Handmade Hand Down Hand Up Not Hand Out

My first trip to China was both baffling and over the top. On arrival I arranged a hotel very close to the Yu Yuan, a large old garden in Shanghai. This was handy for me to enter the garden when it opened at 8:30 am and to avoid the hoards of people that love to visit it. On the first day I took many black and white photographs and on the second day I took only colour. Through pottery-shaped, flame-shaped and moon-shaped doorways, you enter a multitude of spaces, arranged like puzzles with arrays of weird, significant rocks, precipitous ponds, confusing passageways, embroidered windows in furnished open rooms. I travelled on to Hangzhou on beautiful West Lake to photograph the Guo Villa garden and other locations around the lake. From Hangzhou I travelled by bus through low mountains and white villages to Jingdezhen, the bustling ‘Porcelain City’ and San Bao, a rustic, village-like ceramic residency in the nearby countryside where I was able to make the pottery in the exhibition.

Producing pottery in Jingdezhen turned out to be quite complicated. I probably should have stuck with porcelain clay in the ‘Porcelain City’ to save time. However, you can buy any kind of clay here, so of course, I wanted to experiment with the clay. The pots I made were inspired by classic Chinese forms that I originally learned about from Bernard Leach in 1962 who, in turn, wrote about the studio potter in A Potter’s Book (1940):

He is indeed constrained to look to the best of the earlier periods for inspiration and may, so far as stoneware and porcelain are concerned, accept the Sung [Song] standard without hesitation.

Jingdezhen has been a major kiln site since the 11th century. Graceful, simple forms and subtle single glazes were espoused in the Song Dynasty following the Confucian aesthetic of simplicity.

Once the pots were bisque fired at San Bao, I needed to buy glazes. Because there are so many potters in Jingdezhen there are streets full of glaze shops. In one of them, when I asked about buying the classic celadon glaze, the owner replied, “what dynasty?” I selected about five different celadon glazes.

Along with my glazes I went to the ‘glaze master’ who sprayed the glazes on my pots. Next I had to fire them in a ‘public’ kiln with the ‘kiln master’. There are also established potters with their own glazes and kilns. I had never farmed out my pots like this before; it was reasonable, efficient and successful, but a loss of control of the process to some extent.

The pace of new building in China is remarkable and Jingdezhen is no exception. The sidewalks were like war zones with rubble, bricks and barriers. There are new massive Buddhist temples going up all over China without many monks (most were disappeared during the Cultural Revolution). All this seemed fairly unique, particularly the new temples among the debris.

Before returning to Vancouver I visited a couple of temples and twelve ancient gardens in Suzhou, along with crowds of people, observing the ponds, rockworks, pavilions, pot-shaped doorways, covered walkways, significant and perforated stones, courtyards and lots of other details. It was very hot and sweaty, but I was very happy and thankful that I had the opportunity to photograph these amazing spaces and the weird and wonderful things in them. China was crowded, full of debris, and somewhat difficult to travel in, but with unique and wonderful sights. It also increased my comprehension of living, knowledge and art/craft.

As it is apparent with the vital pottery activity in the ancient porcelain centre of Jingdezhen, new and rebuilt temples and gardens — after a long period of repression — tradition and older concepts, appreciation, beliefs and ways of working can reassert themselves within a new frame of reference.

The separation of craft from art in the West in the 18th century is once again moving together. The concept of use with craft was used to separate it from the concept of art made for its own sake. Now that ‘beauty’ is no longer the criterion of fine art, craft work (pottery, weaving, etc.) can now be seen within the same values as fine art. Indeed, the creative work of people can be appreciated as a continuum from hobbies and occupations such as cooking, to crafts and high art. We can speak again of the art of cooking, the art of shoemaking or the art of painting amongst many other examples. The number of people in handmade endeavor is large.

Crafting is a popular activity for US adults, with more than half participating in at least one type of craft in the past year. The arts and crafts industry analysis shows that the market is steadily gaining, with an increase in store visits for major craft retailers and the development of social commerce on popular sites such as Instagram and Pinterest… there is renewed enthusiasm for making and owning hand-crafted items. Amazon has entered the handmade market at an ideal time, as demand for tangible crafted goods grows and Etsy’s command of the market falters… For the purposes of this report, “arts and crafts” describes projects made by consumers by hand. Relevant items in this category include but are not limited to: photo crafts (photography, albums, framing); knitting, crocheting, or weaving; sewing, quilting, needlepoint, or embroidery; painting; drawing; furniture crafts (building, refinishing, woodworking); interior design (home decorating, floral design); décor for special events or parties; scrapbooking; paper crafts (card making, origami, calligraphy); ceramics/glass crafts (pottery, sculpture, glassblowing, stained glass); jewelry making; cake or food decorating.1

Keeping in mind the breadth of ‘crafting’ and the huge numbers of people involved, we need to question the direction of government policy in the coming employment challenge due to the increasing use and employment of robots, automation, and digitally-controlled machines and vehicles. For instance, the employment of self-driven trucking will potentially cause the unemployment of 3.5 million US truck drivers and 8.7 million workers directly related to the trucking industry. There are many other sectors that will also lose millions of jobs. What will these people be able to do? Some will find other jobs but millions will not. In the end, governments will need to find a way to support all these unemployed people who will probably be very angry at losing jobs to robots and digital systems. The robots and systems can be taxed to raise funds in exchange to support the people who lost those jobs. This is not welfare or negative income tax, it would be income for workers displaced by robots and systems, or ‘earned displaced tax income’. Without this tax the owners of the robots/systems would pocket all the additional income at the expense of their displaced and unemployed workers. There would still be a problem because many of these people might not know what to do with their empty time.

Since the beginning of industrial production, the workers have been alienated from the performance of their work.2 As Rinehart observes, 

The division of labour… exerts an alienating impact on work. While there are a number of different types of division of labour, the most important ones are specialization and the separation of mental and manual labour, or … the separation of the conception of work from its performance … Performed under such conditions, work become repetitive and mindless and narrowly circumscribes the development of human capacities.3

‘Taylorism’ was the preeminent theory in industrial employment practices that enforced the division of labour to increase productivity. However, this produced the alienation (little or no control of the purpose or product by the worker) that disrupted productivity. (Rinehart, p.17, p.45, p.48) Robots and digital automation are perfect solutions to Taylorism, freeing humans from this kind of work. Leisure is often proposed as the goal after work or without work, but Clement Greenberg thought leisure a misplaced modern goal:

Leisure, in compensation, has become much more emphatically the occasion for flight from all purposefulness, for rest, respite, and recuperation. It is certainly no longer the sphere par excellence of  realization, but a passive state, primarily, in which one’s least passive need is for distraction and vicarious experience that will give those immediate satisfactions denied one during working hours by the constraint of efficiency.4

Hobbyists, craftworkers and artists in contrast are inspired by nature, wonder, community, and the memories and life they lead. They think about concepts, experiences, techniques and materials. They make things by hand with tools from the beginning to the end — in the case of pottery — by preparing the clay, forming the pot, trimming and decorating the pot, glazing the pot, firing the pots, and in many cases, selling the work from home or market, on the internet or showing in a gallery. Rinehart notes similarities in ancient societies,

In peasant and primitive societies work in an integral and not unpleasant aspect of existence. Work is fused with the totality of activities carried out by the community; it is embedded in and permeated by family and community relationships and obligations. Instead of being viewed as an onerous necessity by those who perform it, work is often regarded as indistinguishable from play, sociability, and leisure.5

The advantage of working by hand is in the pleasure and satisfaction of working all the steps in the process and finally taking pride in a successful completed project. It involves an ethical appreciation of useful accomplishment, and an involvement in a creative and perceptive community that is difficult to achieve in a factory job.

Because half the population is already involved in hobbyist activities and ‘crafting’ which is satisfying work, the government in its wisdom needs to make a change in its policy priorities. It should promote, support and advance the world of art, hobbies, crafts and other cultural activities as a primary response to the coming unemployment challenge. This could help avert potential severe societal and political upheaval. The primary importance is to return people’s freedom of control over their own working production process.

Art, crafting, photography (including video and film), music, dance, and writing should become required subjects at all levels of education. Computer, technical and engineering education will be important but a business education probably will be less relevant. How would the government support working in art, crafting, hobby and other activities?

  1. Funds must be raised through taxing robots and digital control systems to support these activities.
  2. Individual support should be ongoing, like a monthly pension.
  3. Government would not dictate or direct the activities. Individual and non-profit groups are free to direct their own activities.
  4. Government will support education in these amateur to professional perceptive activities through available institutions, non-profit groups, and individual initiatives.
  5. Markets should be expanded and supported for crafting to be sold.

The advent of robotic and digital control taking over millions of jobs can at the same time give the promise of support for the full blooming of human lives in all its varied cultural and social possibilities. As Leach simply says,

To make a thing oneself is the nearest way to understanding. 6



1. The Mintel Reports: “The Arts and Crafts Consumer – US -January 2016”

2. James W. Rinehart, The Tyranny of Work, Longman Canada, Don Mills, 1975, pp. 15, 18

3. Ibid. pp. 19 – 20

4. C. Greenberg, “Work and Leisure Under Industrialism,” in Mass Leisure, eds. E. Larrabee and R. Meyersohn, The Free Press, Glencoe, 1958, pp.38 – 43

5. Ibid. pp. 20 – 21, Cf. George Dalton, ed., Tribal and Peasant Economies, Garden City, The Natural History Press, 1967

6. Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book, Faber & Faber, London, 2nd edition, 1945, p.26


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