Richard Sennett on Art and Craft

Richard Sennett on Art and Craft

evening and welcome to the Getty Center. My name is Peter Tarkovsky, and
I helped organize the lecturer program here at the museum. And we’re glad that you found
some time this holiday season to stop in for some
intellectual stimulation and hope we’ll see you again. Our next lecture is
a week from Sunday, and as you saw on
the rotating screen, Peter Scott [? Born ?]
from Amsterdam will be here to kick off our
Rembrandt exhibition, which opens next week. “Rembrandt and his Pupils
Telling the Difference” is the name of his lecture. That lecture and all
programs here at the Getty are always listed on
the website The occasion for
or the opportunity for tonight’s program
are current photographs exhibitions. I know many of you got to see
them earlier this evening. But if you haven’t already, you
still have some time to visit– some time before the
exhibitions and not tonight. Irving Penn small
trades exhibition, an example of which
is on the screen, curated by Virginia
[? Heckert ?] and [? Ann ?] Lacoste. And it’s accompanied by
an in-focus exhibition. This is our series
of exhibitions which highlight the deep
collections of the photography here at the Getty Museum and
pick a subject or an approach to photography and illustrate
it throughout the history of the medium. So the current exhibition
focuses on images of workers, including this one by Lewis Hine
and this one by Walker Evans. And both of those exhibitions
are open into 2010. One of the little-known
facts about J. Paul Getty’s his extraordinary bequest
to this institution was that he did not
designate his funds for the study of art
history, but rather for the very simple
and broad purpose of the advancement of artistic
and general knowledge. Our Getting Perspectives
lecture series explores the relationship
between artistic and general knowledge by periodically
bringing speakers and scholars from a variety of
disciplines to explore this– what an art museum can teach
us about general knowledge. As you saw on-screen and I’ll
just mention our next Getty perspectives lecture that is
scheduled won’t be until May, but it will bring the
author Jeff Dyer here to the Getty Museum. And many of you may not
have read Jeff Dyer, but he’s quite a
gifted writer who works in both fiction
and nonfiction and is generally classified
as a writer is unclassifiable. So I highly recommend that you
mark that on your calendars and come back. Some of his titles
include Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered
and Jeff in Venice– neither of which are what they
might seem from their title. Tonight, we’re very pleased
to welcome Richard Sennett to the Getty Museum. Richard Sennett is someone who
I think embodies in many ways this idea of the advancement of
artistic and general knowledge. In his rich body of work,
which I won’t recapitulate now, he brings in many ways
an artist’s sensibility. Having been a cellist
for most of his life, he frequently draws
on the art of music to inform the way he thinks
about sociological problems, and he’s also a person in
the social sciences who very frequently relies on and
explores artistic creation as something that can
help him understand the problems that he’s
set forth in his own work. His latest book, The
Craftsman, obviously as the title indicates,
is one such example where he uses the
accomplishments of artists to help him understand
broad sociological issues. And he just told me that the
book was awarded just two days ago the Spinoza prize. [APPLAUSE] He’s changed the title
of his talk tonight. So if you came to hear about
an old, unhappy marriage, you’re going to instead hear
about simply craftsmanship. Please welcome Richard Sennett. [APPLAUSE] Thank you very much
for inviting me. I’m going to read
for about 45 minutes, and then maybe we can talk– I mean, it’s a very grand
hall– but we could maybe talk informally for
15 minutes after that, and I gather there are
people with roving mics who can help us do that. I changed the title of
my talk because I really sort of seduced and interested
in the exhibition that’s here, and it’s a fantastic exhibition. And I urge you, if you
haven’t, to go see it. The photographs that
make up small trades– a Penn shot in 1950 and 1951
in Paris, London, and New York. And these are really landmark
images in photography. But I’m going to speak this
evening about their subjects rather than about Penn’s art. The people who figure
in small trades are artisans, craftsmen
of all sorts– waiters to welders
to window washers. And I want to explore with
you tonight three issues– first, the sort
of political aura that surrounds
craftsman and second I want to say a little about
the nature of craftsmanship this kind of pricy of my book. And I’m not sure it’s
clear, but you’ll tell me. And finally, I thought
it would be interesting for us to think
about, in what ways that people that we see
involved in these small trades might hold up a
mirror to ourselves. Do we recognize anything about
ourselves in these craftsman? Now all of these
are big subjects, and my aim is only
to raise in your mind some questions
about what you see on the walls of this exhibition. Let me say something first
about the political image of the craftsman because the
people in these photographs are subjects loaded
with political value. These artisans are the sort of
workers which modern capitalism appears to have doomed– their trades replaced
by industrial machines or their service workers
by voice answering and other computerized
technologies. The artisan worker
figures his kind of victim in social thought. This is true from the
time of Adam Smith on. Yet Penn’s subjects look
nothing like victims. They tell him another story. And we could start
this story in 1751 one when Denis Diderot and
a raft of collaborators began publishing The
Encyclopedia of Arts and Crafts, which
was a vast enterprise of many volumes of publications
spread over 20 years. Diderot enlisted a diverse
band of writers and engravings in Paris– few of whom he paid, most of
whom squabbled with each other and with him– but with a single aim in mind– to affirm and explain the
dignity of craft labor. Small trades involved Diderot
asserted real skills– skills which polite society has
ignored or scorned as menial. That scorn as an ancient
route and attitudes the Romans first harbored
about the work of their slaves and their plebs. But to the editor-writer
of the 18th century, this ancient attitude
ill-served society. Diderot’s affirmation of
the dignity of all labor had a sharp point. He took advantage– this
is a very amusing thing– of the alphabetical
format of a dictionary, for instance, to make
that sharp point. He put the article on
[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]—- that’s roaster of meat– near to the article on
[INAUDIBLE] which is king. Now both had their own trades. Each was skillful,
and in that sense, Diderot wanted to
make his readers feel they stood on something
of an equal footing. And that political
point about the dignity of labor, that artisan
labor, was taken up by many of the
encyclopedias readers. American readers, like Thomas
Jefferson and James Madison, concluded that
the craftsman made the ideal citizen of a
republic due to the workers self-discipline, cooperation
with others in the shop, and quality mindedness
about results. The craftsman, rather than
the gentleman living off the labor of others, seemed
to be the sensible citizen. Now the Enlightenment’s ideal
craftsman had another side. Encyclopedia evoked
the sheer pleasure in the practice of
craft and evocation, which connects those
18th-century images directly to Irving Penn’s photographs. Pleasure– Diderot’s
roasters and weavers, like Penn’s subjects, can
convey something other, something deeper than
kitsch smiley happiness. They appear serene. That’s the overwhelming
feeling you have in looking at these people. Both groups– from the past
and what you see on the walls here– we’d say are inside their work. The event’s a kind of quiet
pride in what they do. In the 18th century, this inner
serenity appealed to readers of the encyclopedia-like
Catherine the Great in Russia, much as she might dispute
the equation of haughty Sarah and [INAUDIBLE] This calm side
of craftsmanship matters to us too because both the past and
present images depict a state of inner well-being which is
acquired by the acquisition and practice of skill– that is, that a certain
kind of selfhood is formed by being good
at doing something. And the kind of
selfhood is expressed in this quiet serenity. Now that’s a story that
has peculiar politics because there’s another story,
which is a kind of victims story which is about artisans
who are deprived of skill and so deprived of
well-being in the course of capitalist development. The artisan is reduced to
an animal pair of hands, or in the modern
social imaginary, he or she confronts the
specter of uselessness because automation has
no need of human workers. Now this victim
story is not false. It’s often how we
think about artisans. They’re doomed,
as I said before. But it’s incomplete. New crafts are being created
all the time, for instance. Had Penn chosen to take
people from hospitals or scientific
laboratories, he could have sold us a whole new
host of modern small trades. The victim story also forces
the worker into a mold because the most important fact
about work becomes oppression. To regain well-being,
the oppressed must revolt. This is, for
instance, Delacroix’s worker, in the great painting
of the 1830 revolution “Liberty Leading the
People to Heaven.” And most of you
have you must have seen this ragged
band of people led by this half-naked
allegorical figure of liberty. These are people
who are suffering, who want to break their chains. That’s fine, but the victim
story lays upon the worker the burden of being an avatar
of radical social change– of making it happen
for everyone else. Getting on with
one’s life is best one can is not included
within its frame. Now perhaps Penn does not
show us the victim story because he took artisans out
of their ordinary setting and placed them in
makeshift studios against nondescript backgrounds. His workers brought their tools
of the trade to the studio, as you see in the exhibit, but
neither their bosses nor their coworkers. If Penn is an imagist
whose politics belonged to the Enlightenment, so
too it should be said, is this true of his nearer
sources, August Xander and [INAUDIBLE] both
the German Xander and the French [? Aje– ?]
had issued the aesthetic of the suffering worker. Both emphasized the dignity
of even the smallest trades. And you can see one wonderful
example of that of Xander in this show only
one, I may add. Those Xander’s art is largely
place-bound to [INAUDIBLE] and to his hometown of
[INAUDIBLE] his people spring out as presences
independent from place as do I judge [? Aje’s ?]
photographs of workers in the streets of Paris. Xander [? Aje ?]
and Penn show us people who are resting from,
interrupted in, or simply AWOL from their jobs. And for all three, skill has
become the aura, the halo of individual character. So that’s the kind of politics
that’s in these photographs. It’s a politics emphasizing
the dignity of work rather than the
oppression of workers. If you’re engaged in the
history of photography, you will know that there is
another way of photographing work which again does not
resort to the victim’s story. It appears in the images
of Francis Johnson who at the end of the 19th century
went to the Hampton Institute in Virginia to photograph the
craft workshops for exslaves and also for displaced Native
Americans after the Civil War. This was the Hampton Institute
like Tuskegee Institute was set up by Booker T. Washington. Her photographs show us
people actually doing work and doing it together. It’s work of a more
agricultural character than we see in Penn’s work– for instance, “Cheese Making
and Greenhouse Management.” Johnson’s images show what
work could look like once the worker is free. It’s again a politics. She highlights the industry
and orderliness of exslaves in the Hampton Institute– an emphasis meant to
counter the racist view of African-Americans as
slovenly and chaotic once freed from the master’s whip. But still, the human
visages in these photographs resemble the faces of
[? Aje ?] or Penn’s urbanites. They too are serene and calm. So we might wonder, what is it
about craftsmanship that can produce this inner strength? To put it another way,
what’s the human connection between Penn’s
artisans who practice such different small trades? What produces this
inner strength? And in the second and
major part of this talk, I want to give you the answer
that I understand about why craftsmen look like this– it’s people on the walls. Let’s explore the question of
craftsmanship in two ways– first, by accounting
the self-confidence so visible in Penn’s
photographs and then by bringing to light the cooperation
between workers, which is invisible in
these photographs because we don’t see
people actually working with each other. Skilled confidence plus
skilled cooperation add up to that quality
which I call craftsmanship. This self-confidence
bred into skilled workers is a matter of time. This is the most important
thing I have to say to you. Craft work is slow,
and it’s long. One measure of the time
it takes to become skilled in the practice of a craft is
the so-called 10,000-hour rule. This rough number translates
into practicing three or four hours a day for five
to seven years– the time needed to gain
mastery whether one is learning piano technique,
glass blowing, a sport, or surgery. What happens during
those 10,000 hours? In my view, three things happen. First, in practicing,
one repeats an action again and again until
it comes out right. In my own crafted music,
for instance, the student goes over scales again and again
until the tones of the cello sound exactly in tune, and
the shifting between notes becomes seamless. You’re actually
going from positions, but you don’t feel that it takes
years to be able to do that. Getting something
right the first time you do it is not
really skillful. Just because you may
not be able to do so the second or the
10th time, you really need to ingrain
facility into your body so that it is a habit
on which you can rely. But repetition of the sort
can’t become a static activity. The musician practicing
scales will only gradually lighten finger pressure,
develop more flexible action at the knuckle ridge. The body is after all
learning an unusual habit, and you develop
such habits slowly. Ingraining habit
moreover requires a musician or any
other craftsman to remain alert, even while
doing the most routine things week after week, month after
month, like playing scales. Going over something again,
practicing how to do it– our behavior has to evolve
in the course of those 10,000 hours. And to put this abstractly,
it’s through practicing through slow time that
our bodies metamorphosize into skill. And put quite simply,
this is how we improve. Now this is self-evident
in playing the cello or playing golf. But what about photography,
which to the outsider can seem now to require
much less physical technique and much less time? I was interested in the
answer the photographer Thomas [? Strut ?] gave to me when
I raised this issue with him. A man who clicks the shutter
rarely during a photoshoot. [? Strut ?] obliges his
students to click a lot– much more than necessary– and to vary their own postures
in holding the camera. Similarly, he
obliges his students to work in the darkroom with
the same variety of effort with printing the same
image and different papers with different chemicals. Instant photography– so easy
with today’s digital cameras– means, Stuart says,
the photographer does not learn how to approve. So the 10,000-hour
rule in principle, if not an actual number,
it still applies. By forcing them to
slow down, [? Strut ?] teaches his students
bodily habits of posture and sensitizing
them to materials. In the darkroom, he says the
photo photographer learns how to coordinate the eye with
the nose as well as with touch, and this is a phenomenon
we call embodiment. That is, we are embodying
the thing in ourselves. And that’s what happens in
slow time is embodiment. The second aspect of craft
skill follows directly from the first. From learning to
do one thing well, there can emerge many different
alternative ways to a goal. This is the and I quote,
“more than one way to skin a cat” rule. One of my students, a
skilled glass blower, describes the sense of
mastery which came to her in manipulating the blow-pipe
when she found several alternative ways
to hold a pipe– always with the same goal of
keeping a blob of molten glass rounded at the tip. The habits we learn, a long,
slow time of craftwork become tacit understanding–
that is, unconscious– when an embodiment
is a way of producing a kind of unconsciousness
in us, which means we don’t have to think
consciously about what we’re doing when we do it. I will now raise my knuckle in
order to play B flat perfectly. We don’t have to
go through that. But the cat rule,
if I can shorten it, applies to a more
conscious movement of thinking there is
another way to do this, then pursuing the
possibility, then ingraining it once again is
habit through repetition. So these two rules
lie to each other as the relationship
between consciousness and then what’s
called tacit behavior or learned unconsciousness. Developing a repertoire of
multiple solutions serving the same end is important
because in the artisan’s realm, raw materials can
vary and even more because the circumstances
of practice vary. A football player
put into a new team may have to change his
or ways of playing, of throwing or kicking to adapt. Musical work the physical
temperature of different halls or the emotional temperature
of different conductors oblige us to achieve the
same goal by different means. Above all, the cat rule
builds up confidence. The craftsman is
confident that he or she can meet the challenges
of different circumstances because here she has developed
a repertoire of techniques rather than is reliant on
just one way of doing things. So that’s the first
two elements that create in the way in
which skill creates this psychological
condition of confidence. The third element of craft
confidence is perhaps less obvious than the 10,000-hour
or the cat rules, but it’s of equal value. There is in learning a
skill an intimate connection between problem-solving
and problem-finding. Once we know how to
make something work, we then want to know what
are its implications of what it leads to. The difficulty is that
these implications are not immediately clear. Give you an example, for
instance, in the 16th century, new ways of mixing
metals and tempering them produced the first truly sharp
steel knives and scissors. But the butchers and
borrowers who bought them didn’t know quite what to do
with these improved tools. Took about 60 years for
barbers, who frequently doubled as surgeons, to learn– it must have been a horror
[INAUDIBLE] imagine cut your hair, cut your neck– I don’t know. It took about 60 years
for barber’s, who frequently doubled as surgeons,
to learn new knife techniques. In the history of technology–
this is pretty common– a tool appears before
people know how to use it. Another version of the
intimate connection between problem-solving
and problem-finding is the pregnant wrong answer. That is, the answer which proves
more productive, opening up new terrain, and the
quick right answer. An example here comes from
weaving the Jacquard loom. It was initially developed
by Weavers and Leon threading their
looms the wrong way. It’s a pregnant
mistake, which after it was pondered and studied
created a whole new craft. I wanted to just add something
to the text in this regard. Well, if you buy my book,
which is wonderfully cheap, and I’ll even sign
a copy for you. You’ll see that I am very
against multiple-choice tests in learning with
anything that has to do with skill development. And you know, if
you’re youngsters, you know the reason for this. You have to get to take a
test as many right answers as possible. So you’ve got to go
superficially through and answer as knowledge
whatever you can immediately do to get the most numbers. This means you can’t dwell
in all the possibilities of a wrong mistake. In mathematics and music,
glass blowing, and weaving, it’s often doing something
wrong, which is stimulating. And we have a whole educational
regime for teaching craft, and I think also teaching
art, which disables people from exploring the
beauty and the pregnancy of the wrong answer. So that’s why I insist
on this, and it’s a way of deskilling students
by forcing them to only care about getting the right answer
rather than understanding the pregnant wrong answer. Now what lies behind this? The intimate ambiguous relation
between problem-solving and finding enables curiosity. No skill develops
without a good dose of curiosity, which enables
us to think what might be rather than what
is like the barbers or again to become
self-critical, like the weavers. Irving Penn in “The Darkroom”
offers a good example of both images of
small trades when first printed seemed
to him to contain unrealized possibilities. In later decades,
he experimented with gelatin silver and
platinum palladium prints made from these negatives. In this he, like
any good craftsman, had understood the resonance
of the word mastery. Mastery of the medium is
not a static condition. As a Matisse
observed in 1815 when he was struggling with
the possibilities of black as a color, others
thought he was by then a consummate colorist. But to him, he knew better. His control only opened
up new questions. It’s true in more
prosaic work as well. And one reason why a
good measure of anxiety attends a much
highly skilled labor. What’s next? Now, it might seem odd to
join worry of this sort. What’s it about? What can I do with it? What’s it mean to
self-confidence? Yet in the real world of
practice, they do marry. Again, the issue of
repetition reappears and now in a productive form. The master craftsman,
be she a potter, nurse, or [? stratovarius ?]
does not usually want to do something
perfectly just once and then retire to grow roses. She wants to do it again
from which follows what next, what then. Now I’ve tried to account
in sum three elements which create in craftsmanship– the sort of calm confidence so
visible in Penn’s photographs. The embedding of habit
over 10,000 hours or so of practice,
multiple solutions to the problem of skinning
the cat, a proactive join between problem-solving
and problem-finding, a join in which mastery and
anxious curiosity combined. These are, in my view,
the most important ways we achieve skill and
continue to grow once we’ve got a skill under our belts. I want to end this talk
with just saying something about the social side
of this labor, which you don’t see in these
photographs– that is, people actually working. There are indeed
a few crafts which can be practiced all
alone, but no one I know of has ever learned how to
be a potter or a weaver simply by reading a book. Craftsmanship involves
hands-on learning. This phrase, hands-on learning,
can simply invoke the cliche of learning by doing,
but more cogently, it applies a set of
social relations– a master, teacher
who shows as well as tells the novice what
to do or a master teacher who serves as a coach
and critic for the novice’s effort. Hands-on learning applies so
that there’s an inequality in that social relations. Hands-on learning implies also
community of other notices. Here’s there is a quality,
but in this equality, one measures oneself
against one’s peers. One learns from
them, and of course, one gossips and complaints
about the master with them. This social scene, this
kind of unequal sociability shape the class medieval
workshop, the Renaissance artist [? Adele ?] as it
does the modern scientific laboratory. Now cooperation
comes in two forms. One is naive and natural,
and the other is skilled. As a species, we share
with all social animals, certain instincts
of cooperation, which appear among
infants, for instance, and coordinated work with a
mother or a nurse’s nipple. A little later in childhood,
this naive cooperation appears in play with other kids. Cooperation at later
stages of the life cycle depends, of course, much more
on cultural circumstances and requires a
developed skill, which I’m going to describe to you,
rather than sheer instinct in order to succeed. The classic craft workshop,
like the modern science lab, was a hierarchy, as I’ve said. Three elements where the
master, the journeyman, and the apprentice. In the lab, the
professor, the post-doc, and the graduate student. The most interesting figure
to me in this hierarchy is the journeyman– that’s the man or
woman in the middle– and the one most in need
of skilled cooperation. He or she is put in the hours,
learn the cat principle, perhaps as a glimpse of
possible ways of working beyond what the master does,
and yet still the journeyman is not free. He or she remains dependent. I’ve observed photographers
in this position, and I want to say
something is a little more personal than a formal
lecture about this, about how people in
the journeyman position deal with that ambiguity and
the kind of skilled cooperation they learn to deal with it. Some people at the
journeyman stage handled this situation well. For instance, my friend Richard
Avedon who, like Irving Penn, learned from Alexi Brodavich
and treated his master with lifelong respect. Both photographers, in turn,
had in Alexander Lieberman that vogue a more
ambiguous relationship. Lieberman acting as a
demanding master who however lacked that particular craft. A familiar situation
to all of us– the boss who’s got the
power but can’t do the work. Although in Lieberman’s
case, he was a maker of wonderful
monumental sculpture. Lieberman was also their patron. And when they were starting
out, they frequently needed to appease him, and he
needed to be stroked and so on. Sorry to give you all
these personal details but just to make
this resonate to about what this journeyman
position is like. In the classic craft workshop,
the journeyman status could be somewhat resolved
because in time, one of the journeymen
would eventually take the master’s place. Again, that replacement can
occur in a scientific lab but neither of
these photographers wanted to become eventually
Alexander Lieberman. I cite this because more
largely, hierarchies pose this problem for
people in the middle, what to do with their
achieved skills, how best to put those
skills to use before one is either a boss or independent. Social thought from
[INAUDIBLE] has imagined cooperation via the
respectful division of labor. Each person lets the other get
on with doing their own thing, and the sum of these individual
labors produces a product. Penn shoots the image. Lieberman’s positions
it on the page. But do your own thing is a
child’s fantasy of cooperation. It assumes that everyone is
as it were, on the same page, desiring the same end,
and that everyone is nice. Whereas people
are not in complex hierarchies on the
same page because they have different interests. They are often intensely
competitive, resentful, or jealous– all of which renders
them not nice. And the result,
therefore, does not add up, particularly for people
in the middle of the hierarchy. People can deal in the
workshop with this tension, and indeed, they have to
deal with it practically to get work done. The workshop itself
can train people how to cooperate as though
cooperation or a craft of everyday diplomacy. Back office white-collar workers
are in the journeyman position become good diplomats
of cooperation, for instance, when they do not
repeat the boss’s criticisms of fellow employees
or when they recognize the good work of another
employee with a smile rather than fulsome,
melodramatic, self-conscious praise. To take again a musical example,
when we rehearse the string quartet, we are constantly
facing the problem of everyday diplomacy. Mere technical skill isn’t going
to make us play well together nor will the solution
be found by imposing one’s personal vision of the
quartet on the other three. And certainly, being nice
will not produce good music. The secret of good
cooperation is a matter of giving signs of
recognition and balancing those sides by letting other
people do their own thing. It’s also a matter of
collective problem-solving and problem-finding– that is, of finding what
people need each other to do or they need each other
to get something done. This kind of adult cooperation
always takes time to develop. In the nonartistic
world, it also requires an office
or a factory which is stable enough in
function that people get to know one another. Through craft workshop
embodies the sort of environment in which
cooperation can be learned, an environment which is far
different from the office or factory in which people
shuttled in and out, far different again from
the consultants’ realm in which superficial
pleasantness masks a lack of sustained engagement
in other people or their work. I’m now trying to study more
this kind of everyday diplomacy as a form of cooperation in
many, many different fields. But it’s something, particularly
in the writings about– I don’t know how much Penn
wrote about his relations with Liberman and
where he said I had to learn how to protect
myself and give something to Alexander Lieberman. And in the end, I
became a diplomat, and I respected myself for
learning that art of diplomacy. It’s a very complicated problem. To sum up, craftsmanship
names two things– the development of skills within
an individual and the practices of cooperation
itself as a craft– adult and character rather
than the naive and modeled on diplomacy. Of course, I’m reading into
Penn’s images of craftsmen and what I know about
craftsmen more broadly, and I make no
apology for doing so. The images resonate. I’m reading into these images
something very specific, and I hope this what you
take away from this lecture is that there is a
narrative in craftwork– that’s what I’ve tried
to describe to you, that is, there are stages of
its becoming and unfolding. I’m not going to read you that
I have much more to say to you, but I’ve already
talked too much. So I’m just going to summarize
to you the end of this talk. What’s this got to do with us? Do we see in these pictures
from half a century ago anything that looks like us? Do they hold up a
kind of mirror to us? And I just say this
too informally– it’s often said about
artisanship that it’s over. That these this is all
nostalgia romantic longing for the pre-industrial
era and so on. This is a very, very
dangerous thing for us to believe because
it really puts us out of touch with how we
might be able to use the machines of our own time
to cheat the machinery we have in our own time as
craftsmen rather than simply as consumers. And there are many
dimensions of this. We don’t think like
craftsmen, for instance, when we want user-friendly
objects, a computer that we never have to
inquire how it works, we just run programs
somebody else gives to us. We do think like craftsmen
when we use computer programs like Linux instead of
Microsoft, programs that are open source where
we actually– none of us are going to become
computer mavens. Maybe some of you are
but not most of us. But at least we can
understand that there’s a connection between what
we make and what we use. And what I feel about this
subject is that the problem– give you another
example of this. In the learning process
I’ve described to you, you might think, well, this
is all replaced by people learning, sitting at
a computer terminal, getting learning in
that nice cheap way that the screen talks is to
[? hire ?] a teacher and so on. Enough studies have now been
done of this– and again, you can read these in
about these in my book– to know that this kind of
learning on-screen learning is very slow and
very superficial. And the reason is, for instance,
learn mathematics much more slowly by learning algebra
on the screen than they do in a traditional
classroom into but what I’ve said that in
order to learn something, you’ve got to dwell
in its difficulty. Every time you
reduce difficulty, you no longer animate
the sense of curiosity. The fault is not these
machines, and indeed, the fault is us that we don’t have
a craftsmanlike attitude about the technologies
of our own time. I’ve been very
struck by the fact that I’ve gotten to know people
in the craft and code movement among programmers,
which is a movement to get the users of
modern technology to do exactly like
that– to think about themselves as craftsmen
who can participate in this and be intelligent about it. On the social side,
there’s something called Google Wave, which is
now in beta testing, which is trying to use the machines
to get people to actually cooperate and talk to each
other rather than to do this passive on-screen learning. So what I would say
in sum about this is that when I look at
these pen photographs, there are crafts
that have passed, that have disappeared
most of them. But the process of craftsmanship
hasn’t disappeared. The problem is that
we have difficulty seeing our relationship
to the technologies and tools of our own
time as one of making, of being ourselves craftsmen. So in that sense, I think
they’re extremely challenging. So this what I really wanted
to say to you about what the thoughts that this
exhibition has inspired in me. It contains the politics
of a very noble sort, but it hides the kind
of narrative as– this is inevitable
in a still image– the narrative of
becoming skilled. And our challenge
I think today is to engage and unpack
that narrative rather than to be
merely passive consumers of the tools of our own time. So thank you very much [APPLAUSE] So we have a couple of
minutes of questions. Anything you want to ask
me about this, argue with? Yes, this gentleman right here. If somebody gives
you a microphone, then you’ll be registered in
the Getty forever eternally AUDIENCE: Hello, hello, hello. I can’t speak for the
people in this room in terms of their interest
in being craftsmen, but it strikes me that
the average person in the average situation
doesn’t know or care about craftsmanship. And are we sitting here talking
about something in a bubble? 100 years ago or x number
of years ago maybe, 250 years ago craftsmanship
was very important because it took a person to
create something that lasted and that functioned. Today, that’s not necessary. And so I think the average
person doesn’t know or care, and I’m wondering how
you respond to that. RICHARD SENNETT:
Well, I think you’re saying two different things. One is that people don’t
think very much about it, which is I think quite true. Whereas where I would look
at this differently than you, I must say is that
I think, in fact, people are engaged in skilled
activities all the time. And they want to be good at
those skilled activities. But where is our
society is set up and our economy is set up,
there isn’t much reward, for instance for doing a
good job for its own sake. In fact, I won’t say anything
about bankers or the rich but we can see that
rewards can come from people who are not very– you can complete the sentence. Incompetence is its
own reward in someway so I would say if you
said to a nurse do you really care about
your nursing skills, she said, absolutely. And I want to improve them. But if you said to her, do
you think that being a nurse has anything to do
with being a potter? She’d have or he would
have a hard time making that connection, and
that’s where I think this discourse has to develop. I don’t agree that people
just do indifferent work that they don’t care about it. AUDIENCE: I was commenting
that I would just comment that possibly
the term craftsmanship is anachronistic in
the 21st century. And I say that right now, it
could be rightly or wrongly, but I think it’s a fact. And maybe there’s more
of a Googlesque word or a 20th-century word. I’m being facetious, but
maybe there’s a word– RICHARD SENNETT: Yeah,
but what would it be? AUDIENCE: I don’t know. I mean– RICHARD SENNETT: What? AUDIENCE: DIY. RICHARD SENNETT: DIY? Yeah, except maybe
do it yourself. I’m not happy with that either. Thank you for that. Will you write me when you
come up with this word? And I’ll change the
title of the book. Let’s get another
question right here. It’s the other side. I want to make you work. You need exercise. You’ve got a microphone. AUDIENCE: You talked
a lot about the people in front of the camera– artisans and craftsmen. You talk a little bit about
the man behind the camera. Who is he? Another artisan and
craftsman or is he an artist and where’s the transition? RICHARD SENNETT:
Well, I originally was going to talk to
you about that tonight. I was disappointing people. It’s just it’s in
the nature of life. I’ll give you a
three-minute answer– my answer to that
question and then after, let’s call it an
evening and just stop me if this three answers gets to
be it about three or four hours answers from this. First of all, I have to
say something to you, as a musician, what I feel
is that there obviously is no art without craft and that
the greatest challenge we face as musicians is learning not
to have an idea about the way something sounds, but
actually to have a sound. When somebody starts– I don’t
know if this is true in art school– but in conservatories,
when somebody starts talking about
what Brahms means, I want to reach for
my metaphorical gun. Now ours is a very
physical art, and I don’t mean it’s unthinking. But I mean that the foot
for the man behind the scene for the artist, finding
a physical embodiment for expression is what we
spend all that time about. The photographers I know
would make the same argument. You could make it otherwise. You could say that sculptors who
don’t do their own fabrication can make a different argument. But so my first
response to about this is it depends whether you are
the author of your own object. And if you are like any
musician or dancer or actor– the author of your own object– it’s in technique that
you build expression. There is no other beyond that. I’ll just give you an example. When you go to hear
Gustavo Dudamel, who is your new conductor here who
is a genius as a conductor. If you can go hear him rehearse,
it it’s a revelation of this. Does he talk about
Brahms intended x? Here we have ironic
subversion of the tonic. No, he goes not so much. Something’s wrong. That’s how he conducts. And it’s that kind
of visceral way of doing it which
provokes a freedom and in the people who
rehearse from him. What’s this mmph mean? What’s going on here? But I would say that that’s
within the realm of making art. That’s a huge divide. Anybody who has to
engage in embodiment has to be first and
foremost a craftsman. I also feel about this that this
question about the relationship between art and
craft is embedded in another question, which
is not a good one, which is about the role of genius,
which is that the craftsman is just your ordinary schlep. The guy knows how to do
it, but that a true artist is exceptional, a genius. And politically, to me, I
find that very troubling, because I think or
in most popular arts, it isn’t a question of being the
Michelangelo of country music. It’s about being
expressive about making it. I think it’s from a
social point of view very destructive distinction
because it’s really about the sort of superiority
of the artist and more when it’s drawn out in the
performing arts about making a divide between subjective
feeling, the artist’s inner vision– all of that kind of
nonsense language and the actual
physical result so that you get a
kind of inequality, and you get a
subjectivity which are privileged over the moment
the event, that the happening. And I think this is
fatal inexpression. Young writers say to me I’ve got
such a great idea for a novel. I know it’s never
going to happen. Do you know what I mean? It’s never going to happen. So to me, this should
be a nonquestion. We should forget about the
distinction between art and craft and focus
on craft, and that’s I guess how I’d answer you. And with that, let me
thank you all for coming. And I’ll meet you outside. There might even be drinks
outside, is that correct? Something like that and
I’d be glad to sign books.

2 thoughts on “Richard Sennett on Art and Craft

  1. Is "The craftsman" the book which most resembles the talk being presented here (specially the last response), or is he publishing a new one?

  2. last time one off dose talk about craft he sad "the ornament is a crime" the crime is a preogrative off the elite. wat do you want now? the most precise description off wat craft is is "stalinist cutural therorie" a stade of mind were all braincells responsebel for words are not active.

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