For it is not the material, but the absence of the human labor, which makes the thing worthless; and a piece of terra cotta, or of plaster of Paris, which has been wrought by human hand, is worth all the stone in Carrara, cut by machinery.
John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture
Human creativity, expressed in material form, is a mark of a sentient being. It is a soul-shard, a concept Douglas Hofstadter used to describe a human artifact that expresses a fragment of the pattern of a human soul. When experienced by another, especially another soul that shares some history or knowledge with the creator of the work, the soul-shard transmits the patterns of thought, transmits a tiny piece of a consciousness, now embedded in dead material, into the active, living mind of the observer, resurrecting and animating that pattern within it. Handcrafted objects, in which the creativity of the maker expresses itself freely, are beautiful to us precisely because we can feel this mark of a sentient being, we feel a part of ourselves in the material. The act of hand decoration transforms lifeless material into fragments of existence, embedding it with an expression of human feelings and values. This, I think, is what Ruskin really says above. It is not the labor of the muscle that makes a thing valuable, it is the labor of creative expression, the labor of the heart.
This view of handcraft makes Ruskin’s stance on restoration clear. Ruskin, as well as William Morris and his followers, actively fought restoration. To them, an old building of interest should be maintained, but no more. Once the building begins to crumble, we should not attempt to replace the ornaments and structure, but rather, help it mercifully on its way. Take the old building down and create something new in its place. The act of restoring a building involves taking moulds and replacing hand carved work with plaster replicas, or any other parts with machine-aided replication. Such things would replace handcrafted ornament, embedded with the energy of human creativity, with lifeless, inferior copies. To Ruskin, this would not merely produce bad work, it would produce deceptive work, work that pretended to be something it is not. And if you had a team of craftsmen able to replicate the thing perfectly by hand then it would not make sense to replicate the thing in the first place – you have the talent to create something as good as, or better, than the original, so it should naturally be employed in the creation of something new.
According to Ruskin, architecture was split into two kinds. The first, e.g. Egyptian and Greek, used few architects and artists and many builders. The architect lays out the plan, and the builders, often slaves, would work to realize it. This sort of architecture is distinguished by having many simple repetitive patterns, for the creators did not give their builders the creative power to improvise. Everything sprung from one mind, or very few minds, and was built by many hands that were used in a mechanical manner, being no more than tools.
The other kind of architecture is one in which its craftsmen are given the opportunity for creative expression. An example of this is Gothic architecture. Rather than being mere tools used for the replication of a repeating pattern, the craftsmen are hired to decorate the building in a less restrained manner, given the opportunity to each make their mark. This leads to a very rich and varied ornament – if oftentimes crude – and it elevates the workers from mere builders to craftsmen. More than that, it lets them all leave their mark on the work, embedding it with their values and transforming mere matter into patterns of human expression.
Let us see how these ideas translate to the modern world. In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin talks about an “aura” of a work of art, something that is not present in mass produced art due to no one copy being the authentic one. In the same way, while a hand crafted work, freely decorated, has an aura of human emotion, a mass produced good does not, or at least what it does possess is something very remote, something that is experienced only through a cloudy telescope.
Mass produced goods are expressions of their designers only, not the people who put them together. Like the repeating ornament in Greek architecture, each good is a perfect replication of itself, each created in the exact form specified by its designer. The people working on the assembly line are mere tools that aid the replication of it, their creative input wholly undesired and unnecessary. In handcrafted goods where the craftsmen are allowed free creative expression we see soul-shards, we feel fragments of human existence. The material, wrought into beautiful forms by the human hand radiates the aura of human value, human experience. We can feel this aura, even if we cannot conceptualize precisely what it is and how it works. Mass produced goods do not have it. They can be very beautiful and functional, but they are robbed of the human element. The worst thing about mass produced goods is that their production lines often employ many people, but those people are reduced to mere tools, their mind rendered unnecessary, their hands made to follow the repetitive motion of a machine. In wishing to produce perfection we rob both ourselves and the people we employ from being able to leave their mark of sentience on the world.
There are two types of human labor in respect to creativity: the work in which creativity can be expressed, and work in which it cannot, or at least, need not. Examples of the latter: mining, construction, textile manufacture, etc. Examples of the former: tailoring, carpentry, cooking, etc. One produces raw materials and maintains basic infrastructure, the other fashions us with the objects and services of daily life. In seeking efficiency through mechanization, we have employed machines and automated processes for both of these categories of labor, even though it is only the latter that wholly benefits from it.
For example, the manufacture of cotton fabric has limited room for creative expression. Certainly there is room – you can vary color, weave, pattern – but most of the processes from growing cotton to weaving the material can be automated. The more mindless labor that can be removed from the process the better, for this frees human hands and minds from needless drudgery. What you do with the material is another thing. Automation here is unnecessary, and it does not produce a better product. A made to measure shirt is better than one you can buy off the rack, but for the sake of cost and efficiency most shirts are mass produced, with people employed as mere tools in the production line rather than as skilled craftsmen.
Most every good can be hand crafted – china, furniture, clothing – and hand crafting allows the creator to inject their heart into their work, making every product unique. Modern consumer society has moved everything possible onto the conveyor belt without caring for the distinction, pushing out craftsmen out of business with radically cheaper alternatives. The public, in general, possessing no liberal education, nor any education concerning design or art, readily accept the mass produced good. Granted, more out of necessity than desire – people can always see the value of a well crafted good without explanation, but they can seldom afford it – but nevertheless, the combination of technological innovation and demand led to the death of craft.
To conclude these thoughts, I would like to voice an idea that I accept is naïve and unlikely to happen, but an idea that I nevertheless think has some value, if only theoretical. There is much talk in the news about technological innovation leading to mass losses of jobs, robots and computers replacing human hands and brains. It seems to me that if the market was open to the idea of paying more for better, for paying more to obtain something you cannot get from a machine, then after leaving their old jobs to the machine people should turn to handcraft. If the machine can handle the drudgery of mechanical, repetitive, uncreative work, then our minds and hands should focus on work that allows us to express our creative energies. A hybrid world of craftsmen making most of everyday goods and computers and machines handling raw materials and infrastructure would ensure full employment (since the supply side would be restrained by much slower production and would thus allow more competitors into the same field), would eliminate future job losses, and would, most important, give people the opportunity to work not just with their hands or head, but with their heart. I am under no delusions about the likelihood of this vision coming to pass, but it is, I think, a path that is open to us, and something that can at least be considered.