That we live in a changing world is hardly breaking news. There is, however, one element of change that has been persistently infiltrating the human experience with its murky fingers, mass production. There was a time when if you wanted a new table you would either build it yourself or purchase it from a craftsman (craftsperson if you prefer). Today you can still buy from a craftsman, but most people will buy mass produced items, perhaps from a big box store that specializes in “boxed” furniture.
In the past, the craftsman’s table was easy to pick out by simple observation of the quality of work. He or she was master of their craft. Today, factories turn out a steady stream of high quality products with a consistency unheard of a few centuries back. Yes, there are exceptions to “high quality,” but let’s face it, there are a lot of good products coming off assembly lines. In an odd twist, today we often can only tell a craftsman’s work by some minor inconsistency or imperfection. Of course, dedicated craftsmen still ply their trade, but many turn to one of a kind pieces, works of art if you will.
Speaking of art, portraits were once the domain of dedicated artists labouring with brushes and pigments. Now you can go to the “portrait studio” in your local “we sell every thing” department store where they will snap a predictable photo and if you like, print the common photo on canvas. Painters too have gone print crazy in attempts to maximize profits (although there is a backlash against this in the art world). Then there is factory “art”; those mass produced home deco prints you find in bargain stores. From a pure visual aesthetic perspective, the mass produced table, portrait or print are pleasant enough. Sometimes they are very pleasant.
So why do people still seek out “craftsman” furniture, sit for long hours to have a portrait painted, or pay the high price for other original works of art?
I am not sure of the answer, but let me toss out a few thoughts. First, there are those who either for investment or ego delight in owning the craftsman’s or artist’s work. Perhaps this is some sort of latent aristocratic impulse. Whatever the case, these are the people who often keep food on the table of craftsmen and artists. Whatever their motivation, they are willing to pay the price that craftsmen and artists rely on to survive.
I do believe, however, that there is a deeper, more “human” reason. We all benefit from mass production (understand that I am not speaking here against mass production although it is a worthy topic to consider). The question here is, “what is missing” in a “boxed” table, a digital print portrait or factory art? The answer I believe is what we so often lack in our hectic and isolated lives—a human touch.
I have a pen. It is one of many, but there is something different about this one. My cousin handcrafted this pen from olive wood. Sure, there are a few “factory” pieces that make up the pen, but he turned and polished the wood. We don’t see each other very often—not often enough. Yet, when I pick up that pen, I think of my cousin. He cared enough to spend the time and effort to make something special. It wasn’t a job. It was a work of love. There is a little part of the craftsman in that pen. There is a human touch.
Perhaps that is what makes a craftsman or artist’s work so valuable. Knowing that he or she has spent hours in a labour of love, making the table or painting the portrait, a sense of connection with the one who created the work. There is a human touch that makes the table or portrait much more valuable, at least to those who will slow down and let it speak to them.
PS – Perhaps that is why we have some of the environmental problems today. On the one hand, the paintings of the old masters are valued because of who painted them. On the other hand, the boxed table is disposable. Likewise, if the Creator isn’t valued, His creation is treated as disposable. We need to slow down and let the Creator speak to us through His creation.