A Dialogue on Guilds

Ed. Note: The following is a dialogue between an artist and an architect.

Paul Jentz: Guild is a good word, a good concept, and I’m frustrated by current iterations of the concept.

As a starting point let’s define guild as “a body of workers organized to maintain a standard of excellence in their work and present in their community as a body.” A guild’s authority to speak in civic  matters is derived from public respect for the workers’ skill and knowledge – something that can be grasped without higher education and is shown in their publicly displayed masterwork.

 Nathaniel Gotcher: You could probably insert “union” or “professional association” and would be describing something that does indeed happen today. Workers’ unions wield political power ideally for the good of their members, and professional associations (such as the American Institute of Architecture) unite professionals and create standards of service that are used to influence legislation and regulate the trades/professions.

 Paul: The unions do seem to be in many ways the inheritors of the guild’s type of social system. I suppose guild is the word we use now for artists, and unions for hand-workers or craftsmen. Digging for the roots, our current division of “craftsman” and “artist” pricks me.

Let’s say today’s consummate craftsman tends first to be concerned with utility and quality, the good and the true. He’s told beauty is the artist’s specialty, not the craftsman’s. “You’d need to be born with that gift and have studied it in university.” A thorough plumber creates an efficient and durable system, but it may not be much for the eye so we make cabinets for it and stick it in walls.

Meanwhile today’s consummate artist is losing touch with beauty as a standard; the only one left him once he became something other than a craftsman. So on a systematic level, I think artists have a lot to gain from craft organizations of the past and present.

 Nathaniel: There are three “steps” or “parts” of something crafted: the functional design, the aesthetic design, and the manufacturing. In the terms of the Roman architect Vitruvius, the useful, the beautiful, and the durable (or, alternately, the good, the beautiful, and the true). What you are suggesting is that craftsmen should be educated in all three and that the standards of the various crafts should be based on all three. A craftsmen guild will set these standards and will, in all other ways, be similar to the modern union.

An “artist” guild, on the other hand, will not be concerned with the functionality of his art, but with the beauty and the durability. His standards will be different from the craftsman’s.

Paul: When speaking in these terms of Vitruvius (which I think nicely define my thought), I’m not sure there should be any difference between the craftsman and the artist. The two are colleagues in the works of their hands. An artist ought to know that his work is functional, even if the function is not so easily defined as the work of a plumber. Some crafts function, or provide benefits, for the body; others are more for the spirit. Water is a clear bodily necessity, and the work of hands pipes it to us; beauty is as much a necessity of the spirit, and the work of hands makes it available to us.

More than this, art ought to be created for a place. It must go somewhere, and if the artist is aware of this he can make it more fitting and powerful. The place lends function or purpose quite easily. My work in stained glass is still at its most basic level the work of a window-maker. I tone down light that may be too glaring and keep out the elements. A fresco artist is at his most functional a plasterer.

 Nathaniel: Indeed, Art does have a “function.” This is why we have the National Endowment for the Arts that supports artists at the federal level. A social institution like a guild to support local artists and prop up a quality education in art, however, is not present.

Which brings us to training/education. Are university art programs the places to go to develop the “craft” of art? Are there proper schools of art in our cities that could be run by guilds?

Paul: Contemporary art education is difficult to laud as a whole. What are its fruits? Art plays a miniscule role in daily American life. The sleek modern look is almost specifically artless, that is, without the imprint of its maker. Most art is on the streets, bought by a civic institution for the faceless public. Meanwhile the common man (who makes up the public) looks at a university student of art as a fool!

There certainly are effective teachers in art, and I owe much to them in my own education. But perhaps half of them in my life are long dead or live too far away; it is only thanks to the Internet and a few books that they could help me.

Just as it’s difficult to eat well if apples and carrots are not in your house, wholesome art education will not have a local and therefore cultural effect if it is not in your house and local school. Elementary school often has wonderful art teachers, but at some point students are usually directed to more and more theoretical learning and away from the glue and pipe cleaners. There may be some students who prefer grout and copper piping, but they’ve had to turn away from “higher learning” and our contemporary art schools, which cling so close to it.

Rather than sending your painters and plumbers to a university dominated by business and law, place the fine artist between the plumber and the surgeon. They all need hand-skill, and they all spend their bodies on the good of society. Let there be a place that offers artists the deep technical knowledge and care for quality learned by our surgeons and plumbers.

 Nathaniel: So in your mind, the artist should go to a “trade” school, so to speak, although the more historical term might be “atelier.” Where, then, does a guild fit in with this?

 Paul: Even a city-wide guild may be too large to efficiently organize education, but it is certainly directly concerned with it. Perhaps a guild is best seen as an association of masters, each with their own educational practice but all attaining similar ends.

I think we can look at the guild as a go-between that assures quality and sets standards of education for its own trade so that clients and communities need not take these upon themselves. In turn, the guild also influences society in its proper sphere.

Nathaniel: A guild, then, is a city-wide professional association of the masters of some art or trade who organize education in that trade, set standards for the practice of that trade, and ensure equitable economic benefit for those who work in that trade.

Paul: I’d also like to see a missionary aspect in the guild. Quality and beauty do not need an ad exec, but I think we can see there is very little public desire for decorative and artistic work.

Personal and community relationships are the foundation of a trade and the lifeblood of a guild. Therefore a guild must do more than simply produce and regulate and sell. Historically, guilds invested heavily in festival and celebration; and this is the last element.

In a more immediate aspect, we have few masters of skilled handwork. To found a guild one may find it necessary to unite a number of different trades. In your view do complications arise?

 Nathaniel: The foundation of actual trade guilds ex nihilo is a steep uphill battle. The answer, I think, lies more in discovering what institutions we have that could be transformed into something with the character of a guild. This too would take a lot of doing, but at least it would not involve creating a structure whole cloth. None of the institutions as they stand, however, approach the kind of unity we’re talking about: Most professional associations which exist provide professional support but not economic, and most unions provide economic support but not professional standards. Accredited education happens outside of both of these institutions, and festivals and celebrations happen almost exclusively on an ad hoc basis.

Paul: You are right to direct towards building on what already exists. What we’ve been given is fractured, so we have a project of unity in a massive scale. As in the case of any daunting project, we’d profit by stepping down levels until we approach the thing that seems doable this week.

Do you see an issue of authority in establishing a guild today? Medieval guilds were established by charter from the monarch, and from that just and recognized authority gained their own. On what grounds and by what authority might a modern guild act in civil society and set standards?

 Nathaniel: A guild is directed to the flourishing of the community through the making of materially (and spiritually) necessary things. Guilds are therefore established on the grounds that they promote a just distribution of goods and a society ordered to Man’s creative and contemplative nature. In other words, Guilds promote the common good and therefore ought to exist in some form. As to authority, the public authority is concerned with ordering of society toward the common good, and therefore it is by a legitimate public authority that a guild should be chartered.

Thus, while each guild would have a specific scope of expertise, its mandate would be a public one.

Paul: This sort of organization is for many a lost form of the civic life. Though not directly a school of politics, the guild promotes the moral life and social responsibility that we earnestly need in leaders for our modern democratic states. From their roots as a Christian social body, historical guilds mandated varying levels of moral code for their members. With today’s pluralistic and amoral society however, how might a guild succeed in working with an American city government that is quite different ideologically?

 Nathaniel: There could, hypothetically, be pluralistic guilds that follow the ethics of the American “civic religion.” We can promote just practices in unions, professional associations, and educational institutions and promote unification between them. This should probably be our first step.

Without true spiritual guidance based on a theologically robust anthropology, however, these just practices will only remain as long as those in power wish them to. This will take a fair amount of commitment to educating our fellow craftsmen/professionals, and that seems to be where we have to start.

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