What is craftsmanship?
Let's go visit Claude Monet, in his later years, painting in his garden in Giverny. To my way of thinking, he integrates five dimensions at the same time: the garden, to which he keeps turning his receptive gaze; the palette in left his hand, where he finds the colors he’ll employ stroke by stroke; the brush, which is amalgamated with his right hand; the canvas, where he imprints his decisions; and the totality of his self—that is, his presence, his back and shoulders and arms, his energies and desires. I don’t think he’s painting; I think he’s working on himself through the work on his materials, and one of the results of this work is “painting.”
It’s really tempting to see a separation between you and the world, or you and the object that you’re handling, or you and the thing that you’re making. But your thoughts and gestures make the sounds you make when you play the cello, your thoughts and gestures cause your relationships to go the way the go, your thoughts and gestures produce your email or blog post. The thing in the end is “you, in disguise.”
With a skill like pottery, you can see how the potter’s thoughts and gestures are in the process of disguising themselves as a material object.
So, you don’t make a clay pot; you work on your thoughts and gestures, and they become a pot. Or any other thing. Craftsmanship in this sense isn’t simply skill or technique; rather, it’s the meeting between the individual and his or her task; the melding between the two, where the individual “is” the task.
A commercial sign maker’s craftsmanship is essentially no different from Monet’s.
To put simply, the medium of craftsmanship is immaterial. It doesn’t matter how you engage in craftsmanship: pen and paper, clay, chalk, wood, sound, or light are all the same, because it’s the engagement itself that counts.
The smallest things in your life are the result of your craftsmanship: a peanut butter sandwich, for instance. The scope of your process as you make the sandwich may be narrower and shallower than Monet’s process as he paints, but the actual process is the same: your back and legs, your life story, your breathing habits; tools, a rhythm, a style; gestures, materials; the “product” is always a “by-product.”
When we look at one of his finished paintings, we witness Monet’s processes—not just his hand-to-eye coordination, but his psychology, his life story, the way he moved and breathed. If a painting is great, it’s because the painter’s processes are somehow integrated: affirmative, directed, and connected. The painting makes an impact on the viewer in part because it’s a manifestation of coherence. By proxy, or indirectly, the manifestation of Monet’s coherence renders the viewer coherent as well—a little or a lot, depending; the viewer feels excited, elevated, and grateful.
We feel excited and elevated when we see a kid doing something simple but well—because in that moment the kid is coherent, and we love him or her for it. I mean, the kid isn’t just cute; she represents something bigger than herself; and we “become big with her, through her.”
Ah, no, I don’t know how to define coherence any better than I know how to define craftsmanship. But I’ll put some words out there: organic logic, balance, purposefulness, the mind having become the body and the body having become the mind. And, even harder to explain: the dissolution of the ego, the individual’s becoming affirmed by disappearing into the task.
You can craft a sentence; you can craft a relationship; you can craft a stratagem to undo conflict. The process is the same: your life story, your breathing habits; a rhythm, a style; choices and decisions, in space and time. And the end product is always the same: you, in disguise.
©2016, Pedro de Alcantara