Five Years: Portrait of the Chameleon as a Craftsman

By Gert-Jan Meyntjens

Last week, in order to get into the right and enthusiastic frame of mind about the then forthcoming Bowie-album Black Star, I saw Francis Whately’s  2013 documentary David Bowie: Five Years. It was evening, I had been reading Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman that day, and watching this documentary about five decisive years in Bowie’s career seemed a good way to unwind.Bowie

Even though I am not a fan of music documentaries – their tendency to idolize can be quite hard to bear – I found this documentary rather compelling. Contrary to what its trailer suggests, Five Years shows and not only tells about Bowie’s merits. Having Sennett’s ideas fresh in my mind, here I could see fragments of the craftsman at work.

In Richard Sennett’s views, the craftsman is he or she who does work well for the sake of the work itself. Craftsmanship implies individual skill developed to a high degree through repetition and practice, as well as an attitude of receptivity. Amongst other things, this attitude of receptivity refers to the capacities to cooperate with others in the setting of the craftsman’s workshop, to work with new technologies and to be inspired by knowledge and practices from other domains than the one the craftsman is working in. Combined with expertise, this attitude of receptivity allows the craftsman to deal with the resistance and problems he or she inevitably encounters as well as to continue developing his or her skills.

Few people will dispute that David Bowie understood his craft. He knew how to write songs and how to perform. However, what Five Years interestingly reveals are Bowie’s other skills. Skills that precisely allow someone with the right know-how to have a long career in the arts.

Most importantly maybe, Bowie knew how to cooperate. He carefully selected with whom he wanted to work, but then left those around him enough space to do what they did best. He listened to them, was open to suggestions, but at the same time he was the one making the final decisions. Sennett suggests that it is such a combination of openness to individual initiative and authority (based on know-how) which forms the backbone of the good craftsman’s workshop.

Furthermore, Bowie’s dealing with new technologies (not repudiating them, but working with them), his tendency to complicate things for himself (a condition sine qua non to feed the craftsman’s interest in his or her own work), his openness towards other domains both in and outside of music, are all characteristic for the good craftsman.

On the day of his passing away, many compared Bowie to a chameleon that constantly changed his persona and music. As much as this is true, Five Years shows how Bowie was equally a skilful craftsman who could organize a workshop and nourish his own and his audience’s interest by being open to external influences. In the thin white duke’s own words: “My work gives the impression of changing a lot, but actually I am probably quite consistent.”

Francis Whately, David Bowie: Five Years, 2013.

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, London: Penguin Books, 2008.