- Talking Shop: The Language of Craft in an Age of Consumption
This examination of craft in literature will be of genuine interest to readers of Technology and Culture. It examines the language of craft, labor, work, and making in the period 1840–1920. The author argues that in this period there was an interweaving of textual products with actual crafted products as well as with their processes of making and the makers themselves. Peter Betjemann posits that craft as a written phenomenon ensured that texts were the most visible artisanal medium in the period. In other words, we need to think and read about the idea of craft, skill, and workmanship as both textual and artifactual.
Betjemann extends the meaning of craft by showing how it has been variously manifest as material artifact, moral principle, expression, value system, stylistic label or grammar, fictional subject, authorial practice, technical lexicon, and theoretical discourse. Using the backdrop of increasing industrialization and the apparent craft reaction to “the machine,” Betjemann skilfully studies artisanal works through literary analysis. The first chapter considers the nineteenth-century translations of the autobiography of renowned Renaissance goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini. For many in the nineteenth century, including translators, connoisseurs, writers, musicians, and, not least, metalworkers, Cellini was a model of the charismatic and “vital” artisan persona that offered an alternative to the slavish and repetitive machine culture. There is little technical discussion in the autobiography, but Betjemann shows that there are many links to the idea of “being in and of the world” as well as invocations of the “hand of the maker” in the text. Cellini thus represented the full life of human labor as opposed to the tedium of the machine-minder.
Betjemann’s analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictional works highlights Hawthorne’s questioning of handiwork as a metaphysical ideal. Hawthorne tried to protect the materiality of craft from impractical “art is life” utopian dreaming. At the same time, anxiety about the fate of the artisan within industrial culture was central to his writing about craft. [End Page 932]
This same anxiety, expressed in a different way, is found in the next chapter. Betjemann argues that John Ruskin and other Gothic revivalists were more interested in how objects communicate ideas than in the details of technical production. Skill was seen as something legible in craft outputs rather than as the source of production, thus serving as a kind of supra-commodity. Sensibility, rather than physical practice, was the goal of the Gothic revivalists—a conjunction of making and intuition about making. This distinction between making and thinking about making is developed by a consideration of Thorstein Veblen’s The Instinct of Workmanship (1914). In his discussion of craft, industry, and skill, Veblen makes valuable distinctions between the instinctive nature of workmanship compared to the bodily accomplishments of craftsmanship.
The fourth chapter looks at Gustav Stickley and the meaning of craftsmanship in reference to artisans’ ability to meet the needs of American identity, which demanded “the real thing.” He saw the craftsman as a “translator” who begins with an idea, then uses natural materials to achieve simple but thoughtful objects. Stickley’s The Craftsman magazine and his furniture company literally linked words and things. The fifth chapter returns to the literary vein, considering Henry James’s 1897 novel The Spoils of Poynton, again focusing on the relations of words and things. In particular, the connections between writing and other crafts are made clear.
As machines were capable of close imitation and reproduction, it was the role of craft to provide expressive narrative and sensibility. The idea of craft extended beyond the workshop (i.e., beyond the reproducible by machine), so its effectiveness is found in our reading of objects and the process of “talking shop,” both of which give voice to crafted things.
Clive Edwards is professor of design history at Loughborough University, UK.