“Why should I pay THAT MUCH when I can buy something exactly like it at _______ for half the price?!” (one may fill the blank with the name of any High Street shop)
More than a century ago, English artist and activist William Morris argued that “nothing should be made by man’s labour which is not worth making, or which must be made by labour degrading to the makers”.
Morris and the followers of the Arts and Crafts movement, which spanned Britain, the United States and Japan in late 19th century, argued that mass manufactured products devalued labour and led to cheap and ugly surroundings. It’s not too big a stretch to say that the 21st century version of that argument still exists.
When Levi’s launches a marketing campaign called Levi’s Craftwork to sell one of the most mass-produced items of clothing in the world, we can collectively roll our eyes. But I wonder if there’s something more profound going on. In his 2008 book The Craftsman, the sociologist Richard Sennett makes a case for homo faber (or “man as maker”). Going back to the workshops of the medieval guilds and to the studio of violin-maker Antonio Stradivari, Sennett set out to prove Immanuel Kant’s dictum that “the hand is the window to the mind“.
It is only through making things,Sennett says, by trying and failing and repeating, that we gain true understanding. He is not, like some latter-day John Ruskin, arguing that handmade things are better than machine-made ones. He is simply saying that skilled manual labour, or indeed any craft, is one path to a fulfilling life.
How Do You Cost a Handicraft?
The conundrums start with this simple question. Art historian Paul Greenhalgh contends that there are two ways to make money through art: exclusivity or quantity. Either the “fine artist” makes unique items and sells them at high cost, or the designer makes a template that can be used for mass production. Handicrafts, he says, occupy “an economic space where objects, though individually handmade, sell at mass-production prices.” I would argue that this applies specifically to artisans in the developing world, less so now in the developed world, as the industry and perspective on handicrafts has changed significantly, especially given the overlap between “tourist destination” and “developing/postcolonial country.”
What was once the colonial periphery (island states, the “Oriental East,” the “exotic Raj”) has now become sites of tourism for travellers from industrialised nations seeking escape. At the same time, formerly colonised states are still reeling from the global inequalities caused by colonisation and neocolonialism. As a result, workers in these tourist sites/developing countries are implicitly understood to have lower labour value than their counterparts in industrialised countries; this is also why tourists implicitly feel at ease to haggle, in the process devaluing workers’ labour further.
We are on our guard in the bazaar, told that street merchants will “rip you off,” so consumers feel entitled to haggle one-on-one with this informal vendor; whereas in a glass-door artisanal shop in Australia, the shop assistant forms a protective barrier between the owner and customer.
Compare, for example, how you might easily pay US$30 for a wooden sculpture of a native animal in Australia, but you would haggle down the price of a hand-carved elephant in an Indian bazaar that only costs Rs 200 (US$3) in the first place. The price difference lies partly in a growing formal recognition of the “artistry” behind crafts in developed countries. But what was the distinction between art and craft in the first place?
Since the Renaissance conception of the “artist as genius,” art has come to presume a level of creativity and inspiration denied to “craft,” which supposedly is simply utilitarian and merely requires technical skill. Industrialisation further reinforced this perception. As crafts (read: objects for use) became increasingly produced by machines, art was seen as oppositional to it.
Utilitarian objects were reproducible and made by a process that separated a person from their creation. Art, on the other hand, became associated with uniqueness and an intimate connection between creator and object. For example, a copy artist’s work was not worth the same as the original painter’s, since it was deemed to only require technical skill and none of the original “genius.”
The colonial project further complicates this separation between art and craft, as intellect and labour became divided geographically. The manufacturing, labour-intensive, resource-extractive processes were off-shored to the colonies while the intellectual input—the design directives, management, came from the colonial centre. Ami Kantawala has shown in the Indian case that “[a]rt instruction served the economic needs of the dominant culture, treating learners in the art schools as future workers, as human capital that needed to be civilised through acquiring a patina of cultural capital.’” That is, the distinction between craft and art that materialised in industrialisation was extrapolated to the empire, relegating colonial artists to artisan-workers while “genius” remained in the colonial centre.
The problem with craft, of course is that it’s expensive. In the 70s, the Italian designer Enzo Mari was so disgusted by the quality of affordable furniture available to the public that he created a set of designs which people could make for themselves with a few pine planks, a hammer and some nails. He distributed his Autoprogettazione designs for free to anyone who would send him a stamped envelope. He had more than 5,000 requests. If you wanted to build yourself an Enzo Mari wardrobe today, however, the cost of materials alone would set you back more than a wardrobe from Ikea. And if you paid a craftsman to build it for you, you’d be looking at about four times the cost. This is how much global economics prohibits the idea of accessible craftsmanship, at least in the developed world.
There’s no real question of returning to a craft-based economy (or only in the darkest fantasies of a global economic meltdown). What we have here is a post-industrial nostalgia for the pre-industrial. In a culture with a surfeit of branding and cheap mass-produced goods, we romanticise the handmade because we yearn for quality, not quantity. The irony is that while western consumers aspire to craftsmanship, the majority of the world’s population lives in countries that have local craftsmen but aspire to industrialised products. Mass manufacturing will be essential to lifting a billion people out of poverty, and providing basic goods that we took for granted long ago. Meanwhile, we’ll be seeing more crafted industrial objects coming our way, as we lust after craftsmanship we can’t afford and disdain the industrial products we can.