The Economics of Craftsmanship

I’ve been thinking a lot about the economics of craftsmanship recently and it’s left me feeling a little depressed.

I’m sure I’m not the only woodworker who occasionally thinks about how cool it would be to earn a living from doing what we love, but I wonder if that’s even vaguely possible in these price driven, instant gratification days.

It used to be that cheap was synonymous with poor quality, but that’s just not always the case anymore and while you may think that’s a good thing (and it is a good thing on most levels) its bad news for those of us that love craftsmanship because it reduces demand for high quality hand made goods, and as any economist will tell you, reduced demand means reduced supply.

Imagine a sculptor who spends three months lovingly carving a masterpiece from a chunk of solid marble. As much as he loves his craft, he has to eat and cover his costs – that marble doesn’t come cheap and he has to buy it in advance – so if he is to stay out of bankruptcy court the end result of his labours has to cover his expenses – in other words it’s going to be an expensive sculpture.

Now back in the day, the fact that it was expensive wasn’t so much a problem. There was a certain level of demand for marble sculptures and if you wanted one, you had to pay the going rate.

These days however things are different – the sculptor is not the only guy in town and if you don’t want (or simply can’t afford) the marble sculpture you can easily go and find a moulded marble / resin equivalent for a tenth of the cost and that 95% of people could not distinguish from the real thing. And why wouldn’t you do exactly that? What’s the point of paying all that extra cash for something that is basically no better (and possibly worse) than the much cheaper option?

The problem is that while we are not comparing apples with apples, the differences between the hand crafted masterpiece and the moulded sculpture are sufficiently blurred that to most people they are indistinguishable. This means the sculptor is competing head to head with the factory that made the moulded item and this taints the “real” art supply pool to the point where it is in danger of drying up altogether.

This is A Very Bad Thing – for two reasons.

Firstly, because less demand for “real” art means fewer artists and therefore less opportunity for people with genuine artistic talent to be able to earn a living from their abilities.
Secondly, the fewer artists there are, the less real art there will be available and the harder it will be for the average person to get their hands on any of it – already most people go their entire lives without ever touching (let alone owning) a real, genuine, handmade work of art. How can we ever teach our kids to appreciate art if they never get to experience it?

Hand crafted “real” works of art still have one last advantage over their factory made equivalents though, and that is their inherent uniqueness. It’s the one thing that mass produced (even “limited edition”) objects simply can’t compete with. When an artist makes something beautiful, he or she puts something indefinable into it – something that a machine simply does not have. I don’t really know what that thing is – perhaps it a part of their soul, or perhaps it’s just an element of their character. But whether you think it spiritual or prosaic, it is undeniably wonderful.