Gradhiva n°17


The aesthetics of skilled labor

May 2013

Do the chants with which Texan prisoners pace their working movements have any relationship with the smooth movements of the artisan making a violin, those of the Bwaba scar master chiseling flesh or those of Homo Erectus carving a hand axe? Strengthening the old issue of the relationship among beauty, utility and necessity, this special survey focuses on the esthetics of skilled labor. In what way can such labor be considered beautiful and can this beauty be attributed to tangible characteristics – regularity, rhythmic patterns, economy of movement… – or to more intangible features? The issue is considered here on the basis of the distinction made by Hannah Arendt between labor and a work of art. Labor – the set of repetitive tasks required for daily survival – is sometimes transcended by chants or choreographies which embellish labor and lighten its drudgery. Whereas the creation of a work of art – that is, the creation of an object which will add something lasting to the world – can be made aesthetic by masterfully skilled movements. From Boas to Leroi-Gourhan, authors have related the aesthetic value of an object to the perfection of its technical achievement but the contributors to this special survey, spanning from prehistory to the 21st century, and from Europe to Africa, show that skilled labor is an integral component of the social game in which they play a role and their beauty cannot be reduced to the simple mastery of formal rules.

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Special issue: The aesthetics of skilled labor

Coordinated by Sophie A. de Beaune 

  • Introduction : Esthétique du geste technique, by Sophie A. de Beaune
  • De la beauté du geste technique en préhistoire, by Sophie A. de Beaune
  • Du geste technique à la geste musicale, by Marianne Lemaire
  • De l'adresse. Remarques sur l'esthétique des gestes du luthier, [Skill and the aesthetics of the violin-maker’s craft] by Baptiste Buob 
  • À main levée. La scarification comme œuvre, by Michèle Coquet
  • Arts de faire, arts de vivre. Chefs-d'œuvre inconnus des compagnons du tour de France, by Nicolas Adell

Studies and essays

  • Dessins chamaniques et espace virtuel dans le chamanisme khakasse, by Charles Stépanoff
  • Le Nouvel An chinois à Paris. Sur les scènes de l'altérité, by Jing Wang

Book reviews

  • « Comment Homo devint faber », [“How Homo became faber”] by  Françoise Sabban
  • « L'Europe des esprits ou la fascination de l'occulte, 1750-1950 », [“Europe of the spirits or the fascination for the occult, 1750-1950”] by  Giordana Charuty

Scientific column



  • 232 pages (20x27 cm)
  • 100 illustrations
  • ISBN : 9 782357 440494
  • €20