I am no Luddite. I’m typing this on a Mac and I own a smart phone and two computers and I generally enjoy technology. Having said that, I do think there has been a steady decline in our relationship to materials over the last 100 years that is ultimately having a negative impact on us. Few of us know how to interact with basic tools anymore. Our digital lives mean we both live largely through a screen and that we largely engage the world through someone else’s (or multiple someone else’s) design. This is creating a less and less tactile experience for us as human beings. I call it the curse of smooth.
In my lifetime I’ve seen most of the rough edges, barbs and splinters removed from our everyday experiences. Our furniture, machines, clothes, and cars are all smooth and soft. We are living in a perpetually stuffed animal reality where few things are bumpy, jagged, or sharp. As we grow more and more detached from the making of things we grow more detached from feeling and this creates an isolating, melancholia. We cherish the slick and polished over the bumpy, and amateur. Even the shows that claim to encourage amateur talent are really focused on finding the next great star, not celebrating the everyday talent of the average person. The closest thing I know to a person that works with their hands that isn’t an artist is my hairdresser. Yet, I grew up with my grandfather running a knife factory that my father worked in, Foster Brothers where Americans pounded out steel blades and mounted the tangs to hardwood handles that would last a lifetime, or more. When I was young, I worked carpentry for several years to make money for college. I may be the last generation with that manufacturing relationship to material.
Artists and artisans of course, are the dying breed of people who still work with their hands, at least in the G20 countries. There has also been a resurgence of craftsmanship in the US in the past ten years from a younger generation who now makes wooden cell phone cases, sews their own clothes and raises their own chickens. My intuition is that these young people are not reengaging the rough world of making because they fear some post-apocalyptic scenario that will kill off the machines, I think it’s because they have too much smooth in their lives and that is leaving them feeling empty as human beings.
I leave you with this fascinating video of an old time maker as a meditation on touch, and our relationship with materials. Cliff Denton of Ernest Wright & Sons is one of the last remaining putters, someone who assembles scissors.