Notes on Richard Sennett’s “The Craftsman”

Notes on Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (2009), Chapter 1: The Troubled Craftsman (pages 19-52).

In the first chapter of Sennetts book on craftsmanship, the author traces the history of the idea of the craftsman, beginning with an Ancient Greek hymn to “the master god of craftsmen”, Hephaestus. The hymn uses the word demioergos – a compound of “public (demios) and productive (ergon)” – to refer to the craftsman, who is described as having “occupied a social slice roughly equivalent to a middle class”. Sennett argues that for the Ancient Greeks the demioergoi occupied a respected position – somewhere between ordinary worker and aristocrat – as “civilizers” who “combined head and hand”. (p.21-22).

Sennett goes on to describe how the demioergoi of Ancient Greece “took it for granted that skills would be handed down from generation to generation”, and adds that the concept of personal genius “had little meaning in [that] context”. The author explains that “to become skilled required, personally, that one be obedient”, and that “developing one’s talents depended on following the rules established by earlier generations”. (p.22).

This idea of the demioergoi, or “public productive” is interesting to me as it seems to relate to aspects of the contemporary artist/studio discussed elsewhere on this blog. On one hand, the notion of the “public productive” is at odds with the increasingly isolated, disconnected “lone artist” in his cubicle-like studio space, while on the other hand, the demioergoi share some characteristics – such as the sharing of information, and the public nature of their work – with the hyper-networked contemporary artist. Is there some way that we could use the values of the demioergoi to outline a new model for contemporary artistic practice?

The following pages of The Craftsman shed further light on the idea of the “public productive”. Sennett argues that those who participate in “open source computer software” such as Linux and Wikipedia “embody some of the elements first celebrated in the hymn to Hephaestus”. Sennett describes the Linux system as “a public craft” that is “available to anyone” and to which “any user to contribute”. Open-source software appears then to embody the idea of the “public productive” outlined above, and perhaps could provide a useful example in developing a contemporary model of demioergoi. (p.24)..

Sennett links the idea of the “public productive” to Eric Raymond’s “bazaar” model of open software – wherein “anyone can participate via the Internet to produce code”. The bazaar model stands in opposition to it’s alternative, the “cathedral” model, in which a “closed” group of programmers work together on a project before making it available. (p.25).

Raymond’s “bazaar” model, when adapted to fit the world of contemporary art, could perhaps help us to form an outline of what a “public productive” art studio might look like. In a “bazaar” studio setup, a group of artists might work together on a given problem, while also welcoming contributions from other artists from outside of the group. Any resulting artwork or project would necessarily be “group-authored” and essentially continuous, given that at any point further contributors may add to, subtract from or otherwise adapt the state of the project.

An advantage of the public-productive “bazaar studio” would be that each contributor would learn from each other, and thus develop their practice along with the project itself. Any project undertaken by the studio/contributors would presumably also be public and “accessible”, encouraging widespread use along with versioning and reiteration toward new purposes.

Another benefit of the public-productive art-bazaar would be that participating artists would no longer be isolated in a “closed” studio, and would have a direct link with their artistic community along with their audience/participants.

In practice, this kind of project would need to happen in some kind of open environment – whether outdoor/public, or an easily accessible studio/workspace, or an online platform which foregrounds connectivity and ease-of-use. This would of course depend on the nature of the project, and I imagine that there are many such projects already in existence, particularly online. However, it would be interesting to me to see how effectively this model would function if the project were, say, an open-source [physical] sculpture or painting.

Would it be enough to hang an empty canvas in a public place, and invite others to add to it? Would certain parameters or goals need to be established, or some kind of measure of success (or failure)? And how would versioning/reiteration be achievable? It seems that there are a lot of variables and potential issues that would need to be worked through – though perhaps a lot of this could happen “live”, within the parameters of the “active” project itself?

I feel like a project such as this could be a good way of exploring the parameters of both the studio / WORKSITE and of practice / work itself. In what ways do the meanings of these common terms change when they become “group acted” and essentially anonymous? Does “the studio” require one or more “named” occupants? Does “work” require a specific worker in order to be fully appreciated? And how can one effectively delineate their personal practice once it becomes merged with the dispersed activities of an open community?

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