Friday, May 28, 2010

The elegant wastefulness of a million turns of the hand

Selections: Pocketbooks, Cars and the Mystique of the Handmade, By ERIC FELTEN

. . . Why the preference for the handmade, anyway? Yes, there are still goods where skilled craftsmanship makes all the difference: No machine can match the judgment of an experienced luthier, who has to adapt to the acoustic quirks of each piece of wood he carves for a violin. But does it matter whether a product is crafted by hand or stamped out by machine, if the consumer can't tell the difference?

The aura of the handmade has been around ever since machines displaced tools as the main means of manufacture. Nineteenth-century moralists lamented the loss of honest craftsmanship and built a movement embracing goods that were objectively less well made than their factory-made counterparts.

Thorstein Veblen derided this as "exaltation of the defective," which he disdained as just another manifestation of the leisure class's taste for waste. He sneered at the "propaganda of crudity and wasted effort," that led such advocates of the artisanal as John Ruskin to champion products of "painstaking crudeness and elaborate ineptitude" over the "visibly more perfect goods" made cheaper by machines. He hated the smug vanity of people flaunting Ruskin's rough-hewn books.

There is a robust Ruskinite movement afoot again today, celebrating the rustic and exalting in, if not the defective, the artless (where art is understood as artifice). It is in foodstuffs where the modern taste for the artisanal flourishes most fully. Many are the farmers markets now offering bruised peaches and splotchy tomatoes as a rebuke to the plastic gloss of supermarket produce. . .

Once upon a time the craftsman's touch could be displayed through personalization—the adding of monograms and various options for customization. Machine-made goods came off the assembly line with a perfect sameness that was a liability: making the ability to choose and specify details a great luxury. But in the last 20 or 30 years, computer-controlled production has democratized customization. When you can order a computer-cut shirt from Land's End for $50, customization loses its upper-crustiness. . .

If imperfection becomes a desirable luxury- good quality, savvy factory manufacturers will simply start programming their computers to insert certain random and human-seeming flubs into the products. Advertising police will never stop luxury goods from delivering more mystique than reality. That may make such pricey purchases a conspicuous waste of one's money—but wasn't that always the point?

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