The craft of … Richard Sennett

richard sennett

Richard Sennett is a sociologist, urbanist, cellist and cook whose most recent book The Craftsman provided the title for this blog. The book covers many elements of craftsmanship, from the reasons that nobody but Stradivarius can make a Stradivarius to the reason that Wittgenstein was a better philosopher than architect. As he compares the twin building projects of Wittgenstein and his friend Adolph Loos, Sennett outlines five principles that make “the good craftsman”: 

1. The good craftsman understands the importance of the sketch — that is, not knowing quite what you are about when you begin.

2. The good craftsman places positive value on contingency and constraint.

3. The good craftsman need to avoid pursuing a problem relentlessly to the point that it becomes perfectly self-contained; then, like the rooms in the Kundmanngasse (Wittgenstein’s house) it loses its relational character.

4. The good craftsman avoids perfectionism that can degrade into a self-conscious demonstration — at this point the maker is bent on showing more what he or she can do that what the object does. 

5. The good craftsman learns when it is time to stop.


Measuring excellence

I wrote in January about the McMaster Report, which proposed that public funding for the arts should be based on how good the work is. The very fact that this was seen as a radical step forward (what next? Eat food you like? Wear trousers that fit?) is an indication of how fragile the relationship between Arts Council England and arts organisations had become, none of which was helped by the row over February’s funding announcements.

Today, though, ACE’s chief executive, Alan Davey, gave some first indications of how the new system might work. Essentially it will be based on two elements: self-assessment and peer review. Self-assessment would be based on a simple series of questions, covering artistic excellence, financial management and audience satisfaction; peer review would consist of occasional informal inspections plus a formal review every three years. These would be conducted by a panel of experts, including other practitioners — dance companies by other dance managers, for example, or mimes by other mimes, which could lead to some interesting meetings — and business leaders. 

At the heart of this proposal is a very simple idea: find people who are good at something, reward them for excellence, and trust them to get on with it. Richard Sennett, in his new book (and inspiration for this blog) The Craftsman, would agree with these sentiments. A craftsman, in Sennett’s terms, is something who does good work for the sake of it: who creates something excellent because he or she believes in excellence. It’s an idea that’s perhaps unfashionable in cynical times, but one that, for two reasons, we should hope proves successful for ACE. First, because it will clarify and simplify the process for arts organisations, and support the work we really need. And secondly because it potentially provides the basis for a radical rehaul of public service funding as a whole.