Tuesday, November 27, 2012

they say...

As described in this lecture by craft critic Bruce Metcalf, Hand Work, looking back, looking forward, "Handwork, they say, is by nature irrelevant in the 21st Century." Metcalf presents a lengthy rebuttal to that notion, but along the way also, a rather depressing set of circumstances including the loss of programs at the university level. There seems to be a growing sense that human skill except that in the realm of digital manipulation is no longer required.

We can use maker bots, robots, huge digital routers to take the place of actual human manipulation of tools and materials... which might be a fine thing if all our products were to be made from reconstituted sawdust instead of real wood. But real wood has grain, variations in density and color that demand human attention and judgement, and require the expression of care that can come only through the human hands, even if those hands are feeding a table saw, or passing wood through an operation on the router table. Human engagement in the form of discernment is essential.

I'm enough of a craftsman that I want some particular things. For instance, as my students are making cigar box guitars, I want them to end up with guitars that can be actually played, and kept as an important expression of this part of their lives. That means frets, smooth necks that feel good in the hand, and some uniformity between each student's guitars so that they can be played together. I've been going to rather great lengths to keep these lovely things from getting screwed up.

From the student perspective, some are excited about making them, but don't even care if they will actually work, which makes me wonder "What is this, 'art' or something?" For instance, one student having put a huge sound hole where the bridge must be says, "It's OK if it doesn't work because I can hang it on the wall or something." That's enough to break a craftsman's heart. It also makes me worry that student's expressions of "originality" have become more important than understanding of physical reality. For instance, the ability for a guitar to actually make consistent notes and form chords is dependent on the precise relationship between the frets, nut and bridge.

The point of this, of course, is that real skill is required, and skill requires a commitment of time and energy, discretion and attention, that is not required in doing one's own meaningless thing. It's enough to make me look fondly back at the days of educational Sloyd in which students were asked to do certain prescribed models that led to greater skill. The models were assessed by some as lacking in creativity, as they were designed to be actually useful rather than simply decorative. That's what happens when work is held to a useful standard.

We want our students to be both skilled and creative. I think a child can become both, but at some point, one end or the other, and whether internally composed or externally imposed, standards must be demonstrated and adopted if skill is ever to be valued again in American culture. I suspect that "creativity" has become a poor substitute for work lacking in skill. Coming up with crap as a result is too often excused by the explanation, "I was trying to be different".

In a way, it is like standing at the lathe, tool poked in randomly at the wood. But after seeing "creativity" time and again, and seeing so little that is actually creative emerge from work, I do have a longing for excuses to cease and real skill to receive priority. For when skill and creativity are combined you've really got something.

I thank reader Brian for the link to Bruce Metcalf's lecture. In the wood shop today I am working on lids for 500 boxes. The best work is not always the most creative or "artistic". But comes when artistry and skill are brought into creative partnership.

Make, fix and create...

1 comment:

  1. Doug,

    Excellent post. I enjoyed the read.