I’ve always been interested in the morality of craft. It’s obvious that we are helping to build and support the community around us, but is there more to the craftsperson’s role in society? Does our value extend beyond the function and enjoyment of our work? I believe that practicing a craft like woodworking cultivates inner characteristics that make us better citizens.
I’ve always liked Toshio Odate’s argument that the professional craftsperson, or shokunin, carries the weight of social responsibility: ‘shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness… The shokunin has a social obligation to work his [or her] best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, if society requires it, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.’ Work is to be accomplished in service to society, and nothing extraneous may be added to satisfy the craftsperson’s ego. Similarly, Lu Ban, the Chinese patron saint of woodworkers, emphasizes an apprenticeship based on proper action in the world before proper tool use. There’s even a Biblical quote on my Fine Woodworking certificate that reads: ‘but they keep stable the fabric of the world, and their prayer is in the practice of their trade.’ Creating the built environment is tied to social wellbeing; it provides the framework that protects and fosters the values that underpin our communal wellbeing.
In The Unknown Craftsman, Soetsu Yanagi also expresses this social utility: ‘The extent to which [they] contribute to society determines [their] value. He goes on to describe a Buddhist conception of beauty as an experience that liberates us from the dualities that cause our suffering. The role of the artist-craftsperson is not to create beauty alone, but rather to point others toward their own capacity to create and experience beauty. It is to awaken the larger community’s potential for freedom from suffering, by ‘resting in the protecting hand of nature.’
I am motivated by these traditions to help others: I hope my work provides both a material benefit, and engages the public to fulfill their own need to create. I also wonder if practicing woodworking makes me a better citizen.
The practice of woodworking cultivates patience, sensitivity and acceptance. In other words, practice requires a discipline and commitment to put ourself in the state of mind to create works that reflect our deepest values and serve the greatest social need.
The sculptor Constantin Brânçusi said: ‘simplicity is not an end in art, but one arrives at simplicity in spite of oneself, in approaching the real sense of things. Things aren’t difficult to make; what is difficult is putting ourselves in the state to make them.’
Our inherited craft traditions teach us that mastery is actually about a deep knowledge of our inner selves. Toshio Odate uses the concept of presence to explore the inner accomplishment of mastery: ‘utility and appearance must be enhanced by a tool’s presence, that is its refinement and dignity. this quality is not written about in books, not contained in words or numbers or scientific data. presence is what the toolmaker – the blacksmith – imbues his creation with as a result of his commitment to his craft; it is the spirit of the tool that records the blacksmith’s ability through the years to face the uncertainties of life, to overcome them, and to master the art of living.’
Perhaps craft’s most important social function is the commitment to put ourselves in the state of mind to create – which in turn allows us to make our best work and support society’s greatest needs.