The weekend before last, I was reading about a benefit for a film called Handmade Nation. As a person with an interest in most things DIY, I made a mental note about it. It was a project conceived by an owner of a shop in Milwaukee called Paper Boat. Though the project is in progress, it dovetails with my current research obsessions in a profound way. The connections wouldn’t really be apparent to most people not inside my head.
My interest in Henry Hamilton Bennett and the Wisconsin Dells doesn’t have anything to do with the hype surrounding him as a “pioneer photographer.” It has to do with his copious records of the circumstances surrounding his photographic gallery. He was a small town artist, struggling to make a buck as technological and social circumstances changed at the turn of the century. He was only one of thousands. It’s hard to estimate how many artists struggled to profit from newly opened local markets during the settlement of the American West. We have often been, to a large extent, a handmade nation.
To see new technologies enable that again is simultaneously exciting and frustratingly scary. The age that Bennett is a part of was never “golden”—the so-called gilded age furnished only the flimsiest of veneers to a social order that was flawed and cracking at thinly glued together seams. But just the same, the social order was stitched together through understudied media ecologies. I have to think that if we can understand why so few local photographers survived the initial blooms of creativity as big media began to spread through (and consolidate) the image of the frontier, we can better help maintain diverse creative communities in the future.
The problem with trying to reconstruct these early business models and media environments is that the evidence of small-scale economies is scarce and fragmentary at best. There is already too much guesswork out there about what images “mean,” so it might seem like there should be a hoard of people trying to figure out how artists attempted to generate communities of image makers and consumers. I haven’t seen much work in that direction at all; perhaps it’s because the research is unavoidably tainted by its emphasis on production rather than interpretation. In precise usage of the word, what I am interested in is techné. I want to know how it was done, not what it meant.
The tension is a classical one—as far back as Plato, craftspeople have treated with suspicion rather than respect. Craft is something to be interpreted by the privileged classes and exploited. Techné is not worthy of study because it does not create understanding or knowledge, only products. A familiar example is the study of rhetoric. In the perception of many people (particularly school administrators), rhetoric involves know-how not knowledge, so it cannot be as prestigious as the sciences or even the study of literature. The argument is so stale it doesn’t even smell anymore; after a few thousand years it just turns to dust.
The us vs. them argument—the idea that those produce can/must remain separate from those who consume is equally tiresome. It’s an artificial distinction, which serves as a distracting smokescreen—especially in this latest “indie” variation on the theme. One way of looking at the indie arts and crafts movement is to see it as resistance to mass-manufactured culture. That really doesn’t tell us much about how to do it— it makes DIY a symptom of a world that sucks.
Rather than taking a negative view, I prefer to see it as an unprecedented ability for people who have an interest in making things to produce and distribute work within a community which seems analogous to the indie music movement in the 1980s, that is before it crashed and burned due the impossibility of getting paid. Politics aside, the real question is: How can artists/craftsmen make a living producing art/craft?
Then, as now (from what I can see in my research), easy access to tools and knowledge has caused an explosion in the production of “stuff” (be it stereographs or handmade postcards and clothes). The expansion of the handmade movement, from what I can see in the preview posted to youtube, is facilitated by the formation of communities with an apparatus for distribution and sales. If there is a prohibitive overhead (as was the case with indie distributors like Rough Trade) then the possibilities seem limited—small scale distribution just can’t compete with mass media. A few stars make a living, most don’t. Wouldn’t it be better to ask: why does someone need massive distribution to survive?
In the beginning, most photographers didn’t worry about that— local markets could sustain them, but just barely. Eventually, most budding entrepreneurs found other ways of earning their money and the business-to-business network of distributing images collapsed as major organizations (Keystone, Kilburn, etc) took over to do what they did best—buying and selling image commodities rather than hand-worked examples of craft.
No amount of cursing the crappy quality of views sold through the Sears catalogue would make it easier to sell the higher quality views of someone like Bennett. I hope the new craft movement doesn’t suffer the same fate as every example I can think of that preceded it. Quality seldom matters. While we can always hope that new technology will make a difference, only time will tell—the social question is a lot more compelling. What makes productive communities sustainable? It wasn’t that the photographers couldn’t make pictures in sufficient quantities or low enough cost to be competitive; the market ultimately disappeared.
The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains; are in truth. the causes of its life & the sources of all activity, but the chains are, the cunning of weak and tame minds. which have power to resist energy. according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.
Thus one portion of being, is the Prolific. the other, the Devouring: to the devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole. But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the
Devourer as a sea recieved the excess of his delights.
William Blake, MHH16; E40
William Blake’s early sarcastic view of the relationship between the artist and his audience—those “strong in cunning” mirrors the problem of any assumed collapse between production and distribution (the cunning buggers) brought about by new electronic technologies—while they will never tame the energy of creative individuals, those controlling distribution (google and the telecoms) will always have a profound impact on those who attempt to support themselves directly through their own labors.
The really fun message in the teaser for Handmade Nation is that people can either buy the crafts or make them themselves; this is also the same message pushed by the Bennett women who survived. They were boosters/providers for amateur photography in the Wisconsin Dells for a long time after the sales of Henry Hamilton Bennett’s iconic pictures began to fade. And they made a living doing it.