The Art of Craft

The Art of Craft

Renyung Ho’s excellent article “Why the world needs craft” (Daily Paradox 03 Oct 2016) is important even more widely than she suggests. We are already struggling to think of how to employ those whose jobs will be lost to artificial intelligence. It is not just a matter of earning a living. We only become what we are capable of when we create – whether a beautiful fabric, an esoteric philosophy or a fully rounded child. And our reward for creation is appreciation, only a small part of which will be economic.

Appreciation of Skill-Effort-Time (S-E-T) is a prerequisite to fulfilling what John Steinbeck described so forcefully in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. His famous philosophical chapter begins “The last, clear, definite function of man – muscles aching to work, minds aching to create beyond the single need – this is man.” Without some visible and valued output our work has little meaning. The first person to value our production must be ourselves.

I learnt this lesson from the man who came to thatch our cottage in Dorset in 1946. Alf Tuck was a skilled thatcher. Trades were often adopted as surnames – Thatcher, Carpenter, Joiner, Plumber – and worn with pride. Alf Tuck became a friend in the six weeks he took to thatch our long roof. Each year after, for the rest of his life, he would come every few weeks in the summer after a sunny day and sit in front of the cottage. As the cottage faced west the sinking sun shone a beautiful light on his thatch. I sat with him and asked him, more times than I can remember, “You like your thatch, Mr Tuck?” “Best job I ever did,” he always replied. “Does anyone else know that?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter,” he answered, “I know.”

Every day in the more than 70 years since that conversation took place I have asked myself of something I am doing “Is this up to the Alf Tuck standard?

If appreciation of our own creation is the first requirement, response and endorsement by others comes a close second. We underestimate how important it is to teach this to the young. From a social point of view it makes our handling of other people more successful; from a purely selfish point of view it puts us in a far better light with those on who we depend. Way beyond these immediate rewards, appreciation of everything in our world makes for a happy life, something we all want and which many pursue. Unfortunately the American constitution got it wrong. If you pursue happiness it will always escape you. Sit still and wonder at what you see, hear, touch, taste and it may arrive as a consequence.

Mass production created lifestyles most people would never otherwise have had. Now it is going to rob many of them of their jobs. They will not starve – after all, they are voters. Their governments must support them from the newfound wealth robots and artificial intelligence bring. If supported but idle they will degenerate mentally and probably physically too. Now is the time to teach the value of the personally produced whether garment, art, song or rose.

A mother of an autistic 20-year-old brought me a picture he had painted recently. Abstract, it allowed me to conjure up all the things that might have been in his mind. I saw beauty, fear, joy and loneliness brushed into the artwork. Then I looked harder. What I now see in the picture is twenty years of unwavering devotion, determination, dedication by a mother to give her son the ability to express himself, to create beauty for someone else. She has achieved something remarkable for at least three people with her son’s picture.

So we need to turn our skills to teaching how to appreciate what we have, what we can create and how to use the most valuable gift we are given – time. When we do so we will complete the last part of Steinbeck’s philosophy:

For man, unlike any other thing organic or inorganic in the universe, grows beyond his work, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments. This you may say of man—when theories change and crash, when schools, philosophies, when narrow dark alleys of thought, national, religious, economic, grow and disintegrate, man reaches, stumbles forward, painfully, mistakenly sometimes.

Having stepped forward, he may slip back, but only half a step, never the full step back.