My last post was a lament over lost arts, over how much of our craft / art heritage we lose over time. Reasons are myriad: failure to document, failure to generate interest, bad teaching. There are reasons related to cost, dearth of materials, lack of time. We can also talk about need. We simply don’t need many traditional craft products like we once did. Tastes change, new technologies replace old ones. Once, we relied on horse travel and we had a need for blacksmiths. Horses were replaced by cars and now we have a need for mechanics. Once you could find a blacksmith in nearly every town. Today, how many do you know?
What fascinates me is that we still have blacksmiths at all. We still have people who make bobbin lace, who paint china, who weave seats with slices of cane. Why do people do these things when they could simply go to the store and get a length of lace or a teacup or a chair? In my post, I said there was value simply in the doing. I still think this is true, but it can’t be the entire answer. If it was just about experiencing satisfaction in the doing, then we could stop at taking out the garbage, making the bed, and dusting the lampshades–all those mundane tasks that need to be done: we could do them and feel satisfied and we wouldn’t have to take up rare craft at all.
I’ve been pondering this for two reasons. A friend of mine recently asked me why I knit. The way he put it suggested to me that he thought knitting was simply about the amassment of sweaters, gloves, socks, and scarves. At the end of my life, I could look at this pile of garments and feel good–or maybe superior?–over the sheer size of the wool mountain I’d built. Clearly, this guy doesn’t knit, but he was sincere and his question struck me. It had never occurred to me that someone could not see the value of knitting. He thought it was about accumulation, like collecting records or paperweights.
Yarn stashes aside, knitting has very little to do with collecting. It’s visual, it’s tactile, it’s practical. Beyond this, simply ask any knitter: you’ll hear about self discovery, meditation, self-expression, the challenge of learning, and the joy of creation. It’s this last idea–the joy of creation–that struck me as I was engaged in conversation with another friend about the ornamental clothing of the Masai. Why do we embellish clothing? Or more broadly: why decorate? A thing can just be a thing. It doesn’t need rhinestones to make it purposeful. The rhinestones do not add to a thing’s utility. Rhinestones are extra. So why add them?
If we want to look at this from an economic standpoint, the answer is clear: decoration adds value. We pay more for decorated things. Part of that value is reflected in the artist’s time and materials. Talent also adds value. We pay premiums for well decorated things and even more for well decorated things that are scarce.
But what if you remove the market? It turns out that people still decorate. Even with no economic incentive, people will still make things beautiful. It’s like we can’t help ourselves. I’m thinking here of the thousands of people who–right now–are tinkering away at their craft without any hope of selling what they make. In fact, selling their work may never even enter their minds.
One might say that we decorate as a form of self-expression. Okay. But this cannot be–or shouldn’t be–the only reason. As proof, I submit my poetry students. Years ago, I used to teach creative writing to college students. In writing workshops, students share their work with each other and offer critique. Every semester I had students who would say, “It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand my poem because I understand my poem and I wrote it for me.” To which I would ask, “If you only write for yourself, why are you in this class?” If we write a poem that’s only meant for our eyes, then the poem can stay in the diary forever. Once we go public, even classroom-style public, we are writing for a reason beyond ourselves. We have pushed beyond our solipsism. We share what we decorate because we long for communion.
It is only in communion that we know who we are. It is only in communion that I see myself reflected in something bigger. Craft takes us out of ourselves. This is why I’m worried about the loss of our craft /art heritage. If I have to go to a museum to understand what a craft had to say about its people, that means it is no longer a living source of communal understanding. It speaks, but from out of the past. Or–my even bigger fear– it could be quite relevant today–but somehow we lost our connection to it. We failed at passing it down because we didn’t write about it enough, we didn’t expose enough people to it, we didn’t teach it well, or we just plain forgot. Maybe we even thought it was someone else’s responsibility.