Attempting the Art of Craft and the Craft of Art
by Michael Martone
For a while there, I lived in Syracuse, New York, in the Westscott neighborhood, not far from the university and a few blocks from the house that had been built and then inhabited by a designer and philosopher of the Arts and Crafts movement, Gustav Stickley. The distinctive furniture Stickley designed early in the last century is still produced in factories around Syracuse. It is known as Mission Oak (Mission for the founder’s belief in the mission of his designs as well as its influence of hand-hewn, honest pieces found in Spanish missions). Its sturdy quarter-sawn oak is richly stained to bring out the grain of the wood. The fine mechanism of its joinery is often exposed and incorporated into the arms and legs by design. The furniture is upholstered in high grades of leather or with fabrics that look salvaged from medieval tapestries.
The house was something to see. A colleague of mine, Safyia Henderson-Holmes lived on the ground floor. The house had been divided up into several apartments. Wood everywhere—built-in bookcases, carved inglenooks, cabinets with hand-cast pulls, window seats, plate rails, soffits, exposed beams, coffered ceilings, parquet floors, inlaid paneling, crown moldings, and wainscoting cut from one endless slab of slate. The fireplace was framed with metallic Roycroft tiles. The lamps and sconces all burnished and patinaed hammered copper, their leaded frames glassed with mica.
My house on Fellows Avenue, a 1910 foursquare, had a few of these fixtures, oaky trim and rustic hutch, enough to make the rocking chair and the library desk scrounged in Iowa look good. Before Syracuse, I had lived in Iowa, where Mission furniture, with its mission of honest craftsmanship, had taken root. Before Barbra Streisand began collecting the style, bidding $350,000 for Stickley’s own sideboard taken from the Syracuse house, you could get the stuff at auction or in flea markets for a song. After Streisand came Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It set, decorated wall-to-paneled-wall with it, and the furniture, new or used, was no longer accessible to the average buyer. In fact, it was the 1990s speculation that sparked the factories in upstate New York to return to the designs from the early 1900s. They had been staying in business on the strength of Chippendale knockoffs and Queen Anne copies.
Why do I wax nostalgic while waxing this furniture, in this essay on the craft lecture? Analogies, of course. Metaphor. I thought by evoking Stickley, the movement he engendered, the furniture itself, I might have an exemplum, a model, to consider the metaphor of craft and how this very solid idea gets applied to the more abstract carpentry of writing. I also worked very hard at that opening, demonstrating, I hope, some aspects of craft in action in writing—openings, scene setting, description, litany, consonance. My own puttering around in the workshop, whittlin’ away at words.
I live in Tuscaloosa now—the new South, already far away from the Arts and Crafts movement both temporally and geographically—in a 1950s rancher that, truth be told, is not that much different from a double-wide mobile home on a concrete slab. But because it is the South, my ranch has been disguised as an antebellum mansion—brick facade, Greek pillars, wrought-iron filigree—the repository for all the Chippendale knockoffs and Queen Anne copies. The mission pieces are out of place, too massive, too solid, not a bungalow in sight. Instead, I’ve taken to collecting at flea markets and auctions mid-century furniture of blond wood, plastic, foam, wire, chrome, vinyl, of (my god) Naugahyde, laminates of Formica, plywood, melamine, rubber, Fiberglas, canvas, aluminum, steel. Fortunately, this kind of furnishing, while contemporaneous with and designed for my present kind of house, never caught on here. So, the few castoffs one finds are still cheap. Fortunate too since pieces designed by Eames, Nelson, Dreyfus, Aalto, Jacobsen, Saarinen, and van der Rohe are now inflating elsewhere at Streisandian velocity. You picture this stuff right—shell, butterfly, inflatable chairs, loungers made of cardboard, everything, everything on wheels.
I bring up this other style of furniture for the contrast. One kind of chair represents the art of craft. The other chair is the craft of art.
Where do you find yourself seated? Do you think of yourself as a craftsperson, or do you think of yourself as an artist? Creative writing itself is poised as a discipline between these two ideals, situated between journalism on the one hand, with its insistence upon craft, and the eponymous arts department on the other, with its attention on the conceptional. The inhabitants of these extremes, craft and art, view with suspicion the incursion of one realm into the territory of the other. Where is the art in the inverted pyramid? Where is the craft in a drip painting?
Take a look at these two chairs. Here the Morris chair designed by Stickley, with its wide, comfortable armrests, the joinery of mortise and tenon, the chiseled railings of the side and back, the polished wood and leather pegs of the reclining mechanism. The chair says one thing clearly: I am a chair. And it reeks of craft and the craft it took to build it. Now look at Charles and Ray Eames’s shell chair, the organic sculpted Fiberglas shell, the impossibly delicate lacy wire legs, the Eiffel base. It is bright orange, the color of a life raft. It does not say it is crafted. In fact, it doesn’t even look like it was man-made. In fact, it wasn’t man-made but made by machines. The only tool employed in its construction was a screwdriver anybody can handle. Here is a chair privileging home assembly with an Allen wrench above the practiced skill of the dovetail saw and handheld planer. The Eames chair says clearly: I am a sculpture. Says: What is a chair? The chairness of the first chair is settled. You sit in it. It provides comfort. The chairness of the second is still up for discussion. It is far more pleasurable to look at, maybe, than to sit in. Could you fall asleep in it? Read while sitting there? You might slip out of it. You might be surprised by it. It intends to surprise you.
How one makes fiction also depends on where one is seated. Here is one kind of fiction that sees its main innovative function to reside in its content. The vessel of that content, its delivery device, however, is the constant. The human in the chair is the thing in motion. The metaphorical chair of this kind of fiction has attained the ideal architecture of support. From story to story the chair must be rebuilt along the lines of its initial perfection.
The other kind of fiction seeks new forms, sees the structure of the chair, of “fiction” itself, as the thing in flux while the content’s staying is stable. The sitting human in the chair is the constant. The are possibilities for “chair.” Its chairness is what is at play.
Despite its seeming definition, the craft lecture can be a useful form for the craft-less story. In fact, many craft lectures I have heard dwell more on theoretical, aesthetic, and conceptual issues than on technical or tactical considerations. Craft does imply that it is not the story’s place to think about itself or for its author to existentially consider authority. Craft implies an acceptance of the conventions of constructing a difficult intricate form that must be rebuilt in nearly the same way each time. Here, Craft says, are the methods and the techniques one must acquire. Embedded within Craft are the notions of levels of skill, apprenticeship, and mastery, at the service of a defined end.
But as I have said, the craft lecture can be used to consider the craft of the craft-less story. The craft lecture can consider the artistic fiction’s formlessness as well as consider the subjects of its inspiration while being inspirational at the same time. And I say amen to that.
This kind of craft lecture may provide the only space in a creative-writing curriculum in which philosophical and conceptual ideas may be discussed. The workshop (let’s for a second consider the implications just in the name workshop) is especially ill-equipped to handle a work of fiction whose subject and theme are, say, fiction itself.
You have all sat in those chairs around those tables. The silence generated by, say, a story (irreal, nonnarrative) in which a green-skinned woman named Lizard gets drunk and has a fight with her lesbian lover, narrated by a narrator who can’t figure out what is going on in their own story and who stops talking about the characters in any case and writes an essay on love. Mr. Barthelme, we say, um, this is different. But how do we make this better? How do we tighten, polish, revise, or edit? Is this even a piece of furniture? The form in these kinds of stories is in play. And a story such as this will always resist the tweaking of the received form the workshop is designed to craft.
In my lectures on the craft of fiction I have talked about the architecture of Frank Gehry and Richard Rogers and their aesthetic of ruins; the history, utility, and theory of camouflage and camouflage’s relationship to art and creativity; the narrative design of Depression-era post-office murals; and the connection between the Mafia, collage, and Derrida.
Here, in this craft lecture on craft lectures, I have written about chairs.
Down the road from Swannanoa and Warren Wilson College on the Blue Ridge Parkway is a little craft store that displays and sells products of Appalachia. Every time I work at Warren Wilson, I visit the store and buy a birdhouse. I now have quite a few. Some of them are magnificently crafted, are indeed little houses, displaying all the skill evident in a well-built human house. Some of the houses look like anything but houses—just beautiful pieces of junk arranged with some intelligence, with a perch and a hole sometimes added, it seems, as an afterthought. I put all of these habitats in my backyard and wait and watch the birds arrive on their migrations. I never know upon which porch they will alight, in which houses they will build their nests, which perch will be the seat of their singing.
a response to “Be Seated” by Michael Martone
by Paul Maliszewski
I have attended numerous exhibits of new work by experimental sculptors and career-spanning retrospectives of experimental painters. I have taken in shows of experimental installation and video artists, typically mounted in the museums’ smallest, most out-of-the-way galleries, adjacent to the coat-check closets, the restrooms, and the banks of pay phones. I have read articles about experimental-dance companies and considered their novel theories of choreography. I have gone to productions of experimental theater—a Kabuki-style Hamlet, acted by one person, comes to mind—and listened to evenings of experimental music. I have, however, seen only one experimental figure skater.
Professional skaters aspire to move with grace and precision. They combine craft—a prescribed number of jumps and major moves—with their own personal artistry, namely by attempting certain moves in unusual, surprising, or creative combinations and then skating into and out of each move with studied ease and apparent fluidity. The experimental skater aspired to something else. Not that he couldn’t skate with grace. When he wanted to be graceful, his skating was as polished and beautiful and flawless as the best of his competition. He recognized the demands of the sport, understood its traditions, and had learned its rules, but that history of picture-perfect axels and double axels, the toe loops, and triple lutzes must have bored him a bit. Perfection can become boring. Perfection can seem inhuman. And yet in professional skating perfection is the standard that every competitor achieves on a good day. Such perfection may not be easy for the pros or even routine, but it’s not exactly rare either. Given this world and these conditions, imperfection—mindful, willed imperfection—offers one way out. And so the skater experimented. He tried things.
In competition, the experimental skater moved across the ice with an intentional roughness. He was inelegant by design and awkward by choice. His motions were herky-jerky. He made his jumps appear mechanical. He gave the impression not of an amazing human performing gravity-spurning feats of athleticism, but of a machine, going through its preprogrammed instructions. Then he made mistakes, on purpose. He seemed to stumble, but in fact was only acting, executing a pratfall. These mistakes he incorporated into his program. Pablo Picasso, to draw a bit of a wild analogy, could, when he was very young, draw like Rembrandt, and maybe better, if one can imagine such a pointless contest, but Picasso didn’t always aspire to the standards of exacting draftsmanship and wasn’t necessarily interested in a precise, realistic depiction of, say, Gertrude Stein. This is not to equate the experimental skater with Picasso or to compare the patterns the skater traced on the ice to the painter’s lines, but merely to identify a common urge and describe a shared sensibility.
Where the other, more traditional skaters were earnest about their routines and themselves, the experimental skater was wry. His skating poked fun at the very idea of skating. And he made light of himself, too. After making one jump, he hugged himself. His manner, expressions, and body language spoke of naked self-congratulation and inflated ego. He squeezed his hands together and shook them beside his left ear and then beside his right. Campy stuff, granted, but consider this in the context of figure skating, a sport that doesn’t exactly shrink from embracing the artificial, the banal, and the vulgar. In a competition where it’s not unusual for more than one adult to choose to skate to the theme from Star Wars, the experimental skater’s routine was groundbreaking, shocking even. When he waved to the crowd—a big no-no during the formal program, the fourth wall having not yet fallen here—I felt sure I was witnessing the birth of a new era in figure skating.
The experimental skater was, it was clear, also an ironic skater. He was not really congratulating himself. His ego was not really that outsized. He was, instead, having a good time at the expense of the other skaters, who congratulated themselves implicitly, with their earnestness and their all-in-a-day’s-work faces. His skating drew attention to his routine—something to be done by rote—as a routine, and displayed a self-consciousness about his every movement, a self-consciousness that many writers and artists long ago came to consider, and call, for lack of a better word, postmodern.
Not that writers are happy with that word or ever thrilled to make such sharp distinctions between that which is postmodern, experimental, innovative, or avant-garde and that which is not. In “Be Seated,” Michael Martone writes of two kinds of chairs—one made in the old way, painstakingly and by hand—and the other designed on computers and manufactured by machines that inject molten plastic into molds. The first chair looks like a recognizable chair. The second may take different forms, some not immediately identifiable as comfy places to sit. For Martone these chairs are a way to discuss a similar “opposition as well in two kinds of fiction... reduced here to this admittedly arbitrary and artificial binary.”
However arbitrary the binary, writers evoke it often. William H. Gass draws a similar line in the dirt in his foreword to Transgressions: The Iowa Anthology of Innovative Fiction, separating false from true innovation like chaff from wheat, or sinners from the saved. He argues that “most newness is new in all the same old ways: falsely, as products are said to be new by virtue of minuscule and trivial additions...” Most novelty then consists of new stories, new content. If writers pay any mind to Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new,” and few do, really, most just seek new characters in out-of-the-way places. They leave the city and strike out for the boroughs. They investigate and report back about bizarre subcultures, documenting their customs like old-school ethnographers. Martone describes this kind of fiction as one “that sees its main innovative function to reside in its content.” Gass here includes as exemplary instances the first explorer to detail the New World, the first essayist to detail the manufacture of ball bearings, the first playwright to be so bold as to begin a play with the word “shit,” and the first critic to declare the emperor’s new duds a disaster. The alternative—the other side of that arbitrary but often inscribed line—entails the search for and creation of new forms. Gass writes, “Innovation that comes to something is nearly always formal. It is the expression of style at the level of narrative structure and fictional strategy.” Martone writes, “The other kind of fiction seeks new forms, sees the structure of the chair, of ‘fiction’ itself, as the thing in flux while the content’s staying is stable.”
At the figure-skating competition the announcers didn’t think much of the experimental skater and his postmodernism on ice. For that matter, neither did the judges. They didn’t agree with my amateur assessment that his performance represented the beginning of something new. They gave him an A for effort and graded him harshly by every other measure. The announcers, retired figure skaters as a rule, lacked the vocabulary to discuss the experimental skater. They didn’t even call him experimental. They didn’t have a word or a name for what he did or was. Figure skating itself, a precritical Eden if ever there was one, lacked a vocabulary to discuss this strange behavior.
Writers, as luck would have it, do have such a vocabulary, and it’s an embarrassment of words, really. As much as writers say they would just as soon leave the task of labeling some work “experimental,” “minimal,” or the like to critics, book reviewers, and the marketing staffs at publishing houses, they continue to develop new terms, defining the land underneath their feet differently each time and revising the terms of this long-running argument. Gass, in just over seven pages, picks up and then puts down as insufficient a bewildering catalog of near-synonyms, including all the usual suspects—“experimental,” “avant-garde,” “postmodern,” and “metafictional.” He tries out “subversive,” “innovative,” and “improvisational,” and then playfully tosses out several coins fresh from the mint, such as “innoversive,” “metamusical,” “post-cynical,” and “metafutile,” before settling on “exploratory” and then registering some disclaimers about even that term. Richard Powers proposes a couple of names of his own and shifts the debate from novelty—which, as Gass points out, can mislead—to a more interesting question:
A culture’s championing of “innovation” often plays out as a mere flirtation with novelty. Work that demands that its receivers remake themselves and learn the ground rules all over again will produce all the terror of any dislocation. Easier, then, to embrace the kind of artwork that feels novel without really destabilizing basic assumptions: all the scenery without the discomfort of travel. The way I see it, art doesn’t line up so much in a dichotomy between traditional and experimental (especially in a post-common-style era) as in one between reassuring versus destabilizing.
But experimental—or destabilizing—work creates its own standards, too, and can fast become as bound by rules and governed by traditions as whatever had seemed so established and fixed. A writer may, for example, resort to telling a story through fragments as a default, a habitual turning away from order perhaps or an unexamined revulsion for straight lines, the suburbs, and authorial control. Fragmentation of those stories into tiny, inscrutable bits, like glass goblets shattered intentionally on the kitchen floor, codifies a new dogma, one as attractive and bewitching as Aristotle’s unities of time, place, and action. Even Gass, inclined to look charitably on new forms, likens most experimentation in the arts to the “youthful” and “self-indulgent” combinations and recombinations of liquids, solids, and vapors he unleashed upon the world with his first chemistry set and several forays into the art of making big explosions from little bombs.
Meanwhile, back at the ice rink, the announcers settled, finally, on saying that the experimental skater was performing not for the judges (that much was obvious, he lost, and the contest wasn’t close) or for the sake of competition and its considerable rewards (the Wheaties box, the endorsements, the chance, if he’s lucky, to become an announcer) and not even for the audience—folks, after all, just as well-schooled in the traditions and expectations of skating as the competitors and the commentators, really. Rather, he was skating for himself. This was no put-down. The announcers intended no condescension. They were astounded by the spectacle of a man skating exactly how he liked.
[the above two pieces were originally printed in 3rd bed issue 8 (2001)]