I had something else I was going to write about, but then I went over to the Water Jar’s place and read his post and got to thinking about the point he is discussing over there.
It is generally held that traditional societies did not make a distinction between art and craft as we do. Anything you wanted, you had to make, so everyone made stuff. My mother-in-law wove silk into cloth, dyeing it as she wove to make amazing patterns. But hey, so did everyone else. They grew their food, they made their clothes — the fact that we would be inclined to put one of those products in a museum and not the other is the way we look at things, not the way that they did.
Then we got to the point at which some people made things for the other people. And then we began to distinguish. Those who made utilitarian things were craftspeople, and those who made things just to enjoy were artists — or were they? Cellini‘s salt cellars were and are art, aren’t they?
For some people, the most beautiful things are art and the rest are craft. For others, it is a question of originality or intention. Many of us would not call a quilt “art” unless it were entirely unsuited to being a bedcovering. Others would call it art only if it were hanging in a gallery being called art by experts.
The question of which things were art and which were crafts continued to exercise people’s minds until the present day, when you can go get yourself some artisanal bread, or you can hang a mass-produced copy of a street sign on your wall to enjoy.
But the Water Jar brought in a third set of skills: the technical skills. Much that is utilitarian nowadays, and much that we enjoy, either exists in the virtual world or is made for the physical world by machines. If one person designs a quilt or a salt cellar, and another person figures out how to get a machine to make it, and another builds the machine, and another operates it, then which of these people is the artist, which the craftsman, which the technician?
And what if it is a really ugly or even a useless item? The Mary Maxim catalog shows us that great technical skill can be put into items which are both ugly and useless. Great technical skill is probably required to produce even one episode of a reality TV show, too. Hackers do destructive things to show off their technical skills. So skillfulness, within the category of technique, is entirely divorced from either utility or beauty.
The Water Jar gets into the question of which is better, but I will leave that to him. There is more, though. He quotes Albert Borgman on the modern family, saying,
“The husband exercises power on the basis of extrinsic attributes, the paycheck and physical force. The family, severed from the work world, is no longer a place where he can prove and enact genuine competence and resourcefulness. The family more and more becomes a setting for consumption, [which] makes no demands of skill and discipline.”
There is an element of truth here, isn’t there? (I’m disregarding the matter of physical force, because I’m not clear on the reference — Daddy’s ability to open jars, maybe?) Many of us only consume things. If someone produces a really beautiful zucchini, and someone else makes a truly lovely loaf of zucchini bread from it, they may not be artists, but they are still way ahead of the person who merely buys and eats it.
Or are they? If no one looks at Cellini’s salt cellars, are they still art?
I am an admirer of the Craftsman philosophy: “Respect the earth, live in harmony with nature, spend time with your family, be good to your neighbor, and value the dedication, skill and care of the craftsman.” I think of myself as a craftswoman, not an artist, and not really that good a technician. I make things to use, and for the pleasure — artistic pleasure, to be sure — of making them. I have a quilt on my wall, and I think it is a beautiful one, too, but it was still made to serve a purpose.
My husband is certainly a technician.
I made a sample magnet motor the other day at work, but it was wonky and didn’t go as well as I wanted it to. That Man fooled around with it, but it still wasn’t up to snuff. I got my husband in to fix it, and he made it go perfectly, and much faster than it had before. It was also significantly more beautiful: the shining symmetrical coil, the straight gleaming copper wire axle thingies.
He told me not to let people grab it, but of course they did. It was sitting on the counter, not being a piece of art. People grabbed it all day long. It is not perfect any more. That’s how it is with technology — it just doesn’t get the respect that art does even if it makes more money.
When I think of what I admire in my husband — and Borgman was talking about respect and prestige in the family — I certainly admire the way he makes perfect stuff (produces) more than the way he sits on the couch watching sports (consumes).
In many modern families, the children are expected to produce things — music, pictures, writing, crafts — while the adults produce nothing except a paycheck. Putting Hamburger Helper and a bagged salad on the table doesn’t count as art, craft, or technique. Sorry.
Even at work, many of us do not produce anything. I don’t. I assist people in consuming. My husband produces wrenches. Craftsman wrenches, as it happens. They are all perfect. That is a requirement of his job. My job is way more fun than his, and I think it is just as important, but I have to admit that I don’t actually produce anything (assuming that we do not count my alluring vistas of magnet kits). I produce things at home. I don’t know what level of prestige that gives me or my husband in the family, because I have never thought of it before. But it may be that many women continue to have their homes as workplaces, while men’s work is done invisibly elsewhere robbing them of their opportunity to show their competence in the family setting — a factor, perhaps, in the often-lamented tendency toward inept fathers in popular culture.
And, as women move more completely into the workforce and give up their domestic skills, they may face the same fate.
I think that probably most of the people who read this are producers, not just consumers. Are you an artist? a craftsperson? a technician? Does it affect your prestige in your family? Does it affect your opinion of yourself?
How can you tell?