able to think of the objects in our lives in the economic terms of supply, demand, price and marginal utility, we might as well forget the hands and all the higher values in human life… things like love, the miracles of growth and the joy of discovery. But if there are other values at work in our lives, we will always have a need to be making things with our own hands and to treasure things made through the inspired hearts and skilled hands of others.

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