In praise of the artisan

As Tom Stoppard says in Artist Descending a Staircase, “Skill without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets. Imagination without skill gives us modern art.” 

With the death of David Bowie we are all reminded of the impact that truly innovative and creative people can have on our lives. It all seems too much for one person’s lifetime to achieve and leave for us to gather and absorb.

People like Bowie are, of course, inspirational not just for what they produce, but also in the way they live their lives, causing others to view their opinions and options in a new way, but it is in what they produce that I think their long term impact will be felt most strongly over time via the development of the current creative arts beyond performance and expression towards pure and constant innovation.

This has lead to a book market flooded with the output of creative writing graduates which is often distinctive and original only in the rather formulaic ways in which it avoids being  conventional.

Modern British TV has become so obsessed with innovation that I’m often left with the impression that the last thing producers consider is the audience. Their writers, directors, cameramen, lighting crews et al. are all so infused the the zeitgeist of innovation that none appear to want to work on shows that aren’t constantly being changed about. You could even get the impression sometimes that they all find it a bit boring and make changes just to stay awake.

A considerable proportion of TV and radio output is quite unnecessarily live, and subject to communications failures and time-filling wittering, because since CNN broke into the market with lightweight crews who were reporting on the spot ages before everyone else, that has become the way to report news. I can’t think of a single news item, short of a nuclear assault on the UK, that I need to hear about from a live reporter in a shouty gushing and incomplete manner, rather than a recorded considered piece from a local correspondent who has gathered the facts and context.

All the recent historical TV documentaries I have seen have been in the present tense, as if history needs to be presented with urgency to be engaging.

Modern travelogues tend to be little more that celebrity holiday videos with very little insight, but lots of personal anecdote. Can nobody in the TV companies see the folly of these programmes which always seem to begin with a millionaire celebrity telling us they’ve always wanted to travel to Reykjavik or the Great Barrier Reef or some other place that plenty of ordinary people seem to manage to visit by using travel agents and their own money?

What I think we want from the Arts is the same as what we want from manufacturers, 10% periodic innovation but 90% proper attention to the craft. This was Apple’s edge over Microsoft, a limited range of hardly innovative but thoughtfully designed and beautifully made products that worked well together and didn’t need constant overhaul or update. Dyson’s success only really came after the innovative engineering and design was followed up by better manufacturing so that there were fewer fiddly bits which broke off (Of course the real Dyson innovation was to produce a vacuum cleaner that blokes would use).

There is an oft repeated study showing that the only people who, on average, made money during the Gold Rush were pick and shovel manufacturers, a truth espoused by the German economy which has a backbone of machine toolmakers supplying production lines all over the world. They may not be household names, but they provide high quality reliable goods, and high paid reliable jobs over the long term.

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