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The Value of (Art)Work

June 19, 2010

Political philosopher…turned mechanic…turned New York Times Bestseller? That’s Matthew B. Crawford for you. His book Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, has been raved about (and rightly so, I think) for it’s down-to-earth and extremely insightful meditations on the nature of human work. The trades, he says, often involve deeper and more improvisational thought than what is typically deemed more “intellectual” or “white-collar” work. Crawford’s main argument is for the role of manual labor and trade skill in human experience, community, and ethical and moral virtue and behavior. Crawford writes from a phenomenological perspective, that is, he emphasizes the experience of making and fixing things rather than the more abstract ideas that might lie behind or be applied to such actions. The actual practice of participating in work or manual labor, he says (citing philosophers such as Aristotle and Heidegger) gives us a fuller view of who we are as humans and our place within the wider world.

While this book isn’t really about “Art” per-say, and while Crawford brings no explicitly theological issues to our attention in his discussion of trade-work, some of his reflections on manual work and craft seem appropriate to our discussion of art and theology on this blog. In fact, Crawford understands work (in his particular case, motorcycle building and repair) as an art in the broader sense. So much so that he structures his argument by giving a fair amount of attention to creativity and human artistry more generally.

There are a few main points that I thought most interesting and relevant to a theological engagement with art, and I will outline them here briefly, along with some questions it stirred in me:

Attentiveness and Responsibility: Crawford stresses the fact that making and fixing things makes us more attentive to both the materials that we are working with as well as the world around us. He says, “I believe the mechanical arts have a special significance for our time because they cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness. Things need fixing and tending no less than creating.” This requires something akin to a conversation with the materials rather than a forceful or self-absorbed mastery of them. Furthermore, the artist/worker becomes responsible to the materials themselves in how he or she goes about working with them, to him or herself as an individual moral agent (Crawford suggests the action of working points to moral inquiry), and to the community/person for which the thing is made/fixed.

So my question is this: Might this emphasis on attentiveness and responsibility be appropriate for a theological understanding of the way the artist works? If so, how?

Usefulness: The manual trades are significant because they are useful. This is a big focus in the book, and left me with this question, must all art be useful to some degree? Usefulness, for Crawford, seems to be tied to the work’s (and workers’) situatedness in a community. Does this connection make any difference in our thinking on the matter?

Situatedness: Work connects us in a very concrete way to other people and the world around us. He says, “But getting outside her head is the task the artist sets herself, and this is the mechanic’s task, too. Both, if they are good, use their imagination ‘not to escape the world but to join it’…” (quoting Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of the Good)

It seems to me that this is one of the most valuable insights that Crawford has for our time. Might the lack of a sense of place/community in modern times be alleviated by an emphasis on manual work and the arts more generally?

And just as a final comment: This may be the most enjoyable book ever written by a political philosopher. Just saying.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ben permalink
    June 19, 2010 9:00 pm

    I still haven’t gotten around to reading this, though I’ve been planning to since last summer. Do you have it with you?

    • Jenn permalink*
      June 24, 2010 4:14 pm

      Ben, I do have the book here. You are more than welcome to borrow it if you like.

  2. June 19, 2010 9:28 pm

    Thanks for your observation on this important work, Jenn! I am really interested in the virtue of attentiveness, and I wonder: does Crawford expand this notion of attentiveness to other areas besides the material? For example, does he talk about attentiveness of the artist to himself or herself? Thanks again-

    • Jenn permalink*
      June 24, 2010 4:28 pm

      Unfortunately, he doesn’t expand on this topic as much as he could (probably because that isn’t what he broadly set out to do). Mostly, Crawford is referring of the attentiveness of the artist to the materials, the community, etc., but this seems to correspond with some more reflexive thought from the artist/worker, which results in a sense of responsibility, ethical virtue, and individual agency. One of his main points is that thinking isn’t detached from working, so attentive, reflexive thought is always connected with action of working with and being attentive to the materials themselves.

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