Will things survive?

In a recent conversation with friends who have run a community arts and crafts show for many years, there arose two topics: one was with problems selling crafts; the other, the problems associated with downsizing the home.

There has been for several years a steady decline in sales. This year the committee decided to analyze the results. Crafted textiles and painted or photographed art steadily sold more poorly. Sculptures and woodworking did also, along with pottery, save that undecorated pottery continued to sell well. This is an arts group which was founded when the members were in their thirties, but now are in their seventies (with some new younger artisans), in a community where the children of their thirties have moved elsewhere and there is relatively little turnover of housing stock because so many elderly remain in their homes. So it may be that there is a connection between who is around to buy things.

Downsizing the home: Many are discovering that there is less receptivity or interest in the things we no longer want, especially from our children. Our younger generation, whether living in houses as large as our own or living in small apartments in the city, are not interested in our family heirloom dishes, silver, paintings, sideboards, hand crafter furniture, hardcover or paperback books, or photographs. We may scan the photographs into computers and they may be willing to keep thumb drives of family photo albums and so forth. This causes deep reconsideration.
What of silver- and plate- ware? Many older folks have collections of these, some of which represent not only great age along with the cache of being in the family for generations, but also artisanship and peculiar beauty, often created by artisans no longer in business. What of these? Who will purchase them and what will be their ultimate destination – warehouses, individual buyers who need only a couple, people who need and desire only the most basic of utensils but who will have these at very low prices? Of course, there is nothing wrong with people of little means nonetheless having artisan dinnerware, but it says something about the detracted value of what had once been highly valued, and that is sad. Perhaps they will regain value to the benefit of their most recent owners. I don’t really envision heirloom silverware being melted down for other purposes.

Let’s take books. I love books, particularly hardbound ones. I savour the print styles, the different qualities of paper, the different hardcovers and dust jackets, gilding sometimes (especially on our Encyclopedia Britannica), the illustrations, the reviews printed on the covers or jackets, and in many, the overlines and notes I have inserted, along with dog-eared pages so I can easily find information and quotable sections. These represent to me several things, e.g. the different processes involved in paper making (while paper continues to be a renewable resource, which may be less likely as forest fires burn beneath the ground, destroying vegetation and other things which would normally help restore forests), and in book binding. I have a beautiful two-volume 1970’s set of Sherlock Holmes, with commentaries, and illustrations from the initial Strand magazine publications. I have the Riverside Shakespeare, printed in the 1970’s, with countless illustrations and commentaries and explanations. I don’t dip into these often, but I feel strongly a great happiness every time I see them on my bookshelf, because I know I have something of quality. Each is worth having. The possession is the important thing, even though I have not read all the way through the Shakespeare (but I have through Holmes, many times). I have a thing of quality and worth in my life and in my possession, which is quite different from having the content (never the style) on my e-reader. Now, if the younger generation do not value these things, how do I give them a proper burial? Of course I can try to sell on Kajiji, or give to used book stores which re-sell for charity income, but that alone suggests that these may or may not find their way to someone who appreciates not only the content but the physical embodiment.

The Canadian province in which I live has a relatively new government which has decided, as of the time of this writing, to eliminate the budget for couriered transfer of inter-library loan books and other materials. I guess in the internet age this shouldn’t surprise, because some people think everything is there, so physical books are not needed. But it is so much easier to understand the context of a reading when one can flip back and forth on actual pages, than to scroll from one position to another. Perhaps not everything is yet on-line, particularly older books which sometimes lie in small community or university libraries. It’s important to know about older books, because of the passage of history – if one reads now about certain portions of history, a prime minister’s career, for example, the information is likely to be shallow because so much else has happened since then. Articles and books are less likely in modern times to devote much attention to the subject, than were books of their time, which likely dealt with issues much more fully. You lose that depth of information if you can’t get the old book (The Written World: the Power of Stories to Shape People, History, and Civilization by Martin Puchner; You Could Look It Up: the Reference Shelf from Babylon to Wikipedia, by Jack Lynch; and Alberto Manguel`s History of Reading and The Library at Night).

And what will it mean for future book manufacturers? Will the art as well as craftsmanship of book construction be lost?
Now we know that in previous times, new developments threatened to doom the existing things: photography would replace painting and drawing; digital photography would replace film and paper; electronic recordings would displace vinyl, eight-track and four-track; videotapes would destroy theatres; computers would eliminate pen and paper along with script, and so forth.  These fears were not borne out.

Anne Trubeck’s The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting  comforts me with stories about how medieval scribes coped with the threat to their artisanship caused by the printing press, as they went about teaching students how to write in the various codified forms of script, and used printed books to instruct others in how to scribe. They passed on their craft by using the supposed replacement technology to teach people how to write in different fonts.

I’m particularly concerned about furniture, primarily wood furniture (see Now I Sit Me Down: from Klismos to Plastic Chair: a Natural History, by Witold Rybczynski), and the tools (see any Lee Valley catalogue). I am much taken with the beauty of wood, and with the beauty of craftsmanship which often goes into imagining and making a piece of furniture. By Hand and by Eye, by George R. Walker & Jim Tolpin, illustrates this wonderfully. I can’t really believe that such skill and appreciation will go away, any more than did the other arts which haven’t sold well, but my mind leaps ahead to mourn what would be lost – imagine a new generation which had no appreciation for the beauty of wood or the beauty of craft.

Textiles: also discussed is the fact that the world has run out of recycle functions for some clothing, which ends up being burned. This is in part because so much clothing is purchased individually beyond actual need or use. We have the irony that while some people are inadequately clothed, we literally have too much clothing in the world. Probably not all is beautiful or well made, let alone “crafted.” Now, being a man, I may have an insufficient world view for this topic, but I note in Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, mention is made of women’s clothing which one might want to keep because of the significant event for which it was worn. Aside from this special value which may be put on some clothing, and such things as christening gowns, tapestries, quilts, and shawls and items of warmth handed down over generations, it may be that most of us need less clothing and should learn to keep only clothing which represents sentiment, quality of making, or beauty.

In the face of our problem of where to put the trash and the pollution caused by trash, perhaps the dramatic decline in desire for things is good. It’s not the same thing as giving up material things in favour of more spiritual things, but it still will be good for the earth. Not sure how people who used to make things will make a living, but designing a “steady-state” or “circular” economy seems to be the next necessity in the ecological movement. AI is already threatening many forms of employment. If economics becomes based on something other than growth, it will affect politics tremendously – politicians will need to have a whole new vocabulary, and will need to find something totally new to offer voters which won’t necessarily improve their lives, but perhaps only  sustain them through the coming difficult years after 2030.

I know it’s a stretch from “my kids don’t want my stuff” to a whole new economy and new politics, but there it is. The task will be to educate politicians, their handlers and speech writers, and the staffers, and the civil servants who do the real work of creating legislation and government programs. I am optimistic about this: it would be a good thing for the general public to educate the politicians and civil servants.
That’s where informed consent comes in. As we the grassroots discern the meaning of these changes about where to put our stuff, we will have to construct solutions to teach the politicians and civil servants. We will have consented to what we teach them, because we will be the informed ones. As with everything, we will have to discuss with one another, particularly with those who don’t agree with us. We will have to do this in order to think better, to be better aware of aspects of which we are currently ignorant, and to take the time to formulate plans. I hope we can find ways for those plans to preserve artisanship and beauty, to pass on the results, and to teach others how to stay in these crafts.

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