‘Fractured Skills: Head & Hand Divided’ – Richard Sennett


As part of his book, ‘The Craftsman’, the chapter entitled ‘Fractured Skills: Head & Hand Divided’ touches upon the role of computers and technology in art and design.

After researching Sennett, I learned that he is the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, as well as the University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. It became clear that his studies focus on social ties in cities, and the effects of urban living on modern civilians. This underscores the argument he outlines during his piece.

Sennett begins by discussing what a skill actually is. He argues that skill is not untrained, natural talent, but rather the constant honing and developing of said natural talent. He says “An infant musical prodigy like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did indeed harbour the capacity to remember large swatches of notes, but from ages five to seven Mozart learned how to train his great innate musical memory when he improvised at the keyboard. He evolved methods for seeming to produce music spontaneously. The music he later wrote down again seems spontaneous because he wrote directly on the page with relatively few corrections, but Mozart’s letters show that he went over his scores again and again in his mind before setting them in ink”, thus demonstrating that he feels skill is the ability to evolve one’s ingrained abilities rather than a random stroke of luck. He goes onto talk about repetitive learning, and how in our contemporary society, educational institutions fear that repetition will bore children so they try to avoid it.

However, Sennett criticises this approach, as he feels it “deprives children of the experience of studying their own ingrained practice and modulating it from within”. This means children are becoming lazy, assuming that skill should just come to them rather than it having to be worked towards. The secret, Sennett claims, lies within the organisation of such repetition. It is important to delegate a certain amount of time to rehearsing said skill each day, whether it’s playing an instrument or learning to draw or writing a book. He believes that “as skill expands, the capacity to sustain repetition increases”, so in turn, practise begins to become less of a chore thus encouraging the child to persist. He also points out that “there are “Eureka!” moments that turn the lock in a practice that has jammed, but they are embedded in routine”, reinforcing the idea that one should not simply sit and expect brilliance and flair to materialise out of thin air, but that these moments actually happen in the midst of mundane duplication.screen-shot-2016-12-19-at-16-07-23

One of the biggest obstacles when it comes to modern repetitive learning is technology; “the smart machine can separate human mental understanding from repetitive, instructive, hands-on learning. When this occurs, conceptual human powers suffer”. Here, Sennett is explaining that computers can do the work for us, that they eliminate the aspect of physical practise in the creative process, so the skill of the craftsman becomes reduced or limited as they rely on machines to produce results. As he later points out, machines are superior to humans in that they do not become tired or bored with the activity at hand, and can produce work of a consistent quality at a regular rate in a way that mankind cannot. He uses the example of CAD (computer assisted design) technology, which can be used to help architects create designs. The statement “you get to know a terrain by tracing and retracing it, not by letting the computer ‘regenerate’ it for you” highlights the issue with such software, as the role of the architect himself becomes almost redundant. It also suggests that the artist loses touch with his own work once he allows the computer to take over and do the job for him.

I personally agree with Sennett’s stance as I often feel that in modern life, we are encouraged more and more to rely on machinery to take care of things for us, and I certainly feel that as I progressed through my school years, the focus on learning through repetition became less prominent. I always find it very frustrating as an artist when people make sweeping statements such as “I can’t draw”, and try and claim that all artists are naturally born with the ability to produce paintings, sculptures, films, etc. To do so completely dismisses the amount of graft and hard work that goes into refining one’s artistic practice. I almost find it insulting for someone to suggest that the only reason I can draw successfully is because I was blessed with an innate gift. Yes, I have always been interested in visual art and have enjoyed drawing since I can remember, and this is the reason I have become more adept at creating work; I like drawing, so I draw a lot, and through drawing a lot, my skills improve. Anyone can become good at anything if they are interested enough to persist in practising regularly.

Sennett’s text raises many interesting and valid points in connection to repetitive learning and the part technology plays in it. In a world that is obsessed with the internet and mechanic systems, it is refreshing for someone to pinpoint the areas in which manual, human-led processes are still integral to modern life.


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