The artisan, the craftsman, the artist, the hacker

Posted on June 20, 2012


In April, my sabbatical finally kicked in. I had planned this originally for June 2011, to last at least until December 2011 and maybe even longer. I would use that period to write, finish the project I labelled HotForestGreen and walk some new paths. This is now finally happening. With it comes some self-reflection. Here is the summary :-)

What makes an artist?

I think one of the most important parts is that money – while handy and certainly loved by me – is not the primary goal. The primary goal is to create stuff. To be able to move free within your own boundaries only. To create. To build. To make beautiful / horrid / ugly / meaningful / meaningless stuff. Things you like, you want, you want to have or want to see. Things you feel are missing in the world around you.

What this “thing” is, depends on who you are and what you like. With hackers it is hardware, software, electronics, mechanics. With painters and visual artists it is colors and shapes. With dancers it is movement of body in solo and together with other dancers. This “thing” can also be simple aesthetics, beauty. Or the inverse: ugliness.

I think the main common thing between all artists is that internal drive to create. To make something new. Something that is not there in your own life and your own environment. But most important of all: something that reflects an internal vision you have about things, that is not covered yet by others. Even if that “something” is just a minor adjustment, a different shade of a similar color, a re-creation from your point of view.

The myth of “originality”

In the 1990’s I was involved in the Dutch SciFi scene and one specific writer was most expressive of all. One thing he seemed to believe in and pushed as a truism unto others (or so it seemed) was “originality”. Stories – next and above most other things – should be “original” and if your stories were not “original” (in the sense of “new ideas never used before”)  then why bother writing at all? It was his personal vision on his writing projected to the world around him.

In my case, the most important parts about a story were: character-development, depth, a logic and coherent story world with a natural feel, a personal voice of the writer. And I felt each of these elements were missing in his work. I then wrote an article killing the concept of originality: claiming bullshit and shooting “originality” in the head.

There simply is no such thing. All stories already have been written. All possible hooks and angles to human nature have already been explored and written about. To claim originality is a statement of ignorance and immaturity. True originality is very rare and usually incomprehensible for others. Sure you can have a new and “original” take on some subject, but it always relies on things we already know. It is always packed into something we can recognize. Without these hooks into the known, people usually do not even bother to look and your truly original work ends up unnoticed and remembered by nobody.

The myth of art and money

“Art and money do not get together”. Commercial artists are frowned upon in the artist scene from the country I come from: the Netherlands. Artists who break trough have become successful are usually considered to be sell-outs in the in-crowd of artists. You do not make art for money. You make art for the sake of art.

Here is my take: if you want to fully express yourself, dive into the deepest parts of your soul, you might, will and could produce things that would break the reputation of any normal person and for sure reap negative feedback from other people to you. It is hard to create something and relatively easy for others to tear it down and rip you to pieces in the process. You really need a thick skin for that kind of shit.

Art that explores and expresses the inner soul can be shocking for other people as it might (and probably will) trigger emotions of rejection and will create images of you in the minds of others that can damage your means for income. And I am not only talking about the extremes.

Many people do not like you to shake up their safe images of the world. And your art can put you into places where nobody will hire you for a job as they associate your art with you and to your performance in their environment.

So: your art can kill your means for a relatively easy income and it is up to you if you want to take this risk in whatever you do. However: pushing through the void (where everything and anything is unsure, where you probably will not be able to pay the bills many times in a row, where you have to ask relatives and friends for money you might never be able to pay back) that lies between this decision and the moment your art breaks through can be very rewarding instead. On the other side of the void can be the recognition by your peers. People who did the same, went through similar stories. People who went for their personal version of excellence and actually arrived there.

Money itself is awesome. It is relevant. It is useful. It is awesome to have and awesome to be able to spend.

The possible conflict between forms of expression and sources of money

Sometimes your needs for expression are in conflict with the means of earning. Three examples from my personal life:

  1. Writing a book about Design Patterns – In June 2011 I decided to wrote a dissertation on Design Patterns. From the intended summary it became a book of around 1000 pages that is now online. In the time I wrote the book, I had no income at all. The book itself will only return the investment when I decide to monetize what is expressed with that content: my upgraded level of expertise on coding and Design Patterns. Until then: no money earned.
  2. Creating a software framework for distributed systems – The framework, now called HotForestGreen allows people to build networks of smart elements which can communicate to each other using all smartness you would expect, including cluster-servers, load balancing and plugins for common technologies like XBee and Arduino. The framework has seen two iterations already, one as a stand-alone server, the second as a clustered server. Both in C#. The third iteration will be in Java and running on ARM and Android based devices as the hardware is low-cost, easy to obtain and very low in power consumption. I will not earn money while building the framework.
  3. Creating a publishing tool for Word to Web, ePub and PDF – As I was not content with the tools available and did not like to go through all the steps needed to produce the different variations of my book, I decided to re-visit my DocumentShare / Word to Website project. The end-result is DocumentShare Publisher, a tool that does all things other tools already do, but much better. It can be found here.

There is no client, no financial backer, no commercial plan, no single goal apart from “I need it and I want it and it is not there yet”. Each of these products and results could lead to a new company attempting to get backers, get money, get publicity, get clients, get rich, maybe sell itself to a bigger fish.

But this is not what I will do. I will not create a start up out of these projects. I might produce a commercial version of DocumentShare Publisher, offering some “premium” options which are not in the free version. The question is if I care enough about this aspect of money-earning to spend energy to it.

The main reasons for me to create these projects and results is because I enjoy building this kind of stuff. I like to wrap my head around a problem and solve it. I like to build stuff that caters my specific needs and produce something new that is useful to me.

It is not that I hate or despise money. It is more that I believe the price for making each into a commercial success (by sales and via a startup) is much higher than not earning any money on them at all. One of these costs is that I will not be able to do all these other things I would like to do, like finishing my novel, building hardware solutions around touch-screens and any of the three things above. Another possible cost is the possible loss of ownership on the project. The moment more people come in, the higher the chance is that what you intend to do will never happen. As the direction of your project will shift as well. This can be due to the needs and wants of investors, but also because others involved have their own vision on what is relevant. Sometimes very different from yours.

I lack the skills to run a company. I lack the people in my network to do that company with. I lack the conviction that I even want to do this.

Instead I use the workaround I found suiting me better: building a reputation, building a brand around my name. Each of my projects will help me gain a higher social status of: “somebody who is able to do stuff on a higher level”. In general, this is a type of person that is relatively hard to find.

The artisan, the craftsman

Wikipedia :

An artisan or artizan (from Italian: artigiano) or craftsman (craftsperson)[1] is a skilled manual worker who makes items that may be functional or strictly decorative, including furniture, clothing, jewelry, household items, and tools or even machines such as the handmade devices of a watchmaker. An artisan is therefore a person engaged in or occupied by the practice of a craft, who may through experience and talent reach the expressive levels of an art in their work and what they create.

I isolate the last part: “who may through experience and talent reach the expressive levels of an art in their work and what they create”.

To understand better what we talk about, let’s quote another part:

Artisans were the dominant producers of consumer products prior to the Industrial Revolution. […]

Artisans produced the goods by hand we are mass-producing now: shoes, clothing, tools, baskets, cutlery, ceramics, glassworks. They made these goods by hand, using simple tools made by other artisans. What made an artisan special were several things including: his mastery of the craft, his talent to create something more than just the basic things, making shoe-making just as much an art as was painting a portrait. And painting a portrait was just as much a commercial craft as making shoes was.

One thing that distinguished one artisan from another was beauty. Another: quality. You paid a lot of money for manual labor and for a very custom-made product. So the result better be good, otherwise you might as well close your business. To create and deliver products that were below standard could break your reputation and once your reputation was broken, you would lose clients.

The Hacker

The hacker is something more recent. Like the artisan and the craftsman the Hacker in general uses tools, creates new stuff with his hands and like the artist it is usually stuff that comes from a strong personal need. In contrary to the Artisan and the craftsman, the things a hacker produces is not always “useful”. It might be some day, in another shape or form, but the main reason and motivation to create things is usually a random combination of: “because it is fun,” and: “because I thought it might be possible” and: “because I wanted to try” and: “because I liked the challenge”.

What is relatively “new” about hacking that it centers around technology. It takes something mechanical (think Charles Babbage who takes 1800’s present day mechanics and thinks: “what if I could make a machine that automates [specific] calculations?”) or electronic and uses that to make something new.

When I see expressed mostly in the Hacker culture is an artist using its skills to make something useful for his or her own use for no specific other reason than enjoyment. Why else build or emulate an otherwise useless 4 bit or 8 bit computer in MineCraft, with transistors, on an existing and much more powerful board or with old-school components?

There is no deeper need to make a company out of it, or become famous. There is a need to share, but as far as I see it happening with most hackers, it is usually as an afterthought: “O yeah, and then I read that article and I thought that what I am doing might be useful or fun for others to see as well”. Hackaday is a great example of such experiments and expressions. Most mentions simply show a proof of concept and if you are not a hacker doing similar things your first thought with all these posts would be: “why would I even bother to go to page 3 on this site?”

What I think is relevant about the hacking-process (at least in my case) is the discovery process itself: learning something new, changing your insights, expanding your understanding, having things confirmed or not. Relevance and usefulness is usually a spin-off result. While the experiment itself does nothing more than “blinking LEDs”, the spin off result is that you can achieve this in specific ways you were not sure were possible until then: opening up a completely new road to do stuff.

The artist revisited – self expression as the main guide

So what makes an artist? And can you be a commercial artist without being a sell-out?

I believe art is personal. The only commonality is the process of creation. For one person it is about aesthetics, for another about self-expression, for another about the process of discovery, for another about the exploration of boundaries. You can be commercial and still true to your art. Your art can also isolate you from others as it is too confrontational or simply things people rather not see or experience.

I believe art is about self-expression. Whatever that “self” is and whatever that “self” wants to express.

B-movies produced with no money at all about monsters from the swamp can be high art if you understand what is going on between the lines while high-budget movies produced with the best means can be a complete bore.

Helping companies market themselves can be a high form of self-expression, as can be writing software. Self expression can be done working in a company and never being noticed. It can be through other means, for instance producing works that shocks people while the real self-expression is exposing yourself to a larger public and being recognized. It can be by pretending to be someone or something else (the con-artist). A butcher can be an artist, a carpenter, a programmer.

Self-expression re-visited

So how can self-expression damage your potential income? (We all need to live, neither of us really want to suffer from constant lack of possiblities to pay bills and buy groceries.)

Imagine you are an artist exploring the themes of mutilation and abuse. Two things that can have happened in your life before. The theme of your work is to explore how this has influenced your own life. To do so you will not shy the extreme, including graphically explicit images, explicit words and maybe even explicit actions performed on yourself videotaped by someone else.

It might be considered art if this is what you do to express yourself: to reveal hidden sides within yourself you wanted to crack open for the sake of crossing boundaries (with art as a secondary result and as a guide through that process).

It is possible that you will never find supporters for this kind of art. Nobody to buy it, nobody to sponsor you. No subsidy. As you can choose to do other stuff, more commercial, maybe even more polished, it is not what you want.

Instead you spend years and years documenting your inner workings translated into forms that have some aesthetics to them. You might be working the odd job: something that does not require a diploma. Cleaning houses, working on a garbage collection truck, whatever. Stuff that brings in the money and does not draw your attention away from your work.

Why do this? Why choose a life in poverty when you can do otherwise? Being more mainstream, more commercial?

Naturally this is an extreme case and it is a fictional one. Even so, do a bit of searching and you might find several artists that might fit this profile. The main thing is: the need for self-expression can be more important than anything else, including social standing, a safe life, money. Where freedom can be to go on holiday twice a year, it can also be to travel anywhere you want earning your money by street performances: where the art and real expression itself is the freedom to move wherever and to love and to be in love.

Then what?

There is no golden formula for anything. My beef at this moment is that my belief-system still tells me that my success lies in creating a company. It is tempting like a sub-cultural “America’s top models” to join contests, try and win the hearts of investors, do pitches everywhere and create the next Google.

A part of me has trouble accepting that what I do and do best is to start projects I find fun to do. To tinker, to hack, to try, to experiment. To build stuff that nobody needs except me. To earn money with the occasional commercial gig as a gun for hire to support the things which are really important to me. To lay back and not communicate to anyone that I am available. To not hunt for new work as what I am hacking or writing or creating right now for my own pleasure is much more important.

It is hard to fight the part of me that has read books aimed at business-people, talking about market-shares, target audiences, return on investment, sales, value and value creation. To read Tom Peters. To read a more recent incarnation of that type of writing: by Seth Godin and question yourself: am I really going for excellence? Am I really getting the most out of myself?

It is hard not to look at applications like “Facebook” and think: I could build this too, and better. (Because Facebook really still sucks ass as usability concerns, not to mention the fact that all your public data is – not even probably but for surte – harvested 24/7 since whenever.)

As far as popular culture goes, we should all stand there on stage in “Who wants to be a superstar” and at least try. As popular culture goes, the little shops, garages and local businesses run by pops and moms are the losers. Crafts are no longer important. To own something that does a normal and decent job is for people without a dream. Tell your investor: “I want to deliver the best quality to the people in my neighborhood” and they will turn away as you did not mention formula’s, mergers, chains of shops, regional, country and continent wide expansion plans. You will probably never grow more than that one shop. And that makes you less than interesting.

What pisses me off in this type of culture is that it lacks depth. Sure ROI is important for an investor. But what does a Facebook really add to our lives? The trade-off for sharing whatever we experience to our friends is that that same data is mined by people you will never meet and never know. With the right type of data-mining software they will know stuff about you – as a consumer – that you never considered yourself: allowing them to allow other parties with useless crap like candy-bars and nutrition-poor food to sell their useless and overpriced products to you.

Still: Facebook, like Amazon, Twitter and Instagram are the wet dream of many entrepreneurs who start their business online. The idea that you can earn millions from running software on a couple of servers (hundreds or thousands in the case of most big ones) is very tempting. Like winning the lottery. The idea is like religion. You can say no to it, but what if they are right and you are wrong?

What if I am wrong?

It is this fear that has kept me in bullshit regions for a long time. It is hard not to think: “what would happen if I pitch this idea?” Several people I know from the Dutch startup scene have made it. One is even doing his second startup as I write. And from time to time I feel a bit jealous and I wish I was doing the same.

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