How 3D Printing is rooted in the history of the progressive and democratic Arts and Crafts Movement

In this thesis I am going to study the ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement. More specifically I will study its ideas of the democratization of art, and attempt to point out similarities and differences that are apparent in the newly emerging 3D printing scene.

Really well written research thesis that gives a historical context to the contemporary revival of distributed manufacturing.

* MA Thesis: 3D Printing, the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Democratization of Art. Lassi Patokorpi. University of Tampere, School of Language, Translation and Literary Studies, English Philology, April 2014

Lassi Patokorpi summarizes his aims:

“The industrial era revolutionized society, manufacture and art. The days of old, when people lived in intimate communities in the countryside, when carpentry was a thriving trade and people would make a large part of their own things were over. Are those days now coming back? The Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800s, inspired by William Morris and John Ruskin, strove to make art popular, as it had been in the Middle Ages, and create a new, more beautiful world. Its ideas were aesthetic, democratic and socialist. The Movement had a great influence, which was most distinctly visible in Germany in the 1920s, but in spite of its influence all of the attempts to create a new popular art that would be widely shared by the people failed. It is my claim that today in the 21st century, new technologies such as 3D printing and revolutionary ideas like Open Source have created a new set of circumstances that might finally bring us closer to achieving the dreams of William Morris and the Movement he inspired.

In this thesis I am going to study the ideas of the Arts and Crafts Movement. More specifically I will study its ideas of the democratization of art, and attempt to point out similarities and differences that are apparent in the newly emerging 3D printing scene. I will ultimately attempt to uncover a possible philosophical or ideological kinship between the ideas behind these two historically distant and superficially very dissimilar phenomena. The second half of the thesis will be an analysis of the ambivalent role of the machine and how it relates to handcraft. The Arts and Crafts Movement had an adversarial view of the machine and yet the machine is the prerequisite for 3D printing.”

* Excerpt 1: Peer Production and the Logic of the Artist

“The emergence of peer production and open source practices in the computer world have shown that the conventional methods of organizing labour and running a business are not the only viable options available. The open source practice, based on open access and free-willed participation, baffles corporate logic because it represents almost an opposite ideology: sharing instead of proprietary rights and voluntary labour instead of wage-driven work relationships. An open source community has, instead of pecuniary aims, more idealistic aims of creating good products for the sake of creating good products, something that does not fit into the mechanics of profit-driven entities. This new economic logic is called hyperproductivity by Bauwens (2009, 128). Hyper-productivity conveys “drive for absolute quality” (Bauwens, 2009 128). The phenomenon of hyper-productivity is also visible in more traditional self-managed worker co-operatives, where the products created often are of too high quality, and do consequently not meet the market demands (Holmström 1985, 10, more on worker co-operatives in section 6.4).

In my view this hyper-productivity, central to the open source culture and peer production, most likely derives from voluntary work. In other words, people collaborating in open source communities are most likely motivated to create products that respond to actual end-user needs – simply because they are themselves also end-users of the products – and they believe they are working towards a goal that is intrinsically valuable: a good product. In his historical account of medieval practices in arts and crafts, Morris points out that artists created their products to suit real needs (1889, 67–68). This is likely also a motivating factor in peer production communities. Moreover, workers’ co-operatives share the same objective of meeting consumers’ real needs, instead of catering to “false needs simulated by advertising” (Holmström 1985, 8). Peer producers, and to some degree workers in cooperatives, are exceedingly autonomous (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006, 405–406). Ideally, it would seem to imply that people in peer production communities contribute only to causes that they see worthy of contribution.

This logic differs from wage-driven labour where the worker is, quite obviously, most often only motivated by salary. This dissimilarity between market-oriented and qualityoriented work is also apparent in Morris’s criticism of the industrial production of the 19th century. According to Morris, the ethic of the man of commerce, who is only geared toward the attainment of profit, is different from that of the artist who only aims to produce items as well as he possibly can.

Consider the following quotation from Morris’s lecture, “The Arts and Crafts of To-day”

– To the commercial producer the actual wares are nothing; their adventures in the market are everything. To the artist the wares are everything; his market he need not trouble himself about. (2000 [1889], 68)

The logic of the artist that Morris describes here bears resemblance to Bauwens’s hyperproductivity.

The artist and the peer producer are oriented towards the product, not the market. According to Morris, when the artisan is oriented towards the product in an industrial setting as a wageworker he or she loses touch with the wares themselves that he or she produces. As a result, the wageworker sees the wares only as a source of livelihood (1889, 66). This means that the business model itself eradicates the will or at the very least the possibility of crafting proper products. Morris regards this type of commercialism as destructive to art. But how realistic is it to disregard the wage-oriented approach and pursue more idealistic and altruistic aims? At the moment, peer production is a system that operates within the capitalist system, and is to a large extent dependent on it. According to Bauwens (2009, 130), the current system allows people to operate outside of the commodity and wage logic, but only as a hobby. Peer production is a system that is “sustainable collectively, but not individually” (Bauwens 2009, 131). Thus perhaps the biggest problem that faces the peer producer and the logic of the artist is the difficulty of its incorporation into the capitalist system. At the moment, peer production creates use value in the form of wealth (social capital) but the larger part of this use value stays outside of the market economy because the market economy operates around money and profit, not wealth. The market operates only on the margins of peer production (Bauwens 2009, 134). The question remains: is peer production at all possible inside the capitalist system which operates this way?

Peer production is a type of social production. People take part in producing something for the common good (Benkler and Nissenbaum 2006, 396) and the whole modus operandi of a peer production society is based on – and revolves around – mutual cooperation of peers. Because peer produced products are created in co-operation with the society, peer production reflects the needs of the whole society, and the created product does not only serve to increase profits of a single entity, the latter point being a source of much of Morris’s criticism. In this regard peer production resembles closely Morris’s ideals. People are contributing to purposes they find worthwhile and taking part in the collaborative process of creating things, not just being passive consumers, is an act of being an artist in the Morrisian sense. The independence and autonomy of individuals collaborating in peer production, and them acting largely outside the economic sphere, would seem to guarantee that things produced are of actual use to the peer producers themselves. In the Morrisian sense this guarantees that the product, or the art, that is produced is useful, and serves to 28 minister either to the body or the soul. In short, if you produce what you need, you produce something useful.”

* Excerpt 2, from the Conclusion:

“William Morris was an artist, craftsman and socialist who rebelled against capitalism and the ensuing culture of inequality. Morris held that art was not the preserve of geniuses but belonged to everyone. Because Morris defined art as everything man-made, including fine art and crafting, his concept of art is translatable to production or manufacture as well as to the contemporary sense of the word art. John Ruskin was fiercely antagonistic toward the machine. Morris, too, was in principle against the machine, but admitted that it could ameliorate exhausting and wearisome work. Yet Morris’s and Ruskin’s disdain for the machine should not simplistically be treated as Luddism, or outright opposition to technology. They opposed the machine because in the ruthless hands of the capitalist system it oppressed workers, seeing the production of commodities merely as a source of profit. The Arts and Crafts Movement followed Morris’s and Ruskin’s teachings of art and society, but was slightly more lenient in their attitude toward the machine. Later in the 20th century Lewis Mumford formulated the concepts of the monotechnics and polytechnics which separate technology into oppressive forms of technology and forms of technology that support natural human development, respectively. Mumford’s view highlights the fact that technology is not inherently good or bad but is instead dependent on its user’s philosophy.

What peer production, the idea of the Arts and Crafts workshop, as well as workers’ co-operatives, all share is a similar effort toward the attainment of quality for its own sake and the appreciation of co-operation. The underlying idea behind these phenomena seems to be a kind of socialism that proposes that the common good and good quality products in themselves are more important than individual gain and profits. In the 21st century, these ideas are subversive to the current economic system. At the same time, these ideas are reminiscent of the pre-industrial conventions of manufacture and organization.

The capitalist logic has led to severe environmental concerns and distorted the way society perceives the value of commodities. 3D printing, peer production and the open source 74 philosophy could change the way the economy (base) is organized, and therefore also change the culture (superstructure) and its view of material objects. It would also reduce wasteful mass manufacturing and fossil fuel reliant transportation, both of which are important causes of environmental decay, but at the same time induce wasteful manufacturing behaviour due to the ease by which 3D printers function.

3D printing has definite revolutionary potential. It promises a new way of manufacturing items and along with the open movement and peer production, a new way of organizing an economy. In an ideal world 3D printing would be able to give everyone access to the means of production, and as a consequence, democratize production or at least make the connection between the maker and the user more intimate. In the end, 3D printing could turn out to be a technology that would support human development; it could be polytechnics. Different projects that aim to take the society in this direction have already been established, such as the WikiHouse project which proposes to give everyone the possibility of constructing buildings. The ideas behind these projects are reminiscent of the philosophy or ideology of the Arts and Crafts Movement of creating a public and democratic art.

Designing 3D models could become the primary occupation of craftsmen who would practice digital craftsmanship. The machine in this situation is very different from that which Morris criticized in the 19th century, as it does not relegate workers into performing menial, repetitive tasks. Morris defined art as pleasurable work, and digital craftsmanship can indeed be considered pleasurable activity. Morris’s definition also entails, however, that the end product is also the product of human hands. This is not the case with 3D printing.

The question whether a reproduction can be art was brought up by Walter Benjamin.

Benjamin formulated the concept of aura which was based on the uniqueness of handmade objects. Benjamin’s concept of authenticity is problematic because it is a product of a bygone historical understanding of objects. In today’s world authenticity of objects does not necessarily need to rely on uniqueness. In spite of that, even reproducible objects appear to 75 sustain some level of uniqueness. All reproductions are not as valuable, even if they are in some sense exactly the same. This is because humans ascribe authenticity to objects and thus authenticity is not a material attribute of the object.

Ruskin found the value and beauty of handwork in its imperfection. Morris believed artisans could communicate something salient through their work. This would seem to suggest that a handmade object is valuable because it can convey humanity (Morris would perhaps call it ‘the human spirit’) and tell something about its maker. The question arises whether 3D printed objects can convey a human relationship in the same way. The matter gets even more complicated when computerized design and mathematical algorithms appear on stage. Computerized design and certain algorithms can simulate imperfections created by handwork or organic forms and patterns that can be found in nature and which can only be recreated with 3D printers.

It is evident that the concepts of art, craftsmanship, reproduction, and authenticity have transformed through the centuries. During this time technological developments have pushed the boundaries of these concepts. In the 21st century post-industrial world 3D printing will move these boundaries again. Further inquiries into the subject of democratization of art, and into the relationship between man, the machine, and nature, ought to be made. The Deutscher Werkbund and the German Bauhaus School of the 1920s–1930s and their role in the development of the concept of the democratization of art would be a fitting continuation for the work done in this thesis. Finally, I think William Morris and Lewis Mumford warrant more academic attention as they continue to offer valuable perspectives into the societal and cultural issues of the post-industrial world.”

1 Comment How 3D Printing is rooted in the history of the progressive and democratic Arts and Crafts Movement

  1. Øyvind HolmstadØyvind Holmstad

    JMG about 3D printers:

    “The impact on the prosthetic imagination on the crisis of our time is almost impossible to overstate. I wonder, for example, how many of my readers have noticed just how pervasive references to science fiction movies and TV shows have become in discussions of the future of technology. My favorite example just now is the replicator, a convenient gimmick from the Star Trek universe: you walk up to it and order something, and the replicator pops it into being out of nothing.

    It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the way that people in the privileged classes of today’s industrial societies like to think of the consumer economy. It’s also hard to think of anything that’s further removed from the realities of the consumer economy. The replicator is the ultimate wet dream of externalization: it has no supply chains, no factories, no smokestacks, no toxic wastes, just whatever product you want any time you happen to want it. That’s exactly the kind of thinking that lies behind Stewart Brand’s fantasy of “decoupling”—and it’s probably no accident that more often than not, when I’ve had conversations with people who think that 3-D printers are the solution to everything, they bring Star Trek replicators into the discussion.

    3-D printers are not replicators. Their supply chains and manufacturing costs include the smokestacks, outflow pipes, toxic-waste dumps, sweatshopped factories, and open-pit mines worked by slave labor mentioned earlier, and the social impacts of their widespread adoption would include another wave of mass technological unemployment—remember, it’s only in the highly mediated world of current economic propaganda that people who lose their jobs due to automation automatically get new jobs in some other field; in the immediate world, that’s become increasingly uncommon. As long as people look at 3-D printers through minds full of little pictures of Star Trek replicators, though, those externalized ecological and social costs are going to be invisible to them.

    That, in turn, defines the problem with the externalization of the human mind and imagination: no matter how frantically you manipulate abstractions, the immediate world is still what it is, and it can still clobber you. Externalizing a cost doesn’t make it go away; it just guarantees that you won’t see it in time to do anything but suffer the head-on impact.”

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