Last week’s show of Thinking Allowed had a solid-gold conversation between Prof. David Gauntlett, author of Making is Connecting, and Prof. Richard Sennett, a sociologist at NYU and LSE, on Craft and Community. It began as an exploration of David Gauntlett’s book about ‘modern craftsmen’ on YouTube and other online venues but quickly flowed into a wider discussion of whether learning and crafting is, or should be, fun or pleasurable.
I’ve pulled out some choice quotes below (apologies for any mistakes); unfortunately I don’t have time to transcribe the whole thing right now, but I was very taken by a lot of what Richard Sennett had to say:
Richard Sennett: A lot of craftwork is very frustrating and one of the main things we need to learn in developing any skill is how to keep going even though we’re not getting pleasure at the moment from what we’re doing; how to commit to something that is often very arduous. And if you begin to measure the development of a skill in terms of getting pleasure from it, the first time there’s something really difficult to do, you’re going to have a problem…
David Gauntlett: People love making though, don’t they? We see that through the enthusiasm people have for making and craft activities. When people put videos on YouTube, millions of hours every week, that’s because people want to do it. It is hard and difficult and can be frustrating of course, but they have a strong drive to make things and they ultimately enjoy it even though the process itself can involve all kinds of frustrations and difficulties but it’s like climbing a mountain. When you’re doing it, you’re having a hell of a time, but when you reach the top you feel thrilled.
RS: Well, not quite, I think. One thing that really drives people on to keep working and to do good work is the sense that when they’ve come to the end of a project, that they have the sense they could do more and better the next time. It isn’t all joy, you know, at the end? I was very struck about what we know about Stradivarius, who was arguably the greatest violin-maker of all time. He is supposed to have remarked to a disciple who said “This is a masterpiece,” and he said, “It may be, but I know I could do it differently.” And that’s the kind of impulse, I think, that really keeps people going.
And it’s not just really a quibble, I think, whether it’s a question of satisfication or joy, because modern society puts so much emphasis on pleasure. The pleasure of learning, the fear of subjecting people to discipline which might make them bored, god forbid. In my view this is a terrible reduction of the seriousness of actually getting engaged in a project.
I think the issue about craft online is a really stunning and rich one. In the history of technology, people often invent a new tool before they really know how to use it. This was true in the Renaissance when the scalpel was invented; it took surgeons about a century to learn how to adapt their hands to it. I think today, with these marvellous online tools for communication, we have, as it were, the machinery before we have the knowledge for how to know them best. And they will evolve.
Sometimes the first impulses we have when we have a new tool are to use it in old ways rather than to think about new ways that are quite specific to it. This is a subject I’ve been thinking about in terms of co-operation online, which is a serious way of using Facebook, Twitter and more specific sites. We’re still in the, if you like, almost prehistoric stages of understanding how to use these machines and to develop that understanding, we have to have a motivation which is a little more long term. Which is a little less instant.
There’s a lot that I’ve missed out, including David Gauntlett’s very apt comparison of medieval craftsmen who made gargoyles to people doing DIY videos on YouTube today, and Richard Sennett’s belief that individuals need communities to order to learn a craft.