Express the Century

We tend to think we live in exceptional times, with unprecedented and thus frightening phenomena such as economic disruption. History and literature can help us think differently. Take Au Bonheur des Dames for instance. Published in 1883, it talks about fabrics and clothes, about human relations – and about progress and disruption. The book is part of a grand writing programme, Les Rougon-Macquart, with which the French author Emile Zola aimed to address modernity.
In the 11th novel of the series, The Ladies’ Paradise or The Ladies’ Delight (the translations sound different, I’m not sure why “happiness” wouldn’t do), the scene is modern commerce.

To be sure, the novel enfolds the reader in delightful descriptions of clothes and fabrics in all their splendid variety. Set to paint the novelty of a Parisian department store, the rhythm, balance and detail of the many descriptive passages successfully evoke a highly attractive drapery world. It’s impressive how Zola transports the reader by ‘mere words’ into a world of colour and texture, the rich textile language is certainly one of the reasons that make reading this book worthwhile. Consider the following sentence: “Littering the counters were the fancy silks – watered silks, satins, velvets, looking like beds of mown flowers, a whole harvest of delicate and precious materials.” You can see the textile abundance, can’t you?

The fabric riches delights but what really awes me, is the centrality of modernity in the book. The Ladies’ Delight’s owner, Octave Mouret, is the personification of innovative business methods and the economic potential of progress. He’s unashamedly obsessed with continual growth and expansion. In his own words, “he was a man of his own time. Really, people would have to be deformed, they must have something wrong with their brains and limbs to refuse to work in an age which offered so many possibilities, when the whole century was pressing forward into the future.” Zola himself was most explicit about the purpose of his novel:

“What I want to do in The Ladies’ Paradise, is write the poem of modern activitity. Hence, a complete shift of philosophy: no more pessimism, first of all. Don’t conclude with the stupidity and sadness of life. Instead, conclude with its continual labour, the power and gaiety that comes from this productivity. In a word, go along with the century, express the century, with is a century of action and conquest, of effort in every direction.”

This sounds like a hymn to modern economics, a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit – that aims to ‘invect’ all its readers with the same modern, progressive attitude. In fact, The Ladies’ Paradise is a more ambiguous symbol of progress.

The model for Zola’s Ladies’ Delight was Au Bon Marché, the first grand magazin in Paris and the largest in the world before 1914. The new department stores which sprang up all over the city lay the basis for commercial capitalism and mass consumer society (although in reality they were of course long limited to the upper middle classes). The grand architecture, great attention to window and shop displays, fixed prices, advertisements and sales, all these innovations colluded to establish the grand magazin as a new temple of commerce. 

Contemporary illustration of the grand architecture of the grand magazins.

In fact, Zola repeatedly depicts the shop as a “cathedral” with a “church-like atmosphere”. Zola thus evokes a new kind of devotion, one that elevates the emerging consumerism to a new ritual, a cult even. The machine-imagery, which the author employs even more frequently, conjures up both the “monstrous” as the beneficiary characteristics of progress.

With the arrival of the department stores the Parisian textile retail world was shocked into English and American economic methods. With an estimated 100.000 traditional shops closed and the loss of work for thousands of artisans and their families, this is economic disruption on a “monstrous” scale indeed. In the novel it’s Monsieur Baudu, himself owner of a small drapery shop right opposite The Ladies’ Delight, who expresses the resistance against the innovation: “Do you think it’s right that a simple draper’s shop should start selling everything under the sun? In the old days, when trade was trade, drapery meant materials, and nothing else. Nowadays their only aim is to expand their business at the expense of their neighbours and to eat everything up…” Baudu in Zola’s depiction belongs to a disappearing world, he simply doesn’t understand that the world has changed. But his analysis is rather accurate – and universal. Replace “drapery” with any other kind of business and I’m sure you recognize very contemporary practices.

On a more positive side, the department store gave women a transitional social, quasi-public space that did not affect their respectability. No wonder they were delighted. But such aspects of modern urban life threatened patriarchal authority – which responded with new systems of control and manipulation. Not only was the aim to “awake new desires in her weak flesh”, the grand magazin drew women into temptation, seduction, overspending and – and this was a new phenomenon – kleptomania. “Get the women,” Mouret was convinced, “and you sell the world!” With ample descriptions of women succumbing as planned, Zola also points to the social disruption: full-blown consumerism came into being through the mobilization of the illusions of freedom, fulfillment and “the public’s well-being”.

It is Denise, niece of Monsieur Baudu and subject of Mouret’s affection, who voices Zola’s own dubiety most scrupulously:

“Was it really true then that death must fertilize the world, that the struggle for life propelled people towards the charnel-house of eternal destruction? […] Yes, it was the necessary sacrifice; every revolution demanded its victims […] the inexorable workings of life require the seed of death for its continual renewal. She no longer fought against it; she accepted this law of the struggle; but her woman’s heart was filled with compassion […] for the whole of suffering humanity.”

It’s significant that Zola turns to the organic language of life, growth and death to conclude his judgment on economic disruption. It allows him to express his empathy for “the painful birth pangs of each new generation” while at the same time embracing and advocating modernity.

We are many generations farther. And we too are surrounded by disruption. Zola expressed his own century yet remains relevant for our own. He can for instance make us aware of the fact that economic disruption also disrupts social systems – and that its perception of exciting modernity suppresses that fact. The Amazons, Googles and Ubers of our own time are often embraced as champions of innovation but it’s unclear whether all their users are aware of the simultaneous subversion of our social security system that is based on solidarity – including the fair payment of taxes.

Or to give a more local example: the Neutral Syndicat for Independent Entrepreneurs has launched a campaign to encourage local shopping “before it’s too late!”. In the last five years 7000 independent shops have closed in Belgium, a decline of 9%. Many lament this decline and blame it for the failure of what is called the social fabric of society. Call me suspicious but many of these plaintiffs are probably not consistent and don’t shop independently. Presumably they aren’t even aware of the fact that they themselves can support the social fabric in many ways – like helping a neighbour now and then, being courteous in traffic or more generally treating people with respect. To put it differently, the economic and social systems are of course connected but they also have their own dynamic. It’s important to examine the connections, think about which parts we want to salvage – and act to do so.

Zola also points to another aspect of disruption: change is intrinsic to modernity. Think of the “restlessness” Ignace Devisch talks about and Peter Frankopan’s globalization: change is a fact of life – which also means it doesn’t in itself have good or bad implications. As Zola put it: there is action “in every direction”. He himself realized the danger of sinking into pessismism yet decided to “go along with the century”. There may be a twinge of determinism in his account but above all he wants to emphasize the possibilities of modernity. The point thus is to accept change as given and think about which direction we want “to press forward into the future”. Change in short presents us an opportunity to think about the good life.

The American philosopher Susan Neiman also sees us “in transit” and recommends philosophy to guide our thoughts about that good life. And to my delight (I’m an Enlightenment historian after all), she goes even further back in time than Zola: because the 18th-century Enlightenment was committed to understanding the world in order to improve it, it can inspire us to achieve our own, 21th-century “growing up”.

The starting point for Neiman’s account is Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) claim that “we were made to be men; laws and society have plunged us once more into childhood.” More specifically the French philosopher introduces the idea of false needs and shows how the systems we live in work against our growing up. For the American philosopher it’s above all the omnipresence of trivial products that keep us too busy making silly choices to remember that the adult ones are made by others. As we saw earlier, Blaise Pascal would call this divertissement: we allow ourselves to be distracted in order not to have to cope with the hard facts of life. Neiman rather talks about immaturity.

With consumer goods as focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents. According to Neiman consumerism diverts us to the point that we have also internalized what she calls “TINA fundamentalism”: when we go along with the ideological claim that there is no alternative, we also accept the world as it is. Hence no need to think for yourself, let alone act.

It is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
who inspires Neiman to an alternative, more attractive model of adulthood. With his 1784 essay Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment Kant aimed to express his own time – which was very much characterized by change and disruption. His conclusion is clear – and still very powerful:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without guidance from another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere Aude! [Dare to be wise!] Have the courage to use your own understanding.”

Kant’s recipe for adulthood is in fact very simple: we must think for ourselves. When we are courageous enough to trust our own judgment, we know that the world is not how it ought to be. The next step in Kant’s call for courage is agency: we must act upon our judgment – to make the world more in line with it. This is not naive utopianism: Kant mentions “the horizon”, Octave Mouret would say “the future”, that must be the point of direction for our efforts – and one which we must accept we’ll never reach. In between the resignation that nothing can be done and exaggerated optimism that everything is possible, lies Kant’s concept of adulthood. Both our experience of the world and our ideals make claims upon us and the balance between them can only be permanently precarious. To acknowledge all that and continue the endeavour nonetheless, that‘s maturity. 

As Neiman acknowledges, this is not the recipe for an easy life. Consumerism’s call is strong, our judgment may be weak, imbalance will very much be part of the experience. But life is forgiving – if we let it: there is always a chance to try again. And trying in a truly adult way means having the courage to act upon our beliefs. And thus change the world, in whatever small way. Viewed in this way adulthood is exciting precisely because it’s demanding. Or, as I argued before, courage is not beyond us.

Neiman also acknowledges that Kant’s recipe of thinking for ourselves, the expression of his century, is rather vague. But it’s equally still relevant for our age. And it cannot be more specific without violating the message itself. She herself points to the three domains of learning, travelling and work in order to enlarge our minds and improve our judgment. The latter is also Neiman’s ultimate argument to persuade people “to grow up”: judgment is an ability that normally requires age to improve. In sum: keep practicing, you will get better.

This is also the summary of craftsmanship – which Neiman mentions in passing as an alternative for consumerism. I think it worthwhile to stress in more detail the potential of that alternative. Craftsmanship cultivates slow time, delayed gratification and an appreciation of quality, among many other benefits. It also distinguishes the crafts(wo)man as the author of their products which in turn fosters properties such as dignity, respect and connectedness.

All these qualities are relevant when we consider the notion of meaningful work. They’re also important to guide our thoughts on the good life. For when we too search for an expression of our century we have the choice whether we do that in terms of doom and gloom – or turn to more positive models to “press us forward into the future”. 

For the sceptical reader it’s worth highlighting one ‘sector’ that already focuses on the positive potential of change, namely social innovation. The collective term classifies innovative efforts that are geared towards new forms of work and cooperation, towards a sustainable future. Organizations and enterprises that commit themselves to social innovation take society, large or small, as their focus in both ends and means. They are in other words ethically driven: they develop the capacity to address social needs that traditional policy or companies seem increasingly unable to tackle, they empower individuals and groups and they demonstrate a willingness to change social relations.

Such organizations thus also disrupt but they do so with the firm commitment to use the transit phase of society to change things for the better. They focus on human needs, on the power of communities and on the urgency to bring back a sense of dignity in work activities. To me they are the hopeful expression of our century: they look to our collective future and they inspire and practice agency to give it direction.

The range of social innovative initiatives is, thankfully, wide and varied. Let me conclude with just one textile example, spotted at the Fair Fashion Fest organized last October by the Museum of Industrial Archeology and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent. The Fest inspired me because it brought together so many different, often local, examples of social innovation in practice.

My favourite is Carpet of Life, a fair design brand based in Ghent. The idea is simple and very attractive: people take clothes that have an emotional meaning to them – and shred them into rags. They choose a pattern. And the women of M’hamid, a small oasis town in Southern Morocco, knot the rags into a beautiful carpet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is recycling of a higher order. It starts from the acknowledgement that clothes can have an emotional value: here no dogmatic condemnation of consumerism but focus on what adds meaning to our lives. There is the important empowerment of craftswomen who experience the valuation of their skills, providing them with meaningful work to support themselves and their communities. Instead of victims, they thus become participants in globalization.  At the same time they become the preservers and innovators of their cultural heritage. And diversity enriches ours for the delightful end results enhance our lives with meaningful beauty.

I covet such a carpet of the good life. And cherish the hope that this and other such social disruptive initiatives will indeed come to be the dominant expression of our century.

Alternative Creationism (2)

Don’t spend your energy on something you can’t change anyway. That was the good advice of Ignaas Devisch in the previous installment of this blog. The question is who decides what can’t be changed – and on what grounds. TINA (There Is No Alternative) is often an authoritative argument determined to squash the alternatives – that are therefore implicitly very extant indeed. This to be sure is not what Devisch is up to: because of his unusual argument on restlessness, it’s perfectly understandable that his focus is the modern individual. Yet the question remains what happens when one considers the collective level, the origins and effects of restlessness on society. There are, of course, many effects but let’s restrict them for now to the sphere of work.

We know what the effects are: lots of negative stress, growing number of burnouts, many unhappily working people, struggling businesses. There is a lot of debate about this. But there seem to be two standard answers: individual responsibility and collective resignation. It very much feels as if we, as a society, have resigned ourselves to the fact that working conditions are tough. Alas, there’s little we can do about this: there is no alternative – apart from continuously intensifying the burden of individual responsibility. In the current Belgian debate there’s little hesitation to point to people who ‘dare’ to use time credit to travel or to use training money to follow a course on flower arranging or learning Spanish. Both options are no longer available. Or to make it more personal: it’s all very well to advocate alternative creationism as an individual choice but there is only so much crafting an individual can do. If “the infrastructure of society” is geared towards “bad work”, the individual effort often feels meaningless.

I borrow the quoted phrases from a study on Why We Work. Its author is the American psychologist Barry Schwartz (whom Devisch mentions with another interesting book on The Paradox of Choice). Schwartz focuses on the negative effects of modern freedom on the work floor – and what we, collectively, can do about them. Schwartz challenges the deep-seated belief that people work only to get paid. He argues that this stark view of human nature has turned into the dominant ideology which not only realizes a self-fulfilling prophecy but also organizes “the infrastructure of society” in such a way that turning things round may become very difficult indeed.

To understand this complex argument it’s important to stress the difference between the exact and the social sciences. To put it simply, the cosmos doesn’t change when some scientist makes wrong assumptions or executes his experiment wrongly. Ideas about individuals and society do have the power to affect their subjects in the sense we encountered earlier: man is an unfinished project. Far more than Devisch, Schwartz emphasizes the fact that we are to a large extent what society expects from us. Applied to work: if one expects us to be unengaged, then we may start to behave that way. And before long become disengaged. 

A negative view on human nature cannot lead to positive work 

Schwartz identifies the negative view on humans, intrinsically lazy and disinterested, as the ultimate culprit of work misery. And he argues it’s wrong. His own positive argument is in a sense the collective translation of Devisch’s immoderation: in the same way that individuals enjoy action and engagement, society as a whole cherishes the idea of progress. Yet the work related mistrust has become ideological – a TINA assumption that is never questioned. Schwartz cites an intriguing study which established that people recognize in themselves intrinsic motivations to work – but not in others: they’re in it for the money. You may want to check this with yourself: probably you yourself search for and expect meaningfulness in your own job – but you’ve accepted the sad viewpoint that most people can’t? Because we must be realistic? Because ‘menial’ jobs also need to be done? And there’s no way they can be meaningful?

How work becomes meaningful

Schwartz names (among others) Luke, a Yale University Hospital cleaner who finds fulfillment in his supposedly menial job because he’s internalized the mission of his workplace, namely caring for people. There are many people like Luke, who have intrinsic motivations for wanting to do a good job. In other words: the job is not (only) instrumental (to get a paycheck), it’s considered important and worthwhile for reasons that lie within the job itself. And of course this makes sense considering the amount of time we spend working (and thinking about work).

The good news is that virtually any job can provide meaning when there is a measure of autonomy, flexibility, variety and skill development, when there is space to learn and grow and, especially, when there is a sense that one contributes to the well-being of others, however small. Schwartz refers to caretakers, workers on a factory floor, phone solicitors and hairdressers to drive down the point that there is no need to think that only the happy few could hope for meaningful work. To my delight I discovered that what Luke and others are doing has been called job crafting. The American organizational behaviorist Amy Wrzesniewski saw that people often redesign jobs so that they foster purpose and thus work satisfaction. She also defines ways in which organizations can actively take on this role. The important conclusion is that virtually all jobs can be organized in a way that affects positively both the workers and, obviously not unimportant, the performance of the organization. In other words, there are alternative ways to work.

The vicious circle of bad work

The bad news is that the “infrastructure of society”, that is, the collective structures mostly go the other way – and there is no reason to believe that they will correct themselves “naturally”. More concretely, Schwartz points to the two standard methods for managing supposedly disinterested workers: material incentives and close monitoring of work that has been routinized. The striking conclusion is that both tools have negative effects on work engagement and satisfaction.

Intuitively we think that material incentives, such as wages, bonuses, extralegal advantages, contribute to work positivity. Research has shown the opposite. The main reason is that money is an external motivation, one which lies outside the actual job at hand. And when people are encouraged to attach great importance to external factors, whatever intrinsic motivation they may have had is undermined. In short, the money always wins. And the people involved, the workers but also the employers, the clients, the patients, the customers, loose.

Close job monitoring on the other hand requires an extra layer of managers whose own job mainly consists of controlling others. And they do so in relation to jobs that are increasingly routinized on the basis of detailed scripts that leave no room for variety or individual initiative. Again, it’s not difficult to imagine how all involved draw very little satisfaction from their work.

Yet both methods, material incentives and increasing control, continue to gain importance – and thus strengthen the infrastructure of society, the structures that are difficult to change anyway. They also create a vicious circle of increasingly lower engagement and a dwindling sense of purpose and meaningfulness. Illustrating the rising application of these methods with examples in education, law and medicine, Schwartz argues that good work thus turns into bad work. And all this largely as a result of the mistaken assumption that workers don’t want to do a good job! 

We see the results of bad work all around us. We all know people who experience their job as monotonous and meaningless. Perhaps we experience it so ourselves. Much in Devisch’s way Schwartz points to individual responsibility but he forcefully emphasizes the limits of that approach. If the environment is inhospitable to meaningful work, as Schwartz demonstrates it often is, a collective effort is needed to combat the dominant ideology and replace it with an alternative view both on human nature and our notion of efficiency. 

Economic democracy

The amazing thing is: the alternatives already exist – successfully. Recently I heard an interview on the Flemish radio with the Dutch entrepreneur Allard Droste whose building company functions “without leaders”. There are no meetings, the salaries are good but not excessive. The 50 workers can each make decisions and place orders, for large sums of money. The interviewer couldn’t contain his incredulity and posed what was meant to be the ultimate question to destroy the naivety: “But what if the wrong decision is taken?” The reply was swift – and so very much to the point: “Well, it goes wrong in other companies, doesn’t it?” Indeed, it does. Frequently. And we all know it. So why is there so little effort to try the alternatives? 

In The Seven-Day Weekend Brazilian Semco’s CEO Richardo Semler shows how the Way Work Works can be Changed. He summarizes his innovative management method with reference to its fundamentally decentralized and participatory style. The starting point is the current economic disruption, no naivety here!, and “the need – the absolute necessity – to give up control”. The only alternative according to Semler, his own TINA, is trust. The principle is very simple: everyone makes difficult and complex decisions every day in their daily, personal lives. So why would the professional sphere be the only one in which people cannot be trusted? Notice how the foundational viewpoint is positive – and how different that is from what we’re used to.

The “Seven-Day Weekend” refers to the goal of creating the circumstances in which “workers [can] be men and women in full”: “No-one […] can endure leaving half a life in the parking lot when she or he goes to work.”  In other words, consider workers as human beings and aim to contribute to their living a more integrated life. By avoiding conventional business practices including formal structures, Semco encourages workers to explore their own talents and interests and seek personal challenges before trying to meet the company’s goals. Yet because these goals are so explicitly and repeatedly communicated and debated, the match happens almost organically and translates “naturally into profit and growth.” Semler insists that: 

“On-the-job democracy isn’t just a lofty concept but a better, more profitable way to do things.”

Semco is a very profitable, expanding business. Its principles have been adapted at schools, hospitals, police departments, companies large and small around the world. The emphasis on trust is the foundation of the fundamentally different view on human nature Schwartz insists on. And it seems so simple: trust in people at work creates a “virtuous circle” that includes individual autonomy, skill development, profitability and above all purposefulness and meaning. Good work in short.

Meanwhile in Belgium

I’m sad to say little of the above can be heard in the current Belgian debate. The Bill on Flexible, Workable Work of Federal minister Kris Peeters, has just been voted. And it’s pretty obvious that the implicit founding assumption is a very negative view on human nature – that needs to be controlled and externally incentivized. It reinforces in other words the infrastructure of society in a way that puts even more obstacles to changing work for the better. Unwittingly the ideology is given free rein to continue its negative self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Bill refers time and again to more flexibility and ‘external’ measures such as the ability to “save up” working hours. There’s not a single measure that refers to intrinsic motivation – or how to insert that concept into the work practice. One of the union representatives in the debate rejects more autonomy on the grounds that people will work simply harder and longer. His solution to work less is presented as TINA: only 34% of employees of 40 or older can imagine “coping” with their job until retirement age. Note the resignation towards ‘bad work’. In reply the CEO’s of the most important employers’ organizations present their own TINA: “The solution is not to work less but more” (sic). They remain entirely within a quantitative framework which has nothing to do with Schwartz’s suggestion of a collective turnaround. “And does it still need to be said”, the responsibility for stress and burn-outs lays “only in part” in the work sphere, it’s (also) “overloaded personal activity calendars”. Note the negative view on human nature: the individual is not to be trusted with his personal choices, so how can you expect us to trust them in the professional sphere? The solution, so the CEO’s claim, is the employers’ current engagement towards a “competence driven employment strategy” – as if any employer in the past would consciously have employed someone who wasn’t competent.

But as Schwartz and Semler have taught us, that’s not the point. What we should be aiming for, is a work definition driven by individual satisfaction and meaningfulness. We need in other words a match between the values of the worker and the organization. For the latter one of the goals will be profit, obviously, but one may hope that it aims to do so with a contribution, however small, to the well-being of those involved – and that it is capable and willing of communicating this contribution to its employees. People look for meaningfulness – and that can be found virtually anywhere, if we are prepared to make the effort, not only to see it but also to make it explicit. The purpose of work then should be at the centre: make it a shared subject of debate and responsibility between management and workers – and start from there. 

Perhaps it’s not too late. Belgium has a strong tradition of social consultation and much remains to be negotiated about the Bill. The so-called Social Partners must become aware of the negative foundation of all their debating and negotiating. If they can change that, if they can collectively decide to replace the resignation with a more positive notion of human nature, they can break the vicious circle. Let’s be optimistic and put it more positively:

Let’s all cultivate our garden.
The final sentence of ‘Candide’ carries the message of my box installation on hope.

The phrase is from Voltaire who used it to conclude his harsh critique on 18th-century French society. Some have suggested it’s an argument for withdrawal from the world: as the case is helpless, give up. With alternative creationism I argue differently: we collectively have the urgent responsibility to turn things around and create an alternative, flourishing “garden” – that is indeed our own, of all of us. In many cases and certainly in the case of work, alternative creationism must be collective. It will be alternative because it’s founded on a radically different, more optimistic and trusting viewpoint on human nature. And it will be creationist because this is a question of collectively creating an equally radically different, meaningful concept and practice of work. As mentioned before, the process of creating understood as craftsmanship refers to the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake. And the Enlightenment, of which Voltaire was one of the spokesmen, believed that everyone possesses the ability to do good work that will generate genuine satisfaction. There is in other words an intelligent crafts(wo)man in each of us. With Schwartz I argue that faith still makes sense – if we as a society choose to act upon it.

My installation visualizes new beginnings: new leaves on an old tree, lace to let the light through and glasses to see more clearly.  
This person (by the Flemish artist Michaël Borremans)  is turned away in contemplation. A serious effort is needed to change things.

 

 

The door handle and the watering can are very much in the foreground: the time to change is now.

January Blues

Blue Monday has come and gone, yet the January Blues will still be with us for another ten days or indeed longer. Wondering what to do about this, it struck me that each component of that set phrase carries a ‘two-faced’ meaning (at least).

Take January, derived from Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, gates, transition, time, doorways, passages and endings. The traditional portrayal is a man with literally two faces: he sees both past and future. Janus is thus about time – and how we deal with it. In January we seem to hang somewhere in between. The parties are over, there are no big festivities in sight and Spring (light!) seems a long long way away. Interestingly, the gates of the Janus Temple in Rome were closed only during peacetime, which was very rare: the common practice was open doors meaning war and conflict. We have not had a peaceful year, yet Janus has closed it. And opened another, must we expect (more) conflict? Or put differently, ‘something’ has ended, do we trust it will be followed by a new beginning? And what might that entail?

Janus flask, 1st century AD (The J. Paul Getty Museum).
An interesting modern Janus. I’m not sure though what the hole might signify.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a similar vein, the other component of the phrase, blue is equally ambiguous. As most of us, the French historian Pastoureau and the French-American artist Bourgeois associate the colour with rest and peace. Yet blue clearly also evokes melancholia and dissatisfaction with the way things – we – are. How can it ‘work’ both ways?

In On Being Blue the American philosopher and writer William Gass defines blue as ‘the color of the interior life’. And we all know that interior life isn’t always as restful as it could be. Gass’ inquiry itself is not very calm. I must admit the booklet rather unnerved me as I didn’t get a grip on what it was trying to say or do. I started reading it a number of time – and put it away in frustration. Learning a little more about Gass himself helped. He’s usually associated with American Postmodernism and he conducts experiments at the level of a sentence itself: he’s for instance much more interested in the sound than in the meaning of the words. And because he finds readers overall too hung up on content his euphonic style aims to free them from the linear conventions of narrative. No wonder I was flabbergasted! It’s nice of Gass though to define this different way of experiencing the beauty of language (in his collection of essays A Temple of Texts) in textile terms:

The act of reading [is the act] of looping the loop, of continually returning to an earlier group of words, behaving like Penelope by moving our mind back and forth, forth and back, reweaving what’s unwoven, undoing what’s done.

In fact the colour is almost a pretext for the listomaniac Gass who demonstrates, repeatedly, how a small word of four letters can delight us with so many shades, tones, flavours, meanings, connotations and expressions. On Being Blue is above all a inquiring reflection on language – and the melancholia it provokes. 

Melancholia is also very much present in Bluets by the American writer Maggie Nelson. Here again is a little booklet that testifies to the love of blue and combines it with the loss of love and (bodily but also mental) health. Again it does not associate blue with being restful or at peace. Nelson also seems to have something with lists and challenging ‘ordinary’ narrative: her ‘story’ is made up out of numbered paragraphs, the function of which is not immediately obvious. And she too seems to be weaving: personal feelings, experiences, anecdotes and thoughts add up to a quest into obsession and the (im)possibility of human connection.

Both Gass and Nelson offer wonderful lists of expressions in English that contain the word blue. And they are many, certainly compared to Dutch – are we to think of Dutch speakers as less interested in ‘the interior life’? To leave something blue blue (iets blauw blauw laten) for instance means to leave something for what it is, obviously not a good start for a quest of any kind. And to run a little blue (een blauwtje lopen) is to be rejected in love – a failure in connection that most likely will cause the blues. There is only one common expression that surprisingly has a totally different meaning in either language: in Dutch a ‘blue Monday’ stands for ‘a short time’. What’s even more intriguing is that blauw used to have the figurative meaning of ‘insignificant, null, of little value’. Among a number of assumptions about this etymology, my preferred one is the so-called wool-colouring hypothetis.

Display of indigo materials in the Museum of Industry, Labour and Textile (MIAT) in Ghent.

In the textile regions of the Low Countries the wool dyers were a powerful guild. And thus introduced their interpretation of dying with indigo into the Dutch language. The laborious indigo process takes various stages. First the wool is soaked into a yellow looking dye. It’s only when the wool is hung up to dry and thus exposed to the oxygen in the air that the colour turns blue. Traditionally the soaking was done on Saturdays, the drying on Mondays. On a blue Monday then the wool dyers couldn’t work: the day was thus ‘of no significance’. Or rest – that isn’t valued.

Summarizing where all of this has got us, both January and blue carry a multitude of meanings and associations which together form an altogether ambivalent mixture. Perhaps that in itself is the current attraction of the phrase: we ourselves feel ambivalent. Especially in a month that is still defined by endings, we’re uncertain and reluctant to contribute to the creation of new beginnings. And it seems we’re not very good at dealing with uncertainty and risk. 

Yet already in 1986 (1992) Ulrich Beck defined the Risk Society as a new stage of modernization in a way that matches our experiences: society’s characteristics, its power structures, its knowledge and authority norms, its definition of identity have changed – are changing. What is distinct about this stage of modernity is that the risks are the product of the modernization process itself, that is, they are man-induced. According to Beck risk society is thus characterized by an absence, namely the impossibility of attributing the hazards externally. That means that (most of the) risks we’re facing depend on human decisions and are thus politically reflexive. The awareness of the ecological problems for instance is illustrated by the now common concepts of sustainability and the precautionary principle.

It seems that Beck mainly wanted to warn against risk management as an exercise in bureaucratic rationality or technocracy, including the contempt for the public perception of risk. This is a powerful plea against both TINA (There Is No Alternative) and downplaying the anxieties of ‘ordinary’ people who, because modern risk is spread unevenly, have reason to fear it. This is written more than thirty years ago! But we don’t appear to have done much with Beck’s analysis. 

And it begs the question what is to be done now. If it were up to me I would argue for more reflexivity, for more people involved in that reflexive exercise and thus being equipped to partake. In Flanders the reform of secondary schooling is very hot right now but I’m not sure it includes the tools we’re talking about here. I fear we forget too often that ‘school’ is derived from the Greek σχολή (scholē), originally meaning ‘leisure’. And surely leisure must be blue according to the common association of the word: it requires a certain peace at the level of the interior life, so that being open to new experiences and learning new things become possible (again).

Reflexivity requires time and space. It requires the revaluation of rest. And it requires resilience, in the first place to be able to stand in ‘the heat’ of uncertainty, to feel and live it fully – before taking action of any kind. Of course I believe that ‘making’ in the earlier named sense of aspiring craftsmanship, flow and kairos can induce a good climate for ‘enlightened’ reflection. 

To stay within the theme: blue weaving in what is actually a knitting pattern
& linear felt lines – to return to a more restful narrative?

 

 

 

 

 

Here I would like to suggest another path which, of course, many others have favoured far more eloquently, including the English writer Jeanette Winterson: turn to beauty! This is for once no advice to do something but to be. Accept that we live at a critical conjuncture, don’t resist it but wallow in it so to speak. We don’t need more instant opinions or immediate debates. We need space to be and wonder, stillness to reflect and define better the quest of the good life. When we are touched by beauty, we are ‘null’ and ‘insignificant’ in terms of of economic utility – and that’s the point. Let’s create more space outside productivity and consumerism and thus bolster our sometimes fragile human nature. Think of it as a temporary respite that allows restocking on energy. In Winterson’s words:

Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield,

and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out.

Put differently, art can sooth us and thus strengthen our resilience – which we’ll need when it does become time to act. I’m very much looking forward to Kairos Castle at Gaasbeek near Brussels: conceptualized by the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen I expect the exhibition to refer to her argument for restful space, in order e.g. by art to become spirited again. But the exhibition opens only in Spring. I also know visiting a concert or an exhibition isn’t always possible and it generally involves doing a number of things. So what to do about our January Blues?

Perhaps it doesn’t always need to be arduous. We are talking about a temporary shield after all. It can take different shapes at different times, as long as it replenishes us in terms of wondering inquiry and energy. Wouldn’t simply listening to or looking at beauty do the trick right now?
Years ago I experienced great flow compiling a handmade booklet with (to me) beautiful blue images. Nobody ever saw it.

The ambivalence of being & wanting blue.
Composing the collages was fun
yet the eye has remained very blue indeed.

 

 

 

 

But low and behold, our ‘modern’ times have created not only man-induced risks but also marvelous ways of summoning sources of inspiration and joy – and the ability to share them. I happily put you on your way with my textile discography and three citations from my Pinterest board Feeling Blue.

Don’t leave the January Blues (here by Natalie 
Foss) blue blue, go for an inspiring & spirited quest for
beauty & don’t forget to wrap yourself kindly.

 

Courage Is Not Beyond Us

So here it is: the New Year. How new does it feel so far? Is it possible that a little disappointment creeps up on you because it isn’t all that different? Because actually, deep down, you knew it would be like this? Well, perhaps it doesn’t need to be – if we don’t expect an entirely new life because a rather accidental number has changed. If we are a little more creative about what to expect from ourselves and others. A little more kind than usual, that too. 

Trying to be kind to myself, I decided to read a (for me) new book whose title intrigued me. It’s about Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting, not exactly a combination of words you would expect. As so often, it’s the accompanying volume to an exhibition, this time in the Museum of Arts & Design in New York in 2007 – thank God for the invention of the book!

The adjectives in the title do not call for a revolution or throwing ‘old’ things out. On the contrary, the exhibition and the book advance the exploration of the vitality and potentiality in existing phenomena, in particular craft techniques and materials. They call for disruption, in the sense of shedding prejudices and presuppositions in order to innovate with respect of what remains valuable. That sounds like a good attitude to me for the New Year! 

The Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting exhibition and its accompanying publication assume the value of handcraft as a cultural and political practice as granted. They also assume that what has traditionally been seen as ‘women’s work’ has been revalued sufficiently as to no longer needing particular emphasis. I very much doubt whether either assumption is valid. Beyond a very specific incrowd, high level artists and those who in the broadest sense surround them, there is very little cultural let alone political appreciation of what crafts (or indeed art) may contribute to contemporary debates about, say, mass production and consumption versus sustainability, gender equality or indeed the definition of the good life in global times. 

All such suggestions are, of course, present in Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting but the emphasis lies very much with the overthrowing of a status quo which engages the incrowd itself. Knitting here is understood as the creation of structures from a single continuous yarn, lace as interlocking structures in patterns that permit light to pass through them. It’s obvious that these are far more fluid and generous definitions than what we’re used to – and that’s the point. The people involved here will not bow to hierarchies and value systems that have fragmented the world of aesthetic and functional objects for so long: they bring together art, craft, design and technology and rather than focusing on the supposed differences, they emphasize their common ground. The point is to put forward and to demonstrate a much broader and more inclusive definition of art. This is important, in itself ànd for broader reference. To the latter I shall return shortly, for now let me show you my idiosyncratic selection of its results in terms of artistic practice.

In her Time Signatures the American artist Barbara Zucker examines the aging process – something which we all (have to) subject to. Starting from the complex patterns of her own face and that of others, she magnifies them to the point of abstraction in works that are deliberately made of ‘aggressive’ materials such as aluminium or steel. Zucker thus transforms lace, once the symbol of fragile beauty, into an exemplifier of our univeral nature.

The Canadian Cal Lane transforms mundane objects, often of an industrial nature such as spades, wheelbarrows or steel beams. Quintessentially masculine objects, once relied upon for their durability, strength and function, become delicate, decorative skeletons. Their thus attributed beauty and fragility are a comment on stereotypical notions of gender, productiveness and commodification.

The Dutch artist Niels van Eijk learnt traditional lace-making techniques from his 85-year-old neighbour. He applied them to the fabrication of lamps without bulb: the fiber optic cable he uses breaks at every knot, which is how it emanates light. Ironically his lamps look very much like some old-fashioned crocheted construction which only under close scrutiny betrays its radical adaptation of the tradition.


      And then my absolute favourite: the American artist Janet Echelman who brings the traditionally private practice of lace-making very much into the public sphere. And she does so unabashedly: the sheer magnitude of her sculptures does everything to emphasize their intricacy and delicacy. The images of She Changes (Porto, 2005) show how exciting roundabout-art can be: fiber and the effects of wind currents resist the often fixed and imposing nature of art and stress instead fluidity, transition and transformation. 

I chose intuitively. And I discover with you that these four artists work with lace: structures that let through the light. They do so in unusual ways and with unusual materials – and that’s where the subversiveness comes in. Conventional expectations are disrupted in order to present work that is more open, more inclusive.

This is courageous work in a world that seems to close down, to define the ‘incrowd’ in ways that won’t give chances to ‘outsiders’ or newcomers to participate. The irony that it’s essentially domestic crafts that break open established hierarchies and categories adds to the sense of subversiveness. The quality of the work is so high that its practitioners could easily have stayed within their own safe incrowd and be applauded there. Yet they’ve ventured out, out of an inner conviction I presume that other things are possible, that traditions can be challenged in a way that is innovative ànd respectful. This is a rather unusual illustration of the thesis of the English historian Eric Hobsbawn that traditions are invented in the sense that they are part of a community, that they serve goals of communication, shared aspirations and the search for collective meaning – which are in themselves not ‘natural’ or indeed fixed.

And so what perhaps at first seemed like an interesting but nevertheless ‘unworldly’ artistic initiative, may serve as an inspiration to be radical and subversive in our very own lives. Perhaps it’s time not to focus on the darkness of the so-called cultural or identity struggle but go against the fragmentation of the public space and let in the light. Perhaps it’s time to examine the vitality and potentiality of our traditions, respect them but innovate them nonetheless. Perhaps it’s time to recognize Peter Frankopan’s lesson that we need a broader viewpoint on globalization, including more constructive attitudes which may set us on the path of disruptive renewal. This (also) is not a call to revolution, it’s trying to impact from the inside. We’re all part of society after all, so why wouldn’t it be possible for each of us, in our own ‘incrowd’ meetings, to be courageous, to challenge prejudices and presumptions and put forward broader, more inclusive definitions that emphasize the common ground and thus impact on our collective lives?

Courage seems like an old-fashioned term, or rather its current interpretation seems more often than not to go in the direction of being hard, in terms of Europe’s safety for instance or the safeguarding of Western privileges ànd bowing to the anger of ordinary people who are essentially afraid. It’s no use to dismiss them out of hand and think ‘we’ know better. I for one don’t. I’m out of a job right now and it’s not at all obvious to keep emotional, financial and social anxiety at bay. But becoming harder on other people isn’t going to help me either. More generally, it must be possible to acknowledge anxiety and anger and yet determine that next to those powerful emotions can stand courage. That’s subversive for it goes against the current lack of nuance in the public debate. It’s also radical to attest to conflicting emotions and make a conscious decision to make one of them – and not the others – the touchstone of one’s actions. 

Courage is not an easy emotion. It’s also something most people don’t even aspire to – because too high reaching, too unattainable. I disagree. I think we can all in our own ‘small’ ways be courageous and thus contribute to the debate about what the good life might be. This debate is too rarely explicit. But if we start by acknowledging that we’re all human and thus very much fallible, couldn’t we mean more for each other, in terms of kindness, encouragement and the emphasis rather than on differences, on our collective universal nature?  In a box installation I tried to visualize courage and its constituents in our own lives.

I see courage as red. It’s a testimony to its strength – if we are prepared to take a radical and subversive stance, of which the degree doesn’t need to be exaggerated.

Courage to me starts with awareness: making an effort to see, hence the emphatic eyes in the installation. The open arms of the Vredeseilanden– figure very much refer to the attitude of an open heart and mind of my previous post. Perhaps courage is above all a generic attitude of trust, giving up the illusion that all vicissitudes of life can be controlled and working instead towards more resilience. It’s about taking risks, in defiance of broken dreams, going up those stairs and occuping your space, with or without allies. It’s not necessarily grand, it’s about persevering and trying to speak with your own voice. All this doesn’t (necessarily) imply a lonely struggle: learning what toolkit may be available and spreading that knowledge can be very much part of the process. And to me, this doesn’t come as a surprise, the toolkit definitely includes inspiring books. 

A doll’s eye mechanism symbolizes awareness,
however tiny, stairs are there to be climbed, a chair to be claimed,
the capsules of the false locust (Robinia Pseudoacicia) represent the loops of life one sometimes has to negotiate, the tiny speaker says it isn’t about making noice
but speaking with your own voice,
& books may be helpful!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What would happen if each of us, in the very simple ways that present themselves in our ‘ordinary’ lives, were prepared to challenge stereotypes and conventional expectations? If we made a conscious decision to emphasize our common ground? Couldn’t a broader and more inclusive definition of humankind and citizenship energize the debate about the good life? Wouldn’t the New Year then become new after all? 

 

On the broken shard stands a tiny light bulb, hoping for a small but ‘radical  & subversive’ portion of Enlightenment.

 

 

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says … ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’.

The Promise of the Unicorn

I love specialists who make the effort to tell a good story, to translate their specialist knowledge into something which can move us all. Michel Pastoureau is such a person.

Pastoureau started as a medieval historian of heraldry: he studied coats of arms and their iconography, in particular the symbolic meaning of their featured animals, symbols and colours. Having written a great many specialist books, he moved on to delightfully insightful ànd greatly legible books on the colours blue, green and black. 

bleu

vert

noir

 

IMG_0439
My very personal version of worrisome Northern blue 😉

To give just one example: did you know that the classic Greeks and Romans disliked blue? They associated it with the eye colour of the worrisome barbarians from the North – which made it totally obnoxious. Much has changed since: it’s very likely that blue is your favourite colour, as it is for over half of the Western population!

Pastoureau’s explanation is that blue has become symbolically less ‘marked’ than other colours. Because of the association with security, calm and peace, the symbolism is almost neutral – which also explains why large international organizations such as UNESCO or the European Union choose the colour for their flags.

The author remains of course a specialist: almost imperceptibly he smuggles in an amazing amount of history which serves to demonstrate the social practices of the colour at hand: daily life, art, sartorial codes and, of course, the crafts involved to dye fabrics 😉 

And Pastoureau regularly returns with great panache to his old love of animals, as in the book in which he applies himself to uncover The Secrets of the Unicorn. LicorneIt was the Greek medic Ctesias who first described this intriguing creature at the end of the 5th century BC. This, incidentally, is an illustration of the cross-fertilization of the Silk Roads as the medic situates the unicorn in the East – which he never visited. And although “very few had the privilege of perceiving it”, it was only during the Enlightenment that it was decided the animal really didn’t exist. Amazingly Ctesias’ description survived all that time – and continued beyond, into romanticism, symbolism and further.

The unicorn is ‘known’ to be fast, therefore hard to catch. But because it is itself immaculate, it’s attracted by purity: a unicorn will lay its horn into a virgin’s lap – and thus risk death at the hands of hitherto hidden hunters, who are interested in the healing qualities of the horn. At the end of the Middle Ages, there was a considerable commerce in all products unicorn: powders, ointments, purgative waters, etc. And every important family, abbey and monastery had its own unicorn relic. 

What did change over time, was the gender of the unicorn. In Latin and the earliest vernacular languages the term was masculine, the later French word ‘licorne’ is female. The gender shift illustrates the feminization of the whole concept. As the unicorn was mentioned in the Bible, there was little reason to doubt its existence. Its purity and healing qualities were furthermore understood to symbolize the Christ, with the horn seen as a spiritual arrow or referring to the cross. At the end of the Middle Ages, the time of courtoisie, the unicorn came to be associated with profane love and the amourous chase; yet the feminization also allowed for an interpretation that celebrated the purity and spirituality of the Virgin Mary. Quite a layer of symbolic meanings!

In an extensive interview Pastoureau emphasizes how the imaginary is very much part of reality and that the unicorn is bien vivante today: from the moment the creature is definitively declared non-existant by science, it’s enthusiastically adopted by the arts, especially by the symbolist movement at the end of the 19th century. Even now the unicorn is “la vedette du bestiaire fantastique”. Think little girls’ toys, T-shirts and shoes, comic books, Harry Potter …, the list is endless.

schoenen eenhoorn
How exciting can shoes get?

tintin

And Hergé’s Tintin album Le secret de la licorne is the explicit reason for the title of Pastoureau’s book – plural, because there are so many secrets. 

 

The most celebrated unicorn in Western art features in a series of late 15th-century Flemish tapestries called La Dame à la licorne. It is the director of the Cluny Museum in Paris which now houses them, who in Pastoureau’s book summarises the situation of the research. Yet despite her own very specialist expertise Elisabeth Delahaye stresses what is perhaps the most often mentioned characteristic of the unicorn tapestries: very little is known of their origin. 

And it’s precisely the mystery surrounding the tapestries that opens creative perspectives – to which call the American-British author Tracy Chevalier has answered with the delightful novel The Lady and the UnicornChevalier3Chevalier  is clearly a lover of fabrics: in another book, The Last Runaway, it’s quilting that takes centre stage. Here she operates within Pastoureau’s universe: she declares herself very much intrigued by the several layers of symbolic meaning in the tapestries. All its ingredients are present: the lady’s seduction of the unicorn, spiritual and corporal desires, the latter represented in the visual rendering of the five senses. And the question of how the people designing and making the tapestries wove together such different interpretations is very much at the heart of the author’s endeavour. 

Chevalier does a great job. I have to admit that the first time I read the book, I was so keen to know what would happen to the main characters that I almost missed the textile focus. I reread the novel this Summer and was delighted – again.

The story starts in Paris, 1490. An ambitious French nobleman commissions six luxurious tapestries to flaunt his rising status at Court and hires the arrogant but superbly talented Nicolas des Innocents to design them. The lady and the unicorn dominate the iconography, the explicit reference is that of the senses. Nicolas is, however, not as innocent as his name suggests: he creates havoc among the women in the house – mother and daughter, servant, and lady-in-waiting – before taking his designs north to the Brussels workshop where the tapestries are to be woven. There, master weaver Georges de la Chapelle risks everything he has to finish the commission – his finest, most intricate work. The tapestries change the lives of all that are involved. And the result is simply magnificent.

touch
Touch,
sound
Sound,
smell
Smell,
sight
Sight,
taste
Taste, and:
desirsm
‘Mon seul désir’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chevalier’s story concentrates on the inner life: what is the désir of the different personages? But the craft of tapestry making itself features largely and adds to the novel’s riches. The reader learns about the particular challenge of weaving back to front, hence the need for ‘cartoons’ that are the mirror images of the original designs as well as of the final tapestries. Also, the weavers cannot see their work as each finished strip gets wound onto the loom – until the ‘cutting-off’ reveals whether the design has accurately been translated into wool. Throughout the story telling details sketch the times, such as the mentioning of little work in Winter as the roads are far too hazardous for commissioners to travel from Paris and elsewhere, or that the Guild would punish with closure any workshop that allowed women to weave. And as Chevalier realises very well, most readers are not familiar with the technical vocabulary of tapestry making (such as a heddle or a warp). So she lets the members of the workshop explain the terms to the Paris painter, who gradually becomes impressed with the quality of the Brussels craftsmanship.

I was very much charmed by the eminent role for the master weaver’s blind daughter. Aliénor maintains an exquisite garden which serves to provide the cartoonists and weavers with real examples of the flora that enlivens the so-called millefleurs background of the tapestries. The young woman knows the symbolic meaning of all those flowers, fruits and plants and it’s her expertise that allows the workshop to build its outstanding reputation on the realistic rendering of the millefleurs 

Realistic flora was indeed a crucial component of Flemish art at the time. Recent research has demonstrated that at least 423 different types of flowers and plants feature in thé masterpiece of the Flemish Primitives, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432). The project Closer to Van Eyck: Rediscovering the Ghent Altarpiece allows you to zoom into any part of the triptych of Jan and Hubert Van Eyck and discover for yourself the elaborate details of flora ànd textile. 

Lam GodsIn addition the Provincial Cultural Centre Caermersklooster in Ghent (which incidentally is just around the corner from where I live!), holds until September a small but illuminating exhibition on the multitudinous flowers in the triptych and their symbolism. 

lam gods bloemen bis
Details of a Madonna lily,
plooien
a pilgrim’s
plooien2
cloak,
lam gods bloemen3
and male peonies.

 

 

 

 

 

The conclusion then is that medieval craftspeople – of both sexes! – owned a knowledge that is completely lost to us. This, according to Chevalier’s story, also goes for the symbolism of the unicorn: all the personages know the Biblical references to purity and healing, whereas it’s the Paris painter Nicolas who explains to any woman who happens to to come near him, the later interpretation of profane seduction. But he also saves Aliénor – I can’t elaborate without spoiling the plot, let it suffice to say that even he succumbs to the ‘charms’ of the unicorn. 

In short, the unicorn is rich in meaning. And its mysteries are full of promise. Perhaps that’s why little girls like them so much – and I propose that all non-little-girls equally be encouraged to be inspired by the wondrous creature.

IMG_8742
In its felted form it’s seductively soft. And great Christmas decoration 😉
IMG_6143
A while back I decided I wanted my own unicorn.

Purity may sound like a quality that doesn’t correspond well with our times. But do we really want to maintain that there is no past knowledge that might come in useful? In addition, would it be no improvement if we found a good way to allow different inter-pretations to co-exist without conflict? And perhaps most importantly, are many people not longingly in search of ‘healing’? Is the current interest in mindfulness not an indication that we want to be more aware, more connected with our senses – both corporal and spiritual? And do we not also hope for more appreciation for our inner life and its quality? 

Understand the unicorn to stand for authenticity, for a strong désir to reconnect with our own true selves and grow as a result of it, and it becomes very contemporary indeed.

The Enlightening Flow of Craft

When I was ten, I was determined to learn lacemaking. I can’t remember where I got this from, I knew no one who made lace. At a guess I must have gotten intrigued at one of the many exhibitions to which our parents took us. I was delighted to discover this was a craft that could actually be learnt. And my mother found an elderly lady in her native village who was prepared to teach a singleminded girl. These were the seventies, with a revival of interest in traditional crafts. Alas, the setting was the putting on display of people exercising these crafts in distinctly artificial settings.

IMG_0489
The shawl was distinctly not traditional but crocheted by a family friend – and my favourite for years.

An obligatory part was the ‘dressing up’ in what were supposed to be authentic clothes. Initially I made very traditional lace too, think trimmings to embellish a posh handkerchief – not very exciting for a ten-year-old. But apparently I enjoyed it, so much so that I made a clay self-portrait of which, amazingly, the head and the lacemaking cushion survive up to this day!

IMG_0507

 

 

 

 

 

Later I followed lessons closer to homeIMG_0460 and there the emphasis was on applying the traditional methods in more contemporary 
designs. I have very little evidence of this, as most of what I made, I gave away to anyone who happened to have cause for celebration. Surprisingly, I didn’t think then to document my lacey efforts for a future blog 😉 

I haven’t made lace in years, I have no idea whether I could still do it. Is it like riding a bike, something one never unlearns? I continue to find lace appealing though and I can rarely resist it, when I come upon it at a car boot sale for instance. I have old lace and new, very fine and rather rough, and, of course, in a variety of colours, sizes and patterns. I find it comes in handy when a skirt found in a secondhand shop is lovely – but not quite long enough to my liking. More generally  I can certainly recommend it as an easy addition to achieve that je-ne-sais-quoi with your outfit!

022_20

IMG_4687I also continue to include lace in my craft projects, whether it’s in jewelry,
mittens and shawls,
or home decoration.

016_14
These felted angels which I presented at a crafts’ fair around Christmas, happily flew off, intent to spread joy elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although the process has been slow, I’m delighted that crafts are finally shedding their old-fashioned aura (including the silly clothes!) and are being incorporated into a creative context which treasures craftsmanship  and sees it as a source for, why not, innovation. In the Netherlands there is the Crafts Council which aims for just such a upgrading, with for instance Dutch Darlings, a competition to create innovative and sustainable souvenirs based on Dutch craft expertise. The Bruges based NGO tapis plein is recognised by the Flemish Commission of Unesco as the expert centre for participatory heritage and examines (among others) how cultural habits and practices from the past can affect present society. The current focus is with ‘intangible’ heritage and the resulting publication A Future for Crafts brings together an impressive anthology of Flemish craftspeople, techniques, practices and inspirational quotes which demonstrate the contemporary strength of crafts.

For me it was reading Richard Sennett‘s The Craftsman which alerted me to the powerful effect crafts can have on one’s life. Sennett writes in detail about the grounding of skill in physical practice. Sennett2He identifies three basic abilities as the foundation of craftsmanship: the ability to localize, to question, and to open up. This is about ‘focal attention’, about remaining curious and being open to shift habits & prejudices in the tradition of the Enlightenment. When the brain deploys these various capabilities, it processes in parallel visual, aural, tactile, and language-symbol information. This in itself offers attractive perspectives of creativity, supported by the most recent neurological findings about many, strong circuit connections in the brain. Sennett also praises slow craft time as it allows for the appropriation of skills and carries the promise of evolution and growth. Moreover it encourages reflection, imagination – and thus innovation. Surely these are all talents that the contemporary ‘skills society’ seeks?

Sennett relates his valuation of craftsmanship to Western history and its fault-lines between artist & craftsman, mind & matter, or theory & practice, with the latter part of the equations consistently being dealt a rough deal. Divergently Sennett presents craftsmanship as a practice of ‘the good life’ which stands in marked contrast to the values that are predominant in our world today. Most specifically, ‘craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, namely the desire to do a job well for its own sake‘ (my italics). Inherently (wo)man strives for quality: it’s an instinctive aspiration which generates genuine satisfaction. This is what Peter Korn, a reflective furniture craftsman, values when he explores ‘why we make things and why it matters’.korn As anyone knows who practices craft in any form, it brings about awareness and patience, it engages deeply and allows hope for progress. In short, it energizes to the point of creating flow as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has defined it. This is an ‘optimal experience’ of deep enjoyment and creativity, flowof total involvement in and connection with life. This is also what transforms our experience of time and which the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen identifies with the Greek god Kairos: sharpened by craftlike talents such as awareness and concentration,kairos it is precisely the quality of the moment which releases otherwise hidden possibilities. Time then feels benevolent because it’s fuller and more engaging. It also opens new perspectives of renewal and growth. 

Yet in reality people mostly experience the tyranny of time – which closes the potential of authenticity and creativity. And utility rules, which implies that for most people the consequences of their work are outside the work: their activity is merely a means to an end – which they may find difficult to connect with. There is a lot of talk about ‘workable work’, yet so many suffer from poor psychological health including burn-out. This then is what I consider to be the import of the renewed attention to crafts: if the recent re-interpretation includes, as it should, reflection upon the good life, we may indeed hope for ‘innovation’ whereby practices from the past can activate their powers to transform for the better our contemporary lives.

The Enlightenment believed that everyone possesses the ability to do good work of some kind, that there is an intelligent crafts(wo)man in most of us. Sennett argues that that faith still makes sense – if we so choose. As an Enlightenment historian I find this argument very compelling. And I do experience flow and kairos in the making of the earlier mentioned box installations. To close the circle of this post, I hope to illustrate all this with an installation which includes lace. The matter of the installation is the result of craft practice, its ‘mind’ aims to focus attention towards one of the ingredients of the good life. 

teder 1

The ‘theme’ of this box installation is tenderness, with the quote reading:

teder 8
An appeal to be delicate & gentle.

 

It’s in your self-interest

to find a way to be very tender.

I made the installation at a time when I was not experiencing too much tenderness in my own life. Hence I wondered what that meant to me, which characteristics did I associate with tenderness, what would it look like if visualised? This required my ‘opening up’ to the dismal thought that perhaps it was present but I simply couldn’t see it? Hence I included the braille. Or was I myself being too prickly – hence the hazelnut husk-, therefore aloof to the power of tenderness? Further exploration revealed something distinctly fragile: tenderness exposes, it renders both the donor and the receiver vulnerable – which is a quality our world does not value very much. I visualized this with a beautiful porcelain schard which I found carelessly discarded in the street, the fragile skeleton of a Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi) and an intent little girl in between. The longing for tenderness may be a trap, as if it were a cage which promises comfort but actually means closure away from life. In the right dose though and with the right intentions tenderness is sweet – also, notice the texture of the sugar stick! And it’s worth aspiring to, because of its potential to empower the people involved. The pearl and cristal hanger refer to the richess that tenderness can add to our lives.

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It may require craftsmanship to see & feel the power of tenderness,
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to appropriate its fragility & vulnerability,
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and to be fully open to its sweetness, worth & richess.

 

 

 

 

 

Lastly, of course, tenderness is delicately soft, hence the central photo of a child’s lace dress. Obviously my visualisation is particular and not exhaustive: what would the intelligent crafts(wo)man in you add in the open space left in the middle?

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