The desire to do good work is one of the cornerstones of civilisation. Humanity did not come down from the trees on a “that’s good enough” attitude. We were not content with merely surviving, instead we strove for better and better ways of doing things to improve our living standards and quality of life. This is ultimately what craft is concerned with: the pursuit of quality.
A Civilisation of Craft
“Sing clear-voiced Muse, of Hephaestus famed for skill. With bright-eyed Athena he taught men glorious crafts throughout the world – men who before use to dwell in caves in the mountains like wild beasts. But now that they have learned crafts through Hephaestus famous for his art they live a peaceful life in their own houses the whole year round.”
This 3000 year old hymn by the ancient Greek poet Homer reveres Hephaestus, the Greek god of craft and skill, and a civiliser of humanity. Even back then, there were those who recognised the value of craft and honed skill as emblems of a civilised society, one that is driven by quality of life and not just necessities of life. This idea has become our culture. We constantly want a better life than the one we currently have and consumerism is the result.
Consumerism and craft do not merge well, if at all. On a consumerist basis, the balance of what we buy pre-made and what we create for ourselves individually is well below par. There is a strong arguement that there never even was that balance – certainly not since the modern era or even before it. Perhaps what we should really be talking about is the disconnectedness we now have with what we own. The average person has very little concept of how their t shirt is made, for example, or how their mobile phone is built. There are few who would consider themselves an adept enough tailor to sew themselves a winter coat and no doubt fewer still who could build a modern smartphone, but there are areas of modern life where the understanding of making is common and the made/pre-made balance is alive and well.
Home cooking for example, has always been a craft that the majority of people practice to some extent. The popularity of cookery programmes, both daytime and prime time, just goes to highlight this fact. Recipes are refined and finer ingredients are sourced in pursuit of greater results. People are still drawn to cooking for themselves simply for the seer enjoyment and satisfaction of the physical act and the end result. It is understood that the home-cooked meal will be superior to the shop-bought ready-meal, even if this is not in fact true. (I recall some time ago reading that many recipes on prime time cookery programmes are actually more unhealthy than the average ready-meal!)
Of course, this goes straight to the main reason we practice crafts these days. Generations of technological innovation and advancement in manufacturing have meant that we no longer have to make our own clothes or build our own furniture, so we can pour our creative urges into other more leisurely craft pursuits like cooking. It would seem that people will always need a creative outlet of some kind.
Even simple domestic considerations – personal grooming, washing the car, ordering a room – are forms of craftsmanship. If you take pride in your personal appearance, for example, then you are striving to do good work in order to achieve good results – satisfactory work for satisfactory results is not craftsmanship.
Pride in one’s work and the end product are cornerstones of craft and ones that push innovation. The “I did that!” mentality and personal ownership we feel is a force to be reckoned with in the face of “off-the-shelf” solutions. The bracelet carefully woven by hand will be immensely more personal than the high street fashion alternative. It is a fine balance though, and when this sense of self-satisfaction is lost, then the willingness to do good work soon follows, and craftsmanship falls apart. In a way then, modern craft is a selfish habit, pushed by a self-congratulatory feeling of pride.
Of course, pride is not just an inward feeling. You can take pride in the company you work for or the town that you live in. You can have a sense of nationalistic pride or feel proud of you child’s achievements. Then, any work that is done towards improving or helping these things can also be seen as craft. You are driven to do good work to further the cause you care for.
What this all means then, is that there needs to be feelings of care and a willing to invest time and effort into an endeavour. If interest is lost in these things then craft cannot exist. Day to day, most of us will have something that we take pride in getting right and being good at. This is where the underlying craft of everyday life lies – in the satisfaction of being good at some thing that not everyone else is, of showing the world you have skill. So it should not be said that we are completely uncivilised when it comes to everyday craft. It may have changed over the centuries, but it is still there, preventing us from sliding into a dull and uninspiring depression of cultural blandness. So in that respect, we all need our own craft – we all need work to take pride in.