Shop Class as Soulcraft: creativity at work

The beginning of the end: this post begins the final theme I want to take away from Shopwork as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford. In some sense it’s more tangential, and it’s actually the first thing I wrote.  

What jobs are creative nowadays? Are we seeing an upsurge in creativity at work, or is this propaganda to keep us in a false consciousness? There was a round of debate on this last year on Crooked Timber, but reading Shopwork as Soulcraft reinvigorated this issue, as Crawford makes an even more savage case against a rise in creativity.

Specifically, he asserts that “creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practise” which requires “submission” rather than freedom. If we believe otherwise, we will willingly swim the ephemeral streams of modern life, never gaining grounded competence in a single craft, competence of a sort that grants us genuine (economic) freedom and the capacity to create. Labelling jobs as creative is a great misdirect, and we shouldn’t stand for it. I think Crawford has it half right.* It’s true that some cultural products call for a minimal skill set. Many enduring works of art are the product of a tenacious history of practise and improvement: Malcolm Gladwell makes much of this anecdotally in Outliers, his book on people with exceptional achievements. That said, I’m certain there are counterexamples of talents who made a genuine mark without having ‘paid dues’ along the way, and would be fascinated in your examples in comments. One for me would be Mike Allred, who exploded onto the comics scene after working as a journalist for much of his adult life. Across the board however, I’d probably put the balance of enduring cultural products in the hands of those with the mastery. 

I see it in my own experience too. I’ve been improvising for three years and change, following a much longer background in the related roleplaying scene, and I know this: there are some things I see more experienced players do that I’m currently incapable of. And: there are some good things I do now that I didn’t before, and that other greener players can’t or won’t. The psychologist R. Keith Sawyer talks of certain fundamentals that need to be in place for jazz creativity to kick in – comfort with standard chord substitutions, familiarity with the dynamics of performance to sense when a solo is ending, and so on. In a nuts-and-bolts physical skill like juggling, I’ve noticed a step change from just being able to manage the basics to having command of the basics, and thus the freedom to creatively combine them.

But is it true that all creative acts relate to mastery? Here I disagree with Crawford, and suspect our differences may be disciplinary. Crawford’s grounding is in high-end motorcycles repair and improvement, where being exact is all. I’ll describe this further in the next post.


Mike Allred’s site

R Keith Sawyer’s site

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