Today I thought I would share two seemingly disparate threads which, for me, share a connection across decades and cultures: the writings of Soetsu Yanagi and his exploration craftsmanship and some images detailing the sartorial wonder of two pieces by Elizabeth Suzann.
The profit-making motive became uppermost, and the change from the age of the hand to the age of the machine took place; the two together have had a disastrous effect not only on the crafts but also on the way of natural life in which they had their roots. The new industrialised life is freer. Why, then, did the crafts flourish under social oppression? Apparently, despite its weight, the people were really more at liberty to live their country life supported by their Buddhist beliefs, and even by their superstitions. They accepted the picture of life as if it was given to them, with its balance of good and evil under heaven, without question or protest. That made the struggle bearable and even left room for the play of the life spirit in their rice fields and the work of their hands, their crafts.
I would like to believe that beauty is of deep import to our modern age. Without question, the intention of morality, philosophy and religious belief is to bring hope, joy, peace and freedom to mankind. But in our time religion has lost its grip. Intellectualism has undermined spiritual aspiration in most people. At this juncture I would put the question, might not beauty, and the love of the beautiful, perhaps bring peace and harmony? Could it not carry us forward to new concept’s of life’s meaning? Would it not establish a fresh concept of culture? Would it not be a dove of peace between the various cultures of mankind?
On reflection, one must conclude that in bringing cheap and useful goods to the average household, industrialism has been of service to mankind – but at the cost of the heart, of warmth, friendliness, and beauty. By contrast, articles well made by hand, though expensive, can be enjoyed in homes for generations, and, this considered, they are not expensive after all. Is spendthrift replacement economical? Rapid turnover of goods is the salesman’s policy, especially in America. It seems to me that there is something so basic, so natural in the hand that the urge to utilise its power will always make itself felt. Moreover, the chief characteristic of handcrafts is that they maintain by their very nature a direct link with the human heart, so that the work always partakes of a human quality. Machine-made things are children of the brain; they are not very human. The more they spread, the less the human being is needed. What seems to be a great advance is also a great step backward; the desire for the natural as opposed to the artificial surely has some basic, unchanging significance.
No machine can compare with a man’s hands. Machinery gives speed, power, complete uniformity, and precision, but it cannot give creativity, adaptability, freedom and heterogeneity. These the machine is incapable of, hence the superiority of the hand, which no amount of rationalism can negate. Man prefers the creative and the free to the fixed and standardised.
The problem is not a matter of either hand or machine, but of utilising both. We have yet to discover just what is suitable work for each. To this end, again, it is a truly new kind of designer that it needed. He must, in the first place, know beauty at sight; then it is essential that he should understand the principal of mechanics and their operation in industry yet at the same time must also appreciate fully the value of handiwork. Such designers could make machine-made products better and healthier. But they must not forget that the machine, too, has its limitations. The best course, probably, is that handwork and the machine should cooperate and supplement each other’s shortcomings.
…they should form associations or guilds in the interest of honest craftsmanship.
All quotes are taken verbatim from Yanagi’s The Unknown Craftsman. The translation is by Bernard Leach and the punctuation speaks of its time. Oxford comma anyone?