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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

What Is Craft?

( Originally Published 1940 )



Where does craft production stop and industrial production begin? The answer is not so easy as it seems. In the spirit of this book we are not going to look upon craft in any narrow sense limiting it rigidly to hand production, or even to production of an entire object, or even production wholly controlled by the workman. Such terms characterized the worthwhile, yet relatively futile, "arts and crafts" movement launched by William Morris in England during the 19th century. We shall take the bull by the horns and run the full risks of controversy in our conception of craft as consisting of the spirit in which, rather than solely the means by which, a production process is carried out. This would appear to be the only conception of craft and craftsmanship which can hope to take root in this technologically advanced age. Certainly we cannot promulgate theories concerning the social and individual desirabilities of craftsmanship if such theories, fully realized, would imply the rejection, to a large degree, of the advantages and progressive aspects of industrialism. A return to the horseand-buggy would be no more desirable in production than in politics.

Complex an adjustment as it may seem to be, people today are nonetheless eager for an understanding of the possible role of craft in modern life. We, in America, have suddenly waked up to the richness of our background. We have become "craft conscious." Interest has revived in the whole conception of "craftsmanship." A score of advertising media are instinctively, yet blindly, trying to persuade us that craft flourishes now, in the midst of industrial life.

Large automobile companies, in elaborate advertisements, present their skilled mechanics as "craftsmen," making a title of the term. A certain absurdity, yet almost a pathetic intensity, of this tendency is revealed in the yearning for the myth of individual handicraft betrayed by such phrases as "Tomato Soup . . . . by Campbell." General Motors still clings to the lost carriage maker in the insignia and motto, "Body by Fisher." Personal names for mass products are at a premium. There is commercial value in "Fanny Farmer" candies, or "Mrs. Wagner's Pies." A sense of the public psychology is revealed in these oblique apologies by manufacturers for the industrial standardization of their products. This is not to imply that there are not many commodities which industry produces with better results than could the individual. But it's worth noting that when the sewing machine was first invented especially high prices were charged for clothing made on it. "Untouched by human hands" was once the miraculous advertising appeal for other milled or machined commodities. Yet today, the label "hand made" is worth an illogical amount in the retail value of many products.

It is pretty evident that the yearned-for craftsmanship in the modern world will have to be in terms of an enlightened and enriching attitude toward work. America has been profoundly shocked, today, by the spectacle of the devastating and brutal power of malevolent organization. In what is unquestionably a world crisis, America has become aware of the immediate need to tighten and bolster up its own organization and its entire field of productivity. Now, more than ever in our history, we must employ, to capacity, the American ability to make things, but we must do this through an extension of the American spirit, not through the fatal "organization" of totalitarianism. We must fight fire with water; quench it, not match its destructiveness.

The key to an understanding of the necessity for craft revival in modern terms is briefly found in the words of Allen H. Eaton of the Russell Sage Foundation. "The time will come when every kind of work will be judged by two measurements: one by the product itself, as is now done, and the other by the effect of the work on the producer." This enlightened concept is the vast gap between democratic and totalitarian production!

Labor and work are quite different matters. Labor is a commodity in terms of applied energy; work is an activity wherein the worker's personality effects or shapes his product. We need not fight the machine, but we must attempt to so use the machine that the material resources and powers which it places at the disposal of society shall be used to stimulate, rather than retard, the reviving impulse of creative workmanship present to some degree in every intelligent man or woman.

This is regarded as an age of science. Craft is a link which weds science to art, to the benefit of each. Science, for one thing, has greatly systematized the processes of invention. It might be said that invention has become more self-conscious since the advent of scientific perception of the attributes and uses of materials. But invention and craft have always had a great deal in common and still do.

Craft is the basis of most invention. The lack of craft, of the ability to apply manually the mechanical principles conceived by the inventor, would preclude a great deal of the inventive process. Craft instinct must still augment, and lend its creative qualities to, the scientific aspects of invention. What is craft but the perception of how to use something, even if that something is a formula?

The great contribution of science has been the clarification and organization of facts; the expediting of intelligent discovery; and the composition of new materials. In effect this is the shaping of new tools for the modern craftsman. To the craftsman a fact is as much a tool as a hammer; so is a discovery which he can apply, or a scientifically-compounded material he can use. If he obtains his facts through science instead of divining them by slow-moving instinct it merely expedites his work. His is still the creative intelligence. To argue the predominance in social importance of the fact-finder as against the fact-user is no more fruitful than the "egg or the hen" controversy.

There are pessimists who insist that the craftsman has disappeared forever from the American scene. But it is wiser to say that American craft has changed, rather than vanished. Per haps by acquainting ourselves with the skilled workmen and artisans of our past history, attempting to understand their work and their personalities, we shall be stimulated to a better sense of the values and uses of the modern crafts.

We have a right to expect some significant link between the crafts that shaped our developing nation, and our contemporary life. Charles Beard has said: "In the history of social philosophy there is nothing more interesting than the tardy recognition accorded to the fact that modern business enterprise rests upon the whole heritage of western civilization-its religious disciplines, its laws and morals, its crafts and skills, its sciences and arts, (Italics mine), its tastes and aspirations . . . . . . . . In some mysterious way thought and the materials of life evolve together."

The artisans, in whose lives, functions, and influences we shall interest ourselves include carpenters, cabinetmakers, bookhinders, clockmakers, diemakers, glassmakers, gunmakers, ironworkers, lampmakers, leatherworkers, pewterers, potters, silversmiths, toolmakers, and weavers. We shall not try to be exhaustive, but merely representative, in considering the arts and crafts that have contributed to our American civilization.



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