Art Lasts

Carpenter's Art

Hang out around science fiction authors long enough, and you get the sense that they're all crazy.

John Scalzi claims that Donald Trump and the weather conspired to give him writer's block. Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martin have cited similarly temperamental reasons for not finishing their popular series.

The ancient Romans had a saying, Ars longa, vita brevis. Moderns take it to mean that life is short, but works of art last.

We post-Renaissance types get the, "Life is short," part right. But ancients and Medievals didn't restrict the meaning of ars to "fine art". For them, it could apply to any craft.

The equivalent Greek word is techne. That's a big clue that everybody before the Modern era would have put Michelangelo and Steve Jobs in the same general category. Both made stuff according to a standard.

That's really what writing is. A carpenter makes a birdhouse by putting wood, nails, and glue together in the right configuration. An author makes a book by doing the same thing with character, setting, and conflict.

The arbitrary split between fine arts like oil painting, sculpture, and literature and crafts like carpentry, plumbing, and coding is a Modern novelty. We take it for granted, but historically it's an anomaly based on largely unexamined assumptions.

Reading the previous two paragraphs may incite the knee-jerk response that broadly classifying authors alongside plumbers is materialist reductionism that sucks the soul out of writing.

Only if you think that plumbers don't have souls.

The appeal to mysticism as justification for placing fine art in its own airy realm high above the noise and odors of the trades betrays the same Modernist bias I'm calling out.

Ancients and Medievals understood that man is spirit and flesh at once, and thus all of his actions have a spiritual dimension. There is a role for both Martha and Mary. The shoemaker is no less holy than St. Anthony.

Cartesian philosophy, with its crude mind-body dualism, caused a rupture between the mystical and the mundane that's since plagued Western thought. The body perishes, but the soul is immortal, so the soul must take priority.

That appraisal doesn't jibe with the example of a God who holds the human body in such high esteem that He became incarnate.

Imposing a false binary that relegates skilled craftsmen to grunt status while elevating "real artists" has created a class of neurotic posers who perpetually fret about muses and demons. Meanwhile, we have to wait five years to find out what happens in book three.

And because heresies always come in pairs, you get small-soulded bugmen preaching the opposite extreme: STEM and the trades are the only fields of "real value". Jobs in the arts are decadent sinecures for losers who can't make it in the grownup world.

The fault lies in the choice of interpretive key. Too many grope at the arts in the darkness of either/or. The only light that can reveal the whole beast is both/and.

All craftsmen are human beings with immortal souls. Poetry is a craft. Setting up a network in an office building can be a mystical experience.

If you're an aspiring author, ditch the angsty writers' workshop BS, and nail yourself to the wood of your desk.

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  1. Anyone who thinks that skilled craftsmen can't be artists have never seen the handiwork of a master plumber or electrician. Or, conversely, has never stared up from a basement floor into the bowels of an old house's plumbing, indifferently added over a century, and wondered what substances, precisely, were being consumed during this particular renovation.

    1. Art is a work performed to a standard. No more; no less.

    2. Hey you have been to my house!

  2. "Setting up a network in an office building can be a mystical experience."

    This one hits close to home.

    The takeaway for me is: no matter what you work on, put your everything into it and it transcends being only work.

    People seem to understand that putting a turd on display is not and never can be art, I would what the "work" version of that is: Human Resource Departments?

    1. Neurodégénératives

      Ora et labora. And never forget everytime we create whether a cake, bridge or diorama we participate as co creators.

      God loves us so much he lets us create our fanfic on the world. How cool is that? And what pagan god ever did similarly?


    2. One of my favorite moments of insight into my own profession was realizing first that as an IT support generalist, I am one of the maintenance men of the Information Age, and second that there's nothing wrong with that. I work with technologies others consider arcane, so technically I'm a "knowledgeable worker," but my white collar is half way to blue. I worked in jeans for years because khakis aren't made for guys crawling around under desks managing cable. I'm a tradesman. I like teaching, and helping people, and solving problems. God has blessed me with a chance to do all three.

    3. Colossians 3:23 - "And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men"

      I think this is the biggest thing that I could never get past in Randian Objectivist philosophy. The idea of hiding your God-given light under a basket just to screw over an unappreciative world never sat well with me, and it sure doesn't mesh with Scripture.

    4. I'd posit that the "work" version of the turd on display is throwing a box on a property and calling it a house, and yourself a carpenter. Both fit well as examples of "not art" in Brian's proposed paradigm (possibly historical - I am not familiar with the linage) of art being work performed to a standard.

    5. The technology version of the turd on display is planned obsolescence in hardware and components only the trained few can replace, which takes us right back to the Apple discussion in the previous post.

  3. The CRAFT of writing is the one that puts food on the table.
    The ART of writing gets you invited to the cool kids' parties.

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  5. False duality, indeed. It's a trinity of mind, body, and spirit. Putting the artisan into art, and inspiration into engineering, will help both.

  6. A lot of our mess really does go back to Descartes, after a layover at Kant.

    1. What we have to go back to is ontological realism.

  7. I was just reading the Gilgamesh epic's version of the Flood today, and remembered this post. It relates. King Gilgamesh sets out on a quest for immortality after his best friend Enkidu is killed. Gilgamesh finds Utnapishtim, their Noah who was granted immortality after the Flood. Gilgamesh is saddened to find out that immortality cannot be gained except at the whim of the gods (whom Gilgamesh has offended greatly at various points of his life, including the Queen of Heaven Ishtar by calling her the equivalent of heaven's bicycle). Utnapishtim tells him of a plant that will restore youth. "Close enough!" Gilgamesh says, finds the plant, then has it stolen.

    Dejected, Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, the city he rules. He cries to the ferryman that nothing he [Gilgamesh] has done in his reign has been for himself! It has all been for the people. What does he have to show for it?

    The ferryman agrees to walk to the city with him and see Uruk. As they get closer, Gilgamesh sees the city and cheers up. He extols the greatness of the city to the ferryman, how large it is, how long it would take to walk around the top of the walls.

    Gilgamesh knows: life is brief, but the craft of that city will last. The city was inhabited for another 3200 years after the historical Gilgamesh's reign.

    1. "The city was inhabited for another 3200 years after the historical Gilgamesh's reign."

      What does it mean that our ability to establish lasting legacies seems inversely proportional to our technological advancement?