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Craftsmanship in the age of COVID



In The Craftsman, sociologist Richard Sennett offers a radical vision for living, a way of being and engaging with the world based on the values, ethos and commitments embodied in craftsmanship — an antidote, if you will, to a commercial and consumption-driven vision of the world. ‘[W]ho we are arises directly from what our bodies can do. Social consequences are built into the structures and the functioning of the human body, as in the working of the human hand’, he writes. Sennett argues that ‘the capacities our bodies have to shape physical things are the same capacities we draw on in social relations.’

Hands reaching up from gold to two wooden figures.  Illustration Chris JohnstonThis reimagining demands that many of the assumptions about our social life, those often expressed as binary oppositions — between theory and practice or maker and user for example — are done away with and replaced with an alternative way of conducting life with skill. While this may include the kind of commonly evoked craftsmanship of the pre-industrial age and frankie-style craft, it should be thought of it a much broader sense, encompassing things as seemingly diverse as parenting and coding.

Craftsmanship is a way of seeing and understanding mediated through touch and feel and the body. While the finished product or the stated goal are important, the process — as an act of learning, making mistakes, experiencing both frustration and satisfaction — is equally (if not more) important.

One of the unintended consequences of the COVID-19 restrictions has been a return to craftsmanship for many people, whether it’s making sourdough, cooking more regularly, maintaining a garden or learning an instrument. The pandemic has forced everyone to change the way they live and, for many, this has meant they’ve had more time to pursue activities and interests that they may not have ordinarily prioritised.

There have been studies that purport to demonstrate the mental health benefits of incorporating craft practices into one’s daily life and these have long been central to occupational therapy. And who could forget the adult colouring book craze from a few years ago, which promised respite from the stresses and pressures of modernity, a way of unwinding, escaping and perhaps rediscovering — if only briefly — the carefreeness of childhood.

But this is craft and craftsmanship as coping mechanisms, as a way of dealing with the conditions that have so many people feeling alienated and isolated and suffering in the first place. The neoliberal organisation of our societies — the emphasis on the individual and competition and the Hayekian notion that there is a social good in individual wealth accumulation, for example — determines how we relate to our bodies, the form our relationships take and the way we engage with our communities.

COVID-19 has upended the received wisdom about progress and forced us to confront our vulnerability from a public health perspective, to face the reality that, despite the scientific advances of the last century or two, we are still just as susceptible to disease as our ancestors.


'What’s needed is a radical restructuring of capitalism, one that builds on the values of craftsmanship, a post-growth economy organised around human wellbeing, rather than one fuelled by the accumulation of capital.'


An equivalent reassessment of the economic system remains elusive, though; the images of people lining up out the front of Centrelink offices on the same day that the government was telling people to self-isolate elicited sympathy from some parts of the liberal media, but I can’t recall it being held up as a portrait of systemic failure.

The emergency measures taken in late March — the doubling of the Newstart allowance, the implementation of JobKeeper and, abroad, the unprecedented interventions of the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank, for example — should be a reminder that when politicians say they can’t afford to do something, what they really mean is that they don’t have the political will.

What’s needed is a radical restructuring of capitalism, one that builds on the values of craftsmanship, a post-growth economy organised around human wellbeing, rather than one fuelled by the accumulation of capital.

That this is still a marginal idea in mainstream Australia is a reflection of just how far we are from living lives, building and fostering communities and engaging with the world around us in ways embodied in the spirit of craftsmanship.



Tim RobertsonTim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Tim Robertson, COVID-19, craft



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Existing comments

Craftsmanship mediated by feel, touch and the body could be such a welcome focus, Tim, and it reminds me of the power of those Inspiring writings about ‘intermediate technology’ we enjoyed decades ago. Right now I like to encourage my friends who are currently experiencing the frustrations and successes of home-made mask-making to see theIr reusable protections as a new and fascinating art form. It could draw us back into the new health-giving craft experience of which you speak. It could also awaken in us an interest in the history of mask- making which goes back thousands of years and has fulfilled many cultural purposes.

Jill Sutton | 20 July 2020  

Crafting Co-Working the Joy Within    Human when did we develop Our manipulation and fascination With wood? With clay? With bone? With stone? And later with metals?   When did this creativity Not only develop as a means Of protection and food-getting But as a wonder and joy In lives and creativities focused upon Working with potently alive materials As partners in ventures of wonder For indeed earth-friends What you are and becoming Is deeply acknowledged You are far more than  Inanimate presence     And Crafter i see the way you look so intently i see compelling love there i see the way your eyes move Bringing to reality thought visions For well-cured wood For waiting-presence of clay For the borrowing of bone put to new possibility For stone-life emerging poetically from within itself   Crafter i see how you deeply know your finished prospect How step-by-step you can see the way of making These earth-friends co-workers In your ongoing acts of creation Such uniqueness of hand brain and eye integration Skills and awareness instinctively known So much part of who you are   Crafter I see you with deep respect Awe Amazement And with gentle envy

John Cranmer | 20 July 2020  

Hi Tim Great piece of work simple and powerful presentation Wish i had written it. Especially the following What’s needed is a radical restructuring of capitalism, one that builds on the values of craftsmanship, a post-growth economy organised around human wellbeing, rather than one fuelled by the accumulation of capital. THANK YOU !!

John Cranmer | 20 July 2020  

First analysis of capitalism's alienation of craftsman from craft, with cash (so little of it) the objectification vergegenstandlichung I think, Hegel called it) of his creativity & labour, was Marx. Marx saw as the only comfort for proletarians alienated by industrial revolution from aspects of their humanity "Religion _ _ the heart in a heartless world _ _ the people's painkiller" He named the greatest painkiller known - still among the most potent in the Pharmacopaea - opium. Various movements hoped to return man to a creative state of grace. My 1860s Albany Granite gem cried out for nothing later than Arts and Crafts. The name Preraphaelite Brotherhood's an explicit repudiation of Capital's values. Neo Gothic tells of nations' nostalgia. W.S.Gilbert was a master of the lampoon, often taking both sides of current controversy - Wimminz Studdiz in "Ida", Aesthetes in "Patience" - Bunthorne at least as much Swinburne as Wilde. One of my fun rôles. In a Melodrama Villain confidence, apron to audience "And convince 'em, if you can, That the reign of Good Queen Anne Was culture's palmiest day. Be sure that you pooh pooh Everything that's fresh and new, And declare it's crude and mean, For Art stopped short In the cultivated court Of the Empress Josephine!"

james marchment | 21 July 2020  

Interesting piece which stimulates all manner of contemplation. 1. The hand as the instrument of the mind and the idle hand as the product of an idle mind. 2. the gospel parable of the man who used his talents [money equilibrated with God-given abilities] to the maximum being rewarded before the man who hid his talents and failed to produce any benefit from the potential of what he had been given at no cost to himself. 3. the prospect of being judged for what we fail to do rather than for what we do - a judgement which may well apply to most of us in our insular humanity. 4 The use of individual abilities, capable of and designed to benefit many, exclusively and selfishly for the individual alone. 5. The realisation that the executive hand of Mankind, modelled in the image of the Supreme Craftsman, seems to have largely lost its function as the instrument of the Craftsman's mind.

john frawley | 21 July 2020  

When I first read Sennett's Craftsman I was so moved to go out and give copies to my children and grandchildren. His description of craftsmanship reminded me of the days when my father and uncles would create objects - toys, furniture, gardens, and so on - from primary materials - wood, glass, soil, etc. - that were both functional and beautiful, and in which they invested not only their time but their pride in a job well-done.

Ginger Meggs | 22 July 2020  

Great piece, thanks Tim. I feel so sorry for younger people who are so focussed on screens and have not had the experience of so many of the hobbies we had as children. Satisfaction came from having a go at plating, sewing leather, carving bits of wood, making cages for pets or crystal radio sets where our satisfaction came from inside ourselves and of course from coaching and assisting adults. Not from what we could go and buy. Obviously young people have enormous creativity. But it is so easy to buy product musical or other and miss out on the personally developed craftsmanship you speak of. Of course being locked down challenges us to use our interior resources as you say. Let's hope there are more discoveries than frustrations in this time of creative deprivation.

Michael D. Breen | 22 July 2020  

Capitalism restructured for a post-growth economy? Surely an oxymoron. However we name the economic system of that halcyon era, I don't think we can call it capitalism. A return demanded against capital investment *mandates* 'growth'... a polite euphemism for increasing - and increasingly reckless - borrowing against the future.

Richard Jupp | 23 July 2020  

Great article. A topic very close to my heart. As someone who grew up in a family of people who made things and as someone who continues this tradition albeit in a different field I heartily agree. I would advance a perspective from my experience though. My grandfather and father were upholsterers. I consider this a craft. My grandfather did also. However my father entered this trade and saw it as a way to earn a living. It wasn't that he didn't care about his work. He did very much, but he didn't savoir it as a craft. He had a family to raise and a mortgage to pay and didn't have time to assess his job as a craft. Sometimes I think we are a little to privileged when it comes to the capacity to analyze this stuff. I am a toolmaker and technician. I love it and consider what I do as a craft and am aware of that privilege. Other people may see it differntly

geoff | 28 July 2020  

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