Few weeks back, I took delivery of what may be my favorite single tool – a forging hammer made for me by Seth Gould.
I have a true fascination with blacksmithing as an art form, and I’m going to try to explain why in a fairly short span here – but please bear with me because it relates to some notions I have of craft in general. This will be a compare and contrast.
What I want to note initially is the prominence of the tool marks Gould has left on the piece. The filing he’s done to enhance the design was done rapidly, skillfully, and with zero attempt to hide the method or nature of the workmanship he put into the piece.
A lesser craftsman might have been inclined to further file with a finer tool, sandpaper, or buffer of some sort in an attempt to disguise his methods. But I think there is nothing finer than the witness of a master at work. This is craft in the highest sense of the word – a notion that encompasses a workmanlike approach to the work, a reverence for the work itself, and a high degree of innate skill.
As a contrast, here’s a hollow form I turned about a decade ago:
Now – don’t get me wrong, I like the way this piece turned out. But the truth is that I’m a fairly inept turner. What I did right here was to have a good enough eye to get a pleasing form – and that counts, for my money – but a good woodturner would look at the piece itself and see immediately just how mediocre I am. How would they know? It’s too ‘perfect’, it lacks some key witness marks, and – well, there are Im sure many other things; but to know what all the key points are, I’d have to BE a master woodturner.
In person it’s pretty obvious that someone spent a large amount of time with a huge range of sandpaper getting the surface perfectly smooth, regular, and – well, mechanical. A really good turner could have done this piece in 1/3 the time it took me, and would have instinctively known what required time to perfect, and when to leave some witness to their own operations. In my form, I’ve spent most of my time erasing my tracks, which were unskillful, and so needed to be eradicated for the piece to have any hope of ‘success’. The end result is a pleasing form, that shows off the wood to good effect – but it’s hardly a masterwork because there’s no master present in the work. It’s a fine piece, and might be ‘art’, but there’s precious little craft involved. And in the end, craft is probably the thing that interests me most. And I don’t think I’m alone.
The ‘imperfect’ surfaces throughout the hammer are his tracks. He’s left a trail of his presence here, because it’s a trail worth following. Even someone with nowhere near his skill at the forge can appreciate the consistent inconsistency, and I think there’s something innately human about the beauty of the piece. It’s not a found object, or a natural one. It was obviously made by a person, and a skilled one at that – and as such, I think it invites scrutiny of the textures, patterns, surfaces – like a text, it invites closer scrutiny. And the better one can ‘read’ the genre, the more the piece will give back to them.
[pullquote]a museum filled with ideal forms and perfect objects isn’t a museum at all. It’s the Apple store.[/pullquote]And this, then, is the point for me. I think the highest art forms are those where we’re presented with a beauty that isn’t necessarily expected. We can see we’re in the presence of a skillful craftsman – be it a painter, writer, carver, furniture maker, or blacksmith – and we feel some subtle compulsion to keep looking, to understand more. We instinctively follow the trail the craftsman has left, wondering and speculating. It’s a trip that only a really skilled craftsman can lead. One can be an artist, a craftsman, or both – but I think it’s clear what the goal is for me, personally.
This is at the core of my personal theory of aesthetics: that the highest art/craft necessarily involves a certain type of imperfection, which is almost impossible to spell out but which has a power over us nonetheless. Because that imperfection is in essence the embodiment of someone who has something to ‘say’, and someone worth following for a while.
For me, perfection – sheer perfection -may be a worthwhile endeavor, but it’s not as high an art form. I like my machines, but I like people more. And again, I don’t think I’m alone.
My closing proof for this is simply that a museum filled with ideal forms and perfect objects isn’t a museum at all. It’s the Apple store.
Up next I swear I’ll go back to being goofy, but sometimes a little deep thought is good for the soul. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a huge pile of angry cat photos clogging my email.