The Politics of Being Skilled

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 3/ 2012: Skills and Politics

For practitioners of most crafts, being a good craftsman usually means having certain skills related to the craft at hand. Crafts and skills could be described as embodied forms of knowledge that are not necessarily easily transferable by verbal or written acts. Crafts and skills tend to have at least some elements of ‘tacit knowledge’, that is, practical knowledge which is implied and often associated with intuition. Sometimes people describe this knowledge as ‘in the hands’. This seems an accurate way to put it when talking about crafts.

The hands are, for most craft practitioners, the most important tools in their work. The hands are often in close contact with the material, and thus become the meeting point between the outside world and the body of the craftsman. Through manual contact with the material world, the craftsman can manipulate and shape the world, but the craftsman is also ‘manipulated’ and ‘shaped’ by the material world he or she engages with, or, as Erling Moestue Bugge describes it in the essay Diagnosing Skills; ‘the subject/object relation is not as straightforward as we think’.

«the subject/object relation is not as straightforward as we think»

Erling Moestue Bugge

Bugge’s essay discusses the seminar Museum for Skills that took place 10 May 2012 at the British Council in London. The seminar sought to challenge our concepts of what skills are, how we value skills in society and how and where skills can be preserved, explored and taught in modern society, especially as knowledge of crafts seem to be of less importance in contemporary Western society than it used to be.

Bugge’s essay implies that there is a critical and political aspect to being manually skilled – one that has to do with the autonomy of the modern individual in relation to technological developments. He writes:

‘The concept of alienation has haunted us since the advent of the machine age. This is the idea that the machine effectively divides us from skills somehow grounded in belonging – in nature, history and domestic social life. Fabrications in the digitalized information age go far beyond the traditional alienation of the factory. We seem to be moving towards an economy that has the ability to shape our deepest subjectivities. If this is the case, technology must be grappled with and reformed in one way or another.’

This notion wasn’t really examined in the seminar, but it is a notion that seminars and articles on crafts often reflect upon, albeit seldom with new perspectives and too often with a post-modern sense of loss. As we have passed through ‘the death of the author’ (Roland Barthes), ‘the death of reality’ (Jean Baudrillard), ‘the end of history’ (Francis Fukuyama) and are in the situation of being ‘after the end of art’ (Arthur C. Danto), we should probably just come to terms with also being in a non-historical limbo where crafts and manual skills have suffered the same ‘death’ or ‘end’ as the author, history, reality and art.

«Sennett is looking to ‘crafts’ to find a way out of a post-modern society driven by personality»

In his essay Bugge calls for ‘forward looking, even utopian solutions, such as that of Richard Sennett’, and it is hard not to agree with him. Sennett’s lifelong sociological project is to re-establish collective values, platforms from which ‘modern man’ can communicate independently of the ‘tyranny of intimacy’, as Sennett puts it in his famous book The Fall of Public Man (1977). In The Craftsman (2007) and his recent book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (2012) – these are the first two books in his proposed trilogy Homo Faber – it seems as if Sennett is looking to ‘crafts’ to find a way out of a post-modern society driven by personality. In ‘craftsmanship’ and ‘skills’ he finds a mode of resistance to what he sees as the challenges of New Capitalism.

In the essay Life as a Workshop (published in issue 05/ 2011: Critical Thinking about Craft) art critic Kjetil Røed writes: ‘The advantage of Sennett’s view /…/ redoubles one’s focus on the future, on what is possible, on what lies ahead – and weakens the sense of hopelessness over lost possibilities.’

To vitalize critical thinking and make it relevant for analysing contemporary society, a focus on the future seems to be needed – for instance along the lines of what Sennett offers. Another theoretician who challenges Postmodernism’s sense of loss is French curator and philosopher Nicolas Bourriaud. His theories are optimistic about the future role of aesthetics in contemporary society. I want to adapt these to the world of crafts and suggest how they are relevant in the context of Sennett’s and Bugge’s thinking. In his latest book, The Radicant (2009), Bourriaud offers a critique of post-modernity and introduces a new ‘modernity’ which he names the altermodern.

«It is a matter of replacing questions of origin with that of destination»

Nicolas Bourriaud

Bourriaud described the situation as follows:

‘The work of constituting a new modernity – whose strategic task would be to strive for the dissolution of postmodernism – entails first of all inventing a theoretical tool with which to combat everything in postmodern thought that in practice supports the trend toward standardization inherent in globalization.’ (p. 26-27)

He later adds some explanation of what he means by ‘altermodern’:

‘What I am calling altermodernity /…/ designates a construction plan that would allow new intercultural connections, the construction of a space of negotiation going beyond postmodern multiculturalism, which is attached to the origin of discourses and forms rather than to their dynamics. It is a matter of replacing questions of origin with that of destination.’ (p. 40)

To fully grasp the concept of altermodernity as Bourriaud describes it would require a thorough discussion of modernity and post-modernity. There is no space for that just here, but to summarize, Bouriaud seems to find a way forward through the act of translation. He writes:

‘We must move beyond the peaceful and sterile coexistence of reified cultures (multiculturalism) to a state of cooperation among cultures that are equally critical of their own identity – that is to say, we must reach the stage of translation.’ (pp.27-28)

Some pages later he says more about what he means by ‘translation’:

‘Translation is a kind of pass: a deliberate, intentional act that begins with the designation of a singular object and continues with the desire to share this singular object with others.’ (p.69)

«Skills are re-defined by the new makers as a matter of course. The current generation faces a most notable challenge: choice»

Neil Forrest

I interpret both Bourriaud and Sennett as calling for a (re)establishing of a critical public order or sphere, dynamic in its character and where a kind of ‘neutral’ ground can be established. For both theorists, it is essential that a ‘new’ public space will be open to critical discussion; it should be a frame wherein a dialogue between equals can be formed. To Bourriaud’s mind, the current modernity is a Western modernity where the rest of the world is considered ‘the other’. Altermodernity will, in his opinion, become a truly global modernity. This means everyone will share the same social, inter-subjective space. There will be diversity, but no hierarchy. There will be a heterogeneity that acts as a positive force – for creating greater dialogue between diverse positions and for triggering creative energy. According to Sennett, current society values individual people’s personalities more than their skills, but he envisages a new society based on something akin to a medieval workshop model. Here people would work together like craftsmen, and it should be possible to enjoy constructive relationships like those between apprentices, journeymen and master craftsmen. According to this scenario, people’s utterances would be based on and understood according to their social role, not their individual personality.

What Bugge is describing in his essay is political on a structural level. The essay is critical of how the economic structures of society challenge the preservation of crafts and skills; this is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of ‘outsourcing’. Do we ourselves really need skills if someone else can do it better for less money? Do we really need crafts in a world where machines can produce things in endless numbers? These are questions implicitly raised by the structures of our modern and effective Western society.

«Skills are what enable ideas to move from the head to the hand»

On a more pragmatic level, craft practitioners can make political claims through their art, targeting concrete political situations. Hannah Ryggen (1894-1970) is an example of a politically conscious weaver, and the contemporary art world has renewed its interest in her. This has led her works to be included in the current Documenta in Kassel, an exhibition thought to be one of the most important events in contemporary art. In a short description of Ryggen at dOCUMENTA (13)’s website, you can read that ‘Ryggen adopted weaving and tapestry as a medium to reflect her social and political engagement.’ Martha Kuzma, director of OCA (Office of Contemporary Art Norway) and author behind the dOCUMENTA (13) notebook, Hannah Ryggen, writes that Ryggen was publically minded and based her tapestries on political themes. In doing so, she diverged from the tradition of treating tapestry as ‘merely an applied art form’ that eschews politics. With ‘authenticity, immediacy and contingency’, Ryggen exposed the ‘precarious socio-political landscape of her time’, says Kuzma.

Another craft practitioner who is politically engaged through his works is jewellery artist Konrad Mehus. In the interview done by Reinhold Ziegler in the current issue of, Mehus states that: ‘I grew up in a time of great political upheaval, and I chose to become involved in social issues. This has always marked my art.’ He decided to be a provocateur to the petite-bourgeoisie and to the field of goldsmithing, and he introduced something that is seldom heard of within the world of arts and crafts: humour. His political critique ‘surfaced in his first solo exhibition at Kunstnerforbundet (‘the Artist’s Association’) in 1980. Through a series of diamond pieces, he criticized the diamond industry’s speculative marketing and how it treated diamonds as symbols for eternal love.’ The following year (1981), he produced the necklace Argentina 81, probably his most political work to date. It can easily be understood as a critique of the dictator Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri Castelli, who became president of Argentina through a military coup.

Also in this issue of, ceramicist Neil Forrest reflects on a fairly new trend in the art academies that may be the consequence of a historical change from artists working with particular materials and mediums to artists engaging in post-material-based practices (a trend that may be seen to mirror the dissolutions of history and the death of the author mentioned above):

‘Skills are re-defined by the new makers as a matter of course. The current generation faces a most notable challenge: choice. There is an exponential increase in the skills that can be found in the contemporary art academy. /…/ Choice is now a contentious complication for the traditional media in the academy. As the digital generation takes up teaching, the academy will be a massive marketplace of hybrid skills, many of which may not be manual.’

His conclusion is nevertheless that young makers may find ‘that manual skill remains a valid asset that can be explored and exploited’. It is, according to Forrest, still important to be skilled in traditional materials. However, he warns, it would be a mistake to rely solely on skills. Skills have to be closely coordinated with technique, science and ideas in order to result in interesting works.

I think Forrest touches upon something essential, and maybe it’s so obvious that it’s not worth mentioning. I’ll do it anyway. When you express political ideas through craft, like Mehus does, the crafted object becomes the vehicle for uttering political engagement. As such, it functions as a language for transmitting ideas. To know how to express ideas and political engagement in an accurate way, to make a statement that is both understandable and makes you look at the issue at hand in new and different ways, is, in my opinion, to be skilled. Skills are what enable ideas to move from the head to the hand. They are expressed through the crafted object and can be received and understood at some level by the public. This is a form of translation.

Skills attain value when put to use. It is important to be skilled in order to be able to utter what you want to say.

Richard Sennett; The Fall of Public Man, Cambridge University Press, 1977
Richard Sennett; The Craftsman, Penguin Books, 2008
Richard Sennett: Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012
Nicolas Bourriaud: The Radicant, Sternberg Press, 2009