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Archive for the ‘automation’ Category

This early in the month, I have no pressing deadlines, so I took the afternoon off to wander the Circle Craft Christmas Fair. There, I wandered the endless aisles of crafts, a little nostalgic for the years Trish and I browsed similar fairs, vaguely looking for one or two things and, as usual, spending most of my money of food (two tins of carmels, coated nuts, and three types of feta). Many of the wares, I noticed, were poor quality – and I was being scornful when I suddenly realized that the lack of quality was probably deliberate.

I was in the mood to notice quality, because I had recently discovered a source of hand-made shoes. Wearing these shoes not only solved most of the problems I’ve been having with my feet for the past eight years, but made me notice how the shoddiness of most of the shoes people are wearing. I’m like that: when cramming to buy a car, I notice all the cars on the road, and, when I was learning design, part of me critiqued every sign on the street. Periodically, I have these small bursts of obsession for a week or two before reverting to what passes with me for normal.

Yet even without this fading obsession, I would have noticed anyway. I grew up with a father who brought do-it-yourself to new heights. Trained as a painter, in the process of building two houses and customizing a trailer and two vans, he had to teach himself everything from electricity to plumbing. Since he had a limited education, learning these trades couldn’t have been easy, but he managed a rough competence in all of them except cabinet-making, and even then he managed to figure out enough work-arounds to substitute for not having years of apprenticeship. Consequently, although I usually can’t produce competent work, I know it when I see it.

This afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice that as many as one in three or four of the vendors were selling clothes or handicrafts simply weren’t that good. If they sold jewelry, they were cutting the metal to shape, not casting. If they were weaving, the result was loose and slightly irregular. If they were working in metal, you could still see the marks of the tools, particularly the hammer. If they had cut something from wood – even a square cutting board – they had apparently not measured or bothered to square the corners. And so it went, all too often, no matter what the craft, with merchandise being offered for sale at premium prices that was often crude and unfinished.

Yet, strangely, the low quality didn’t affect their business. Often, I thought the reverse was true, and that they were doing a brisk business because of the low quality.

I suppose, however, that this reaction is inevitable in the days of automation. To moderns, perfectly regular, perfectly fitted merchandise is the norm. Without irregularities, even crudity, we would never know that something was handmade.
It didn’t used to be that way. Two centuries ago, artisans prided themselves on the quality of their work, producing a perfect curve in a china teapot, or finishing a piece of jewelry to mirror-like brightness.

But today, an artisan with that level of skill would only be reproducing what a machine could do much more easily, what we see every day. And what would be special about that? The perception that buyers were getting something unique would be lost if a craft vendor sold something that looked no different from what you could find in a shopping mall.

You might say that craft vendors today are not just selling their skill, but that illusion of uniqueness. They are leaving flaws, not because only their deity is perfect but because, by today’s standard, only machines are perfect.

The exceptions are very few. Often, too, they require a trained eye to appreciate them. Several times, I have seen people who balked at paying several thousand dollars in a Northwest Coast gallery in Gastown, walk out on Water Street and pay ninety dollars to someone on the street to someone with a single knife for a tool and no understanding whatsoever of the tradition they were vaguely imitating.

The buyers seemed satisfied with the street vendor’s carving, and not just because of the price. Judging from what I overheard them saying, they seemed to feel that what they were buying was somehow more genuine than work done by artists who had spent decades perfecting their skills.

Such attitudes may be unavoidable, but they annoy me profoundly. So long as these attitudes exist, what incentive do artists have to perfect their crafts? In some cases, artists must even hold back deliberately. Perhaps they even add errors if they want to sell. All these possibilities amount to a cheapening of the artistic process, yet, if artisans want to make a living, what choice do they really have?

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