What makes craft sacred?

Less than ten generations have passed since the mass-production methods of the Industrial Revolution properly took hold, and even then the majority of the population would have been involved in some form of craft work on a regular basis. Prior to that, thousands of generations relied on handmade items and tools.

As our ancestors learned more about the subtleties of their environment they responded with ever more sophisticated – and yet often startlingly simple – craft techniques. Knowledge was passed on and techniques evolved, forming an inextricable sympathy between craftsperson and natural world – a relationship that from today’s perspective (alienated as we tend to be from our modes of production) can seem almost mystical.

Sometimes it seems almost as if handcrafted items are imbued with the intention and consciousness of their makers, as if this is a physical trait that you could almost reach out and touch. In the voculabulary of spirituality you could say that handcrafted items are enspirited in a way that mass-produced items are not.

Can this be an objective quality – or does it require knowledge of the production method on behalf of the observer? Either way, it seems to me to be a vitally important link to a sustainable way of living that we seem to have mislaid … and increasingly need to recover.

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6 comments so far

  1. robin wood on

    Interesting ideas Daniel. As a 21st century craftsperson I put a little heart and soul into what I make, the objects are all part of my conscious lifestyle choices. Having said that when I have studied traditions that are still vibrant and truly a living part of the community I think this aspect is less clear. Craftspeople in Turkey or Romania do not regard their work as we do, they are more like plumbers, just doing a job. Hopefully doing it well but I think there is perhaps a little idealisation of the past in the European craft movement. William Morris’s utopia “News for Nowhere” sums it up the idea that everyone is putting heart and soul into their honest labour for the good of community.

    I tend to empathise more the philosophy of the Japanese craft movement though no doubt equally simplistic. Soetsu Yanagi in “the Unknown Craftsman” praises those unknown workers who churned out simple objects for daily use, without much thought but the objects somehow naturally end up with great vitality a quality which is easily lost when we start thinking too much and not doing enough.

  2. tangiblesanctity on

    Thanks Robin. I would be interested in finding out more about the Japanese craft movement. I’m fascinated with Shinto and I wonder if there are any resonances. Would you recommend ‘The Unknown Craftsman’ as a good way in?

  3. robin wood on

    Hi Daniel,

    “Would you recommend ‘The Unknown Craftsman’ as a good way in?”

    Yes very much so, it is translated by the potter Bernard Leach.

  4. Richard Wilson on

    Hi Daniel
    I regard myself as a ‘craftsperson’, that is, I can apply skills which had to be learned, and practiced, and have subtleties in the application of tools and skill. So I mean no disrespect in responding to this bit

    > Sometimes it seems almost as if handcrafted items are
    > imbued with the intention and consciousness of their
    > makers, as if this is a physical trait that you could
    > almost reach out and touch. In the voculabulary of
    > spirituality you could say that handcrafted items are
    > enspirited in a way that mass-produced items are not.

    If I may say – what a lot of 21st century claptrap. The items made as ‘crafts’ in day gone were usually done in the quickest, most direct way, with the application of skills needed to produce in quantities sufficient to buy food and shelter.
    At some point, when factory and machine mass production became, at first fashionable, and then the norm, the idler (rich) part of society turned the ‘primitive’ ‘unsophisticated’ items into things of beauty, (but still not of value to the producer.) and finally we see the tables turned.
    On the one hand I can purchase equipment and jigs which will machine timber as a dead ‘stuff’ to within a few thousandths of an inch tolerance to ensure perfect, interchangeable fit.
    At the other end, I can take a 2 man saw (needs a friend for this!) cut my own timber, split or rip saw it, make up a stool or whatever with axe, adze, chisels, saws and planes, and the result is a one-off, no two exactly alike.
    Suddenly the society that thought the perfect machine made item was best quality want to prove that they can a) afford, and b) appreciate ‘craft made’ stuff. “See how the marks of the tools can still be seen, blah blah”

    > Can this be an objective quality – or does it require
    > knowledge of the production method on behalf of the
    > observer? Either way, it seems to me to be a vitally
    > important link to a sustainable way of living that we
    > seem to have mislaid … and increasingly need to recover.

    Nope – its a fashion statement. I’ve talked to many people at shows, and they have a sort of interest in what you’re making – a weird pole lathe in action, splitting with sledge and gluts – it’s ‘quaint’ and a spectacle, but the good stuff won’t sell there – galleries which attract the rich punters with a statement to make are where to earn a living now.

    Sounds a bit of a rant doesn’t it, but its just my way.

    Oh BTW – use ‘trust’ for the name of the HCA. it has a more authoritative feel and connotation. the trail has been blazed by the NT and WT.

  5. tangiblesanctity on

    Hi Richard

    I absolutely agree with you. The way we view crafts is definitely influenced by our twenty-first century culture. How could it be otherwise? And yes, it is important to realise that there is a degree of cultural appropriation going on, as from our middle-class standpoint we impart our own values on working-class craftspeople of the past. I think it’s very important that we are aware of the politics of this.

    Having said that I think a lot of people would prefer to have something handmade rather than mass-produced – not just as a status symbol, but as a tangible item with intangible qualities. A handmade item has a story tied in with its production, a story which incorporates the maker, her history, the history of her craft discipline and the landscape in which that discipline has developed. This makes it more valuable to those who appreciate the story, regardless of the intentions of the craftsperson.

    Hence the ‘seems’ in my opening post. As with all communication, the message is interpreted according to the cultural position of the subject. This interpretation can be mistaken as being the intention of the ‘speaker’ – an intersubjective fallacy endemic throughout modernity.

  6. Richard Wilson on

    Hello again, yes, we seem to be in agreement then. And yet, I still see a distinction between the craft, and the product of that craft.
    The best situation as a small maker is to have the people who buy see you at work, making by hand. They appreciate the skill and the time, and the uniqueness of the piece.

    You still have to use every wile to make quickly, as a wooden box is a wooden box, and unless you are able to influence perception in print or in person, its value stays low, in competition with a gazillion an hour being shipped in from china or wherever.

    I don’t have the answer. .
    Maybe more exhibition making – a roster of demonstrators able to meet the public and show them, at shows and so on.


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