A Craftsman’s Legacy: Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning is one more book by someone who left the corporate world for the world of making expensive garage sale bait for the 1% and a few fools who want to “be like rich people.” Like Shop Class as Soulcraft and the rest of the raft of books by people who make incredibly expensive toys, furniture, and “art” for the idle rich, Legacy’s author, Detroit custom cruiser builder and reality television’s Eric Gorges from the show of the same name as the book, attempts to vilify the world we live in and glorify the world the average person never lived in; the Never-Neverland when people made beautiful things for money and ordinary people could afford them. There have been times when a few working people found enough spare time to make beautiful things for themselves, but usually working people just slaved away their days and lived in squalid tenements or on barely-sustenance farms and a few people made beautiful things for the ruling classes. The rest of the working classes lived with hand-me-downs and mass-produced products; just like today.
Like most of the folks who were inspired to quit their day jobs by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Gorges makes the ridiculous mistake of thinking that the goofier and less functional a product is, the more artistic it is. For example, the motorcycles he cobbles together are as non-functional and unridable as a three-legged horse. Unlike Persig’s ZaTAoMM reliable and practical Honda CB77 Super Hawk 305, nobody is going to cross the country on one of Gorges’ strung-out cruiser abortions (like the “One  One” bike pictured above). Most likely, whoever bought this ridiculous thing will trailer it anywhere this bike travels. Like the genre’s role model, the Captain America mess that recently sold for $1.2M and could barely be kept inside a highway lane for the filming of Easy Rider, this kind of art(?) does not qualify as a motorcycle. Even Fonda, who barely deserved being called a motorcyclist, admitted that his Captain America creation was so “squirrely” that the motorcycle scenes were simplified to mostly straight line riding. These weird collections of parts and artwork are not real motorcycles, but they are insanely expensive. They might be art, but they aren’t “craftsmanship.”
Too much of Gorges’ handwringing and the “woe is all of us” bullshit spewed here is of the “nobody does real work anymore” variety. Gorges does not recognize modern engineers and product designers as craftsmen because what they do is so far above the metal-doodling he does that it would be as impossible for him to relate to modern engineering as it would be for Donald Trump to have an intelligent business conversation with Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. People who made swords, hammers, blew glass, and turned pots were the engineers of the 15th Century and back. Today, they are the struggling privatives trying to convince the rest of us that they are keeping skills alive. For what, the post-apocalypse? In the meantime, engineers have moved on for at least two centuries past Gorge’s technology and skill-set.
A lot of Gorges’ “craftsman” stars and role models unintentionally make the point that almost everyone you know might be an unheralded craftsman/artist. While it is interesting to imagine that these artists who “gave up everything for their art” might be the finest examples of woodworkers, glassblowers, metalworkers, potters, engravers, and painters in the country, the fact is that almost every mid-sized-and-larger community has examples of those same skills in its midst. They might not ever be profiled on television or in a book, but they are out there. People do extraordinary things in their spare time, even people who do boring white or blue collar jobs during their working lives. More to the point, though, is that people make incredible products using their hands, technical skills, and tools Gorges couldn’t imagine.
I admit that a big part of my lack of enthusiasm for Gorges’ book is his perspective on motorcycles. As far as he is concerned, there are 3 types of motorcycles: “choppers, which have a long front end and skinny wheel; bobbers, which have a short rear fender and stubby front end; and diggers, which are long and low.” I, of course, think any of those bike forms are hillbilly crap that do not deserve a “motorcycle” designation. There is an aspect of A Craftsman’s Legacy that disrespects function and mindlessly worships form. I have no use for that attitude. Some part of my own attitude comes from the fact that I spent a good bit of my life in manufacturing and I know how much actual craftsmanship is required to make reliable, functional products.
There is a panhandling aspect to Gorges’ craftspeople that really puts me off; like the occupations that survive from begging for tips. Many of these people have chosen a lifestyle that depends on others feeling sorry for them and paying exorbitant prices for items they could find in a Dollar Store. Gorges asks us to “Support these people, this world, and this way of life. Turn your appreciation into some concrete (money).” Like cashiers who point to their tip jar as if they have done something special by pouring coffee into a cup.
Finally, I firmly believe that everything that requires skill is improved by every generation. You may be one of those age-addled characters who imagines that “good music” stopped being made in 1960, 1970, 1980, or whenever, but you’re wrong. Likewise, most 1970’s era pro basketball players wouldn’t make the team for, even the freakin’ Clippers, today. Michael Jordan would have a hard time playing on a winning team today. It’s true that many people knew how to repair their cars and motorcycles in the 1950’s; because they needed to. A vehicle that lasted 25,000 miles without needing major work in 1950’s was a celebrated rarity. Today, we call any vehicle that fails before 200,000 miles a “lemon.” Modern electric cars are knocking down 300,000 miles without a major repair.
Today, if I had to go to battle with a 15th Century sword I’d just use it on myself to get it over with efficiently. Any modern weapon would do the job at a safe distance, regardless of how skilled the sword-wielder might be. Vintage “skills” are that because they are no longer state-of-the-art and, as such, are obsolete. If you think someone with a hammer and coal-fired forge can turn out a better steel tool than a modern factory, you’re only fooling yourself. If you don’t think a modern adventure touring motorcycle isn’t as well-crafted as one of Gorge’s hippomobiles, you don’t know what the word “craftsmanship” means. If you think someone cobbling out plodding, non-functional “choppers, bobbers, and diggers” could get a job on a modern factory motorcycle race team doing . . . anything, you are probably the ideal reader for A Craftsman’s Legacy.