Ruminations about Craft

2004

By Philip Baldwin.

Craft is one of those words full of shadings with various meanings and implications. In its most primary sense, we may say that most of us are bad craftspeople at a lot of what we do, but many of us get good at one or a few things we do. These are often referred to as hobbies. Occasionally they are a way of life, a career, a life's work.

There is an anecdote which my partner, Monica Guggisberg and I often site at the end of public lectures we give about our work:

"A good friend of ours has recounted the true story of an anthropologist who went to study the behavior of a particular tribe of aboriginal peoples in New Zealand. One day he went to the chief of the tribe and asked him a question. How much time did the chief think his people invested in work per day? The chief was perplexed by the question and upon reflection said that he would have to consult with the tribal elders in a leisurely fashion and that the man should get back to him in about three weeks' time. When the anthropologist returned he asked the chief 'Have you had the opportunity to reflect upon my question?' The chief replied that yes he had, and that after considerable discussion it had been decided that the people of the tribe invested four hours a day in work. The rest of the day was spent making things."

Craft is about making things. That is, it is about the process of making things, not the things themselves, not the results. The results are objects, books, songs, paintings, operas, statues, theatrical productions, movies, meals, airplanes or baseballs, and yes, baskets, those too. We forget that all creators, whether basket weavers or writers are obliged to be craftspeople in order to make their work. While we're at it, pickpockets are craftspeople too, along with car mechanics and the makers of golf balls.

But wait - something is missing here. What about quality, the quality of what we make, the aesthetic value or beauty or meaning of the thing? How shall we compare, say, the graphics of the 1960's Volkswagen and Guinness ads (two absolute classics of their genre) with the paintings of David Hockney or the music of Elvis? Simply put, where does workmanship end and pure creation take over? The answer I believe is that there is no demarcation line. These things take place simultaneously and side by side. One without the other makes a sorry showing. There can be no art without craft, whether it be good or bad. However, there is plenty of craft that has no relationship to art per se. Take for example the manufacture of rubber tires, in which good craftsmanship is essential for our safety and well being. Or take an example closer to home: a well-crafted blowing iron is enormously helpful to making good glass.

The editors have asked us to grapple with this subject of art and craft, a subject which normally I studiously avoid as I prefer to hope we have outgrown it. The British journal CRAFT (probably the best journal of its kind in the world today) has been celebrating and showcasing fine works of art for thirty years. The fault-lines are tradition-based and habituated. Painting is art, sculpture is art - unless of course it is made out of wood, in which case we call it craft! Most of us know this to be rediculous, but traditions and habits die hard. A further complicating factor revolves around the issue of functionality, although strictly speaking this is in another domain. A functional object is not considered pure art today. It is decorative art, or applied art, or it is design. Only when the thing becomes abstract can we call it pure art. This too I would suggest is silly. But culture loves codifiers, and good luck getting past their clutches. In this case there are some interesting explanations which confuse us still today. A good analogy comes with the technological development of photography which has been a great influence in moving painting from representation to abstract form. Representational painting today is apt to be referred to as illustration, which many consider a "lesser" art. By the same token, photography took a hundred years of development before it began to claw its way into the realm of fine art. Man Ray today still bears the scars of this battle. Headlines were made in the New York Times a few years ago when the dealer Barry Friedman in New York finally fetched over $1 million for a Man Ray work. But behind all this chatter the essential issues remain for the thoughtful viewer: what is moving, what is uplifting, what is inspirational, what is original, what touches our soul?

One more word about functionality. As with the development of photography, functionality has been co-opted by the machine age. The ability to turn out good design by the thousands obviates the need to do these things by hand. Thus the artisan turns from functionality to sculpture, as the painter went from portrature and landscape to impressionism and abstraction. And yet. There are exceptions. We call such people craftsmen. People are forever asking "How long does it take you to make one of those?" The question never fails to irritate me, until I stop to think that it's exactly the sort of goofy question I myself am prone to ask. There are two answers which make sense. The first is "twenty-five years, the amount of time we have been making glass". The second is more confusing. In the course of a month we may actually blow glass for eight to ten days. Then there are about fifteen days for all the rest: marketing, administration, packing, shipping, the telephone, the computer, travel and on and on. And the creative moments that prop up this house of cards? Five minutes? An hour? A day? A life time? Most honestly, it's five minutes and a life time. And while we're at it, the DNA of our ancestors and the cultural millieu in which we've been working all our lives - especially, in my case, the explosive years of the 1960's. That's because the 60's and early 70's weighed in pretty heavily around issues or body, of mind, and of heart. Robert Pirsig's tome ZEN and The ART of MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, was revelatory for me, expressing things I already knew in my gut, if not in my mind. To weave together into a single "career" the head, the heart, and the mind, this was a worthy challenge.

The reader will notice that I keep saying "our". This is because I work in partnership with Monica Guggisberg, a fellow glassmaker with whom I have collaborated throughout my professional life in glass. Our creations are a snythesis of shared ideas and thoughts, the results of a very long and ongoing conversation. In the beginning we called ourselves glassblowers. Then we said glassmakers, then designers, and finally, about ten years ago, artists. That's the job description that naturally gets put down on those immigration forms. Why? Is it because the work has gradually evolved into abstraction and sculpture? Because we have become pretentious in our outlook? Because the marketplace demands it in order for us to be taken seriously? Or because we finally had the confidence to believe the quality of our creations merited the word? Art implies something creative and moving, at the least beautiful or, alternatively, provocative. And it absolutely embraces craft and craftsmanship, the talented execution of an original idea. The better the craftsmanship, the better the art. Except for the exceptions.

For many years our work was almost entirely about functional design. We aspired to contemporary design, whether it be hand-made or machine made. We still do, although it is a relatively small part of our oeuvre. And it is here that the notion of craft and craftsmanship take on their most special meaning for me personally. The discipline of constantly repeating a given piece of work, of constantly remaking the same object was never to my mind a boring, repetitive task. Because it was entirely made by hand, the discipline demanded in getting two to look the same, and then a dozen and then hundreds became a consumate challenge. Customers would say, "Oh, but each one is different, each one is a work of art." And I would invariably take issue and say, "No, exactly not. Each one is an effort to be as close to the other as possible, to follow the form and shape and presence of it's colleague as faithfully as it can. That's the art in the thing for me!" And in this respect the making of such objects becomes a form of yoga, an endless discipline, a jest, a mantra repeated and repeated, with every now and then a result slightly more exquisite than the last. Out of this practice there come moments of joy. And because the thing is physical, because it is rendered and made from the materials of the earth, it hangs around, it lingers for a moment and attests in its pure physicality to the process of its making, which we call craft.