Risatti and Craft After Heidegger’s Critique of Traditional Ontology, Part 4

Wish you knew what was going on in this post? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 will confuse you more.

IV. Conclusions and Implications for the Study of Art and Craft

It might be said that I have, in focusing my critique on what is only part—though an integral part—of Risatti’s discussion of the craft object, been unduly harsh in my criticism of his theory. I therefore wish to reiterate that my intention is not simply to argue that Risatti’s characterization of work of craft is “wrong” and that we should instead be in search of the “right” one. On the contrary: Risatti’s interpretation of craft using the lens provided by Heidegger and Gadamer is extremely fruitful. His Husserlian model of the craftsperson’s relation to the meaning of the craft object is likewise fruitful, and the tension between the two, which has been the object of my discussion, raises questions which are rarely raised in art historical enquiry. It is my contention that to take Risatti seriously is to see this tension and his struggle to resolve it, and to see beyond that struggle to the new horizons opened up by it.

The truth of the matter is that Risatti’s Husserlian model of objectifying intentionality as a (or the) source of meaning in the art or craft object is common in art historical methodology. Likewise, the view which Risatti rejects—the view that “all meaning resides outside the object” and that meaning is imposed not by the creator but by the viewer, is common in art history and criticism (255). I believe that Risatti senses the limitation of both these models, which adhere to the idea of an object which a subject invests with meaning, and thus draws upon a post-subjective model, though without complete success. What I believe Risatti is seeking for is precisely “the excess of meaning that is present in the work itself”, as Gadamer says (“Aesthetics” 102). This “excess of meaning” is precisely what speaks to us in the work beyond and before what is “put into” it by creator or viewer. Openness to this meaning, allowing the work to speak to us, is something which demands a kind of thinking no longer tethered to the division of meaning-giving subject and object.

Perhaps what is most difficult about looking at the work of art or craft in this new way is that it seemingly forces us, as viewers, to abandon all investigation of the artist or craftsperson’s relation to the creation of the work. If we must leave behind intentionality and “the intention to mean”, what is left to see in the act of creation? Are we not forced into merely passively contemplating the work as it stands before us? And does not this passive contemplation lead us back towards a problematic emphasis on Kantian aesthetic experiences aroused in the subject, and therefore back into the heart of the subject-object model? The answer, I believe, is no.

There is at least one way of thinking about the meaning of the work of art or craft in terms of “receptivity to meaning” without simply adopting the standpoint of a passive viewer. This way of thinking is suggested by the writings of some contemporary Heidegger scholars, principally Hubert Dreyfus. Dreyfus’ discussion of Heidegger and Husserl’s differing concepts of intentionality in his essay “Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl’s (and Searle’s) Account of Intentionality” examines precisely the tension that Ristatti’s struggle reveals. Dreyfus offers an account of Heidegger’s notion of intentionality, which is a pre- or non-objective intentionality (2-4). In other words, there is a kind of intentionality characterized by receptivity (of the kind Risatti wants to cultivate in our encounter with the craft object) which has no defined object. This kind of intentionality, as Dreyfus explains, underlies the Husserlian model of objective intentionality and makes it possible. This is to say that Heidegger gets around the issue of transcendence (which is so problematic for Risatti, as we have seen) by revealing transcendence as the ground for deliberate, intentional object-oriented action, rather than a result of it (“Heidegger’s Critique” 10). Thus, in any encounter with the world, we are always already “absorbed” in some way in a situation, and the situation calls upon us to “get into the right relation to it” (“Heidegger’s Critique” 6). This quite accurately describes what Risatti’s entire book aims at: it wants us to “get into the right relation” to the work of craft, and thus come to understand more fully what it is and how it is.

All that said, Risatti is clearly interested in the connection between craftsperson and created work of craft. Can we examine this relationship in terms of Heidegger’s account of pre-objective intentionality and receptivity to the world? Again, Dreyfus suggests a way of doing this. In All Things Shining, Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly examine how those living in our present age can understand and engage in meaningful action and understanding. Their enquiry includes a lengthy discussion of the way in which the maker relates to the object created—interestingly enough, using the example of the craftsperson rather than the artist. Dreyfus and Kelly see, in the activity of the woodworker, an example of how to think post-subjectively about the maker’s act of making. In contrast to Risatti, Dreyfus and Kelly are very much interested in skill, though they have a very different idea of what skill might mean in this context. “The master’s skill for working with wood … involves intelligence and flexibility rather than rote and automatic response. This does not mean that the master is constantly planning out his actions; his ingenuity is practical, embodied, and in the moment” (209). Thus, the craftsperson “sees meaningful distinctions in the wood—distinctions of worth and of quality—that in no way find their source in him” (208-9). “The task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there” (209, emphasis in original).

This characterization of the craftsperson’s act of making might seem a far cry from Ristatti’s investigation, which ultimately seeks to avoid basing a definition of craft on either skillful creation or the material used. However, what Dreyfus and Kelly reveal is that this renewed and re-formed characterization of the significance of skill and material allows us to think about the creation of the work of craft (or of art) in a way that avoids simply falling into the subject-object dichotomy. This phenomenological approach suggests a range of meanings—physical, material, situational—that are overlooked or at best distorted if we merely examine the craft object in terms of the deliberate intention to mean on the part of the craftsperson-subject.

This new way of looking at works of art and craft is precisely what Risatti is seeking in his book, with all the new and difficult horizons that this new way of looking opens up for art historical enquiry. Taking Risatti’s task seriously means seeking this new way, seeking an alternative to the model of objective intentionality present in Kant and Husserl, and bringing this new method to bear on ourselves and our encounter with works of art and craft.

Cited: Howard Risatti, A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill, 2007.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Aesthetics and Hermeneutics”, Philosophical Hermenuetics, trans. David E. Linge, Unicersity of California, Berkeley: 1976.

Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger’s Critique of Husserl’s (and Searle’s) Account of Intentionality”, Social Research, Vol. 60, No. 1, Spring 1993.

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining, Free Press, New York: 2011.

If you’ve read this far, thx. –Raino Isto