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Can We Even Comprehend Craftsmanship Today?

Getting what you pay for

In my last blog we discussed whether or not today’s tradespeople were capable of the same level of craftsmanship their predecessors possessed, but I feel it is just as important for us to consider whether we have the ability to recognize, and truly appreciate, quality craftsmanship when we see it. I have talked before about how different today’s world is and how that can impact the work of the tradesperson. The reality is it affects the tradesperson’s patrons just as much, if not more.

We live in a world where it is difficult, if not impossible, to recognize the hand of man in the modern things that surround us. Oftentimes, it seems that there is an automatic assumption that if something was made by hand, it must be old, an assumption that is anything but odd considering the fact that things that are old are the very things we associate with craftsmanship.

How we got here is not difficult to understand. The system of capitalism we employ to sustain our economy, and many of the economies around the world, demands that products be competitively priced to be marketable. This in turn often means that the best way to make something is most likely not by hand. The catch is in the term “best,” because marketability becomes the standard by which value is assessed.

When I was young, I remember my German grandfather owning a Cadillac. He didn’t purchase it as a status symbol. He drove it because he felt it had the most value for the money he had used to purchase it. It was the best investment. 

Today, value is rarely based on quality

Instead we use various methods to associate value with an object, depending on what that object is and how we intend to use it. If it is food, we generally consider it a good value if it has a low price, because, for the most part, a cabbage is a cabbage. If it is clothing, cost is still a major factor, but now we have to add appearance to the equation. How this item will look on me or how it will make me look becomes part of the perceived value. Few people seem concerned about how the cabbage they eat will make them look.

When choosing a car, both cost and appearance play a part in the value we perceive it to have, but now we add other factors like fuel economy, performance, features and options, among others. And when we decide to invest in a home, all of the previously mentioned value items come into play at some level, but now we add potential resale value, neighborhood, school systems, access to mass transit and a myriad of essentials into deciding if the home is a good value.

At this point, I’m sure some of you are saying, “So what?” If you go back and review what we just discussed the one glaring omission is craftsmanship. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying no one pays attention to how well things are made or that some of us never even care, although that is clearly plausible. What I am saying is that how we value nearly everything that is produced in the world we live in is, for the most part, not based on our ability to discern the craftsmanship it embodies.

Why have we evolved into this value structure? I can’t say I can answer that question, with any degree of confidence. But I can ask it. I have been in many discussions, some more heated than others, about why so few people value the work we do, and in far too many of those interactions, I have come to believe that it’s generally accepted that very few people even care about craftsmanship anymore. I think the real truth is they may not even know how.

If I am right, how we market the concept of conservation can’t be objective. We need to see beyond the things we are trying to keep and learn to see where they really came from. The Secretary of the Interior's Standards of Building Conservation (my name, not the actual one) are ever changing, as they should be, but they have one basic flaw; they are object oriented. In reality, they are the same as the educational guidelines used to operate the K-12 public school system; they are based on results, not process.

As many people have heard me state in the past, what we need is cultural change. I know that is not an easy row to hoe, but without looking at the value structure we have inherited and realizing how it is blinding us to what the real problems are in conserving our built environment, we only shadow box with our own images. Until we really begin the hard work of putting the tradesperson back into the perception of craftsmanship, we are kidding ourselves that treading water will work when the flow of the mill pond of society is simply driving the mill of manufactured values.

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