Richard Sennett, Professor of Sociology and the Humanities, on his Arabia soup tureen
GB Tell me why you chose this.
RS It gives us a sense of the evolution of a simple craft in Denmark into something that’s more complicated in Finnish design, influenced by the architecture of people like Alvar Aalto. What it is, is the notion that if you take a very simple form, you can find out where the irregularities of that simple form can be expressed in a way which still keep it with a sense of coherence. Alto never worked with rounded forms but that was his idea. So here, what they did was they took the round form, they re-inscribed it as a design and looked for ways to do what Alto did with straight plains to these curved plains. This is not “less is more.” It’s a different way of thinking about economy, about what it’s possible to vary within a coherent whole. So that’s what Arabia was doing for seven or eight years. They were experimenting with how pottery, in both its glazing and its forms, expressed something that the architecture of the time was also doing. It was a break with standardized Modernism. If this pot had been made by the Bauhaus, there would be no handle. You wouldn’t have these wonderful marks in the base. It would be dull. This is my idea of craft.
GB When was it made?
RS The design was 1959 and I have one of the last examples of this pot, made in 1991.
GB So was any of it made by hand?
RS No. It’s all machine made. Another trait of this kind of craftsmanship was that it wasn’t Ruskinian, in that sense that in order to get this complexity of form and shape and this kind of tactility you would have to work by hand. So the difference between a tureen like this and say, one from Britain in the 18th Century, is that when the British discovered the machining of pots, they made the pot into a picture of something, a representation. This has thingness to it, even though it’s machine-made. That’s part of its genius. A British potter of the same era like Bernard Leech would still show us all the Ruskinian hand work that went into the object . Here, the idea was that you could use a machine. It’s such a sensual machine-made object. An iPhone isn’t sensual, it’s sleek. This is tactile.
GB So you still see it as crafted even though it’s machine made?
RS It is crafted because the idea of its tactility is crafted. The slight irregularities in the pattern have been hand painted but then the technique of reproduction is very complicated. It’s a kind of mono printing that’s hard to explain, but you can make a thousand pieces if you want to. It’s one of the most valuable things I own apart from my Cello. I do think we can craft beauty through industrial processes.
GB In your book, the Craftsman, you say that all techniques contain expressive implications. So that even applies to industrial techniques?
GB Does the scarcity of it make it more beautiful to you? Arabia only made six of these.
RS No. That’s the beauty of machine-made things. When the first books were printed, the penny must have dropped for someone that unlike the handmade manuscript, the text can still be beautiful even though a thousand copies have been printed. The value of scarcity is really a capitalist idea. I look at this as a kind of photograph of a design. When I show it to potters they become very sad because it represents a kind of ideal of things which have an arts and craftsy feel without requiring arts and craftsy craft.
GB Do you think that consensus around what we find beautiful is important?
RS To me, it has a deeper philosophical meaning. My thoughts about this are not original. They come from my friend, Elaine Scarry, who argues that there’s a relationship between what’s just and what’s beautiful. When we think about justice in purely utilitarian terms, without considering whether it satisfies criteria of fitness, of elegance, of simplicity or whatever category for beauty we use, the justice becomes less compelling. When she first advanced this view, a lot of people wondered what on earth she was talking about and the only people to whom it made sense were Supreme Court Justices, because they know that a lot of cases involve something that has a missing human element. Stephen Briar was most up front about this in saying that what a lot of lawyers are really arguing about is the missing human element in a law that can be justified perfectly rationally one way or another. When Elaine Scarry got around to this relationship between beauty and justice, which is an old trope that goes right back to Plato, she revived it in a way that I found very compelling. A lot of objections that people make to the built environment are couched in terms of pure functionality but they’re really about the quality of the objects made, that people find them insufficient, that they lack qualities that make them livable with.
GB So you think that the beauty is in the object?
RS Absolutely. I don’t believe that it’s in the eye of the beholder. Imagine going to a concert and hearing something that’s not very well done and saying that the reason you didn’t enjoy that performance of a Brahms concerto is because you have a cold. It’s absurd. To say that it doesn’t really matter what the artist does, that it’s about how you feel when you see it, is a kind of silliness. It devalues the artist.
GB So if other people don’t find your soup tureen beautiful, do you then make a judgment about them?
RS No. I had long discussions with Bruno Latour about the independent agency in objects and I think that extends to their qualities as well. Their qualities are independent agencies in a network of how they’re perceived. In cultural studies people talk about reception theory and I think it’s really intellectually thin.
GB Do you believe that some things are universally beautiful?
RS No. The word universal is the clunker there. Nobody is a universal subject. We’re not Kantian subjects. All I can say is that for artists, they’re trying to distill something from the flux and form of their life that has a meaning and a purpose on its own. It’s objective without being universal.
GB Do you believe that there are different kinds of beauty, say between something that’s beautiful intellectually and something that’s beautifully crafted?
RS I don’t. Some people do. It depends whether you’re a reductionist or not. This takes you back to Kant, that there are certain elemental forms and it doesn’t matter how you get to them. The Craftsman is really about the process of getting to form by the particular cultural, historic, economic and political circumstances that you’re in, wresting something formal out of what is culturally specific. Then the forms stand outside it. I had a sense of this once when I was a young man and I went to a Navajo Christmas in Mexico. For a New Yorker like me, it couldn’t have been farther from eggnog in Rockefeller Square. The most important thing to me was that at the end of this event people were wearing bearskins and breaking crosses and the principal dancer came over and told me that he’d found a way to hollow out his antelope horns so he can wear them and dance around without them falling off. That’s a craftsman. He wrested form from a natural object and used it for a culturally specific purpose and yet it has a meaning on its own. It’s something coming into being.
GB Are you interested in the neuroscience of aesthetic experience that suggest our reaction to beauty has a lot to do with memories and associations?
RS Incompleteness is one of the great qualities in making an object beautiful. You fill in what’s missing in your mind. Rodin is the obvious example of this. In architecture you find unresolved forms all the time. That’s not about association. There’s something neurologically much more complex going on when you find something incomplete in an engaging way. I think that’s dumb science.
GB When you talk about craft you talk about the importance of slowness. Does that also apply to our appreciation of objects?
RS It slows us down when there’s so much going on in something so that a simple glance won’t tell us about it. It’s the same in scientific experiments. When I worked at MIT, people always told me that good experiments are the ones you don’t get at a glance. You have to dwell on them. That’s true in art too. If you look at something and immediately feel you know what it’s about, you won’t look at it again. It’s what Roland Barthes calls a strike rather than an image. In working, slowness has another set of dimensions. One of the attributes that slow people down is dealing with the difficulties that they encounter. When you really want to understand a difficulty, you have to dwell on it, you have to explore it, you have to know why it’s there. So that argues for very slow work, so you really have an understanding of why the hard things that you encounter are hard. That’s why four or five hour practice sessions are important to musicians, You get the time to really work something out.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
RS I don’t believe in general rules. That’s a Kantian approach to it. Somewhere outside of that question, is the notion that within a given practice like violin making, there are objective standards that make one violin more beautiful than another. These have to do with the things I talk about in my book; about exploiting latent possibilities rather than what’s immediately to hand; about collaging complexities, so in the case of violin making it might concern the way the stain passes through the grain of the wood. Stradivarius brought out that narrative of the stain passing through the wood, whereas second-rate violinmakers try to neaten things up. To me, every craft practice has objective standards and those are the standards that have emerged from people struggling from their own circumstances, from dealing with problems and eventually, like the antelope horns we spoke about, finding an objective form which is both beautiful and practical and dancing in that at Christmas. Out of process comes form, out of experience comes something that stands out of time. It’s a basic, philosophical, pragmatic notion of the aesthetic.