Saturday, July 25, 2009

Art and Craft

"In My Craft or Sullen Art"

Dylan Thomas

When I read Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct a while back, I was struck by his persuasive distinction between craft and art. A craft is an act of making in which the end product is known ahead of time, and one can reliably follow a list of instructions in order to arrive at that product. In the case of artistic making, while the end product is imagined more or less specifically ahead of time, the process of making is itself an act of discovery, in which no unambiguous list of instructions, but rather serendipity and unconscious insights may play a major role, such that the end product may turn out quite different from initially conceived. Like most distinctions, this one is not absolute, but it may nonetheless be useful.

It occurs to me that happiness--or the more ambitious notion of the well-lived life--has elements of both craft and art. Like anyone in the mental health field, I am asked occasionally for recommendations of "self-help" books, but I have never had much confidence in the genre. If one walks down any self-help aisle in a bookstore one encounters the same dozen or so unobjectionable but generic recommendations, packaged and re-packaged in myriad ways. What is desired, it would seem, is a list of instructions for the craft of happiness. Follow these rules and you will be happy.

"The Happiness Project," a blog by Gretchen Rubin, is a relatively endearing instance of the self-help genre, largely because of her self-deprecating, no-nonsense style. Her ideas are straightforward and commonsensical. Inasmuch as happiness can be a craft, this is as succinct and reasonable an instruction book as any. Indeed, she has her list of "twelve commandments" with inoffensive suggestions such as: be yourself, be kind, don't keep score, try new things, live generously.

There are a number of basic behaviors that, as not only wisdom literature but also abundant research shows, boost happiness (or at least are correlated with greater well-being; the direction of causation is harder to demonstrate). Eat a balanced diet. Don't smoke or use drugs. Drink alcohol in moderation if at all. Get adequate sleep. Obtain a good education. Maintain a network of supportive relationships. Do measures like these suffice to produce happiness?

It may be that following such rules produce happiness in at least a minimal, craft-like fashion, but they do no better than create the possibility for a higher ideal of happiness as a well-lived life. Similarly, suppose that one wants to fashion not only a functional table, but a table that will be an object of great ingenuity, beauty, and aesthetic distinction. To do this, one must first of all master the basic aspects of woodworking; the table as work of art must first of all have four sturdy legs, an even surface, and weight-bearing capacity. There are clear instructions for the latter, but none for the would-be artist of the table.

The self-help genre, exemplified by Rubin's "The Happiness Project," is very much like an instruction booklet for making tables. It seeks to remove frank impediments to happiness in the same way that the craft booklet seeks to establish a board resting on four legs. But beyond that, happiness, like life, is very much a matter of contingency and fine judgment. This is shown by the fact that some of Rubin's suggestions, as she acknowledges, are contradictory and paradoxical. Accept yourself as you contingently are, but try to improve yourself where possible. It is important to have an independent identity and not to rely on others for happiness, yet it is demonstrably true that healthy relationships foster happiness. How can all of this be true?

Perhaps there is a recipe for the well-lived life, but the problem is that it is far too abstract. There are rules, but as to the question of when and where to apply a particular one, the answer is always "it depends." Few of us are artists in any conventional sense, but arguably we are all condemned to be artists of the self and of the life; some of us come off quite well, while some of us botch the job. And this need not be a matter of pride or shame; Salieri can't be blamed for not being Mozart, and Mozart can't claim complete credit, as many factors beyond his will went into the making of Mozart.

We talk of psychotherapy, or of happiness, as if it is a unitary thing, but arguably there are as many kinds of both as there are people. Some psychotherapy is basic training for the making of functional tables. Some people want guidance in refinishing a table, or perhaps they think so, until it turns out that it is wobbly, and it turns out they need to go back to basic instructions. Some people have a beautiful table and want a mentor to help them to make it still better, or to use it to its best advantage. Some have inherited a table that seems burdensome in its ugliness, or its perfection. And it is not given to some people to make tables--perhaps they should make something else.

Why can't some people seem to get their tables made? They may lack the strength or coordination, both by inheritance or habituation. They may have had an accident that limited them forever. They may lack self-confidence or initiative, and may want someone else to make their table for them. After they build one, someone may come along and destroy it. Fatally, some may despair of the point of making tables at all.

The analogy has probably grown tiresome, but it helps me to understand some of my own ambivalence over self-help approaches. Medication I suppose may provide the fundamental conditions for building a table: basic supplies, and strength and steadiness of hand--as a psychiatrist I often find myself as a purveyor, then, of power tools as it were. The kind of psychotherapy that interests me entails looking at internal resistances to the building of tables, or debates about what type of table should be built, or optimizing a table already built. But for cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is a table-making booklet in twelve easy steps, there is the self-help aisle.


Dr X said...

"The kind of psychotherapy that interests me entails looking at internal resistances to the building of tables, or debates about what type of table should be built, or optimizing a table already built."

Unconscious processes never receive decent treatment in self-help books, which leads me to think of the entire genre as a collusion with unconscious resistance.

Retriever said...

Second attempt (Firefox and computer problems yesterday...browser hanging, keyboard sticking, gaaah):
Really good post. I liked your metaphor, very useful.

Just to be mischievous, to extend it perhaps ad nauseaum:

--What about worms and termites, so that an outwardly solid one is actually crumbling away to nothing inside and will collapse at a slight jolt

--What about a table held together by desiccated glue, and joints dried out too, that you might attribute to outdated religious and conservative beliefs (? :) ?)

--Just because the table is valuable and owner paranoid, doesn't mean that thieves may not be planning to steal it, or vandals or harm it or peasants chop it up for firewood in hard times: patients are often correct to fear what they do...

--Cataclysms occur. A solid and beautiful table can burn up in a fire, be knocked down and broken in an earthquake or damaged in a flood. Patients can be broken/reduced to collapse by war, disease, divorce, unemployment, domestic violence, assault, betrayal, robbery...

--Even an ordinary kit unpainted piece of wood furniture mass produced, can be lovingly stained, polished and cared for to become something useful and pleasant every day (most of us can be considerably improved, regardless of uninspiring beginnings)


As far as CBT goes, don't get me started. I may post on it some day. I agree with what you say, but could play a long improvisational thing that I won't inflict on you!

Anonymous said...

Some tables are of the dreaded IKEA kind: flat-packed with cryptic instructions written in a language that has not yet been invented.

Some tables are sterile by virtue of their exquisitely poised fusion between beauty and function; and only become tangibly real and usable through contamination, or a violent blow to their slick frictionless surfaces - only then will life actually stick to them.

Some tables just need chairs.

A disassembled table may have more meaning than an assembled one.

All tables are destined to become firewood.

fraise said...

And some people who are meant to create tables, aren't taken seriously as table crafters because their gender doesn't fit with societal stereotypes, and so they're told that rather than crafting tables, they should focus more on finding a nice husband who will make Real Tables for her... I'm speaking as a woman who grew up with 3 generations of craftspeople, and who learned their crafts from them, but my skills are rarely taken seriously due to the fact that I have two X chromosomes. I have outright been asked -- in the sweetest of tones, naturally -- "how often I go to the DIY store for my husband." I'm single. It's for me.

With that digression out of the way -- Very glad to see such superficial Happy Happy, Joy Joy advice given a sensible critique. Another happiness-peddler paradox (if you're a mature human you see the paradox, anyhow) I hear quoted often lately is: "Don’t Take Anything Personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering."

That piece of advice should be called "How To Become A Narcissist In One Simple Step". So dangerously blind...