Saturday, 9 February 2008

Craft skill and error

Out pounding the streets of Kendal last night I listened to the podcast of the sociologist Lawrie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed programme on Radio 4. He was discussing ,with the author, the much reviewed book by LSE sociologist Richard Sennett The Craftsman and had Grayson Perry, the Turner Prize winning artist and craftsman-potter on the programme as well. There was a brief interchange (starting at 9 minutes 54 seconds into the recording) which I thought missed a trick.

Perry had just said that he had the slogan “Creativity is mistakes!” cast into the concrete of his studio much to Sennett’s delight ("Oh very good! Oh I like this!"). But then he went on:

Perry: "There is no right way to do it and it is always about my judgement: what is good.”
Sennett: “You’ve got an objective standard though, of course? You are judging yourself.”
Perry: “Yes [doubtfully] - but it can move. I have an aesthetic standard. You can’t measure it. You can't put a ruler next to it and say it is good.”

This is the problem. We tend to equate too quickly the lack of a codified standard of correctness, so that judgement is needed, with the idea that there is no such thing as correctness or error at all. (People are always suggesting this to me about philosophy, as though one can just say what one likes.) But it does not follow, as Sennett was keen to emphasise.

Note, of course, that Perry's first comment requires the very normative standard that he then downplayed, before going on to blur the issue by saying it moved and then that you cannot measure it with a ruler. (A ruler?! So what? He must think he can judge it, however, to think that creativity is mistakes.)

Until the idea of uncodified but still correct / erroneous judgement is taken for granted, a reaction against Perry’s view (in, say, medicine where we do want correct medical judgements) will, sadly, motivate those who wish to replace merely skilled judgement with algorithmic standards. Hence the lamentable growth of codification that Sennett also criticised.

PS. For my surprising disappointment with his book, see this entry.