[ risk ]By TREVOR SEMPLE
We mostly have a difficulties with the idea of taking risks. As children, we were told to "be careful". When we have children of our own, we try to protect them from danger and we are annoyed with them when they take chances. Often this is because we are the ones who suffer: as adults we fear their death, their loss, and the pain it would cause us. And yet, life is a risky business and however much we try to isolate ourselves form the dangers, accidents can befall any of us at any time.
If we became too fearful of living, we would do nothing: driving a car is dangerous. So is crossing a road, flying in an aeroplane, going for a swim, climbing a ladder, and so on. If we never took risks, we would die spiritually, long before the actual moment we call "death". Very often, as adults, we take what we consider to be "limited risks" like ballooning, mountaineering, bungee jumping, guitar-making and performing. It is true that we do not intend to kill ourselves, but it is a way of walking on the edge, and how near to the edge is a matter of personal choice. Some call activities that they do not wish to carry out "foolhardy", but they may well take other kinds of risks themselves, which they consider more acceptable. It is undoubtedly true that mountaineering is potentially life-threatening in a way that guitar-making is not, but psychologically there is not much difference. Making and performing are literally career-threatening, and that is as close to life and death as many of us would wish to come.
There is a tendency to see art as a cult of the individual: often we adulate our personal heroes irrespective of the art that they produce. This view could make the whole business of art very shallow, and perhaps sometimes it is, but for very many of us, our motivation runs much deeper than this, and it is something to do with (for want of a better word) our "soul". There is a fundamental difference between the mass-produced and the artist-made, but the difference is not really about quality as such. The idea of desiring a "hand-made" vacuum cleaner is faintly absurd. The effort, the work and the cost would turn a utilitarian object into something quite different. It would also exclude ownership from many of us because of the cost, and in a small way it would diminish the quality of our lives for all but the very rich. Mass-production has its place, but that place is limited. A vacuum-cleaner does change our lives: we probably live with cleaner carpets, or enjoy a greater amount of free time for some other more rewarding activity. However, in themselves, clean carpets do not contribute greatly to our spiritual lives: they do not teach us the value of living.
Craftspeople, like other risk-takers, try to limit the risks. We have developed tools that are often self-regulating, and in this way it becomes very hard to define exactly what is meant by "hand-made". A hand-plane will automatically limit its own cut, to a very great degree of accuracy, even though it is literally a "hand tool". The aim of a plane is to reduce the skill or the time needed by the operator to make a pre-defined surface. Not only have woodworkers spent centuries designing tools of greater "certainty", but they will also invest significant amounts of time in the activity of "jig-making". Our jigs, unlike their musical counterparts, are production aids and can take many forms, but in general they will guide hand-tools or power-tools down a defined path allowing a more predictable result with the expenditure of less mental effort. If we compare the working method of a luthier with that of a dentist, for example, we can see that both spend much of their time working with powered drills, and yet the dentist has no guide of any kind to control the tool. A dentist works completely free at a time like this, and one momentary lapse of concentration would be quite serious. Which process is more "hand-made"? Which person is the more "skilled"?
If you look at the history of tool-making, it is clear that from the very beginnings, craftspeople have tried to make better tools by limiting the time/effort/skill/mistakes involved in making things. There is no virtue in needless effort, or in needless difficulty. If we try to apply definitions to processes, the term "hand-made" is really almost meaningless and we might be more successful if we redefine terms like this in a more abstract way, to mean "made with care, or love, or inspiration" or something similar. However, there is one very basic difference between what we understand by "hand-made" and "mass-produced", and it is all about risk. Mass-produced articles have been designed by people, and the production process has been set up by people, but the actual process of manufacture is often very heavily automated. There is very little risk. Workers will generally not lose sleepless nights worrying about the end-result, indeed some processes can be left running automatically all night under the supervision of a skeleton staff who is only there to intervene if the process should stop for one reason or another.
Craftspeople really do have a different experience of the process : there are moments when I could cause destroy a month's work in seconds, and I feel it very keenly. I presume a surgeon must have similar feelings at times during an operation. The risk is real, and none of us could cope with many failures at moments like this: it is too damaging to our pride and our confidence - it just has to work, and it has to work nearly all the time. It might make more sense of art to see it in the context of the risk involved. We do not necessarily appreciate skill as such, but rather skill under pressure. We perceive it as confidence, and it is the quality of work that raises it from the ordinary to something more inspired. Performers live on the edge every time they step onto a stage. The saying goes that "you are only as good as your last performance". Each time it is as if the slate has been wiped clean and every mistake, every flaw is on show to the public. There is no chance to go back to patch things up - performing is always a risky business. It is just possible that we appreciate artists in all their various forms not just for the current fashion, or the undoubted skill, but also for the courage. Maybe when we take part in performance, we join all those who regularly risk their lives, either in a real or more abstract way, and we appreciate their courage. Maybe in risking "death", we sometimes learn the value of living.
I am indebted to David Pye, former lecturer in Furniture-making at the RCA, for some of the ideas presented here.
©1997 Trevor Semple
"EGTA Journal", 2000