I will continue in this blog to provide you excerpts from the paper I gave at several venues in Britain early this year. Do you share my concerns in this matter? Am I being hopelessly old-fashioned, trying to hold onto the manual labor of the human hand as the chief agent of creating craft and pottery while the world and the way things are being created and made are changing in profound ways all around us? Can we justify this attitude and approach? I am not ready to abandon human hands as the creative instruments of ceramic art – are you? Here is another installment of my paper.
I have another question for you – at what point must credit for the achievement of the artifact be shifted from the human hand to the electronic or mechanical apparatus that does more and more of the actual work? I am not a purist or absolutist. I seek no iron law with explicit boundaries to protect what I value. I did not handwrite this text I have before me, and I have long since abandoned my manual typewriter. I cannot do without my computer and the ease and fluidity of word processing. By God – as you know, I even blog! Nor do I wish to be identified as a reactionary old man seeped in nostalgia for the good old days. But let me again refer you to my sixth letter to Christa,
“I cannot accept that the vicarious connection between the manipulation of the computer mouse and what happens on the screen, however elaborate the graphic result, can equal the direct involvement of the human hand in creating objects of art. The etched designs of the laser cannot duplicate the integrity of the hand carved and sculptured wood and clay. Will we eventually loose the full ability to use our hands, as we apparently did the prehensile toe, in the electronic triumph of mechanical superiority? Hands are the most direct instruments of our empowerment. We express and communicate our thoughts and emotions with hand gestures; we work with tools designed to fit the hand, and our hands create the intricate objects of aesthetic value…. If robots can assemble better cars, how far away can be the surrender of the artist’s hand? Someday potters might be the last group of human beings involved in the manual labor of the creative process. Will someone proudly display some day the truly innovative pot never touched by hands?”
Another question – does the innate fallibility and imperfections of the achievements of the human hand contain aesthetically important contributions that mechanical perfection cannot achieve? The results of this investigation can only be both paradoxical and sadly humorous. I am implying that the attainment of supreme mastery for the craftsperson is best reflected in those subtle imperfections that can only be achieved by life-long practice. Here again I shall defer to Jacobs and to his comments in his wonderful book,
“Hands allow us to make mistakes. Mistakes are the ultimate proof of our humanity. Perfection, according to Plato, allows only one template. We stretch and exercise our hands to transcend previous limits and boundaries. Just as old records in Olympic competition are shattered, the genius and endurance of the artist pushes the aesthetic and technical boundaries. We will never achieve the seamless perfection of the machine. Art contains our insecurities and physical limits as well as our talent. Even what we celebrate in our art is there to bring some comfort and get us through the night. We must reach definitions of excellence that forgive and complement the labor of our hands.”
Perhaps you would suggest a compromise to me – as my position, my fondness for hands and what they can do – might appear doomed to eventual defeat. There might even be a few chores left for hands if they would be willing to surrender the rest. What might be the possible tasks left for hands still allowed? Hands, like many other things in my society today, are slowly being privatized. I still employ them at home to attend to my basic needs, most domestic appliances require their participation and they are quite busy at the dining room table. Thankfully I can still mange a firm grasp around my whiskey glass, I do not want to spill a drop. I do enjoy dusting my pottery. I hold a large feather duster in my left hand, which I swirl like a magic wand in a joyful choreography as the duster caresses and blesses each ceramic artifact with my deep affection. I do not know the future of hands – admittedly it is a doubtful future – but they do help me maintain the quality of my present life and I would hate to see them go. But more important than hands as private accessories of the intimate routines of my domestic days, I do not want to see human culture deprived of them. I do want hands to remain the inventors of art and craft. I don’t care if it takes them a bit longer than machinery or they even make a few mistakes in doing their good work.
We once thought that progress was defined by our ever-advancing technology – but now, due to the consequences of technology, the ice caps are melting and our globe has provided us terrible symptoms of what could be the mortal illness of the earth. We once thought that human culture was also a linear progression of inevitable advance– after all, consider the invention of the printing press and the marvels of film and other inventions that have led to new art forms. But now we are being told by expert art critics and a few very successful and rich artists that art is dead and that everything is art and thus nothing is art and thus trash can be art and paintings do not require frames. Oh, what are we coming to? Hands have the creative agents of human civilization since our remote ancestors scratched and painted on cave walls.
I want my artists and craftspeople to sweat in their focused concentration to do that one thing very well. I do not want it to be easy. I do not want the creation of art and craft to be a labor saving activity. I do not want efficiency nor do I want them to abbreviate the creative process in order to have save time to be used elsewhere in relaxed recreational pursuits. I expect and demand from human culture the same thing I attempted to achieve for my students as a teacher and that which I seek as a lifelong learner – that the very best in human culture allows us to obtain a more refined and self-conscious level of suffering combined with the joyous revelation and intense pleasures of revealed wisdom – all at the same time.
More testimony from my book,
“Hands are agents of purposeful activity. They are attached in obvious and visible ways. They can make obscene gestures and provide physical overtures to sensual contact, even love. I don’t really believe that they reveal either the future or your character, although some people apparently make a living ‘reading’ them.”
I think we all read hands when in contact with others. We know that the movements of hands in themselves form at least one formal language – the sign language of those who cannot hear the sounds of the articulated voice. In addition, each of us has unconsciously contrived our own idiosyncratic language with our hands. They reveal us and are part of our personality and they punctuate our voice with a reinforcement inspired by the need to communicate thought and feeling. Further, each culture has unique vocabularies of hand gestures that are elaborations of the character of that culture. Hands are among our chief actors in the drama of communal existence. The craftsperson has taken these generic gestures of the human hands and put them to work in applying them in a disciplined devotion to a particular material and craft. Hands, and the tools designed to fit them, construct and create culture. For the artist and craftsperson, practice in honing these skills does not result in mindless repetition but rather in the possibilities of expanded choices and carefully chosen and developed deviations.
I will continue my paper and thoughts in Part III in the next blog. I welcome, as always, any thoughts you might have. Spring has been very generous in my garden. The days are warming up and summer cannot be too far off. My garden is a very pleasant place to be. I hope all the readers of this blog have a favorite place where they feel safe and nourished. The best places are often the ones you create for yourself. That has been my experience and choice. Take care for now.