Arts and Crafts Utopia

How we live, and how we might live.

Category: John Ruskin

Why We Make Things and Why It Matters

Pete Korn - Why We Make Things

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Peter Korn’s Why We Making Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman is a smart and engaging bildungsroman — the story of how the pot-smoking, draft-dodging son of a lawyer and doctor became one of the country’s most acclaimed furniture designer-makers. It is no accident, in Korn’s account, that a thoughtful college kid looking for a meaningful life in the early 1970s would turn to “craft” for answers—the road had been laid in the late 19th century by John Ruskin and William Morris, the founding fathers of the British Arts and Crafts movement. “Craft” as a concept—a way of thinking and interpreting the world—arguably begins with the Arts and Crafts challenge to the Industrial Revolution (with its exploited labor, polluted cities, crass commercialism and mass-manufactured commodities). An inheritor of Ruskin and Morris’s theories, Korn draws a parallel between making furniture with “simplicity, integrity, and grace” and arriving at “a vision of how life could and should be lived.”

Peter Korn - woodworking-basics

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It is important to remember that “craft” as we understand it (artisanal, handmade, non-alienated, combining manual and intellectual labor) was invented by socialists. It was a politicized concept from the beginning. Craft became a means to designate an aesthetic and social system in radical opposition to prevailing modes of capitalist production. If the Craftsman has become a mythic, Romanticized figure—sure-of-hand, morally upright, and industrious in idyllic surrounding—that owed in large measure to the compensatory and utopian quality of the Arts and Crafts ideas about  the nature of joyful labor, the moral welfare of the worker, the health of society, and the holistic interconnectedness of those issues. As Korn observes, “Furniture, after all, is more than an object of contemplation; it is a prescription for the life to be lived around it.”

Korn’s answers to the question Why We Make Things and Why It Matters closely resemble Ruskin’s and Morris’s before him. Craft offers a practical form of building Utopia. (Utopia considered not as a static place but as a process.) One of Korn’s insights from a life of craftwork is that “a good life was not some Shangri-La waiting to be stumbled upon. One constructed it from the materials at hand.”

F for Fake

F for Fake - WellesThe charming, sly, and irrepressible movie sorcerer Orson Welles cast his last spell with the little seen and arguably less understood F for Fake (1973). It’s one of those strange and enchanting movies that still feel ahead of their time — a fiendishly clever pseudo-documentary that is like the hall-of-mirrors sequence in Lady from Shanghai extended to 90 minutes. Ostensibly the movie is about an art forger, Elmyr de Hory (seen in the film signing a painting “Orson Welles”), and his biographer, Clifford Irving, who turns out be a fraud himself. Down the rabbit hole we go, meeting Howard Hughes and Pablo Picasso along the way.

Towards the end of the film there’s a (seemingly — since nothing is quite as it seems in this movie) heartfelt paean to Chartres cathedral as the premiere human achievement (made, Welles notes, by anonymous craftsmen not celebrity artists) that is worth the price of admission alone. Welles’ lyrical language in this passage owes something I think to John Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic.

The discourse of craftsmanship deals heavily in questions of authenticity versus artificiality, honesty versus deception, natural versus synthetic. F for Fake is Welles’ own meditation (if that’s the right word for a movie so dizzying and rapid-fire) on Picasso’s old adage that art is a “lie to tell the truth.” As his own star dimmed, Welles showed young upstarts like Jean Luc Godard how the cinematic essay should be done — intoxicating, intelligent, breezy, adventurous and fun.

Ridiculing Ruskin

Mr TurnerMr. Turner is a handsome film with a complex and charismatic performance by Timothy Spall as the irascible British Romantic painter, JMW Turner. Not since Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire has an actor used inarticulate grunts and mumbles so effectively and expressively. While the portrayal of Turner is sympathetic without being sycophantic, the quality of the film is marred, in my view, by a bizarre characterization of art and social critic, John Ruskin (played by Joshua McGuire, who is certainly having fun), as a lisping, foppish nitwit. An otherwise powerful and affecting film does itself a disservice by treating one of the towering intellects of the nineteenth century—not to mention Turner’s most articulate and ardent admirer—with such contempt. There is no doubt that Ruskin could be a strange and pathetic figure, but to portray him as a simpering McGuire as Ruskinnincompoop is just historically wrong. (To give just one clue to Ruskin’s influence, George Bernard Shaw once said that Ruskin’s Unto This Last converted more of the English working class to socialism than Karl Marx.) In trying to contrast Turner’s earthy potency to Ruskin’s critical grandstanding, the filmmakers have to overlook the fact that Ruskin (in addition to being one of the Victorian era’s great prose stylists) was a brilliant draftsman and watercolorist in his own right.

I sat down to pen a lengthy defense of Ruskin in light of this character assassination but discovered to my relief that a writer over at The Guardian had already done the work:

On behalf of John Ruskin, I would like to sue Mike Leigh for defamation of character. In Mr Turner, Leigh’s astonishing and sweepingly beautiful new film, the painter’s greatest champion has been traduced. Ruskin, played by Joshua McGuire, is a simpering Blackadderish caricature of an art intellectual: a lisping, red-headed, salon fop.

I almost felt physically sick when I saw him onscreen…This posthumous portrait is unconscionable.

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