A Psychoanalyst Looks at Craftspeople

Photo by Joseph Szalay

“Paradise is lost; art making is search and rescue.”

Are we crazy to make bowls and cups and platters by hand when large corporate factories can produce them more quickly and cheaply? Is it insanity to spend years mastering a craft when other career options require less training and pay more?

In An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsman Make Their Way, psychoanalyst Janna Malmud Smith (Bernard Malmud’s daughter) does not offer the answers to these questions per se, but she does delve deeply into the minds and working processes of artists and craftspeople. “Because the point of arrival is enigmatic,” she tells us, “elusive, receding, because it waivers like a heat mirage upon the road, always before us only briefly with us, devoting oneself to mastering a practice unexpectedly leads through a time warp where past, present and future commingle. I find the contradictory notion comforting. Contemporary life is all excerpts, fragments, reversals and interruptions; it offends and delights us with its astounding, noisy discontinuity, but the work of mastery is very much as it was when artists thousands of years ago carved Cycladic figures, or cast Benin gold.” (Emphasis mine).

Smith examines the role of shame as impetus in the creative life of artists, and looks at solitude: what it is exactly and how in this era of social media it differs from the past. Is the making of art an attempt at immortality she wonders. As she probes, she uses her own writer’s processes as a lens and relates stories from artists she has known or studied, and anecdotes from her clients. She excavates myths and poetry for clues.

She continues on to such topics as Identity, Ruthlessness (really? us?), Going Public and ends with what she calls Coda. “Often,” she writes, “I suspect, the artist’s awakening follows an arc: from passionate pleasure, to identification with those who have created it, and a wish to become a creator.” She see an emptiness in those who have not found their way to an all engrossing pursuit.

Reading An Absorbing Errand, there is no misunderstanding that it is the work of one who spends her days peering into the human psyche. “Art,” she writes, “…enhances self-display: a flower garden, or anything beautiful we create, is a kind of peacock’s tail.”

Socrates proclaimed that the unexamined life was not worth living. Smith concurs and thoughtfully proceeds to examine the mental and emotional states of practicing artists today and, more interesting for her, those who aspire to make art but find themselves blocked. I imagine readers, upon finishing the book, seeking out discussions and arguments with their fellow artists and perhaps Smith herself if she were available. I know I would love to talk about her ideas with other potters.

Meanwhile, to the first point, I for one am at least just a little bit insane. But that’s okay, isn’t it?

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