Would Ruskin YouTube? Crafting and communities

Would John Ruskin see YouTube as a modern version of a cathedral gargoyle? Laurie Taylor and guests discuss craft and community.

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Laurie Taylor:
 I’ve never been able to track down the reference but I think it was Ezra Pound who once observed that there were certain lines from popular songs which stood out in one’s memory. I can’t remember his examples but lines like you know “Each day is Valentine’s Day” or “Help me get my feet back on the ground”.

And Pound suggested that these stand-out lines held special resonance because they were equally special to the writers. They were probably the very lines which first prompted the song. It was much the same he suggested with letters from a friend, often mixed up with the conventional phrases – “How are you keeping?”, “Must rush to catch the post” – would be a phrase that stayed in one’s memory.

Interested? Find out more with The Open University course Introducing The Social Sciences

And this would be the phrase that had also meant most to the writer. Well this programme throws up other examples. Some comments, some interventions stay in mind years after they’ve been uttered. I particularly remember a discussion back in February two thousand and eight which had been prompted by the publication of Richard Sennett’s book, The Craftsmen.

Alongside Richard in the studio was Grayson Perry the distinguished artist and winner of the Turner Prize for his ceramics. He was anxious to stress the manner in which our obsession with art had the effect of diminishing craft. And he did so with his highly personal and utterly memorable analogy.

Grayson Perry:
I started off a sort of a different viewpoint in that I was in the art world where kind of craftsmanship isn’t a requisite. And then I sort of had to come out as a craftsman later on which was a lot harder than coming out as a transvestite in many ways because it was a, there was a slight taboo around it, you know...

Richard Sennett:
Yeah.

Grayson Perry:
.. there’s a still a frisson in the art world about craftsmanship I think because so many artists lack it because of the over-privileging of the idea within the art world. And I think they’re ..

Richard Sennett:
Yeah.

Grayson Perry:
.. kind of neglecting a large part of the vocabulary of a maker in not, you know developing a skill. I think that gives us something very important. You know I know that often my ideas come on the hoof while I’m working and you know the actual physicality of working with things throws up ideas for me all the time. Throwing a pot Copyrighted image Copyright: chomiji under CC-BY-NC licence

Laurie Taylor:
Grayson Perry on the benefits of crafts, a matter which also interests my first guest today. He’s David Gauntlett who’s Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Westminster and author of Making Is Connecting. And also with me, well who else; Richard Sennett author of The Craftsman and Professor of Sociology at LSE. David, let’s start by asking you about why you think that making things is so important, why thinking and making go together?

David Gauntlett:
Ah, it’s kind of Richard’s point that making and thinking are part of the same process. And then what I was interested in doing is looking at the kind of social dimension of creativity and the book’s called Making Is Connecting because when you make things you not only put together ideas or materials, you also typically have some kind of social connection with somebody.

It involves some kind of sharing or making a connection with another person. And also it’s about the idea that through making things we become more engaged in the world and more kind of embedded in our surroundings and through just the process of making things you become, you feel more a part of the world and you’re making a contribution to it, not just consuming stuff that’s made for you but actually creating things and making something in the world yourself.

Laurie Taylor:
Bringing body and mind together?

David Gauntlett:
Yeah.

Laurie Taylor:
Now you want to say of course that this promotes happiness as well. I mean what’s it got to do with happiness?

David Gauntlett:
Well you know there’s also that social science research on happiness these days. It seems like a, a kind of strange thing for social scientists and economists to be doing because happiness sounds so fluffy but of course you can just do a survey, ask people how happy they are and you get numbers and you can aggregate all that data and draw some conclusions.

What that stuff tends to show is that for one thing people don’t know what makes them happy. They always think that some more money is going to make them more happy and that doesn’t really work over, over any amount of time.

What does make people happy is human relationships on the one hand and having control of a kind of project where you’re making something yourself, you can see it from start to finish which we typically can’t in our working lives these days.

You can work on a thing and, and sort of put your own ideas and thoughts into making a thing which you can then be proud of. It gives you that kind of engagement with other people. You can share it with other people. It’s a nice thing, and online these days that’s much easier than it used to be.

Laurie Taylor:
And, and of course, as you say, I mean you were mentioning there the two things. I mean the pleasure which is involved in making but also the way in which that making suggests the presence of a community and being a member of that community is something which promotes happiness as well.

David Gauntlett:
Yeah, certainly.

Laurie Taylor:
We’ll come to the relationship between those two a little bit more in a moment but turning to you Richard, David quotes you a great deal in the book, approvingly, and would you agree with his assessment of the importance of individuals making things to society? Would you perhaps want to connect it to happiness in the way that he does?

Richard Sennett:
Well while I admire David’s book greatly I don’t think I’d quite make the connection to happiness as you do. A lot of craftwork is very frustrating. And one of the main things that we need to learn in developing any skill is how to keep going even though we’re not getting pleasure at the moment from what we’re doing, how to commit I would say to something that often is, is very arduous.

And if you begin to measure the development of a skill in terms of getting pleasure from it, the first time there’s something really difficult to do you’re going to have a problem.

Laurie Taylor:
Yes because when you want something – I mean I remember you talking about the recalcitrance of materials that...

Richard Sennett:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
... you were working on. And also of course you cite this famous figure which people are always banding around these days, about the ten thousand hours...

Richard Sennett:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
... which are, which are required in order to master a skill. Now ten thousand hours does sound like a lot of hard work David.

David Gauntlett:
But people love making though don’t they? I think we, we see that quite clearly in the enthusiasm that people have for all kinds of making activities, craft John Ruskin Copyright free image Copyright free: Public domain activities,  when people put videos on YouTube which they do, you know millions of hours every, every week are put up on YouTube, that’s because people really want to do it, and it is hard and difficult and can be frustrating of course.

But I think people have a very strong drive to make things and that they, you know they ultimately enjoy it, even though the process itself of course it can involve all kinds of frustrations and difficulties but we love, it’s like climbing a mountain. Whilst you’re actually doing it you’re having a hell of a time. But when you’ve actually reached the top you feel thrilled.

Richard Sennett:
Well not quite, I think. I mean one thing that really I think drives people on to keep working and to do good work is the sense that when they’ve come to the end of a project that they have the sense they could do more and better the next time. It isn’t all joy you know.

David Gauntlett:
No, it’s not all joy at all, no.

Richard Sennett:
At the end. No. But I was very struck about this, what we know about Stradivarius, for instance, who was arguably the greatest violin maker of all time and he is supposed to have remarked to a disciple “This is a masterpiece”. He said “It may be but I know I could do it differently”.

And that’s the kind of impulse I think that, that really keeps people going. It’s not just really a quibble, I think, whether it’s a question of satisfaction or joy. Because modern society puts so much emphasis on pleasure, the pleasure of learning, the fear of subjecting people to discipline which might make them bored, God forbid you know. This is a terrible, in my view this is a terrible reduction of the seriousness of actually getting engaged in a project.

Laurie Taylor:
But are we talking the distinction between the two of you over this, in terms of the degree of virtuosity which could count as a craft? I mean you would presumably want to talk about making not in, in quite the extended terms that Richard is talking about... I mean, you’re not talking about ten thousand hours. You’re not talking about a life time devoted to something are you? You’ve got a much more short term idea of what constitutes making.

David Gauntlett:
Yeah, in the book I draw a kind of continuum between the arguments of the arts and crafts movement and you know the founders, John Ruskin and William Morris and what people are doing online today. And ..

Richard Sennett:
Yes, that’s a marvellous part of your book.

David Gauntlett:
OK.

Richard Sennett:
Wonderful.

David Gauntlett:
And their view of craft I think isn’t that you need to make things perfectly or that you need to be a virtuoso. It’s much more about the, the vigour of individual self expression, being able to see the spirit of a, a person that wants to communicate something in the work, regardless of its quality. It’s at least...

Laurie Taylor:
Let’s go into that a little, let’s go into that a tiny bit more detail. I mean what you take from Ruskin. Ruskin’s important to you and of course, and also to, to Richard. What do you take from Ruskin here?

David Gauntlett:
Well there’s a nice thing he says for example about medieval cathedrals. He loves the gargoyles on medieval cathedrals, even though they are often kind of roughly done, they’re ugly, they’re not typical beautiful works of art. But what he likes about them is that what you’ve got there is individual crafts people who are, they’re working but not as slaves.

They’re showing their individuality, they’re making just a thing that kind of amuses them. It’s some form of self expression for them. And they’re just doing what they want to. He describes it as a kind of embrace of human individuality and the spirit of being an individual creative kind of person.

And then I say that if you look at YouTube say when it’s easy to dismiss the stuff on YouTube as being laughable, badly made selection of things, not at all like what you see on television.

But what you can see there very often is the spirit of a individual creative human being that wants to communicate something about themselves or share information.

Laurie Taylor:
Richard, do you accept that interpretation of Ruskin? Would you extend it as David does to people operating on YouTube?

Richard Sennett:
Not quite. I don’t know why I’m being so difficult with you. I think the issue about craft online is a really stunning and rich one.

You know in the history of technology people often invent a new tool before they really know how to use it. And this was true in the Renaissance when the scalpel was invented. It took surgeons about a century to learn how to adapt their hands to it.

And I think today with these marvellous online tools for communication we have as it were the machinery before we have the knowledge for how to know them best. And they will evolve. And sometimes the first impulses we have when we have a new tool are to use it in old ways rather than to think about new ways that are quite specific to it.

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about in terms of cooperation online which is a serious way of learning Facebook, Twitter, more specific sites. We’re still in, if you like, the almost prehistoric stage of understanding how to use these machines. And to develop that understanding we have to have a motivation which is a little more long term, which is a little less instant.

Laurie Taylor:
I just want to go back to this Ruskin example here because Ruskin is saying that here, that the people working on the great gothic cathedrals, that this was an opportunity for some sort of self expression, and even if it was crude and even if it wasn’t particularly artistic...

Richard Sennett:
Right.

Laurie Taylor:
.. whatever, nevertheless it was self expression. And you then want to say well look, OK, we can turn to YouTube and we can turn, and even though here it may not be necessarily artistic, not necessarily perfect, nevertheless it deserves credit and points because it is self expression.

Richard Sennett:
Well of, of course I mean it’s a very important tool for us. For Ruskin, Ruskin was a very peculiar character. As you know he hated machinery. He even hated the printing press. He thought people should work like scribes to make books by, by hand.

At the same time he was quite revolutionary because he insisted as you rightly point out that learning how to do something, becoming engaged in it, requires a community. It’s not an isolated activity. It’s not individual in the sense of going off and sitting in a cell.

And I think what Ruskin gave to people like Morris was more the second aspect of what he did than the first. Ruskin was deeply, although he described himself as conservative, I think he in some ways was one of the first communitarians.

He really believed that groups of people learned better together than people did individually. Now to take this to your, the, the modern technology, what do we do today with distance learning using the internet?

Often times we park people individually in front of the screen which is terrible. We’re going to have to learn how to use the, the net as a... Making a video Creative commons image Fingermouse under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license

David Gauntlett:
Yeah, of course.

Richard Sennett:
...as a teaching tool...

Laurie Taylor:
Let me prompt...

David Gauntlett:
People, people use tools...

Laurie Taylor:
... let me prompt you to give you some examples then. of where you would want to say that the internet, or YouTube, or whichever example you want to choose, where we were seeing examples of something going on here, which was about making and which was about community.

David Gauntlett:
Well there’s always space for people to innovate more, as coming back on Richard’s point that, you know there’s still more could be done and people are in some ways repeating the old kind of tropes online.

But I think people are already being very innovative with the tools that already exist. And you know the way in which people have adopted Twitter and used it in ways that weren’t really anticipated by its makers.

Richard Sennett:
Right. Politically. It’s wonderful.

David Gauntlett:
Yeah.

Richard Sennett:
Facebook the same thing. Yes.

David Gauntlett:
In a range of different ways on Facebook.

Richard Sennett:
Yes.

David Gauntlett:
Yeah. But the kind of tools that I’m most interested in aren’t necessarily say Facebook which is kind of limited for the sharing of creativity.

It is more places like what people do on their blogs, what people do on YouTube where there’s a massive diversity of things.

It’s easy to laugh at YouTube as just a place where you have you know skateboarding dogs as was mentioned in the blurb for this programme. But you know that’s kind of patronising approach to You Tube...

Richard Sennett:
Yes.

David Gauntlett:
.. where there’s a massive diversity of things. You can learn how to knit or to fix your car or to compose music on ancient, ancient musical instruments or all kinds of things, kind of endless array of people making and sharing stuff which I think is refreshing, kind of moving.

Laurie Taylor:
Yyours is a pretty optimistic take on the present times. You talk about for example the development of DIY as really this represents a move away from a certain sort of passivity, I mean people are engaged in making and you want to rescue this in the way that you want to rescue the internet to say look something is going on here which is new and which is different and which is valuable.

David Gauntlett:
Yeah, we’ve quickly come to think of DIY as being this boring suburban hobby and we just think of those big sheds like B&Q as representing what DIY is – just seems like a boring thing for dads.

I’m a dad myself so I resent that.

But you know there’s... DIY culture in the 1960s was part of the counter cultural movement, this idea that you could do stuff for yourself rather than having to hire professionals to do it for you. Then that carries through to what they call DIY culture today where it’s all about people making and sharing their own stuff, not having to buy stuff that’s been made for them by consumer society but making things yourself.

Richard Sennett:
Of course this has a terrible class bias in this. If you were working class you were obliged to do as much DIY as possible because you couldn’t afford it otherwise.

David Gauntlett:
Yeah, but it was more difficult for you wasn’t it? In that sense B&Q actually is an enabling tool cos it gives you...

Richard Sennett:
Yes, that’s fine.

David Gauntlett:
... this isn’t an advert for B&Q ..

Laurie Taylor:
I want to...

Richard Sennett:
But I’m just saying you know it’s a word like creativity which carries quite a lot of class baggage with it.

Laurie Taylor:
We’ve just got time to put one question to you because it’s essential - your point about community. This is a way in which people come together. By making things they come together. I mean, would you accept, Richard, that community can be created on the web,  or do you want to use the word virtual communities as a way almost of demoting the status of that type of community?

Richard Sennett:
Absolutely. And I think that’s one of the things we’ll learn eventually about how to use the web.

But I’d say the most fundamental thing about community is not pleasure, and it’s really not about self expression. It’s about responsibilities to others, obligation, which are expressed through rituals and rituals are repetitive, they take a long time to bed in.

And what I think will happen on the web is that we’ll find ways to use this tool to create a stronger sense of community than one which is about me.

Laurie Taylor:
A quick last word?

David Gauntlett:
Yeah I agree with that of course. I don’t think that people are just concerned with “me” as it is. They’re building connections with others and you know developing some kind of bonds. And it’s in the early stages at the minute but I’m just trying to make a more optimistic argument than many of the pessimistic ones that academics like to make by looking at some of the...

Richard Sennett:
Well that’s good.

David Gauntlett:
...early emergent things and shooting them down.

This debate was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 27th May 2011. You can listen to the programme online.

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