Excerpts from my essay on “craftsmanship in the new creative economy”

In his book The Craftsman, Richard Sennett redefines the figure of the craftsman, rendering it relevant and applicable not only within many different fields and industries, but also within culture and society as a whole. Sennett defines craftsmen not merely as those workers greatly skilled in a manual labour or craft, but as all those who perfect a particular skill for the satisfaction and joy the commitment to that skill provides in itself. In other words, a craftsman can be any worker in any field or industry whose primary drive is to excel in the practical aspect of a profession. Sennett argues that this obsession with practicality does not require external intellectual supervision, and that instead the craftsman will automatically reflect on the outcome of his or her work due to natural curiosity.

(…)

Sennett makes a distinction between what he calls the ‘head’ and ‘hand’ of a craft and argues that in the case of ‘good craftsmanship’, these two elements work together in a harmonious union, the former standing for the ideological and the latter for the practical and mechanical aspect of the work. Sennett proposes that there is no innate separation between them and that the process of making is automatically connected to that of thinking; a natural process, which he finds is only corrupted artificially in modern society. [1]

On the other hand, Sennett mentions figures like J. Robert Oppenheimer, the inventor of the atomic bomb who serves as real life example of a more unbalanced, corrupted type of craftsman: the naïve engineer who allows his or her genius to be misused for warfare rather than the progress of humankind. While it is perhaps this misuse of scientific craftsmanship that first springs to mind when we dissect the ways in which a preoccupation with technical virtuosity in combination with a disregard for the understanding of its actual application can be abused, there are also many other fields in which the craftsman faces the danger of deviating from his or her original potential. Sennett gives examples ranging from urban planners who forgot to test the functionality of their maps and designs thoroughly [2], to interior designers who become so obsessed with technical virtuosity that the result of their constant redesign ends up rendering the work rather clinical or lifeless. [3] In this sense – and viewing a good equilibrium between ‘hand’ and ‘head’ as a condition for a healthy relationship between technological progress and ethics; men and work – the craftsman is clearly a figure of relevance in all aspects of life, including the arts.

The arts have always been characterised by the close relationship between the artist and his or her audience. There is a sense of responsibility on behalf of most artists as their works are frequently produced with the intent to provide the audience with counsel and guidance of an ethical or philosophical nature. Indeed the concept of conveying a message to a wide audience is in many cases even the initial point from which the ambition and inspiration to complete or publish a work is drawn. It is also the audience’s natural assumption of an artist that if he or she is willing to publicise his or her works, this individual must have something to say; a statement to make and share with the world. Whether it is the case of a writer whose ethical views are incorporated into a novel via a skilfully developed storyline, or the case of a painter who has perfected his or her use of the brush to transfer an image from the subconscious to the blank canvas, ‘head’ and ‘hand’ are indeed naturally interconnected in the traditional production of artistic works. All creative work therefore involves in its authentic form a responsible use of technique, one that is in concordance with the artist’s own ideology and worldview. Truly artistic and creative work is a means of communication, and as such, is given attention that surpasses that given to a mere showcasing of technique. In Sennett’s eyes, the ideal of the ‘good craftsman’ as applied to the arts is this type of artist whose work is driven more by a need for self-expression and communication of beliefs and ideas to the world, and less on order or economic demand. Sennett states that the artist’s main characteristics are his or her originality and autonomy. These are the traits that distinguish the true artist – the workshop master whose work can’t be imitated – from the amateur – the workshop apprentice who is still imitating the former. [4] Therefore, when an artist has a client or commissioner for whom he or she produces works customised to this client’s liking, particularly when this work is used to develop or strengthen a particular ideology which is not the artist’s own, or when it is used to convey a message to the audience that the artist him or herself did not wish to spread, then one could argue that the artist turns mainly into a craftsman whose practical skills are exploited, while his or her ‘head’ – so to say – is eliminated from the process. In this scenario, the artist loses all of his or her autonomy and becomes subjected to authority.

Medieval and Renaissance patronage constitute early examples of the ways in which an artist’s craft can be put to use in isolation from his or her thought process. Of course not all sponsored art from those eras lacked the artist’s intellectual involvement and by no means was every commissioned work of art discordant with the artist’s own beliefs. Nonetheless, neither was the hired artist’s approval of the content of every commissioned painting or sculpture a necessity. The Catholic Church was one of the main sponsors of art at the time, meaning that the majority of artistic works had to contain religious motifs and remain compatible with Christian standards of morality. The artist was usually employed mainly for his skill and technique, having little authority in regards to the actual themes of the works that were to be completed. An example of this is the Renaissance painter Raffaelo Sanzio. Despite many of his most famous works being paintings of the Madonna – some of which were commissioned by high profile clerics such as Pope Julius II and Pope Leo X – he was according to his contemporary, the pioneer art historian Giorgio Vasari, what one would today describe as an atheist. [5] Richard J. Zeckhauser describes this relationship between patron and artist in the Renaissance from an economic viewpoint as a ‘principal-agent’ relationship, the ‘principal’ being the patron in charge of the subject and the ‘agent’ being the artist in charge of the craft.

“In the art commissioning game, the principal (patron) knew what he had to accomplish with the commission, but the artist had the skills required to produce the art and achieve the goals.” [6]

In its essence the model of commissioning and sponsorship in contemporary culture does not differ hugely from this model of patronage. If the church was the major force behind most Renaissance art and the artist’s role was to represent religious themes and motifs in a glorious fashion in order to strengthen the public’s faith in the Christian religion, then its equivalent in the modern creative economy is the corporation whose aim is to draw the attention of the masses to its products or services via artistic works. The new role of the artist in this relationship is that of strengthening the public’s belief and faith in the reliability and popularity of a corporate brand. Full blown capitalism equals religion, not only in regards to its cultic structure and its ability to instate faith in people, as Walter Benjamin points out in his essay entitled Capitalism as Religion [7], but also in regards to the usage of the arts as a medium to enforce and preserve its dominance. Also described in Benjamin’s short essay is the similarity of power relations between capitalism and religion. Benjamin compares the hostility non-earning members of society encounter with the bourgeoisie with the hostility the heretic encountered with the religious fundamentalist, but these power relations also translate within the realm of the arts, and the hierarchical economic relationship between patron and artist remains equally unchanged. Whilst art was judged and remunerated based on its ability to promote the Christian ideals, art is now judged and remunerated based on its ability to drive sales and promote a good or service. The corporate brands that require a popular singer or actress to be associated to their latest product, through the use of a song in an advert or a product placement in a film, retain the roles of the principal in the economic sense whilst the artist keeps on acting as the agent capable of drawing this attention of the masses to the brand. Particularly in an age where record sales and cinema ticket sales are constantly shrinking and the internet provides free access to most contemporary artistic works, advertising is an important element in the creative economy, linked in one way or another to almost all art forms contained in popular culture. This is the state of cultural production that Adorno described in his essay Culture Industry Reconsidered, a state in which the arts are only a mechanism of public relations and manufacture of goodwill. [8] If Adorno’s ideal of an arts world free from a culture that was through and through intertwined with the profit motif was already in disappearance in the early twentieth century, then now in 2014, it certainly is long gone. The line between arts and media, between artistic works and products or services is increasingly blurred. Today, in the new creative economy, the concept of creativity is associated less strongly with artistic value and increasingly with economic value. The arts become entangled with business. Creativity and artistic skill turn from a form of self-expression to a resource for business success, put to use with increasing frequency in the field of marketing and advertising. On one hand, we can witness this happening over indirect routes, in the sense that the traditional artist – whether he or she is a musician, a filmmaker or a painter – has become increasingly dependent on advertising revenues in the licensing and publishing of his or her works. On the other hand, artistic talent and creativity are increasingly put to direct use within businesses.

(…)

The new type of artist that originates from this mergence of business and artistic production and whose work, no matter how deeply artistic and creative it may be, is always in connection with business values has been unofficially baptised the ‘creative’.

(…)

One might argue that despite this, the figure of the creative seems rather harmless compared to the figure of the ingenious but naïve scientist whose potential is used for the creation of weaponry. Exactly how dangerous the creative can be when his or her potential is put to unethical use can however be observed by taking a simple look at the history of advertising. The first real advertisements that reached the level of psychological complexity required to manipulate the consumer in the way we are used to in contemporary culture were works of military propaganda in the early twentieth century. Public announcements to sell goods or promote products or services had existed before this, but it wasn’t until military strategists began recruiting for World War I that the skill of persuasion through the combination of illustration and need recognition truly showed its overwhelming powers. Progress in the field of behavioural psychology and conditioning experiments in the late 19th century brought previously undiscovered knowledge about human needs and desires to the forefront. The propaganda industry was quick to exploit these new findings through the use of the arts. The skills of illustrators and copywriters were soon sought after for the development of posters that would motivate young people to go to war for their homeland. Somewhere amidst the propagation of a distorted view of heroism and a conscious attempt to guilt-trip the youngest and most susceptible men into warfare, these posters depicted respected figures of authority pointing at the viewers and asking them to join the forces. In the UK, these posters depicted the famous British Army officer Lord Kitchener asking questions such as “Who is absent? Is it you?” and in Germany propaganda posters contained lines such as “Dein Vaterland ist in Gefahr, melde dich!”, which translates to “Your fatherland is in danger, report for duty!”. Meanwhile in the US, it was the patriotic figure of Uncle Sam – the very own national personification of the country – that pointed the finger at the public; the big bold letters underneath his image spelling out “I want you for U.S Army”. It is the man behind the latter poster who is perhaps the finest example of an advertising industry analogue to J. Robert Oppenheimer. This man is the designer and illustrator, and one of the first creatives of our times, James Montgomery Flagg. Plagued by remorse years after the war, the story of Flagg and his Uncle Sam poster is very much like that of Oppenheimer and the first nuclear bomb. Oppenheimer’s recital of words from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds” in 1965, years after the Hiroshima bombings [9], is akin to the amount of self-loathing that Flagg also expressed years after the war had concluded. His guilty conscience about the fact that he had let his artistic and creative virtuosity be misused for the creation of war propaganda is easily deduced from one of his later speeches:

“A number of us who were too old or too scared to fight prostituted our talents by making posters inciting a large mob of young men who had never done anything to hop over and get shot at . . . we sold the war to the youth” [10]

Flagg is one of the first ‘creatives’ of the twentieth century and stands as an example of how dangerous imbalanced and corrupted craftsmanship can be – even when applied to a seemingly harmless field such as the arts. Flagg is a creative who offered his skills to an employer whose ethics he did not question because he intended to make a living from his passion. In the contemporary creative economy this is the danger every creative faces. Graphic designers, web designers and advertising practitioners all work predominantly project based, musicians compose jingles and filmmakers produce adverts on a freelance basis. The skills and techniques of the average creative are offered to anyone who can pay the right price for it. The work’s theme and content, once the artist has reached this point, becomes secondary.

(…)

It is very easy to condemn this work ethic when focusing on such extreme examples as Oppenheimer or Flagg, what one must however keep in mind at all times is that this situation does not ensue from particularly evil intentions on behalf of these craftsmen but that instead it is indeed the natural product of certain hierarchical work structures. The principal-agent relationship that rules the capitalist economy does not allow for more awareness or autonomy on behalf of the working artist. It is as inappropriate as it is unrealistic to expect an artist to voluntarily starve for his or her beliefs when tempted with the chance to earn a living by working on a project that he or she might not agree with to the full extent. If making a living in the arts world requires the artist to ignore, or even sacrifice his or her personal ideology for that of his or her employer, however, then it is clear that with this sacrifice the ethical responsibility that an artistic craftsman would perhaps naturally feel for his or her work vanishes. These power relations have existed throughout the history of the arts and artists have only very rarely managed to survive outside of the prevalent economic structure. The ability of craftsmen and artists to create work and simultaneously reflect on it is therefore indeed corrupted in our society. If no authority were employed over the craftsman at all, it would perhaps be a harmless figure. Nonetheless, for this a change within the wider economic structure is required.

[1] Sennett, Richard (2008). Prologue, In: The Craftsman. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. pp. 1-15

[2] Ibid. p. 42 (The Peachtree Centre)

[3] Ibid. p. 261 (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

[4] Ibid. pp. 65-66

[5] Vasari, Giorgio (2008). Life of Raphael In: Lives of the Artists, Eds. Julia Conaway Bondanella/Peter Bondanella. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 305-338.

[6] Nelson, Jonathan K., and Zeckhauser, Richard J. (2008): The Patron’s Payoff: Conspicuous Commission in Italian Renaissance Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 18.

[7] Benjamin, Walter (1985): Kapitalismus als Religion. In: Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 6. Eds. Rolf Tiedemann/Hermann Schweppenhäuser. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, pp. 100–103.

[8] Adorno, Theodor W. (1991): Culture Industry Reconsidered. In: Theodor W. Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected essays on mass culture. Eds. J.M Bergstein. London & New York: Routledge, p. 100.

[9] Freed, Fred (Director) (1965): The Decision to drop the bomb [Documentary]. USA: NBC News

[10] James Montgomery Flagg as cited in Tungate, Mark (2007) Adland: A Global History of Advertising. London: Kogan Page. p.24.

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