A Word on Craftspeople

03.02.02

It has been noted by many, and especially by Hannah Arendt, that life moves at such a pace now-a-days in the United States that proper treatment of almost any endeavor can only be achieved in the intimate realm where means and large-scale coordinated effort are limited — and thus gains are similarly limited.  It has also been speculated that given this situation, the only activities or places capable of attaining depth of meaning, form, or action – of truly birthing new ideas and actions and orders – are located in or related to things generally cast aside by the social realm — things for which the market cannot immediately see the commodity value, and so get left behind.  That is, things are most free to mature and gain depth in the margins of society, where the life is not sucked from them as soon as they are birthed, as happens with so many ideas and products that are born into mainstream America; where they are turned into a commodity and exploited before they ever reach maturity.  A slum for instance, or a business in a forgotten location, or a space under a highway or in some place of no commercial value is more likely to be the home of true innovation and beauty than the corporate office or research lab.  It is in such marginal places that something might be free to grow as it will and as it sees fit without the need to be able to explain and justify its worth, its bottom line, its economic merit, and growth potential, to the client and the market at every moment and every stage of its development.  It is here in the margins, then, where true innovation and artistry happens, that true craftspeople may be able to develop.  After all, to become a true craftsperson means one has to have opportunity to regularly work on true crafts.  This is how I view the master craftsman, G____, K____, B____, P____, S____, and M____, where I work.  They have found a unique niche and are, in every sense of the word, craftspeople, master craftspeople, and what’s more, there is more of an architect and philosopher in each of them than I ever encountered in an architectural firm or teaching at a university.  In the metal shop we consider aesthetics more than we ever did in a firm and as much as we did in school — the difference being these guys have such a refined sense and are not pretentious and their knowledge is grounded in depth of experience — they are not just chirping birds repeating vaguely worded, impressive sounding (but empty) summaries of whatever they just heard is ‘important to know’ in order to seem like one knows what one is talking about.  We are not mere construction paralegals, as I believe most architects are today, nor are we self-indulgent, superficial blow-hards, as too many academics with whom I’ve interacted seem to be.  I am happy then, to develop as an environmental designer / architect-to-be out away from the general malaise of the profession and the academy and at the same time learning some very relevant yet tangential things about construction and the aesthetics of building materials from men who really know what they are talking about.

The same I feel about my position with respect to studying philosophy and my intellectual growth.  At our Hegel reading group meetings people draw parallels with so many other readings and thoughts…and that after only having read a few pages of Hegel! – and probably only a few pages of those with whom they are comparing Hegel!  — All surface and pretense. Why?  This is not love – it is not investment – it is not art – it is not freedom.  The need to satisfy the social realm and turn everything into a commodity, to profess, as these professors-to-be are learning to do, is pathological.  Their behavior is performative and serves a social and professional goal, but it does not honor the work – the ideas – above all else – so what is the point?  Where is the humanity and the dignity in it?  And if there is no humanity and dignity in it, why do it?  For these professors-to-be, ideas are cheapened by making them commodities to be exchanged for a paycheck.  This is not the Ivory Tower!  This is not the Academy as repository and protector of a civilization’s Knowledge and Truths.  These are ambulance-chasers and this is the academy as big-box-retailer.

Mostly nowadays, in neither the profession of architecture nor that of academia is the actual work sacred lest it find a means of accomplishing this after it has satisfied the demands of the social and economic realms or if it is sold on other assets or qualities and the true artistry is / crafts are hidden in the product and left for future generations to uncover.  It will hopefully be safe, after the fact, to reveal that the true purpose and value was hidden within.  Thus neither the architect nor the academic is free to truly be a craftsperson in their respective field so long as he/she is primarily a commodity hocking commodities.

Associating an academic or an architect with a craftsperson may seem odd.  But both work with ideas (the abstract technologies) in as focused a manner and on as fundamental and menial a level as a welder works with metal.  This is surely in the role of craftsperson…a craftsperson of ideas…or at least has the potential to be; for ideas are crafted just as a steel rail or table is.  Yet so many of our academicians and designers, who ought to be craftspeople, are not.  They are forced into a position of regurgitation and passing on to others the revamped, ‘spruced up’, poor replicas of ideas of people who came before…as fashion…and they give in and go along with it.  Thus the potential craft…and therefore…the potential dignity in an intellectual or creative endeavor, is lost to the needs of a sociological and economic process of ‘educating’ and ‘designing’, of producing incessantly just to produce – just to say that one has something new – as Burroughs puts it, they are the Senders, and how tragic is that!

To be a true master craftsperson, contrary to what Plato or Socrates will tell, is indeed to be free.  It is to be forever engaging in work as a means of exercise and enjoyment and not merely to provide for food and survival.  Why are they free to do this?  Because they sell themselves on something other than their ideas, on something other than aesthetics, thus they are able to protect the ideas and let them grow and mature properly.  Unfortunately in our current situation, the means to attain to the level of craftsperson of ideas or aesthetics is by forsaking the public avenues supposedly set aside to that purpose.  Robert Frost said taking the path less worn made all the difference…perhaps in his time…now-a-days I find the only salvation lies in forsaking all paths and walking through whatever might be left of the wilderness.  To become a true craftsperson of ideas and aesthetics, the margins are where it is at!  For as the Han Shan say, “There is no road to Cold Mountain…”

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