Recent Sightings: Handwork

This article series from Metalsmith Magazine is named “Recent Sightings” where Bruce Metcalf talks about art, craftmanship, design, the artists, and techniques. For this 1990 Spring issue, he talks about handwork or handmade objects as opposed to machine made ones…


Here’s a puzzle for you: what does it mean, to make something by hand?

Some people will tell you that making anything by hand is an anachronism now that Americans wallow in an avalanche of manufactured goods. Since machines can make any functional object more quickly and cheaply than a craftsman ever could, all handmade objects represent nothing more than wistful nostalgia for pre-industrial culture. The craftsman, then, is a stubborn holdout, already obsolete. And the act of making things by hand is both a denial of modern reality and an attempt to live in a fantasy world.

Others will take an esthetic argument to dismiss handwork. The mode of production, they say, is irrelevant. The value of a work of art lies in its expressive quality, or its intellectual adventurousness, or its ability to communicate an ineffable mystery, or whatever your favorite esthetic theory of the moment decrees. But if the method of production counted as esthetically valuable, then all sorts of junk would become art. Things can be handmade and still be hideous: inept home-hobbyist furniture, decoupage, nylon stocking dolls, junior high school shop projects.

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There are a number of other arguments used to reduce handwork to meaninglessness. Generally, they all hark back to the Aristotelian hierarchy that places ideas superior to physical reality. The idea of a chair is superior to any chair, since the idea, not being subject to the flaws inevitably present in a real chair, is more perfect. Because thinking is the manipulation of ideas, and labor is the manipulation of things, thinking is superior to labor. Thus, mind is divided from body, with mind in the sky and body in the mud.

Which means, of course, the work of the hand is always dirty when compared to the work of the mind. This stupid bigotry is replicated in thousands of ways in our culture, from the comparative pay scales of administrators vs. laborers, to the comparative status of art vs. craft. One of the side effects is that nobody seems to know how handwork can carry any inherent meaning, or why it is significant in our lives.

At one time, the value of handwork was found in its mastery. The master craftsman was universally respected, and his hard-won skill universally admired. Mastery, of course, was not commonplace: it was reserved for those who served long apprenticeships and who had practiced their craft for many decades. These craftsmen set the standard of excellence by the practiced touch of the hand, not by a flawless machine-made finish. But now that the sterile perfection of mass-produced goods makes expertise in a craft appear anachronistic, mastery no longer carries unquestioned authority.

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It is the opposition between machine production and handwork that suggests an answer to the puzzle. William Morris, moved by a fantasy of medieval craftsmen happily plying their trades in a culture that needed and respected hand skills, proposed that handcrafts could cure the ills of industrial society. He saw that factory workers were alienated from the products of their work: not only did the profits wind up in the owner’s pocket, but the fragmentation of tasks had robbed workers of any personal attachment to their production. Most laborers were (and are) forced to work on only one step of the manufacturing process, and were required to repeat that step endlessly. Nor could the laborer participate in the design of the goods he made. Worst of all, most factory work in the 19th century took place in hideous working conditions.

Morris contrasted a factory worker’s situation with that of an idealized craftworker. The handworker could determine the shape, color and finish of her products. She understood the techniques and materials used in all aspects of her work. Frequently, she worked on each object from its inception to its completion. She exercised a degree of control over her labor that was lost to the factory worker. Morris correctly observed that control over one’s working conditions has a profound psychological impact, an idea that has been recently confirmed by studies that correlate job stress with lack of self-determination. The factory worker could feel neither affection nor pride for her work, but the handworker could strive for any degree of excellence or individuality that she chose. While Morris was foolish in his hope for craft to solve social problems, he was probably right in his understanding of unalienated labor. One of the meanings of handwork is that it can heal the rift between producer and product.

While other professions might offer self-determination, very few so intimately involve the hand. Our hands are our most sensitive tools: they contain the highest concentration of nerve endings and offer the finest degree of motor control of all the body’s extremities. The hand is designed to be our agent of physical contact with the world, and also our agent of action. Phsysiologically, the hand is constructed to be used. While vision may be our most important conduit to the world, the hand offers a parallel means, equally rich and varied, to apprehend our physical environment. In the post-industrial age, most activities (like writing this column) mechanize or bypass the hand altogether. In craftsmanship, the complex potential of the hand can be fully realized.

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The root of alienation may lie in the denial of the whole person. Holistic medicine suggests that healing must occur as much in the mind as in the body: so why isn’t there a holistic attitude toward work that proposes labor must occur as much with the body as the mind? Individuals live as much in their physical bodies – and thus the hands – as in their brains, but our culture (encouraged by every western philosopher since Aristotle) seems to demand an emphasis on the conceptual that is completely imbalanced. Most craftsmen sense all this intuitively. They choose handwork because it offers a degree of self-determination impossible to find in most other professions and because it closes the rift between mind and body. Handwork is not obsolete, not by any means.

Still, the meaning of handwork is dismissed in most segments of modern culture, even by craftsmen. It could be that a materialistic society values product over process. Most Americans are so caught up with price (or, for intellectuals, the esthetic implications) of the object, that the conditions of labor are insignificant. Too bad. With so much talk about alienation and urban despair, you would think that any means to offer people a measure of control over their own lives would be greeted with tremendous enthusiasm.

Bruce Metcalf teaches jewelry and metalsmithing at Kent State University and writes a regular column for Metalsmith.

By Bruce Metcalf
Metalsmith Magazine - 1990 Spring
In association with SNAG's
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.
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