Theres something about quality that is extremely attractive. Blokes especially get seduced by engineering tolerances, shiny metal things that fit one inside the other with a pneumatic hiss, car doors that close with a thunk, engines that purr or growl at the appropriate touch of a pedal. many of us spend large parts of our lives in pursuit of this elusive word. Quality assurance, quality customer care, quality product. Yet I believe most of us, if challenged , would find difficulty in precisely defining the nature of quality.
A few months ago i had the privilege of being asked to serve on the selection panel of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen. One of the more onerous of duties of the selection panel is to do as its name suggests and select, which means making judgements on other peoples work. Now I hate being judgemental and I go a long way to make excuses to my harrassed wife explaining why the young inexperienced plumber I hired should leave glue stains on our two year old hall carpet. But darling hes young, and, I know that its a nasty mess on the carpet and yes I know the hot water isnt on yet but we dont want to be too hard on him
The grand occasion of the year when the selection committee can however be truly vitriolic occasion this is the annual summer exhibition of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen. This is a show which occupies our galleries for most of the summer. Perhaps I should explain, the Devon Guild of Craftsmen is particularly powerful group of craftsmen and women representing many disciplines from stone carvers to silversmiths, from blacksmiths to photographers. Most crafts people live in the South west of England, not just in Devon and are accepted as members of the Guild because they are masters or mistresses of their craft and have a creative personal direction within their craft. Each year we are asked to submit a special piece, or a small body of work for selection for the summer exhibition. The summer exhibition is our showcase. The best contemporary craft of some of the best craftsmen and women in Europe and I was a part of the body that had to pick some pieces to go in the exhibition and equally some pieces not to go in to the exhibition.
Imagine what it feels like. You are being asked to make this special piece for the exhibition. Not just one of your run of the mill pots, not something youd put in the shop, but something special, something youve taken some risks on, something new , a piece where you have extended your creative direction, pushed the boundaries, dangled a leg over the edge but managed to bring it off. Youve done all that, gone all that way, made the bloody thing, hoofed it all the way down to Bovey Tracey and then you get the phone call please would you mind coming in and picking it up as its been rejected. Wouldnt you be spitting feathers.
Now, Id only been a member of the selection panel for a few months and this was my first summer exhibition. On the panel with me were I think four or five other craftspeople. All of them very very experienced practitioners. These were women , yes, I was the token man, probably with twenty or thirty years experience each as jewellers, silversmiths, weavers, printers, and in my case woodworker. The process of selecting had been carefully considered and arrived at over what must be many years of experience. We were asked first of all to, in silence, examine the works in front of us and they were arranged on plinths displayed as best the gallery staff could and we just wandered around with our lists looking at the pieces, making an initial acquaintance. We were asked to do this in silence so as not to confer and I suppose compromise one another’s viewpoints, but also to disturb other peoples thought process. The enjoyment of objects in this context is primarily visual,chattering in the background is a considerable interruption. Having made our initial acquaintance of the objects, we were then asked by our Chairperson to look at each object in turn. Where we had the work of a potter to look at, it would be the ceramicist or potter on the selection panel that would speak first. They would tell us whether this piece was executed in a technically competent manner and then go on to give a personal assessment of the aesthetics of the object, whether they liked it, whether they felt the shapes were pleasing, good,satisfying. Having done that, each in turn would be asked to give a viewpoint and then the panel would vote the object either in out. Before I came I was prepared for a really good old day of argument. Id met these women once or twice before and none could be described as shrinking violets. As we began, I was horrified at the vitriolic assessments that were being expressed. Cant have this. Look at the way shes attached those fixings, No, No theres a loose thread here. Look at that weve seen this kind of work for nearly fifteen years from this woman . One wants to be positive, but really this just isnt good enough. The assessment criteria was absolutely vicious and unrelenting. No defect, no sign of humanity would pass this group of critics. Secondly , I felt fear for I had a piece of work in this room to be judged by these harpies and I didnt feel very comfortable about that. Perhaps I should explain that when your turn comes up, you are invited to leave the room while the panel considers your pieces of work. you are then invited back in to be given the verdict of either acceptance or rejection.
So what does this tell us about quality. Well the fascinating thing about this meeting was that all of the argument was about borderline objects. Whether or not one should reject or accept this borderline case. When it came to truly outstanding pieces of work, pieces of real quality, the discussion was quick and uniformly positive. yes thats absolutely stunning, beautiful, yes weve got to have that. Exquisite. From whatever ones perspective, be it ceramicist, letter carver, jeweller, silversmith, the group aesthetic judgement was without doubt everyone of feeling that this was a work of quality. From whatever viewpoint this object was observed, this piece looked right. What is it that brings myself , a fifty odd year old furniture maker with zero knowledge, a complete ignorance of pottery and an equally mature female silversmith probably equally ignorant of ceramics to look at the same porcelain bowl with stunned admiration. Completely in accord that this is a wonderful object. Yes, two of us might accord, but four, five, six of us. No there is something else happening here. Quality is a social judgement. Karl, or was it Ernst Jung, had an idea that helps explain something about this called the theory of collection unconsciousness. Jung proposed that we all share similar emotions of love, hate, fear. Weve all seen the same sunrise, felt the loss of a loved one, all touched the same pool of reflected light and its this shared collective unconsciousness , unconscious experience that lets us us relate to objects of beauty, even objects of beauty created outside our own historical era or outside our own geographical culture. in this way we can appreciate Ming porcelain whilst having little understanding or empathy for the life experience of the Ming potter .
Time and again I see students coming to our workshops to learn how to make fine furniture. These are people, probably who have done something else, been a lawyer, a diplomat, a businessman, something sufficiently large was missing from their lives that they felt the compulsion not to just tinker with it but to change it quite radically. These people spend a year with me and pay quite a heavy premium to do that. Taking a year out is a serious undertaking for even the most frivolous amongst us. I see people coming and struggling to learn how to sharpen tools and plane a piece of wood flat and square, join two pieces of wood together seamlessly. I see them demanding of themselves nothing but perfection. Nothing but the very best they can achieve. This pursuit of quality, of something well done, something made with ones utmost, can become an unrelenting tyrant. Even the finest piece of work made with months of care love and attention will, in the eyes of the beholder, seem just that, but in the eye of the maker have that teeny little defect that is throbbing loud and insistently. Yet, simple good workmanship is not enough to give quality. Many of the pieces in the Devon Guild Summer exhibition, tossed out without a second thought were well made. I remember myself judging a woodworking exhibition where a table top had been inlaid meticulously with a Monopoly board. A labour of love which must have taken the craftsperson hundreds of hours, yet this object would not qualify as being something special, as being an object of quality. Quality needs something else in addition to being well done.
The perfection that makers seek and cabinetmakers are a terribly fussy lot of old fools sometimes, we are prone to displaying a level of anal retentiveness which should be more embarrassing than it actually is. We attempt to copy or emulate the automatic perfection of industry. The robot exactitude displayed in the perfect flat surface of a piece of formica. Yet we seek to do it armed with nothing more than a sharp cutting edge and a carefully aimed elbow. We should know that we are beaten before we even start, but no, we battle on seeking to produce that exact dead flat surface, those two mating components that industry can spit out in the hundreds of thousands without even the presence of an unskilled Chinese machine operator. I mean no offence to the Chinese machine operator whose forefathers and mothers have produced the most exquisite porcelain, what I am referring to is the human content involved in the operation. Pressing a button on a machine in China doesnt do it for me, but the struggle to achieve, that does. Perhaps we should know before we start that we are beaten, but mechanical perfection is not only difficult to achieve, but nigh on impossible. Its also pretty dispiriting to behold. it sits there in all its mechanical perfection and makes us poor human beings feel inadequate. I learnt that from a client of mine who responded to a suggestion I had to hand finish the table top we made for her, not with hundreds of hours of sanding and polishing, but leaving it straight from the cutting edge with all the imperfections and evidence of human workmanship.
The shine on the surface of an object is most important. Its that part of the object that we respond to. A shine is psychologically significant because it tells us this piece has been polished with the house cloths of a thousand housemaids. It is an ancient object well cared for and it perhaps matters not that that shine can be emulated by a robot wielding a spray can then buffed to a high gloss perfection with a power polisher. I recently made table for a client who wanted just that. A really high shine, and we gave him just that. the piece looked as if it had been made, not by a human being, but had landed there from Mars, untouched by human hands. It was perfect in all its aspects. For me the mitigating factor was the legs of the table had been hand polished and in the shiny tops of the legs I could see evidence of the presence of the hard working human being that actually bought this piece into fruition.
So what is quality. Each of us here in this workshop have different levels of experience in attempting to make objects of quality so its something that concerns every one of us here. But attempt to pin it down, to define it and it becomes like pi, a very slippery thing. We know where quality might reside, it might be on the sports field with people like Beckham or Sampras who are undoubtedly quality sportsmen. That we say was a real quality goal . Quality may reside in something else in the detail, in the small careful stuff but depending upon which quote you look at, both God and the Devil also reside in the very same detail. Quality is said to reside in the last 10% of effort required to realise anything of value. That last lap, or length of the pool, the timekeeper at the end of the pool and yours legs and arms aching, your lungs unable to stretch themselves, but you carry on. So by this we can understand or maybe begin to understand that quality requires effort, sometimes superhuman effort.
It can be the quality either of an object or a performance, or I would argue both. Beckhams 30 yard pass or direct free kick into the top left hand corner of the goal may be done, by him at least, with consummate ease, grace and effortlessness. But it will have been the result of years of grinding practice. It reminds me of the story about a tennis pro who was sharing a room with another buddy on the circuit. His buddy woke up in the middle of the night to see this guy skipping in the corner of the hotel room. What are you doing? he said. Its ok, I just want to be the best, you go back to sleep and the pro carried on skipping in the corner of the room. Now that is what I call work rate, yet the paradox is that what he is wanting is an effort less performance in a game where his head is away in the zone and he is barely conscious of even hitting the ball.
Ballerinas, like Darcy Bussell will daily attend class. She may regard it as just a way of warming up and exercising her body. I would suggest it is a way of centring and warming up the mind and the body. Repeated exercises learnt as a child enable the ballerina to find her zone, her place of unconscious excellence.
Its easy to consider quality as being something of workmanship, and yet this is patently untrue. The Monopoly board maker may have spent hundreds of painstaking hours creating an object but ones response was not wow but why?. Why had this guy spent so long and displayed so much skill making an object that meant so little. Showing off, the consummate display of skill is not enough without a good enough reason for doing it, the object has to be worthy of the effort. The beautifully polished lavatory seat in the palace of kings and queens may be beautifully polished, but its still only a lavatory seat. unless that is its an extremely well crafted lavatory seat. Marcel Duchamp, by selecting as an art object, displaying it in a slightly different environment enables us to see what was an extremely well designed object perhaps for the first time. Duchamps objective was to consider what was and what was not art, but another effect of this is to enable us to consider what was a piece of beautiful design and without a design worthy of the workmanship all we have is the consummate display of skill without quality.
Yet you can have good design being used to elevate a product in the market place and fail to create a quality object because the quality of manufacture is still missing. Essential details and shadow lines, important to the design fail to make it through to the finished object with the necessary clarity. Doors dont quite fit. No thunk, just rattle and roll. It all has to fit together . Quality of idea, quality of execution and quality of delivery.
Its easy to suggest that quality is a subjective judgement, an emotional response, but i would disagree. Yes it is this, the emotional response that gives us a clue to not just where quality might reside, but what quality might actually be. for it is the nature of quality that we enjoy it. Its wonderful watching sampras or Beckham strike a ball. I love to bits the quality of my motor car. Its just great shutting the door with a woof and a thunk and I enjoy the way it makes me feel. im surrounded my leather with shiny metal fittings and polished wood. certainly we identify ourselves by the objects we surround ourselves with We enjoy quality as it makes us feel good
I have a simple hand made pot on my studio shelf. It was made by the late David Leach about 20 years ago when he was at his height of his powers as a potter. Its a simple pot I use it to hold water for my paintings and I also use the central point in the lid as a mobile vanishing point when Im constructing a perspective drawing. The pot slides around on my desk and enables me to put a vanishing point way outside my drawing board. Its so useful. The decoration on the lid is simple. Its a rhythmical pattern moving from a central point out to the rim of the lid. You can see within it David Leachs struggle to make a repetitive mark. It is clearly skilled because it comes so near to achieving it , but its not quite perfect. There is a richness of surface around this simple clay pot. The pale greeny grey glaze gets darker on one side, where its been fired slightly hotter on one side than the other. This gives the surface a richness and a quality. I enjoy this pot every time I pick it up. It reminds me of how skilled hands can, with the knowledge of a lifetime, achieve so much yet fail to be perfect. It tells me a lot about humanity, and, perhaps more important it helps me to understand who I am. Without doubt this is a quality item. Yet I know nothing about pottery and my judgement may well be subjective. However, I doubt it. This pot is extra ordinary, outside the ordinary. Just as Beckham or Sampras are extraordinary and that extra ordinariness is at the heart of quality.
I would say that if we regarded judgements of quality as a subjective matter we would be making a mistake. We would be simply wrong. Your view being as valuable as mine, that is a correctly democratic view and politically correct view. But you may not be as well informed as me, and, I may be totally ignorant in your area of expertise. So, I would argue our view points are not of equal value. We cannot both be right unless that is, we agree. However I believe that Quality, like Art is not a subjective judgement. It is an objective judgement. It is objective. That is quality resides within the object, it is out there and is not subjective. In my effort to prove this I call as my witness for the prosecution Robert M Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
On page 242 of my copy he says
He noted that although normally you associate quality with objects, feelings of quality sometimes occur without any object at all. This is what led him at first to think that maybe quality is all subjective. But subjective treasure wasnt what he meant by quality either. Quality decreases subjectivity. Quality takes you out of yourself, makes you aware of the world around you. Quality is opposed to subjectivity. I dont know how much thought passed before he arrived at this, but eventually he saw that quality couldnt be independently related with either the subject or the object but could be found only in the relationship of the two with each other. It is at the point at which subject and object meet.
That sounded warm. Quality is not a thing. It is an event.
So if Pirsig is right, and I think he is, and quality is an event, then quality is a response to a combination of our senses. It is a response to a design well executed, to forms that fit and work well in the hand, to functionality, to doors that close nicely, to materials chosen with care and consideration. To Cedar panels that fill the room with an aroma of Arabian Nights. To burnished surfaces that glow and gleam with the light as we move them around them. All of this is quality. But more than that, Quality is helping us to understand who we are. Quality is the pursuit of the human being when functioning at their very best, in whatever field of endeavour, it being running a marathon or fitting a hand made drawer for the very first time. The action, the objective, is to excel and that is an act of human quality. So the quality is objective not subjective it is out there definitvely a part of the thing itself.
But, but, you cant say that . I hear him spluttering. You cant say that This was one of my more ebullient but less intelligent students. But I can and do say it and its what comes as a response after nearly thirty years of thinking about the subject. But its got to be subjective he says, my wife likes these little Cloisonn enamel works and she just loves them. I cant stand them. Surely beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What I like is going to be different from what she likes.
Okay my fine friend I say lets make a radical assumption. Lets assume that you are a Harvard professor with thirty years in your field. Lets choose the field at random. It could be meteorology, metallurgy, motorcycles. Lets say you are the Harvard professor of mumbo jumbo. You really know your stuff. Im a first year Freshman student and I come to you saying hi professor with all great respect but I really dont agree with you, I dont like what you are saying and I think that I know just as well as you do about mumbo jumbo. Isnt that exactly what you are doing now. What other field of intellectual pursuit would you have such supreme arrogance as to suggest that your loutish uneducated view was just as valuable and as informed as my thirty years of seeking for understanding in a complex and undefined landscape. I simply ask you what other field of human endeavour would encourage such absurd arrogance. You wouldnt do it in any of the other classics, you wouldnt do it in theatre or literature, but in the visual arts, somehow its an acceptable viewpoint.
In a way this lack of clarity in our cultural viewpoint underpins a huge insecurity about what kind of visual objects, especially visual arts are right and good and proper. In a word what is real quality in the visual fine arts. Does that dead shark in a tank create within you an emotional response, a physical visceral response that is more than a sudden shock of fear? Do the piles of elephant poo in the white walled gallery do it for you? And if it does so what, is it not possible for you to enjoy and be moved by the pile of poo dispite anything I might suggect to the contrary. My arguement is not about our respective subjective viewpoints but that the the object itself independant of you and me has quality, whether or not we like it ,recognise it or respond in any way whatsoever to it. So rest easy my foolish friend your wife can go on loving her Cloisonne enamals and you can remain ignorant until your dieing day.
Then there is the question of delivery. Its not just enough to do the job well The whole thing can be ruined by some buffoon who fails to live up to your idea of quality. Take for example my lovely motor car. Made in Germany with Teutonic precision and exactitude, designed by an Englishman and serviced by a moron. When my lovely car comes back from the garage with a 400 bill, its given its complementary valet, but the inside of the car is exactly as I sent it out. Fluffy, full of half eaten sandwiches and children’s detritus. Suddenly my attitude to Germanic precision has changed. The delivery that final bit and only the delivery has affected my perception.
The Japanese are so good at this. They wrap things up so beautifully. They are so anxious that you have a good experience of whatever it is you are buying from them. A pair of socks bought in a Tokyo department store is wrapped with exquisite care and great skill . Now thats what I call delivery. Suddenly those socks are right at the top of my socks drawer.
One can still so easily botch it despite getting it right almost right to the end. We recently had builders creating an extra room in our loft. At the start fo the job they created an opening in our roof and gained access to the inside of the loft up scaffolding and through that opening. Our family life was relatively undisturbed by their activities. At the end of the job, and this job had stretched on for some months, they sealed that hole and had to gain access through our home, tramping muddy boots up new carpets and leaving an indelible imprint on our family life. By the end of the job we were thoroughly sick of the sight of them and all their hard and careful work was squandered, where with a little care and a few dust sheets we would have been sending them off with praises, bottles of whisky, bonus payments and recommendations to all our friends. The effort was the same, what was lacking was the delivery. That final bit. The last , not 10%, but 2%.