Recently I’ve been following a thread of insights into the meaning and origin of Craft. I began with this definition of the term,
It means making. It also means a vessel that transports us. It denotes a variety of disciplines and an attitude towards making. It hovers around technique and technology, but I’d say that in most cases –perhaps every case? – these references are misplaced. Craft and technique may sail along parallel courses at times, but their relationship is not as direct as it might seem.
I’ve kept in the back of my mind the need to reflect on Craft from within our perspective here at Boats for difficult times. My preoccupation with boats, boatbuilding, and design has been my main engagement with issues of Craft. When I think of Craft as a noun, I see a boat.
Walking past a building site this morning I was struck once again by the linearity and imposed “rectitude” of our land-based structures. Years ago I often joked that I learned boatbuilding because I couldn’t deal with straight edges and right angles. I’ve made a life around justifying that handicap.
I once saw an exhibition of Roman household items taken from Pompeii and Herculaneum. I was struck by the similarities, as well as the differences, in relation to their modern counterparts. One object, a floor lamp, stood out. It was a tripod of twisted forged iron, something we see replicated all over today. Except we don’t really. Granted it had been through a major disaster and buried for two thousand years; but you could still tell that, to its maker, the square and straightedge were guides not “rulers.” It expressed an attitude to irregularity that is foreign to our expectations fostered and bolstered as they are by the requirements of mass-production. I could see that its makers hadn’t seen its variations from exactitude as “faults.” They hadn’t seen them as “valued signs of the hand-made” either. They just were the way they were. This made them of-a-piece with their surroundings in a world that only knew natural forms and handmade objects. Their makers had a dream of geometric perfection existing somewhere “out there” in a Platonic, heavenly sphere. – Though not Saint Augustine’s, with his single domineering God at the top, but as part of an all-too-human Olympic realm filled with larger than life versions of themselves, Heaven as Soap Opera where perfection was never raised to the level of commandment.
We tend to see this, if we give it any thought at all, as a “primitive,” simple time. I’m beginning to see the attitude we’ve taken up to replace it as blinkered and simplistic. To be able to make judgements of quality by holding up a straightedge removes us from the need to have a broader give-and-take, a deeper relationship, to and with our objects. The kind of relationship I am beginning to see as derived from re-joining the broader family of life and taking seriously our responsibility to honor and reciprocate the quality the World engulfs us in.
Boats have, I was going to say have always had, a closer relationship with this deeper view of craft. Not always, walking around the Newport Boat Show yesterday showed how rare it is today. But intrinsic in boats is a requirement that they be vessels, contained and resilient, and responsive to a dynamic environment. This means they can hardly be made without some concern for these factors. Unless, that is, there’s plenty of petroleum and hubris to throw at the “problem!” Again, witness Newport on this end-of summer weekend backdropped by a monstrous cruise ship filling the harbor and fleets of excreted petroleum that exist to feed Egos and display status.
In such times of triviality it is no surprise that everything has become diluted in this race for the lowest common denominator. Central to our concerns at Boats for difficult times is that when the root causes and influences that have made “Easy!” our watchword recede into memory, we will need once again to be able to replace it with an ethos that grounds, or, should I say, floats, our craft in all senses of the word, upon something more substantial, something integrated into the World we are rejoining. We need reasons for our boats. We need ways to judge their worth, to measure their value to us across a wide spectrum of what they do for us. At a time when the short-cuts of efficiency have been finally set aside as false promises, we need to reestablish a better compass than easy or efficient.
Having a relationship with quality that isn’t mediated by strictly social concerns, but that address our wider responsibilities to all creation, require us to hone our ability to judge in ways that have grown foreign to us. This brings us to the other side of Craft. As makers, we exercise judgement and hone our abilities to make more and more nuanced and finer judgements about quality. This is a process that is integrated deeply within the practices of Craft. They can’t be picked out of that context and taught by themselves. To attempt to do so unmoors judgement from its intrinsic context. This opens the door for all sorts of nonsense from all sides of the social spectrum that insist that what we say is all that matters, and that there is no standard, or that some arbitrary and imposed standard must be held. The result is to reduce our confrontation with reality to a supposed negotiation between ourselves and the limits of our own gullibility. “I can claim this ridiculous standard, because I have the audacity to do so – and so far I’ve gotten away with it!”
This is a deep source of bankruptcy. It leads not only to what many of the negociants in this struggle would call “moral decrepitude” because to do so seems to help their side; but it leads to our present situation in which so very few have any notion of what quality might actually entail. If quality has gone the way of the distinction between few and less, then we have entered a world in which there is only one standard, more.
Quality is tied to the sensibility of enough. Quality is an attribute by which we judge what to value. Value, ultimately, is the measure of what we give our attention. Attention is all we have to give.
This delineation of relationships shows us how close quality lies to the very heart of being. Without an ability to make judgements about quality that engage with our reality we are in serious trouble. We can have no traction, we are in the realm of futility and despair.
Connecting quality with a fundamental attribute of our perceptions of the World, that whenever we apprehend any aspect of our un-built reality we are flooded with its quality either in awe or wonder, respect or gratitude – usually a jumble of all of these deep responses – gives us a clear signal that this can be a touchstone we can’t misplace. That this is a guide to developing judgements that won’t evaporate into some social delusion.
There is only one essential requirement to be able to tap into this guide to judgement. We have to be makers ourselves. If we unmoor ourselves from the disciplines of making – not producing, or manufacturing, or facilitating; but actually making within the circle of what it means to Craft, we cannot engage with this practice.
It’s been through the closing off of avenues of making, through the enormous push towards turning us all into useful cogs in some machine, that we have lost our connection. This massive onslaught of hubris and acquisition, that has made us all into consumers and exploiters, is running out of gas. That’s the good news! Everything and everyone else in the World has always had to maintain a connection with reality through making and sharing to the best of their abilities. We will be returning to that necessity. We can either see this as a Fall – as it necessarily seems when seen from the perspective of the most successful consumers/exploiters – or we can see it for what it is, a chance to reconnect with quality and through a practice of making to create the conditions which might allow us to find ourselves as Beings in the World.
This is probably much more convoluted and theoretical sounding than most people interested, even deeply in love, with boats will find palatable. It is both too much and too little of a preparation for what this is ultimately about! The important bit to take from all of this is that we should learn to trust where our love of boats comes from. That we can, through following the disciplines inherit in the practice of Craft, develop our capacity and ability to make judgements that are not mere poses, or adopted stances, but that come out of the depths of our interaction with our reality. That with this comes the possibility, not for “freedom” or “ease” or “escape,” but for integrity and worth and connection. That while most people dread and refuse to face the changes emerging around us, we can find in these same conditions a great possibility, a chance to turn our own course from one of being swept along by the currents of insanity, and instead, taking – not control – but responsibility for our own course. These all connect with the same instincts we’ve always fed in relation to boats, that have led us to a life with boats, and kept us focused on them as worthy of our attention. When the costs of our attention are no longer masked by a culture unmoored from its foundations in reality we can accept paying those costs with a fuller understanding of the qualities and the worth of what we are giving our attention.