“Skill Is Seductive”

March 26, 2009

Despite my differences with him on certain issues (religion, particularly) I think that Robert Bringhurst is one of the most fascinating writers and thinkers out there — his analysis of the meaning of mythology is, if you ask me, second to none.  And his voice is strident on the nature of art and artifice:

“[Robert McNamara’s] example has taught me, nonetheless, that positions of power must not be occupied by people who are happy to take refuge in the craft of administration or the skill of systems design, nor by people whose sense of respect for the physical world is subservient to their sense of political loyalty.  There must be some point too at which even typographers, meterologists, knifesmiths, philosophers, and shovelmakers raise their heads from the workbench and ask how what they make is being used.  There is no sane person to whom napalm or mustard gas is saintly.


“Morality is part of language itself, and language is part of morality.  Not all sentences are good to speak on all occasions even though the language can construct them.  And not all things the designer can design are desirable just because he can design them.  I think this truth applies, in its small way, even to Peter Schoffer’s title page — though in Schoffer’s case the witnesses are dead, the statute of limitations has long run out, and the page is inarguably beautiful.”  (Robert Bringhurst, “Boats is Saintlier than Captains” in Everywhere Being Is Dancing pp. 197-9)

Or, to see it framed differently, read the parable of “Father Smith’s Confession” and “Father Smith’s Footnote” in Walker Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome.  It doesn’t work for excerpting in this medium.  The point, of course, is that the beauty of the artifice alone isn’t enough to make something truly, nobly beautiful (for it to be kalos, let’s say).  Because,

“If we divorce truth from beauty, we’re engaging in a sophomorically lazy reading of Keats’ dictum, forgetting that beauty alone does not make something truth: we must have truth to have beauty.”

Without the truth that makes it kalos, the beauty of the artifice can be deceptive.  In the realm of art, it leads to debates over obscenity and appropriateness and eventually at least one side calls the other bourgeois; removed from that realm, however, the deception can become dangerous: elegance does not necessarily make something good.


(The title of the post is Bringhurst, from the same essay.)


One Response to ““Skill Is Seductive””

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