Seeing and Using: Art and Craftsmanship.

In Praise of Shadows
June 19, 2011
The Japanese Arts and Self Cultivation.
September 29, 2011
Show all

By Octavio Paz, from a chapter in his book ‘Essays on Mexican Art’. This chapter also has a sub- heading ‘Participation’.


This is a great article on craft, where Paz who saw himself  mainly as a poet writes clearly and insightful on the layers of human experience and history that create craft. In his position towards craft the influences of his political experiences, he was a committed socialist and a supporter of the Spanish Republic during the Civil War, are evident. Craft as being of the people!

There are several themes he explores around this, the human touch in craft, which ‘bears the fingerprints , real or metaphorical of the person who fashioned it’. This he contrasts with industrial design which operates under a ‘mathematical ideal’ which works to exclude the human and make design invisible.

For the craft object it has existed before there was a ‘separation of the beautiful and the useful’. An example for me here on the West Coast is how the First Nations peoples incorporate utilitarian objects with complex design and ornamentation.

He sees in these objects a movement that is continuously ‘back and forth between  both beauty and usefulness’. This flow of almost contradictory elements he sees as giving us ‘pleasure’. Where art is about beauty it is also static, locked away too idealised to touch a more removed conceptual experience. Craft pleases us because of its close physical presence that manages to combine both beauty and utility within the human imagination.

‘ Modern technology has brought about a great many profound transformations, but all in the same direction and with the same import: the expiration of the other. By leaving the aggressiveness of the human species intact and by making its members uniform, it has lent added strength to the causes tending towards its extinction’

Craft he sees goes against the grand designs of modern technology, the colloquial and regional nature of craft celebrates diversity, ‘craftsmen have no country, they are from the village’. My experience of working in wood work originally came from wanting to honour and connect with the great forests that are here on Vancouver Island. It has given me opportunities to express my surroundings and also it has taught me alot about myself.

The relationship of the craftsman to his workshop Paz sees as a possible model of a political relationship with the world, ‘its lack of perfection points to how we might humanize our society’.  In the practice of  craft with its  attempts at taking theory and creating something in the material world there are countless ways that unknowns can take things out of our hands. From these experiences can we appreciate the complexity and breadth of human experience and the poverty of uniform systems, political or otherwise!

Craft he argues has a timelessness to it, existing beyond history and can teach us to ‘ be wary of the mirages of history and the illusions of the future’. This reminds me of some of Crawfords argument in ‘Shop craft as soul craft’, which is reviewed elsewhere on this blog, his argument of craft helping us to be critical of advertising because it deals materially with things and not just with spin.

On the whole Paz is arguing for an awareness of our surroundings and the things that give us pleasure, craft ‘follows the course of time it flows along with us…..the pulse of human time…an object that endures through time yet meets its end and resigns itself to so doing’. And by making us aware of time passing and the craft object being loved and used and deteriorating,  ‘craft work teaches us to die and by so doing teaches us to live’.

I appreciated this essay as it looks deeply in to something so practical and finds such meaning, his last points about the timelessness of craft made me think of the development and appreciation of my craft which grows brighter and stronger against the passage of time.