“There is a chance here for you,” Paul said, “to become extremely wealthy.” He continued to gaze stoically ahead. “The idea strikes me as bizarre,” Childan said. “Making good luck charms out of such art objects; I can’t imagine it.”—Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
I make things.
Some of them come out very well. Some are fit for everyday use, and I use them. Others are meant to be decorative and have a place in the apartment.
I make shopping bags crocheted out of plastic bags; I crochet small cases to hold personal items. I make teapots, teacups, small books, and little ceramic things.
No matter where I am, using something like a shopping bag, people will remark on them, ask me how I make them, how long it takes, admire the handicraft and design. Then they will get a glow on their faces and set out to award me with the capstone: “You could sell that!”
This is considered the highest compliment you can be paid.
It always makes me wince inside. I backpedal and try to take this in the spirit it is offered in. I say that I make these things because I like them and like to use them and I would be unwilling to part with them for money. You can see the interest drain on the other person’s face. You aren’t willing to take it to the next level-the Olympics of the marketplace, where consumers can decide if you’re really worthy of the gold medal.
One lady ended the conversation with: “Oh well, at least they make nice conversation pieces.”
I crocheted 20 years ago as a weapon to combat heartbreak. I had learned how when I was ten, but picked it up again with a vengeance to keep away break-up thoughts. It distracted my brain and I began to pile up little yarn bags.
One day, an old friend of the family visited my mom and I. He and his wife had been the wealthiest people we had ever known. They owned a beautiful house, a Tudor-style mansion that I adored visiting as a kid, frankly envious of their son who had all of the rooms, the gardens and the Tudor gazebo to play in for hours. They were like royalty to me. Of course, they were not, and when they had run through all of the money in an effort to pretend that they were, things went south in a hurry.
Our friend visited us in the middle of this downward process. In the course of the visit, my mother told me to go get my yarn bags to show him. I had about 20 by then, in different colors and patterns.
He looked through them all one by one. He looked into my eyes. He pulled something out of his pocket. It was a plastic rectangle. Looking closer I saw that it had the US constitution on it in very small letters. He said, “Look at this. This man had an idea. If he had kept that idea to himself, he would be the only man with a copy of the Constitution in his pocket. But this man had vision. He put his idea up for sale, he got a patent. There are thousands and thousands of these, millions even, for sale. Any man can have one now. I have one here, I am showing it to you. This thing you are doing? It is very nice. But it will never mean anything. You have to take this idea, the part of it people will like, and sell it so everyone can buy it. You will make money. You will have a nice little life. Then if you want, you can make these little things if you want. You will have the time. But one by one like this? It is a waste of your time.”
He beamed and sat back. He had delivered the message.
He left and I didn’t crochet again for four years.
“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.” Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto
I’d been groped by the invisible hand of the marketplace.
The Invisible Hand is the god of bourgeois society. The Hand giveth and the Hand taketh away. If you are found worthy, the Hand bestows riches and fame. If the Hand finds you foul and unworthy, you are reduced to ashes and your name erased from the records of history. Most of us fall into the latter camp, to differing degrees. Our family friend was a priest of the Hand, a desperate acolyte.
In his fall from favor he was at his most anxious to believe. In his effort to be kind, he ended up doing a lot of damage. I never really looked at life the same way after that. It was in its small way a watershed event. He had ripped away the veil of sentiment and revealed his class interest: naked cash payment.
In all instances in our society, we are ruled by capitalism. A brief flirtation with the art world disabused me of the notion that there was anything different going on there. There is no world of special people who do not commodify labor and the products of labor. People have been involved in various reform efforts to break this relationship. Cool “alt-biz” movements are an attempt to break through the exploitation and hopefully train capitalism to be better, cooler, funner, more satisfying, hipper, greener, sustainable, etc. Eventually these efforts, if successful, also tend to monopoly and get formulaic.
Capitalism needs to seek ever-expanding markets to make a profit. A profit is not just having 5 bucks in your pocket from the sale of your cool thing; it is a bottom line that needs to expand every quarter to be considered successful. Every generation of artists and artisans has a sector that attempts to recapture some “authentic movement”, to fight this system and reclaim a patch of ground. Others, the “realists”, skip that step of emotional agonies over authenticity and jump straight into the commercial market. The first group takes a little longer to get in there, but eventually they do. They conceal their relationship to the market with the branding of their finer intentions, which makes them actually more deceptive than the second group, who are reviled as mere tradesmen by the “authenticity” fetishists.
“The lower middle class, the small manufacturer, the shopkeeper, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle class. They are therefore not revolutionary, but conservative. Nay more, they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance, they are revolutionary, they are only so in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.” Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto
At the end, buying and selling your talents is considered the pinnacle of success in capitalist society. The more you sell, the better you are than everyone else. If you fail to do it, you have lost. You are a loser. Though many people of the social realm of the arts like to think we are outside of all of that, we are proles. The faster we realize this, the more we will have to unite us with the revolutionary segment of society. The more we try to preserve some “alt-capitalism” for ourselves, the longer we perpetuate this state. There is only one kind of capitalism; there is no good kind and bad kind.
Individual responses are not going to change anything though.
The Buddhist view is “Make positive effort for the good” as if your individual actions and thoughts will emit waves through existence and slowly chip away at the rock face of “bad”.
This will take too long. In fact, it will not work. It may even do the opposite.
Photo: Crochet with plastic bags. Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)