The book that I am reviewing today has been of invaluable help to me in understanding the nuts and bolts of craft skills and how we learn them, which of course, is my geekdom.
In his fascinating book, The Art of the Maker, first published in 1994, crafts critic Peter Dormer discusses both amateur and professional craft skills and their acquisition. This work was based on a PhD undertaken at the Royal College of Art.
Dormer explores the topic of learning craft skills in the context of two different types of knowledge in order to better understand it. Firstly, theoretical knowledge, meaning the concepts behind things and the language used to describe them and secondly, tacit knowledge, which is gained through experience and might be better called ‘know-how’.
At the time of writing, the prevailing feeling in the art world was that theoretical knowledge and concept ruled practice as never before. Dormer says:
‘In the applied arts, craft has become secondary to the ideas expressed by objects. Conception, it is said, has nothing to do with execution; and execution (mere making) can take care of itself. Skills are not merely mechanical and easily learned: they threaten self-expression, creativity, imagination.’
However, for Dormer, the two types of knowledge are intertwined, but he reiterates the point that tacit or craft knowledge is hard to teach by theory alone, because of the difficulties in description when it has to be experienced to be understood. This might well be familiar to you if you’ve ever tried to tell someone how to knit/draw/make an origami crane over the phone. (It could happen).
Dormer argues throughout the book that while theory might enable understanding of how to make something better, practical craft knowledge is necessary to allow one to do it in the first place. This is something that I wholeheartedly agree with, and something that has in recent years been brought to the fore in craft skills learning.
In the book, one of Dormer’s big assertions is that simply studying examples of craft limits the maker’s own learning. However, he does concede that it may be useful in the context of practical teaching and demonstration, where ’the role of mimicry is probably essential’. Here, he advises working alongside a skilled practitioner of the chosen craft.
Unlike many theoretical authors, Dormer did practice what he preached. As part of his book and PhD research, carried out his own experiments to better illustrate his argument by learning calligraphy and sculpture. I think that the knitters amongst us might agree that it is often easier to learn a new skill with the aid of both books and someone to show you what to do, be it in person or via a YouTube video.
Peter Dormer was one of the most important art critics of the late 20th century and was (perhaps unusually) liked and appreciated by makers and artists, due to his understanding of the nature of skills and how it is learned, used and seen by others.
I would highly recommend The Art of the Maker if you can get hold of a copy from the library. It is a fascinating read for anyone interesting in craft skills learning (which I guess is most of us).
If you ever come across an unwanted copy of Dormer’s The Art of the Maker, do let me know. I have tried in vain to get hold of a reasonably priced copy now it is out of print.