This article is one of a series of articles from Metalsmith Magazine “Art and Technics” talking about techniques in craftsmanship and design. For this 1987 Spring issue, Tim McCreight talks about learning from history and using it to reflect your work.

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We all have sounds that bother us. One of the sounds I most dislike is the faint click of mental doors shutting when certain topics are introduced. It seems that in some formative stage each of us has decided on topics that we can do without, and the mention of one of these triggers a shut-down reaction. What a pity. One that concerns me at the moment is the mention of history. Did anybody hear a click?

In a popular song the rock musician Sting says, “History teaches nothing.” In anger and grief the song describes the bigotry, greed and violence of our species and points out our inability to reform. Unable to learn from the disasters of the past, we continue to live at the lowest level of our expectations. History, it seems, teaches nothing.

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At the same time, though, we must acknowledge the sheer tenacity of the subject. From family trees to baseball statistics, our species seems to be fanatic about history. We can’t cut ourselves off from it, even if we think we’d like to. And yet, for all its intensity, mention it in class and the circuits click shut. And I think that’s a shame.

The common view paints history as a giant bulldozer. It has traveled a great distance and left in its wake a gouged but level swath. Understanding the lessons of history, so the thinking goes, would be like using the bulldozer to smooth out rough places ahead of us. The going would be so much easier if we could only understand the lessons of history.

But imagine a history that is not so simplistically linear. Picture instead a rich stew, all stirred round with vegetables, meats, spices and gravy. Similar chunks keep popping up with each ladleful. Sequence is nothing, the mix is everything. In the same way, similar themes keep reappearing throughout history.

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Try this. Choose an idea and try to give it a single place on the time line of history. The dignity of the individual, for example? You’ll find it in Greece in 200 BC, in China around 900, in England in 1850 and Haight-Ashbury in 1968. Examples abound and are particularly familiar to the arts. How many times have you seen a remarkably modern piece in a museum or book, only to discover that it is centuries old? Like the stirred pot of stew. history keeps bringing familiar morsels to the surface. I find this in itself fascinating.

Learning from History: Axe, Egyptian, bronze, wood, leather, 2040-1786 B.C.
Axe, Egyptian, bronze, wood, leather, 2040-1786 B.C.
Collection: Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, MA
Drawing by Tim McCreight

But back to the lessons. If this view is right and history is simply a one-course meal, made without a recipe and left at a perpetual simmer, what possible lessons can it teach us? As with any lesson worth learning, we must first ask the right questions.

Here’s a suggestion, ask this one. What do I like? Yes, it’s simple but there might be more there than is at first apparent. Note the object of the question: 1. Not what pleases most people, not what the experts have determined, but, what has the vast feast of history got for me? Notice also that an erudite answer is not needed. The question is not what is “best” but simply what do I “like.”

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Another question, and again an easy one, is Why do I like it? There’s that “I” again—any answer can be correct. The choices are subjective so no one can make you wrong. Too many people forget to ask this as they walk through a museum. You’ve seen the routine: glance at the canvas, bend over to read the label, move on along the wall and repeat. We’re more critical about which toothpaste to buy than what art to like.

And one last question I’d like to suggest. What am I going to do about it? You don’t have to do anything about it. But the coupling of action with judgment gives it more meaning. You don’t go into the drugstore, select a toothpaste out of academic interest then leave without buying it. That’s silly and you’d soon get tired of evaluating toothpastes. It shouldn’t be surprising then that a review of history that fails to include a meaningful conclusion would also be boring. By asking this last question, by establishing an interaction with history, we make our lives more interesting. And this, it seems to me, is the destination we’ve been seeking. No, we can’t expect specific answers from history, but we can enrich our lives. In this sense history takes its place alongside art as a pleasure whose existence requires no justification.

Elbert Hubbard said, “Art is not a Thing, it is a Way.” Perhaps in this sense the song is accurate. History teaches no thing. But it can teach us a way, it can influence the attitude we bring to our lives and our art.

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Tim McCreight is head of the Metals Department at the Portland School of Art, Portland, ME and a regular contributer to Metalsmith.