On drudgery and artistry

The book I had called up from storage was not on the pick-up shelf. It was 2 hrs. after I had made the initial request, not the 20 min. according to policy. The title of the book is The Life of Eric Gill.

Today, Gill is perhaps best known for his clean, modern typefaces and fonts, but before he died in 1940 he was an artist in the widest possible sense. He drew, designed buildings, carved erotic wooden engravings, and sculpted. A devout Catholic and eccentric, he wore a tunic, sometimes without underwear.

He was also a profound and original thinker of the nature of work in modern society. He saw much to criticize in industrial capitalism.

By now, I’m growing impatient. I’m speaking with the Caribbean American at the Help Desk who keeps putting an “S” at the end of Gill. The call number is “B Gill S,” not “B Gills.” He asks for the title, which I can’t recall. The author? Hard to spell. I suggest that he search by subject. “Erik with a ‘K’?” “No, with a ‘C,’ but you need to put the last name first. Gill comma Eric.” More confusion, more search junk, greater impatience.

Of course, he doesn’t care, and neither does the person who didn’t want to fish the book out from basement storage. They see their work life as drudgery. The guy helping me had to minimize his Facebook page and put aside his cell phone in order to address my query. Like Bartleby, he’d “prefer not to.”

I’m not sure that I know what would it mean to be responsible for providing good service. In what sense is this the application of an artistic skill? What would a job well-done look like? What is made? The whole thing is pointless, meaningless, and stupid, and we both know this even as I’m becoming increasingly annoyed by his resistance and incompetence.

A Holy Tradition of Working: Passages from the Writings of Eric Gill: Trying to make sense of Gill’s three propositions:

  1. Art is skill in making.
  2. Work is worship.
  3. Every man is a kind of artist.

Would understanding these propositions permit me to see what a learning society could conceivably look and feel like? Would it give voice to my concern that the labor movement has failed, insofar as it has conceptualized labor as labor, to get back to First Principles–the nature of man, the nature of work, the nature of holiness? And would it soften my attitude toward these library drudgerers, replacing my ambient impatience with a sense of compassion?

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