Seeing and Using: Art and Craftsmanship
from: Convergences: essays on art and literature.
1st ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, c1987.
Seeing and Using: Art and Craftsmanship
In its rightful place. Not fallen from above, but emerged from below. Other, the color of burnt honey. Sun color buried a thousand years ago and dug up yesterday. Fresh green and orange stripes cross its still-warm body. Circles, frets: remains of a scattered alphabet? Pregnant woman's belly, bird's neck. If the palm of your hand covers and uncovers its mouth, it answers you in a low murmur, a bubble of gushing water; if you rap its haunch with your knuckles, it gives a laugh of little silver coins falling on stones. It can speak in many tongues, the language of clay and matter, that of air flowing down between the walls of the ravine, that of washerwomen as they do their laundry, that of the sky when it grows angry, that of rain. A baked clay vessel Don't put it in the glass display case full of rare objects. It would show up badly. Its beauty is allied with the liquid it contains and the thirst it quenches. Its beauty is corporeal: I see it, touch it, smell it, hear it. If it is empty, it must be filled; if it is full, it must be emptied. I take it by the turned handle as I would take a woman by the arm, I lift it up, I tilt it over a pitcher into which I pour milk or pulque---lunar liquids that open and close the doors of dawn and dark, of waking and sleeping. It is not an object to contemplate, but one for pouring something to drink.
A glass pitcher, a wicker basket, a huipil of coarse cotton cloth, a wooden bowl--handsome objects not in spite of but because of their usefulness. Their beauty is an added quality, like the scent and color of flowers. Their beauty is inseparable from their function: they are handsome because they are useful. Handicrafts belong to a world existing before the separation of the useful and the beautiful. This distinction is more recent than is generally believed: many of the objects gathered together in our museums and private collections belonged to that world in which beauty was not an isolated and self-sufficient value. Society was divided into two great realms, the profane and the sacred. In both, beauty was subordinate, in the one case to usefulness and in the other to magic. Utensil, talisman, symbol: beauty was the aura surrounding the object, the consequence--nearly always involuntary—of the secret relation between its making and its meaning. Making: how a thing is made; meaning: what it is made for. Today all these objects, torn from their historical context, their specific function, and their original significance, take on in our eyes the appearance of enigmatic divinities and command our adoration. The transition from the cathedral, the palace, the nomad's tent, the boudoir of the courtesan, and the witch's cave to the museum was a magico-religious transmutation: objects turned into icons. This idolatry began in the Renaissance and, from the eighteenth century on, has been one of the religions of the West (the other being politics). We find Sor Juana In~s de la Cruz, at the height of the Baroque era, already poking gentle fun at the aesthetic superstition: "A woman's hand," she says, "is white and beautiful because it is a thing of flesh and bone, not ivory or silver; I esteem it not because it gleams but because it grasps."
The religion of art, like the religion of politics, was born of the ruins of Christianity. Art inherited from the old religion the power of consecrating things and endowing them with a sort of eternity; museums are our temples, and the objects displayed in them are beyond history. Politics--or more precisely, Revolution--co-opted the other function of religion: changing human beings and society. Art was an asceticism, a spiritual heroism; Revolution was the construction of a universal church. The mission of the artist was to transmute the object; that of the revolutionary leader, to transform human nature. Picasso and Stalin. The process has been twofold: in the realm of politics, ideas have been turned into ideologies, and ideologies into idolatries; objects of art, in turn, have become idols, and idols have been transformed into ideas. We view works of art with the same absorption as the sage of antiquity contemplated the starry sky (though with less profit): like heavenly bodies, these paintings and sculptures are pure ideas. The religion of art is a Neoplatonism that dares not speak its name--except when it is a holy war against heretics and infidels. The history of modern art may be divided into two currents: the contemplative and the combative. Tendencies such as Cubism and Abstractionism belong to the former current; movements such as Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism, to the latter. Mysticism; crusade.
For the ancients, the movement of the stars and planets was the image of perfection: to see the celestial harmony was to hear it, and to hear it was to understand it. This religious and philosophical vision reappears in our conception of art. For us, paintings and sculptures are not beautiful or ugly objects but intellectual and sensible entities, spiritual realities, forms in which Ideas are made manifest. Before the aesthetic revolution, the value of works of art was related to another value: the link between beauty and meaning. Objects of art were things that were sensible forms that were signs. The meaning of a work was plural, but all its meanings were related to an ultimate signifier in which meaning and being were conjoined in an indissoluble knot: divinity. The modern transposition: for us the artistic object is an autonomous and self-sufficient reality; its ultimate meaning does not lie beyond the work but within it. This meaning lies beyond--or falls short of--meaning; it no longer possesses any referent whatsoever. Like the Christian divinity, Jackson Pollock's paintings do not mean: they are.
In modem works of art, meaning dissipates in the radiation of being. The act of seeing is transformed into an intellectual operation that is also a magical rite: to see is to understand and to understand is to commune. Side by side with divinity and its devotees are its theologians, the art critics. Their excogitations are no less abstruse than those of medieval Scholastics and Byzantine doctors of divinity, though their logic is less rigorous. The questions that aroused the passions of Origen, Albertus Magnus. Abelard, and Thomas Aquinas reappear in the quarrels of our art critics, though in a disguised and trivialized form. Nor does the resemblance end there: to the divinities and the theologians who explain them we must add the martyrs. In the twentieth century we have seen the Soviet state persecute poets and artists with the same ferocity as that shown by the Dominicans in extirpating the Albigensian heresy.
It is only natural that the exaltation and sanctification of the work of art should have given rise to periodic rebellions and profanations: removing the fetish from its niche, painting it in garish colors, parading it through the streets with the ears and tail of a donkey, dragging it in the dirt, poking holes in it and showing that it is full of sawdust, that it is nothing and no one and means nothing--and then setting it back on its throne. "What art needs is a sound thrashing," the Dadaist Huelsenbeck once said in a moment of exasperation. He was right, except that the bruises left on the Dadaist object by the beating were like decorations on the chests of generals: they lent respectability. Our museums are full to overflowing with antiworks of art and works of antiart. More astute than Rome, the religion of art has absorbed all the schisms.
I don't deny that the contemplation of three sardines on a plate or of a triangle and a rectangle may enrich us spiritually; I merely affirm that the repetition of this act soon degenerates into a tedious ritual. That is why the Futurists, faced with the Neoplatonism of the Cubists, sought to reintroduce the subject into the work of art. It was a healthy reaction on their part, and at the same time a naive one. The Surrealists, possessed of greater perspicacity, insisted that the work of art should say something. Since reducing the work to its content or message would have been stupid, they eagerly embraced a notion that Freud had launched: latent content. What a work of art says is not its manifest content but what it says without saying anything: that which lies behind forms, colors, words. This was a way of loosening, without undoing altogether, the theological knot between being and meaning in order to preserve, insofar as possible, the ambiguous relation between the two terms.
Marcel Duchamp was the most radical of all: the work passes by way of the senses but it does not linger in them. The work is not a thing; it is a fan of signs that, as it opens and closes, alternately reveals and conceals its meaning. The work of art is a secret sign exchanged between meaning and meaninglessness. This attitude has its danger—one that Duchamp (almost) always escaped: one may fall off on the other side and be left with the concept and without the art, with the trouvaille and without the thing itself. This is what has happened to his imitators. One might add that frequently they end up without either the art or the concept. It scarcely bears repeating that art is not concept: art is a thing of the senses. Speculating about a pseudo concept is more boring than contemplating a still life. The modern religion of art turns round and round in circles without ever finding the road to salvation; it goes from the negation of meaning through the object, to the negation of the object through meaning.
The industrial revolution was the other side of the coin of the artistic revolution. The ever-increasing production of identical and more and more perfect utensils was the exact counterpart of the consecration of the work of art as a unique object. Like museums, our houses became filled to overflowing with clever gadgets. Precise, obedient, mute, anonymous instruments.
In the beginning, aesthetic concerns played almost no role at all in the production of useful objects. Or rather, these concerns led to results quite different from those their manufacturers had imagined. The ugliness of many objects from the prehistory of industrial design— an ugliness not without charm--stems from the fact that the "artistic" element, generally borrowed from the academic art of the period, was superimposed upon the object itself. The result was not always unfortunate, and many of these objects--those of the Victorian era and also of the so-called modern style--belong to the same family as the sirens and sphinxes of the Baroque period. This family was ruled by what might be called the aesthetics of incongruity. In general, the evolution of the indstrial object for daily use has followed that of artistic styles. Almost invariably, industrial design has been a derivation-sometimes a caricature, sometimes a felicitous copy--of the artistic vogue of the moment. It has lagged behind contemporary art and has imitated styles at a time when they had already lost their initial novelty and were becoming aesthetic cliches.
Contemporary design has endeavored in other ways--its own--to find a compromise between usefulness and aesthetics. At times it has managed to do so, but the result has been paradoxical. The aesthetic ideal of functional art is based on the principle that the usefulness of an object increases in direct proportion to the paring down of its materiality. The simplification of forms may be expressed by the following equation: the minimum of presence equals the maximum of efficiency. This aesthetic is borrowed from the world of mathematics: the elegance of an equation lies in the simplicity and necessity of its solution. The ideal of design is invisibility: the less visible a functional object, the more beautiful it is. A curious transposition of Arab fairy tales and legends to a world ruled by science and the notions of utility and maximum efficiency: the designer dreams of objects that, like genies, are intangible servants. This is the contrary of the work of craftsmanship, a physical presence that enters us through our senses and in which the principle of usefulness is constantly violated in favor of tradition, imagination, and even sheer caprice. The beauty of industrial design is of a conceptual order; if it expresses anything at all, it is the accuracy of a formula. It is the sign of a function. Its rationality makes it fall within an either/ or dichotomy: either it is good for something or it isn't. In the second case it goes into the trash bin. The handmade object does not charm us simply because of its usefulness. It lives in complicity with our senses, and that is why it is so hard to get rid of it--it is like throwing a friend out of the house.
There is a time when the industrial object at last becomes a presence with an aesthetic value: when it becomes useless. It then becomes a symbol or an emblem. The locomotive whose praises Whitman sings is a machine that has come to a halt and no longer transports in its cars either passengers or freight: it is a motionless monument to speed. Whitman's disciples--Valery Larbaud and the kahan Futurists--extolled the beauty of locomotives and railroads at the very moment when other means of transportation--airplanes, automobiles--were beginning to take their place. The locomotives of these poets are the equivalent of the artificial ruins of the eighteenth century: they are a complement to the landscape. The cult of the machine is a naturalism a rebours: a usefulness that becomes a useless beauty, an organ without a function. By way of ruins, history turns back into nature, whether we stand before the crumbled stones of Nineveh or a locomotive graveyard in Pennsylvania. Our fondness for machines and apparatuses fallen into disuse not only constitutes one more proof of humanity's incurable nostalgia for the past, but also reveals a rift in the modern sensibility: our inability to associate beauty and usefulness. Here is a double damnation: the religion of art forbids us to consider the useful beautiful; the cult of utility leads us to conceive of beauty not as a presence but as a function. This may explain why technology has been such a poor source of myths: aviation is the realization of an age-old dream that appears in all societies, but it has not created figures comparable to Icarus and Phaethon.
The industrial object tends to disappear as a form and become one with its function. Its being is its meaning, and its meaning is to be useful. It lies at the other extreme from the work of art. Craftsmanship is a mediation; its forms are not governed by the economy of function but by pleasure, which is always wasteful expenditure and has no rules. The industrial object forbids the superfluous; the work of craftsmanship delights in embellishments. Its predilection for decoration violates the principle of usefulness. The decoration of the craft object ordinarily has no function whatsoever, so the industrial designer, obeying his implacable aesthetic, does away with it. The persistence and proliferation of ornamentation in handicrafts reveal an intermediate zone between utility and aesthetic contemplation. In craftsmanship there is a continuous movement back and forth between usefulness and beauty; this back-and-forth motion has a name: pleasure. Things are pleasing because they are useful and beautiful. The copulative conjunction (and) defines craftsmanship, just as the disjunctive defines art and technology: utility or beauty. The hand made object satisfies a need no less imperative than hunger and thirst: the need to take delight in the things we see and touch, whatever their everyday uses. This need is not reducible to the mathematical ideal that rules industrial design, nor is it reducible to the rigor of the religion of art. The pleasure that works of craftsmanship give us has its source in a double transgression: against the cult of utility and against the religion of art.
Made by hand, the craft object bears the fingerprints, real or metaphorical, of the person who fashioned it. These fingerprints are not the equivalent of the artist's signature, for they are not a name. Nor are they a mark or brand. They are a sign: the almost invisible scar commemorating our original brotherhood and sisterhood. Made by hand, the craft object is made for hands. Not only can we see it; we can also finger it, feel it. We see the work of art but we do not touch it. The religious taboo that forbids us to touch saints--"you'll burn your hands if you touch the Tabernacle," we were told as children--also applies to paintings and sculptures. Our relation to the industrial object is functional; our relation to the work of art is semireligious; our relation to the work of craftsmanship is corporeal. In reality, this last is not a relation but a contact. The transpersonal nature of craftsmanship finds direct and immediate expression in sensation: the body is participation. To feel is primarily to feel something or someone not ourselves. And above all, to feel with someone. Even to feel itself, the body seeks another body. We feel through others. The physical and bodily ties that bind us to others are no less powerful than the legal, economic, and religious ties that unite us. Craftsmanship is a sign that expresses society not as work (technique) or as symbol (art, religion) but as shared physical life.
The pitcher of water or wine in the middle of the table is a point of convergence, a little sun that unites everyone present. But my wife can transform into a flower vase that pitcher pouring forth our drink at the table. Personal sensibility and imagination divert the object from its ordinary function and create a break in its meaning: it is no longer a recipient to contain liquid but one in which to display a carnation. This diversion and break link the object to an other realm of sensibility: imagination. This imagination is social: the carnation in the pitcher is also a metaphorical sun shared with everyone. In its perpetual movement back and forth between beauty and utility, pleasure and service, the work of craftsmanship teaches us lessons in sociability. At fiestas and ceremonies its radiation is still more intense and total. At fiestas the collectivity communes with itself, and this communion takes place through ritual objects that almost always are handmade objects. If fiesta is participation in primordial time---the collectivity literally shares out among its members, like sacred bread, the date being commemorated--craftsmanship is a sort of fiesta of the object: it transforms a utensil into a sign of participation.
The artist of old wanted to be like his predecessors, to make himself worthy of them through imitation. The modern artist wants to be different; his homage to tradition is to deny it. When he seeks a tradition, he looks for it outside the West, in the art of primitives or other civilizations. Because they fall outside the tradition of the West, the archaism of the primitive and the antiquity of the Sumerian or Mayan object are paradoxical forms of novelty. The aesthetics of change requires that each work of art be new and different from those preceding it; novelty in turn implies the negation of immediate tradition. Tradition be comes a succession of abrupt breaks. The delirium of change also rules industrial production, though for different reasons: each new object, the result of a new process, ousts the object preceding it. The history of craftsmanship is not a succession of inventions or of unique (or supposedly unique) works. In reality, craftsmanship does not have a history, if we conceive of history as being an uninterrupted series of changes. There is not a break but a continuity between its past and its present. The modern artist has embarked upon the conquest of eternity, and the designer upon that of the future; the artisan allows himself to be vanquished by time. Traditional but not historical, linked to the past but bearing no date, the craft object teaches us to be wary of the mirages of history and the illusions of the future. The artisan seeks not to conquer time but to be one with its flow. Through repetitions that are imperceptible but real variations, his works endure--and hence survive the fashionable object.
Industrial design tends to be impersonal. It is subject to the tyranny of function, and its beauty is rooted in that subjection. Yet functional beauty is fully realized only in geometry, and only in geometry are truth and beauty one and the same; in the arts strictly speaking, beauty is born of necessary infringement of the rules. Beauty---or rather art is a violation of functionality. Taken together, these trespasses constitute what we call a style. The ideal of the designer, if he is consistent, ought to be the absence of style--forms reduced to their function--whereas the ideal of the artist should be a style that begins and ends in each of his works. (Perhaps this is what Mallarme and Joyce were aiming at.) No work of art, however, begins and ends in itself each is a language at once personal and collective: a style, a manner. Styles are communal. Every work of art is at once a deviation from and a confirmation of the style of its time and place: by violating the canons of that style, it validates them. Again, craftsmanship lies at a midpoint: like design, it is anonymous; like the work of art, it is a style. In contradistinction to design, the craft object is anonymous yet not impersonal; in contradistinction to the work of art, it brings out the collective nature of style and shows us that the vainglorious I of the artist is a we.
Technology is international; its constructions, methods, and products are the same everywhere. By suppressing national and regional particularities and peculiarities, it impoverishes the world. By spreading all over the globe, technology has become the most powerful agent yet of historical entropy. The negative character of its action may be summed up in a phrase: it makes things uniform but does not unify. It levels the differences between cultures and national styles, but it does not do away with the rivalries and hatreds between peoples and states. After transforming rivals into identical twins, it arms both of them with the same weapons. The danger of technology does not lie solely in the death-dealing nature of many of its inventions, but in the fact that it threatens the very essence of the historical process. By putting an end to the diversity of societies and cultures, it puts an end to history itself. It is the amazing variety of societies that produces history: the clashes and encounters between different groups and cultures, between alien ideas and techniques. There is no doubt an analogy between the historical process and the twofold phenomenon that biologists call inbreeding and outbreeding, and that anthropologists call endogamy and exogamy. The great civilizations have been syntheses of different and contradictory cultures. Where a civilization has not been forced to confront the threat and undergo the stimulation of another civilization--as was the case in pre-Columbian America up until the sixteenth century—its destiny is to mark time and go in circles. The experience of the other is the secret of change--and of life.
Modern technology has brought about a great many profound transformations, but all in the same direction and with the same import: the extirpation of the other. By leaving the aggressiveness of the human species intact and by making its members uniform, it has lent added strength to the causes tending toward its extinction. Craftsmanship, on the other hand, is not even national in scope: it is local. Heedless of boundaries and systems of government, it outlives republics and empires; the pottery, basketwork, and musical instruments seen in the frescoes of Bonampak have survived Mayan priests, Aztec warriors, colonial friars, and Mexican presidents. They will also survive American tourists. Craftsmen have no country; they are from their village. What is more, they are from their neighborhood and their family. Craftsmen defend us from the unification of technology and its geometrical deserts. By preserving differences, they safeguard the fecundity of history.
The craftsman does not define himself in terms of either his nationality or his religion. He is not loyal to an idea or image but to a practice: his craft. A workshop is a social microcosm governed by laws of its own. The craftsman seldom works by himself, nor is his work exaggeratedly specialized as in industry. His workday is not ruled by a rigid time schedule but by a rhythm linked more to his body and sensibility than to the abstract necessities of production. As the craftsman works he may talk with others and sometimes sing. His boss is not an invisible bigwig but an old man who is his master and almost always a relative of his, or at least a neighbor. It is revealing that, despite its markedly collectivist character, the craft workshop has not served as a model for any of the great utopias of the West, From Campanella's City of the Sun to Fourier's Phalanstery to Marx's Communist society, the prototypes of the perfect social man have not been craftsmen but priest-sages, philosopher-gardeners, and the worker of the world in whom praxis and science are conjoined. Of course I do not believe that the craft workshop is an image of perfection. Yet I think that its very lack of perfection points to how we might humanize our society: its imperfection is that of men and women, not of systems. Because of its size and the number of persons who compose it, a community of craftsmen favors a democratic way of life; its organization is hierarchical but not authoritarian, and its hierarchy is founded not on power but on skill: masters, journeymen, apprentices. Finally, craftwork is an occupation that involves both play and creation. After giving us a lesson in sensibility and imagination, craftsmanship gives us one in politics.
Until recently, it was commonly believed that crafts were doomed to disappear, industry having usurped their place. Precisely the opposite is happening today: for better or worse, handcrafted articles now play an appreciable role in world trade. The products of Afghanistan and the Sudan are sold in the same department stores as the newest creations straight from the Italian or Japanese industrial designer's board. This renaissance is most notable in the industrialized countries and affects both consumer and producer, in places where the concentration of industry is greatest--in Massachusetts, for example--we are witness to the resurrection of the old trades of potter, carpenter, glassblower; many young people sick and tired of modern society have returned to craftwork. In those countries dominated (at the wrong time in their development) by the fanaticism of industrialization, there has been a revival of craftwork. Often, national governments encourage handicrafts. This phenomenon is disturbing, insofar as government subsidies are usually forthcoming for commercial reasons. The craftsmen who today are the object of the paternalism of official planners were only yesterday threatened by projects for their country's modernization drawn up by the very same bureaucrats, intoxicated by economic theories learned in Moscow, London, or New York. Bureaucracies are the natural enemies of the craftsman, and whenever they set out to "orient" him, they blunt his sensibility, mutilate his imagination, and degrade his handiwork.
The return of craftwork in the United States and Western Europe is one of the symptoms of the great change in contemporary sensibility. We find here yet another expression of the criticism of the abstract religion of progress and of the quantitative vision of humanity and nature. To experience the disillusionment of progress, it is necessary, to be sure, to have experienced progress. It is not likely that underdeveloped countries share this disillusionment, even if the ruinous nature of industrial super productivity is increasingly evident. Nobody learns from someone else's experience. Yet how can we not see what the belief in infinite progress has led to? If every civilization ends in a pile of ruins--a heap of broken statues, fallen columns, texts ripped to shreds--those of industrial society are doubly impressive, because they are immense and premature. Our ruins are beginning to be more awesome than our constructions and threaten to bury us alive. This is why the popularity of craftwork is a sign of health, as is the return to Thoreau and Blake or the rediscovery of Fourier. Our senses, our instinct, our imagination are always a step ahead of our reason. Criticism of our civilization began with the Romantic poets, at the very dawn of the industrial era. The poetry of the twentieth century took up the Romantic revolt and sank its roots even deeper, but only recently has this spiritual rebellion penetrated the minds and hearts of the majority. Modern society is beginning to doubt the very principles on which it was founded two centuries ago, and is trying to change course. Let us hope that it is not too late.
The fate awaiting the work of art is the air-conditioned eternity of the museum; that awaiting the industrial object is the trash bin. Craftwork escapes the museum, and when it does end up in its showcases, it acquits itself with honor: rather than, a unique object, it is merely a sample. It is a captive example, not an idol. Craftsmanship does not go hand in hand with time, nor does it seek to conquer it. Experts periodically examine the inroads of death on art works: cracks in paintings, lines that have blurred, changes of color, the leprosy that eats away both the wall paintings of Ajanta and Leonardo's canvases. As a material thing, the work of art is not eternal. And as an idea? Ideas too grow old and die. But artists very often forget that their work holds the secret of true time: not empty eternity but the life of the instant. The work of art, moreover, has the power to fecundate human spirits and to be reborn, even as negation, in the works that are its descendants. For the industrial object there is no resurrection; it disappears as rapidly as it appears. If it left no trace whatsoever it would be truly perfect; unfortunately it has a body, and once it has ceased to be useful, it becomes mere refuse difficult to dispose of. The indecency of trash is no less pathetic than the indecency of the false eternity of the museum. Craftsmanship does not aspire to last for millennia, but at the same time it seeks no early death. It follows the course of time from day to day, it flows along with us, it very slowly wastes away, it neither looks for death nor denies it. It accepts it. Between the time without time of the museum and the accelerated time of technology, the work of craftsmanship is the pulse of human time. It is a useful object but also a handsome one; an object that endures through time yet meets its end and resigns itself to so doing; an object that is not unique like the work of art, but replaceable by another object similar yet not identical. Craftwork teaches us to die, and by so doing teaches us to live.
Cambridge, Mass., December 7, 1973