The fascinating quest for the code of talent

Talent is both the measure of the weight that, on a balance, makes one pan heavier than the other, and the metaphor of anything (money, especially) endorsing the supremacy of one side over the other. A unit of measure that becomes a value in itself, when one seeks evaluation standards that are not just numerical. Talent and value have thus migrated from the solid units of quantity to the less tangible ones of ethics or aesthetics, involving emotional variables such as desire and ambition. Whether quantitative or qualitative, even meritocratic league tables are based on talent: they attribute a value to invention and highlight the flair of those manual skills that are intrinsic to craftsmanship. Because the artisan produces with his own hands, and uses a machine only on condition that he is the one guiding it, with his talent and emotions.

Craftsmanship embraces all the professions obliterated by industrial machines. Man’s work replaced by a serial production in which the prototype is endlessly cloned: modernity has gained supremacy celebrating the triumph of the copy. If we were to illustrate the progress of modernity on a line chart, with competence on the vertical axis and consensus on the other, we would see the curve plummet to the X-axis, against which it would continue to run in a parallel line. What counts in modernity is not quality, an opinion based on comparison, but quantity, measured on the undisputable scale of numbers. And numbers (of copies, votes or spectators) are the new gods of modern times: they command us, they decide who wins and who loses, and their sentence is unappealable. When modernity took over, craftsmanship declined. Its resurgence is the confirmation that modernisation is over. This is the dawning of a new era, in which we must learn how to give up modernity without retracing our footsteps, which is something mankind is not allowed to do. The return to craftsmanship must not imply the restoration of a world that has ceased to be. It has a rather different and richer meaning: the renewal of tradition in the sign of discontinuity.

To give shape with one’s hands, and not in a mould. To leave one’s mark, restoring the pleasure of surprise and the joy of wonder. In craftsmanship, ability, skill and experience play a fundamental role. As much as the supremacy of the individual, the sense of awe, the mystery of beauty, the thrill of competition, the enthusiasm of confrontation. Leaving behind us modernity and its insensitivity, we embark on a formidable quest, an extraordinary adventure towards an unknown destination. Not knowing how to do anything is no longer the aristocratic hallmark of the modern intellectual. Instead, it is the mark of a long-suffered fealty, an enduring servitude, a liberty we must reconquer. In the wake of modernity, we have to deal with the torment of Sisyphus: the fascinating and inexorable quest for the “code of talent”.

Excerpt from La regola del talento. Mestieri d’arte e Scuole italiane di eccellenza (The code of talent. The Métiers d’art and Italian Schools of excellence). Published by Marsilio Editori, March 2014.

Photo credit: Dario Garofalo

The future between schools and markets

The business area of craftsmanshift does not have the same meaning as it did some decades ago, even from a semantic point of view. In France, the definition of “métier d’art” was correctly chosen to substitute “artisanat”. In the past, handicraft was a concept associated to  the production process of consumption goods by the artisan regardless of the quality, raw material, techniques or design. Now, artisan work has a completely new meaning: it is a kind of artistic expression reflected in everyday objects, in interior design, in clothing and fashion accessories. It combines the choice of materials, the use of refined techniques, the uniqueness of the product and its own aesthetic characterisation.

This change is not always immediately understood and accepted, even by the most refined observer: it is a craft revolution, which could even be defined as anthropologic. However, it is extremely difficult to convey the need of this evolution to the old generation of artisans, who still have an anachronistic vision of their work. To introduce certain new concepts, interventions of communication and promotion together with the development of a cultural debate are needed. These measures are difficult to take mainly for practical reasons, such as the economic resources needed in order to carry them out. The solution lies in forming a new generation of artist-artisans, or better artisan-artists, culturally ready to face this challenge in the new millennium. Thus, coaching acquires a fundamental role. A particular coaching, since it must combine a sound cultural education with practical “know-how”. Coaching must also include the use of instruments and new techniques that give quality and uniqueness to the product while improving economic performances. This is the natural basis needed to stimulate the young generations to choose an activity. It does not seem like the recent school reform in Italy deeply considered this issue. This theme, which might seem elitarian, regroups elements of cultural novelty, in a period in which the paradigms at the base of the last hundred years’ development seem to be going through a harsh crisis. Public schools and their structures are not ready for this cultural revolution. Often also private schools are not able to develop the necessary programmes due to economic constraints. Furthermore, the general idea of artisanal work as a downgraded activity restricts coaching to the field of activities managed by local institutions. These institutions are unable to train new professional figures, both in terms of time and of organisation of the courses. Another problem is university education. University should be the place where students develop new ideas. Instead, the dominating approach is still to  interprete art like in Vasari’s 16th century: by making a distinction between major arts (painting, sculpture and architecture, considered the only ones to represent intellectual dignity) and minor arts, characterised only by their manual contents.

According to this same vision, crafts are relegated to the limbo of those complementary subject matters: their space is too small to influence both students and public opinion. What can be done? A possibility would be to create a movement awakening the sundry category organisations, themselves involved in this sector but with an inferior numerical relevance and, hence, representation. The press and media should be informed in order for them to talk about this historical heritage, which needs to be interpreted in a new way. Finally, the issue should be brought the attention of the European Parliament and Commission, since it is an important part of the cultural heritage in its national, regional and local expressions. We will keep following the path begun over ten years ago, on behalf of future generations and in order to honour our history.