Too much Romantic baggage

Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman contains the following paragraph near the end:

“An eagle-eyed reader will have noticed that the word creativity appears in this book as little as possible. This is because the word carries too much Romantic baggage — the mystery of inspiration, the claims of genius. I have sought to eliminate some of the mystery by showing how intuitive leaps happen, in the reflections people make on the actions of their own hands or in the use of tools. I have sough to draw craft and art together, because all techniques contain expressive implications. This is true of making a pot; it is also and equally true of raising a child.” (290).

I have railed against this Romantic baggage in various electronic forums over the years — most notably the AML List. I have also discussed the whole notion of artistic inspiration in light of LDS belief in the Holy Ghost. What I haven’t done very well is elaborate a positive description of how I think Mormons, especially believing Mormons, should approach artistic creation. Reading The Craftsman has brought me one step closer. I still don’t have anything fully formed, but two specific ideas from Sennett are currently bouncing around my head: the importance of repetition and the valuable effects of play.

19 thoughts on “Too much Romantic baggage”

  1. Wm, thanks for this.

    This part of your Sennet quote:

    “I have sought to draw craft and art together, because all techniques contain expressive implications. This is true of making a pot; it is also and equally true of raising a child.”

    reminded me of this, which I recently read in Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature by John D. Niles, an interesting book about the power an oral (storytelling) tradition has to act in behalf of culture:

    “Folktales in [Thompson’s] view ‘have as definite a form and substance in human culture as the pot, the hoe, or the bow and arrow.’ Like the different elements of the material culture, he added, ‘they are affected by the nature of the land where they are current, by the linguistic and social contacts of its people, and by the historic changes … Like any material things, words can be given to others …” (pp. 58-59).

    BTW, Niles discusses the importance of play in social cohesion. He remarks upon how traditional oral poetry has a special cogency, since it’s performed by a living person in the company of other living persons who value the poetry not so much for the poetry per se, but for the prospects for human interchange that such performances provide environments for. Thus traditional oral storytelling shares in the sort of play that games promote:

    “Barring some disastrous falling-out,” Niles says, “the end result of any form of play is a set of strenthened social ties. A tribe, a group,a family, or a pair of friends finds a greater sense of cohesion, of having a common fate, culture, and values.”

    The social cohesion that can arise from this, Niles says, will hopefully carry over into the social energies that can “make the difference between plenty and want, peace and dissention, survival and death” (p. 79).

    I don’t know if that’s what you mean by “play” — certainly other meanings apply, such as the play that occurs in metaphor and other types of wordplay, but I thought I’d throw this out there.

  2. I think Sennett would like the bit about strengthening social ties and cohesion.

    One of the things Sennett discusses in terms of play is play as creating (and changing) rules — as a way to test creating and then solving problems and then analyzing the solutions and coming up with more problems. To adults it may seem nonsensical that children like to set up the rules more than actually playing (Calvin ball, etc.), but it is precisely in doing that (and then arguing over interpretation and enforcement, etc.) that children develop a sense of how to interact with objects and with others and with schemas requires testing what those things are. Play is the reward for understanding (and mastering at least at some level) conventions. An example he gives is the young girl who dresses and undresses her dolls. Rather than take the Freudian view of this relating to sexuality, Sennett believes that it is an expression of craftsmanship, of understanding and experiencing the very tactile pleasure of changing the doll’s various states and statuses as an object e.g. more akin to say, glassblowing or writing code.

    I think too often play in literature has focused on what you allude to — wordplay. In particular, postmodern/structuralist literary theory has championed works that “play.” But often these works are valued most for their transgressive qualities. What is sometimes left out is that play only works in relation to conventions (and especially mastery of those conventions). And that play is most interesting when it creates new connections, new ways of seeing things. The transgression is just one part of the work that the literary artifact is doing.

    Our good friend Harlow Clark is a fascinating example of play in the context of craftsmanship and in attempts at creating social cohesion.

  3. “Our good friend Harlow Clark is a fascinating example of play in the context of craftsmanship and in attempts at creating social cohesion.”

    Yes! Harlow plays at a faster speed and with greater facility than most of us. In his gifts of border crossing (making connections), he’s something of a low-flying Hermes.

    “One of the things Sennett discusses in terms of play is play as creating (and changing) rules — as a way to test creating and then solving problems and then analyzing the solutions and coming up with more problems.”

    Niles speaks of this energy in relation to oral performance and the singer’s/poet’s/storyteller’s skill as well. Regarding the human proclivity for storytelling, he concludes that the constitutive value of storytelling demonstrates that “narrative had (and still has) a crucial role in human evolution.”

    Such an idea may or may not take Sennet’s thoughts about play a bit beyond “creating (and changing) rules — as a way to test creating and then solving problems and then analyzing the solutions and coming up with more problems.” Both men might be talking about the same human energy, just within different frameworks. Niles remarks of poets and singers that they were the keepers of history and myth (both of which one could argue constitute conventions or rules). Yet they could also summon up “what previously was unimagined … and give voice to new stories along traditional lines.” This sounds pretty much like what you’re talking about above.

    “I think too often play in literature has focused on what you allude to — wordplay.”

    I think wordplay is a vital linguistic vehicle for human play. But calling transgression “play” calls up Clockwork Orange for me, in which that nasty Little Alex treated violence as a toy. As you note, “toying” in language, especially in transgressive ways, may at special times overlap with “playing” in it, but the motive and grounding for transgression seems largely inferior to that of play. Transgression of the sort rampant in literature refuses responsibility, where the craftsmanship of play as Sennet and I think Niles use the word revolves around it — in particular, social responsibility.

    Like you and Sennett, I think the word “creative” has been hijacked to mean something less than creative. In other words, it has come to lean the opposite direction of what the word originally intended. But I think its prospects for rehabilitation are good, especially if we return it to “the people,” where Niles, and apparently Sennet believe it belongs.

    BTW, not to threadjack, but this — “… it is precisely in doing that (and then arguing over interpretation and enforcement, etc.) that children develop a sense of how to interact with objects and with others and with schemas requires testing what those things are. Play is the reward for understanding (and mastering at least at some level) conventions” — puts me in mind of the play young animals engage in as well. Similarly, they test their environment, learning how to interact with objects and with others of their kind, learning what’s acceptable and what’s not.

  4. Not a threadjack at all. The comparison to young animals is right on. I’d also note that adult animals also play.

    Sennett writes:

    “Work and play appear as opposites if play itself seems just an escape from reality. On the contrary, play teaches children how to be sociable and channels cognitive development; play instill obedience to rules but counters this discipline by allowing children to create and experiment with the rules they obey. These capacities serve people lifelong once they go to work.

    Play takes place in two domains. In competitive games, rules are set before the players being to act; once conventions are established, players become their servants. Games establish the rhythms of repetition. In a more open space of play, as when a child fingers a piece of felt cloth, sensory stimulation dominates; the child plays around with the felt, experiments with it, the dialogue with material objects begins. (269)”

    I should note that the words “servants” and “repetition” don’t carry the negative value with Sennett that others might assign them. Repetition is good — it leads to proficiency — and once proficiency is reached, one can then begin to see other possibilities. In addition, we all serve something. To be a servant means that which you serve has certain obligations to you.

    To bring this back around to literature, yes, re-envisioning the creating of literature (and thus it’s subsequent reception) in terms of storytelling, in terms of craftsmanship brings narrative work more into the social and historical. If one is a Romantic genius, then one doesn’t need to know the field within which one is operation. It’s all about the inspiration.

    I’m not convinced that Mormon writers and filmmakers have done the best job of testing and tempering their works against the conventions and standards of craft of the various fields/genres that are common in Mormon art right now AND against the Mormon stories that have already been told.

  5. I think this nexus between craft and creativity is nicely illustrated in the Studio Ghibli film, Whisper of the Heart, where the analogy is made between traditional violin making–requiring years of study and hard work–and writing fiction.

  6. “If one is a Romantic genius, then one doesn’t need to know the field within which one is operation. It’s all about the inspiration.”

    I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I ran into this down at the UofA, my first practical exposure to the attitude. I was in the literature program and wanted to learn how to become involved in the creative writing program while continuing to study the literary tradition. When the creative writing advisor discovered I was in the literature program, she said, “If you’re in the literature program you can’t possibly be serious about becoming a creative writer.” Dismissed.

    I don’t know if the antagonism that existed between the literature program and the creative writing program still exists there, but it was hot and heavy then.

    “I’m not convinced that Mormon writers and filmmakers have done the best job of testing and tempering their works against the conventions and standards of craft of the various fields/genres that are common in Mormon art right now AND against the Mormon stories that have already been told.”

    Are you suggesting that the attitude toward “inspiration” that the Romantic genius harbors toward craftmanship is throbbing madly in the various fields of Mormon art? If so, has it perhaps corrupted or distorted the religious concept of “inspiration” where the two intersect in Mormon arts?

  7. Along similar lines, Eugene, Arthur King repeatedly told me that anybody who wants to write well must put in the time on the ballet bar.

  8. You all are too well read for me to really chime in here, but I can’t help but think of when the Lord said, “You took no thought save it was to ask me.” If even the most basic things in our lives require prayer coupled with disciplined action it seems that the journey to genius would too.

    Could you unpack the importance of repetition for me? Is it more than putting in the time practicing scales on the piano in order to achieve the concerto?

  9. Eugene:

    Thanks for the recommendation. Sennett discusses violin building, and, of course, Stradivarius. He talks about the importance of being “sociable experts,” of passing on knowledge.

    “..the sociable side of expertise addresses the issue of knowledge transfer posed in Stradivari’s workshop. He could not pass on his experience, which had been become his own tacit knowledge. Too many modern experts imagine themselves in the Stradivari trap — indeed, we could call Stradivari Syndrome the conviction that one’s expertise is ineffable. This syndrome appears among British doctors who have failed to discuss treatment options, to expose themselves to criticism, to unpack their tacit understanding with colleagues. As a result, their skills degrade over time in comparison with doctors who turn outward professionally.” (248) [note that the British example is sourced — he’s not just pulling an example out].

    Patricia:

    Regarding putting in the time: Sennett cites the “ten-thousand-hour rule.” This isn’t something anecdotal — it’s how long those who have studied expertise estimate “it takes from complex skills to become so deeply ingrained that these have become readily available, tacit knowledge.” (172). He notes that that translates into practicing three hours a day for ten years. And he doesn’t think that that’s all that much.

    Laura:

    Repetition builds powers of concentration. It ingrains complex skills. Repetition isn’t mind numbing because when done properly it develops its own rhythms (and slight modulations to those rhythms as one improves) which are quite fulfilling in themselves, which awaken the mind because they involve anticipation and then the fulfillment of that.

    But practice also “refines and revises.” As proficiency increases so does our ability to make modulations to what we are doing, to see creative possibilities within the form.

  10. Elmore Leonard: “John D. McDonald said that you had to write a million words before you really knew what you were doing. A million words is ten years. By that time you should have a definite idea of what you want your writing to sound like.” I think we’re too eager to define “genius” as meaning that we can succeed without hard work and failure. The actress who gets “discovered” while waiting tables in a Hollywood diner. But these are exceptions that prove the rule by being so exceptional.

  11. Spengler of the Asia Times has written an interesting article on the death of the slacker culture in America. An insightful read all the way through, but he makes some very pointed remarks about the new Disney film, Kung Fu Panda, in which “a fat and feckless panda” becomes a kung fu master in “two easy lessons.” Becoming a master in two steps turns the soul of martial arts, at whose heart lie focused repetition, life-long dedication, and submission to a master, completely inside out.

    The panda character, Spengler says, taps into what he calls an American archetype of “the slacker who makes good.”

    “The message – believe in yourself even when all evidence suggests you shouldn’t – is annoyingly familiar and frankly overdue for a serious debunking.”

    The attitude, prevalent in America and celebrated, Spengler says, in such wildly popular shows as Sex in the City, Friends, and I think he included Seinfeld, is a throwback to the 19th century aristocratic attitude that one ought to be able to do nothing yet achieve success and prosperity and be thought productive.

    Spengler says that given the current economic environment in America this “slacker culture” is going to die. He applies his points mostly to projecting the future today’s kids face in putting themselves through college (rather than getting gov’t loans) and in how these kids’ parents will expect to work 10 plus years longer, rather than automatically retire at 65.

    But Spengler’s points about that Disney film acting as propaganda (propapanda) for the slacker culture provides, I think, a useful handle for looking at the unpopularity of craftsmanship and discipline in American arts, and by extension, Mormon arts.

    Spengler asserts that the descent of American music “into mediocrity expressed growing resentment against artistic standards.” That is, artists, refusing the discipline of masters and their methods, reject work and craftsmanship for the easy, the unimaginative, the indolent way.

    This is the new creativity, an anti-creativity, but being incapable of supporting itself in tougher environmental climes, it’s on its way out. It can last only as long as the American environmental clime and accompanying ability to invest time and attention is able to support it.

    I think Spengler is right about the American reversal in fortunes. By extention, I think we’ve reached the end of a kind of aristocratic (Romantic) era in the arts. Hopefully, as the mediocrity vine withers in the heat, a more hardy, native creativity will return to the field of the arts, Mormon arts included. That we’ve hardly gotten off the ground yet artistically speaking may prove an advantage. A return to the kinds of investments all around that scripture asks us to make and away from the current pop culture’s silly trends might work. Where such silly trends trickle down into Mormon arts, I mean.

    Just my opinion, bounced off Spengler’s. Bottom line: I think your post about craftsmanship is timely, Wm. Depressing too, since I find making these kinds of investments in my craft difficult these days. When I was in my 20s and free of the kinds of responsibilities that nowadays demand focus, devotion to craft was not only possible, it was natural. Now … sheesh. Maybe if I stop reading blogs …

  12. Amen, Patricia.

    [says the guy who was born smack in the middle of the Gen X/slacker generation and who wasted a lot of time in his teens and twenties consuming instead of crafting]

  13. In his new book, Stanley Fish tells professors to Save the World on Your Own Time. Addressing the teaching of writing specifically, he notes “the conviction on the part of many composition teachers that what they are really teaching is some form of social justice, and the . . . teaching of writing as a craft as something that has rules with appropriate decorums . . . is in fact demonized as an indication of the hegemony of the powers that be. This happens over and over again in classrooms and it’s an absolute disaster.”

  14. I just thought I’d pipe in by adding that it was, in fact, Dreamworks who just released “Kung Fu Panda” and not Disney. Disney did, however, just release “Wall-E,” a film that one could argue is about a post-apocalyptic world made so by humans who destroyed the planet through too much slacking.

  15. Note: I wrote the following some time in April in regard to an entirely different artistic/craftsman facet of my life (involves textiles and hand work, plus a lot of computer graphics work) and does not involve writing. I haven’t read the text William referenced, though I have read the comments. I’ve hesitated in posting this because my writing and my handcraft aren’t quite analogous, but William has asked me to post.

    I’ve been struggling for years with art v craft, trying to gel my thoughts and sift through how I really feel about it. I’m very insecure about the idea that I’m not an artist, but a craftsman, as if it’s inferior. I don’t know why that’s so, but I can’t shake it. For me, it has to do with originality of thought.

    I usually start pondering this with the same question:

    What’s the difference between an artiste and a craftsman, and is one better than another? I ask myself this on a daily basis because I finally came to the conclusion that I am not, and I am never going to be, an artiste. I’m a craftsman and I must learn how to be happy with that.

    My original premise was as follows:

    Artistes come up with original ways to solve the same ol’ problem. Craftsmen implement existing ideas.

    Not sure I believe this now. I’ve spent the better part of the last year writing something that’s been cooking in my head for 14 years. It’s a riff off Hamlet, which was, in itself, a riff off someone else’s work, so is what I did art or craft? I took someone else’s framework and decorated it with vines and flowers and thorn bushes and other more savory and unsavory things, but in the end, I didn’t create the framework.

    In terms of my other interest, I’ve taken a completely unrelated art and translated it into a different medium. Is that art or craft? The artist’s skill at creating the original gave me the framework. I just dressed it up with different materials and execution, yet without my experience and skill at working this textile art, I wouldn’t be able to do it.

    I don’t have an answer to this question anymore. Yes, I used to, but now I think there has to be a measure of both art and craft (skill) involved in each, most likely at different percentages along the spectrum.

    Not just anyone can do what my artist cohort does. I can’t. Not just anyone can do what I do. She can’t. Is that a difference between art and craft (skill)? Dunno, but I will say this: Without the artist, my textile product would not exist at all. At least, not from me, and I depend on her art to give mine wings. Perhaps I’m more craftsman than artist after all.

    When I think of the word “craft,” I think of the medieval guilds: the stonemasons, the goldsmiths and the other metal workers, the gem cutters, the embroiderers, the tailors. You went to apprentice and there were levels you attained to master. Were any of these people less artists than craftsmen?

  16. “When I think of the word “craft,” I think of the medieval guilds: the stonemasons, the goldsmiths and the other metal workers, the gem cutters, the embroiderers, the tailors. You went to apprentice and there were levels you attained to master. Were any of these people less artists than craftsmen?”

    Mojo, interesting question. If we divest artistry of its romantic baggage, as William suggests, I think the answer would be “No.”

    Barre Toelken, a folklorist, in describing Native American tribal arts, refers to the artistry evident in Navajo rugs as a kind of performance art. He proposes that “the meaningful patterning in Native folk expression [which includes basketry beadwork,flutemaking, the construction of hogans, etc.], along with the traditional processes through which Native Americans produce these patterns, offer them — and us — powerful icons of their shared assumptions about order, balance, symmetry, human and natural relationships, worldview, and obviously beauty.”

    IMO this suggests that questions of artistic skill may be applied to textiles as well as they are to texts.

  17. I too would answer, no. But rather than make an incredibly long comment, I’m going to try and capture what I have to say in a post.

Comments are closed.