use and contemplation Octavio Paz, 1973

A vessel of baked clay: do not put it in a glass case alongside rare precious objects. It would look quite out of place. Its beauty is related to the liquid that it contains and to the thirst that it quenches. Its beauty is corporal: l see it, I touch it, I smell it, l hear it. If it is empty, it must be filled; if it is full, it must be emptied. …
Not an object to contemplate: an object to use.

A glass jug, a wicker basket, a coarse muslin huipil, a wooden serving dish: beautiful objects, not despite their usefulness but because of it. Their beauty is simply an inherent part of them, like the perfume and the colour of flowers. It is inseparable from their function: they are beautiful things because they are useful things. Handicrafts belong to a world antedating the separation of the useful and the beautiful.

Such a separation is more recent that is generally supposed. Many of the artefacts that find their way into our museums and private collections once belonged to that world in which beauty was not an isolated and autonomous value.
Society was divided into two great realms, the profane and the sacred. In both beauty was a subordinate quality: in the realm of the profane, it was dependent upon an object's usefulness, and in the realm of the sacred it was dependent upon an object's magic power. A utensil, a talisman, a symbol: beauty was the aura surrounding the object, the result -almost invariably an unintentional one- of the secret relation between its form and its meaning.

Form: the way in which a thing is made; meaning: the purpose for which it is made.

Today all these objects, forcibly uprooted from their historical context, their specific function, and their original meaning, standing there before us in their glass display cases, strike our eye as enigmatic divinities and command our adoration. Their transfer from the cathedral, the palace, the nomad's tent, the courtesan's boudoir, and the witch's cavern to the museum was a magico-religious transmutation. Objects became icons.
This idolatry began in the Renaissance and from the seventeenth century onward has been one of the religions of the West ...

The religion of art, like the religion of politics, sprang from the ruins of Christianity. Art inherited from the religion that had gone before the power of consecrating things and imparting a sort of eternity to them: museums are our places of worship and the objects exhibited in them are beyond history...

We gaze upon works of art with the same reverent awe -though with fewer spiritual rewards- with which the sage of antiquity contemplated the starry sky above: like celestial bodies, these paintings and sculptures are pure ideas...

Before the aesthetic revolution the works of art pointed to another value. That value was the interconnection between beauty and meaning: art objects were things that were perceptual forms that in turn were signs. The meaning of a work was multiple, but all its meanings had to do with an ultimate signifier, in which meaning and being fused in an indissoluble central node: the godhead.
The modern transposition: for us the artistic object is an autonomous, self-sufficient reality, and its ultimate meaning does not lie beyond the work but within it, in and of itself, it is a meaning beyond meaning: it refers to nothing whatsoever outside of itself. Like the Christian divinity, Jackson Pollock’s paintings do not mean: they are.

In modern works of art meaning dissolves into the sheer emanation of being. The act of seeing is transformed into an intellectual process that is also a magic rite: to see is to understand, and to understand is to partake of the sacrament of communion.
And along with the godhead and the true believers, the theologians: art critics.
Their elaborate interpretations are no less abstruse than those of Medieval Scholastics and Byzantine scholars, though far less rigorously argued. The questions that Origen, Albertus Magnus, Abelard, and Saint Thomas Aquinas gravely pondered reappear in the quibbles of our art critics, though tricked out this time in fancy masquerade costumes or reduced to mere platitudes.

Not unexpectedly, the exaltation and sanctification of the work of art has led to periodic rebellions and profanations. Our museums are full to bursting with anti-works of art and works of anti-art. The religion of art has been more astute than Rome: it has assimilated every schism that came along.

I do not deny that the contemplation of three sardines on a plate or of one triangle and one rectangle can enrich us spirituality; I merely maintain that the repetition of this act soon degenerates into a boring ritual...It scarcely bears repeating that art is not a concept: art is a thing of the senses. Speculation centred on a pseudo-concept is even more boring than contemplation of a still-life.

The industrial revolution was the other side of the coin of the artistic revolution. As our museums became crowded with art objects, our houses become crowded with ingenious gadgets. Precise, obedient, mute, anonymous instruments. But it would be wrong to call them ugly, in the early days of the industrial revolution aesthetic considerations scarcely played any role at all in the production of useful objects.

Or better put, these considerations produced results quite different from what manufacturers had expected. It is superimposition that is responsible for the ugliness of many objects dating from the prehistory of industrial design, an ugliness not without a certain charm: the "artistic" element, generally borrowed from the academic art of the period, is simply "added onto" the object properly speaking. Industrial design consistently lagged behind the art of the period, and imitated artistic styles only after they had lost their initial freshness and were about to become aesthetic clichés.

Modern design has taken other paths -its own characteristic ones- in its search for a compromise between usefulness and aesthetics. At times it has achieved a successful compromise, but the result has been paradoxical.
The aesthetic ideal of functional art is to increase the usefulness of the object in direct proportion to the amount by which its materiality can be decreased.
The simplification of forms and the way in which they function becomes the formula: the maximum efficiency is to be achieved by the minimum of presence...

The precise opposite of craftwork: a physical presence which enters us by way of the senses and in which the principle of maximum utility is continually violated in favour of tradition, imagination, and even sheer caprice.
The beauty of industrial design is conceptual in nature: if it expresses anything at all, it is the precise accuracy of a formula. It is the sign of a function. Its rationality confines it to one and only one alternative: either an object will work or it won't. In the second case it must be thrown into the trash barrel.

It is not simply its usefulness that makes the hand-crafted object so captivating, it lives in intimate connivance with our senses, and that is why it is so difficult to part company with it, it is like throwing an old friend out into the street.

The industrial object tends to disappear as a form and to become indistinguishable from its function. Its being is its meaning and its meaning is to be useful. It is the diametrical opposite of the work of art.

Craftwork is a mediation between these two poles: its forms are not governed by the principle of efficiency but of pleasure, which is always wasteful, and for which no rules exist.
The industrial object allows the superfluous no place; craftwork delights in decoration, its predilection for ornamentation is a violation of the principle of efficiency. The decorative patterns of the hand-crafted object generally have no function whatsoever; hence they are ruthlessly eliminated by the industrial designer.
The persistence and the proliferation of purely decorative motifs in craftwork reveal to us an intermediate zone between usefulness and aesthetic contemplation.
In the work of hand-craftsmen there is a constant shifting back and forth between usefulness and beauty.
This continual interchange has a name: pleasure. Things are pleasing because they are useful and beautiful...

The hand-crafted object satisfies a need no less imperative than hunger and thirst: the need to take delight in the things that we see and touch, whatever their everyday uses may be. This necessity is not reducible either to the mathematical ideal that acts as the norm for industrial design or to the strict rites of he religion of art. The pleasure that craftwork gives us is a twofold transgression: against the cult of usefulness and against the cult of art.

Since it is a thing made by human hands, the craft object preserves the fingerprints -be they real or metaphorical- of the artisan who fashioned it. These imprints are not the signature of the artist; they are not a name, nor are they a trademark. Rather, they are a sign: the scarcely visible, faded scar commemorating the original brotherhood of men and their separation.
Being made by human hands, the craft object is made for human hands: we can not only see it but caress it with our fingers. We look at the work of art but we do not touch it...

Our relation to the industrial object is functional; to the work of art, semi-religious; to the hand-crafted object, corporal.
The latter in fact is not a relation but a contact. The trans-personal nature of craftwork is expressed directly and immediately in sensation: the body is participation. To feel is first of all to be aware of something or someone not ourselves. And above all else: to feel with someone. To be able to feel itself, the body searches for another body. We feel through others. The physical, bodily ties that bind us to others are no less strong than the legal, economic, and religious ties that unite us.
The handmade object is a sign that expresses human society in a way all its own: not as work (technology), not as symbol (art, religion), but as a mutually shared physical life.

The pitcher of water or wine in the centre of the table is a point of confluence, a little sun that makes all those gathered together one. But this pitcher that serves to quench the thirst of all of us can also be transformed into a flower vase by my wife. A personal sensibility and fantasy divert the object from its usual function and shift its meaning: it is no longer a vessel used for containing a liquid but one for displaying a carnation.
A diversion and a shift that connect the object with another region of human sensibility: imagination. This imagination is social: the carnation in the pitcher is also a metaphorical sun shared with everyone. In fiestas and celebrations the social radiation of the object is even more intense and all-embracing; in the fiesta a collectivity partakes of communion with itself and this communion takes place by way of ritual objects that almost invariably are handcrafted objects...

In bygone days, the artist was eager to be like his masters, to be worthy of them through his careful imitation of them. The modern artist wants to be different, and his homage to tradition takes the form of denying it. If he seeks a tradition, he searches for one somewhere outside the West, in the art of primitive peoples or in that of other civilizations. Because they are negations of the Western tradition, the archaic quality of primitive craftsmanship or the antiquity of the Sumerian or Mayan object are, paradoxically, forms of novelty. The aesthetic of constant change demands that each work be new and totally different from those that have preceded it; and at the same time novelty implies the negation of the tradition closest at hand.

Tradition is thus converted into a series of sharp breaks. The frenetic search for change also governs industrial production, though for different reasons: each new object, the result of a new process, drives off the market the object that has immediately preceded it.
The history of craftwork, however, is not a succession of new inventions or of unique (or supposedly unique) new objects. In point of fact, craftwork has no history, if you view history as an uninterrupted series of changes. There is no sharp break. but rather continuity, between its past and its present.

The modem artist has set out to conquer eternity, and the designer to conquer the future: the craftsman allows himself to be conquered by time. Traditional yet not historical, intimately linked to the past but not precisely datable, the hand-crafted object refutes the mirages of history and the illusions of the future. The craftsman does not seek to win a victory over time, but to become one with its flow. By way of repetitions in the form of variations at once imperceptible and genuine, his works become part of an enduring tradition. And in so doing, they long outlive the up-to-date object that is the "latest thing."

Industrial design tends to be impersonal, it is subservient to the tyranny of function and its beauty lies in this subservience. But only in geometry is functional beauty completely realized, and only in this realm are truth and beauty one and the same thing; in the arts properly speaking, beauty is born of a necessary violation of norms. Beauty -or better put: art- is a violation of functionality. The sum total of these transgressions constitutes what we call a style. If he followed his own logical principles to the limit, the designer's ideal would be the absence of any style whatsoever: forms reduced to their function, as the artist's style would be one that began and ended in each of his works...

The one difficulty is that no work of art is its own beginning and its own end. Each is a language at once personal and collective: a style, a manner. Styles are a reflection of communal experiences, and every true work of art is both a departure from and a confirmation of the style of its own time and place. By violating that style, the work realizes all the potentialities of the latter.
Craftwork, once again, lies squarely between these two poles: like industrial design, it is anonymous; like the work of art, it is a style. By comparison with industrial designs, however, the hand-crafted object is anonymous but not impersonal; by comparison with the world of art, it emphasizes the collective nature of style and demonstrates to us that the prideful “l” of the artist is a “we”.

Technology is international, its achievements, its methods and its products are the same in every corner of the globe. By suppressing national and regional particularities and peculiarities, it has impoverished the world. Having spread from one end of the earth to the other, technology has become the most powerful agent of historical entropy. Its negative consequences can be summed up in one succinct phrase: it imposes uniformity without furthering unity.
It levels the differences between distinctive national cultures and styles, but it fails to eradicate the rivalries and hatreds between peoples and States. After turning rivals into identical twins, it purveys the very same weapons to both.

What is more, the danger of technology lies not only in the death dealing power of many of
its inventions but in the fact that it constitutes a grave threat to the very essence of the historical process. By doing away with the diversity of societies and cultures it does away with history itself.
The marvellous variety of different societies is the real creator of history: encounters and conjunctions of dissimilar groups and cultures with widely divergent techniques and ideas. The historical process is undoubtedly analogous to the twofold phenomenon that geneticists call inbreeding and out-breeding, and anthropologists endogamy and exogamy. The great world civilizations have been syntheses of different and diametrically opposed cultures. When a civilization has not been exposed to the threat and the stimulus of another civilization -as was the case with pre-Columbian America down to the sixteenth century- it is fated to mark time and wander round and round in circles. The experience of the Other is the secret of change. And of life as well.

Modern technology has brought about numerous and profound transformations. All of them, however, have had the same goal and the same import: the extirpation of the Other.

By leaving the aggressive drives of humans intact and reducing all mankind to uniformity, it has strengthened the forces working toward the extinction of humanity.
Craftwork, by contrast, is not even national: it is local, indifferent to boundaries and systems of government, it has survived both republics and empires: the art of making pottery, the woven baskets, and the musical instruments depicted in the frescoes of Bonampak has survived Mayan high priests, Aztec warriors, Spanish friars, and Mexican presidents. These arts will also survive Yankee tourists.

Craftsmen have no fatherland: their real roots are in their native village or even in just one quarter of it, or within their own families. Craftsmen defend us from the artificial uniformity of technology and its geometrical wastelands: by preserving differences, they preserve the fecundity of history.

The craftsman does not define himself either in terms of his nationality or of his religion. He is not faithful to an idea, nor yet to an image, but to a practical discipline; his craft. His workshop is a social microcosm governed by its own special laws. His workday is not rigidly laid out for him by a time clock, but by a rhythm that has more to do with the body and its sensitivities than with the abstract necessities of production.
As he works, he can talk with others and may even burst into song. His boss is not an invisible executive, but a man advanced in years who is his revered master and almost always a relative, or at least a close neighbour...

I am naturally not maintaining that craftsmen's workshops are the very image of perfection. But I do believe that, precisely because of their imperfection, they can point to a way as to how we might humanize our society: their imperfection is that of men, not of systems. Because of its physical size and the number of people constituting it, a community of craftsmen favours democratic ways of living together; its organization is hierarchical but not authoritarian, being a hierarchy based not on power but on degrees of skill: masters, journeymen, apprentices; and finally, craftwork is labour that leaves room both for carefree diversion and for creativity.
After having taught us a lesson in sensibility and the free play of the imagination, craftwork also teaches us a lesson in social organization.

Until only a few short years ago, it was generally thought that handicrafts were doomed to disappear and be replaced by industrial production. Today however, precisely the contrary is occurring: handmade artefacts are now playing an appreciable role in world trade. Hand-crafted objects from Afghanistan and Sudan are being sold in the same department stores as the latest products from the design studios in Italian or Japanese factories. This rebirth is particularly noticeable in the highly industrialized countries, affecting producer and consumer alike.

Where industrial concentration is heaviest-as in Massachusetts, for instance, we are witnessing the resurrection of such time-hallowed trades as pottery making, carpentry, glass blowing. Many young people of both sexes who are fed up with and disgusted by modern society have returned to craftwork.
And even in the underdeveloped countries, possessed by the fanatical (and untimely) desire to become industrialized as rapidly as possible, handicraft traditions have undergone a great revival recently. In many of these countries, the government itself is actively encouraging handicraft production. This phenomenon is somewhat disturbing, since government support is usually inspired by commercial considerations.
The artisans who today are the object of the paternalism of official state planners were yesterday threatened by the projects for "modernization" dreamed up by the same bureaucrats, intoxicated by economic theories they have picked up in Moscow, London, or New York.

Bureaucracies are the natural enemy of the craftsman, and each time that they attempt to "guide" him, they corrupt his sensibility, mutilate his imagination, and debase his handiwork.

The return to hand-craftsmanship in the United States and in Western Europe is one of the symptoms of the great change that is taking place in our contemporary sensibility. We are confronting in this case yet another expression of the rebellion against the abstract religion of progress and the quantitative vision of man and nature.
Admittedly, in order to feel
disillusioned by progress, people must first have undergone the experience of progress. It is hardly likely that the underdeveloped countries have yet reached the point of sharing this disillusionment, even though the disastrous consequences of industrial super-productivity are becoming more and more evident.
We learn only with our own thinking-caps, not other people's. Nonetheless, how can anyone fail to see where the faith in limitless progress has led? If every civilization ends in a heap of rumble-a-jumble of broken statues, toppled columns, indecipherable graffiti, the ruins of industrial society are doubly impressive: because they are so enormous in scope and because they are so premature.
Our ruins are beginning to overshadow our constructions and are threatening to bury us alive...

Our senses, our instincts, our imagination always range far ahead of our reason. The critique of our civilization began with the Romantic poets, just as the industrial era was dawning. The poetry of the twentieth century carried on the Romantic revolt and rooted it even more deeply, but only very recently this spiritual rebellion penetrated the minds and hearts of the vast majority of people. Modern society is beginning to question the principles that served as its cornerstone two centuries ago, and is searching for other paths. We can only hope that it is not loo late.

The destiny of the work of art is the air-conditioned eternity of the museum; the destiny of the industrial object is the trash barrel. The hand-crafted object ordinarily escapes the museum and its glass display cases, and when it does happen to end up in one, it acquits itself honourably. lt is not a unique object, merely a typical one, it is a captive example, not an idol.Hand-crafted artefacts do not march in locksteps with time nor do they attempt to overcome it.

Experts periodically examine the inroads that death is making in works of art: cracks in paintings, fading outlines, changes in colour. the leprosy eating away both the frescoes of Ajanta and Leonardo da Vinci's canvases. The work of art, as a material thing, is not eternal, And as an idea? Ideas too grow old and die. The work of art is not eternal...

For the industrial object no resurrection is possible: it disappears as rapidly as it first appeared. If it left no trace at all, it would be truly perfect; unfortunately, it has a body and once that body has ceased to be useful, it becomes mere refuse that is difficult to dispose of. The obscene indestructibility of trash is no less pathetic than the false eternity of the museum.

The thing that is handmade has no desire to last for thousands upon thousands of years, nor is it possessed by a frantic drive to die an early death. It follows the appointed round of days, it drifts with us as the current carries us along together, it wears away little by little, it neither seeks death nor denies it: it accepts it.
Between the timeless time of the museum and the speeded-up time of technology, craftsmanship is the heartbeat of human time.
A thing that is handmade is a useful object but also one that is beautiful: an object that lasts a long time but also one that slowly ages away and is resigned to so doing; an object that is not unique like the work of art and can be replaced by another object that is similar but not identical.

The craftsman's handiwork teaches us to die and hence teaches us to live.

Cambridge, Massachusetts
December 7. 1973

This is an abridged version of the original essay.
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