Recently I’ve been looking into the meaning and origin of Craft. I began with this definition of the term,
Craft means making. It is also a vessel that transports us. It denotes a variety of disciplines and an attitude towards making. Craft hovers around our conceptions of technique and technology, but I’d say these connections 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 was attracted to boatbuilding because I couldn’t stand straight edges and right angles. I’ve made a life around justifying that handicap.
I once saw an exhibition of Roman household items from Pompeii and Herculaneum. I was struck by the similarities, as well as the differences, with their modern counterparts. One object, a floor lamp, stood out. It was a tripod of twisted forged iron, something we see replicated everywhere today. Except we don’t. 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.”
Its form expressed an attitude to irregularity that is foreign to our expectations. Fostered, bolstered, by the requirements of mass-production. Its makers hadn’t seen variation from exactitude as a faults.
They had no concept of the “valued signs of the hand-made” either. They just were the way they were. They were 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. They saw themselves relating to an all-too-human Olympic realm where larger-than-life versions of themselves lived. 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 “primitive.” I’m beginning to see the attitude we’ve replaced this with 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 deriving its power from re-joining the broader family of life, taking seriously our responsibility to honor and reciprocate the quality the World engulfs us in.
Boats have, have always had, a closer relationship with this deeper view of craft. Not always, walking around the Newport Boat Show I saw how rare this is today.
But intrinsic in boats is a requirement that they be vessels, contained and resilient, responsive to a dynamic environment. They can hardly be made without any 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. Back dropped by a monstrous cruise ship filling the harbor. Its fleets of excreted petroleum yachts existing only to feed Egos, to display status.
In such times of triviality it is no surprise that everything has become diluted in a 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 easy with an ethos that grounds, or, should I say, floats, our craft upon something more substantial, something integrated into the World.
We need reasons for our boats. We need ways to judge their worth, to measure their value across a wide spectrum. At a time when the short-cuts of efficiency can finally be 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 addresses our wider responsibilities to all creation, requires that we hone our ability to judge.
This brings us to the other side of Craft. As makers, we exercise judgement. We hone our abilities to make more and more nuanced, finer judgements about quality. This process is integral with Craft. They can’t be picked out of context and taught by themselves. To attempt it unmoors judgement from 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. That there is no standard. Or, conversely, that some arbitrary and imposed standard must be held. The result is to reduce our confrontation with reality to an imagined negotiation between our wishes and the limits of our 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. It leads to our current situation where 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 with only one standard, more.
Quality is tied to a 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 shows us how close quality lies to the very heart of being. Without an ability to make judgements about quality. Judgements 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. Recognizing that whenever we apprehend an aspect of our un-built reality we are flooded with its quality. We are either in awe or wonder, respect or gratitude – usually a jumble of all of these deep responses. A clear signal that this is a touchstone we cannot misplace. This is a guide to developing judgements that won’t evaporate into another convenient delusion.
There is only one essential requirement for us 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 – actually making within the circle of what it means to Craft, we are lost.
Closing off the avenues of making, the enormous push turning us all into useful cogs in some machine, has almost lost us our connection. This massive onslaught of hubris and acquisition has made us all into consumers and exploiters. It 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 by making and sharing. We will return to this necessity.
We can either see this as a Fall – as it necessarily seems from the perspective of consumers/exploiters. Or, we can see it for what it is. A chance to reconnect with quality. To work, through a practice of making, to create the conditions which might allow us to find ourselves once again, as Beings in the World.
Let us learn to trust where our love of boats comes from. 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, adopted stances. Judgements that come out of the depths of our interaction with our reality.
With this comes the possibility, not for “freedom” or “ease” or “escape,” but for integrity and worth and connection.
Most today 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 course from one of being swept along by the currents of insanity. We can take responsibility for our own course.
These are the same instincts we’ve always felt 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 give our attention.