Should Art Be Free?

Recently, a very thought-provoking series of blog articles and responses on the “new” concept of “Free” as a way of networking in the internet crafting community has arisen; here is my response to an interesting one that I found by way of an Etsy posting; the original discussion is at the blog “Make and Meaning,” http://makeandmeaning.com/2010/02/04/free-is-not-a-marketing-tool/.

I’m really enjoying reading this discussion, so thank you for starting it up! (and thanks to all for continuing it!)

I am a little worried about thinking about “Free” as a “new concept,” actually. I see what’s happening right now as a return to crafting as a serious endeavor, as we all kind of recover from having been washed over by the huge sea of “manufacturing” that took crafting and homemade items (clothing, kitchen utensils, toys, sewing equipment, all the way up to outhouses and barns) out of our view and replaced them with “store-bought.” This started maybe in the 19th century; and the beginning of the 20th century saw, in reaction, an incredible RISE in respect for folk arts and the handmade, namely the “Modern Craft Movement” of the 1900-1920s, even 1930s during the Depression when artists were funded to do and teach crafts by the WPA.

In the U.S. at least, manufacturing took over again during and after World War II, obviously, and made us all dependent on frozen food and such; crafting played a small part in the 1960s-70s counter-cultural movements, but it has really hit its stride as a market phenomenon only now.

In those contexts, “free” was the default for all crafts. No one got paid, pretty much for a very long time, for doing “folk art.” If the intelligentsia loved something that was “folk art,” and wanted to put it in a museum, they often paid nothing or very little for it from the “folk artist” herself, then turned around and ran it up to New York, and charged people to view it, and exorbitant prices to buy it. There’s always been a fight against this, but it’s also always happened, mainly because handcrafted items are incredibly devalued in the “manufacturing” world in which we live. So “free” was not something particularly good about the 20th century craft movement–it was due to devaluing of the crafts. Remember jokes about people taking “basketweaving” classes in college? with the joke being that they were taking something that took no brains, no work, nothing like what you would need to take a “real” course.

So I see our post-modern craft movement (if that’s an ok term to use) as a good way of countering the devaluing of crafts and “folk arts.” The fight, obviously, is with huge manufacturing concerns, in all countries of the world, that have a mechanized production process for goods that used to be only handmade, and pay the workers on their soulless production lines extremely little to produce a pretty sophisticated product. That product would need many, many hours of labor if done “by hand” by one person without the manufacturing process speeding it along through breaking down the steps in production into idiot-proof bite-sized chunks. The other option, also used by these sweatshops, is to abuse and threaten and “train” workers until they will do even sophisticated artisanal work faster and faster, and for less and less pay.

I’m not trying to argue that doing things “for free” is bad, and the folks in this discussion have shown that it can be in the long run good for a business — although it can be overdone (”The other thing is that when customers get used to getting things [ideas, advice, support, etc.] for free, it’s very hard to get them to pay for that later”). BUT: I think everyone should keep in mind that “for free” has historically meant “not valued.” If we’re going to use that concept to build a world in which capitalist hyper-production and exploitation of people’s work in sweatshops ceases to exist, and every worker gets a chance to have their work valued, then that’s awesome, and we should take steps to proselytize in that direction! (I can imagine really great leaflets handed out in sweatshops in different languages, handmade-workers supporting monetarily & otherwise a bunch of people banding together to refuse to work at certain kinds of soulless jobs, and prosecutions and boycotts of sweatshop overseers aimed at getting them to adopt different modes of manufacture!).

But if we think of “free” as something that’s just internal to our little part of the market, and continue to imagine that handmade items by *us* should be valued highly, but that 14-year-olds in China who work in gigantic sweatshops are outside the realm of “handmade,” then I think we’re going to be congratulating ourselves on achieving community without having actually taken up and publicized the real issue of handmade & craft, which is that it represents a challenge to the way that manufacturing has been carried on for centuries.

For me, handmade is really the dreams of labor activists come true–if you’ve ever read the utopian novel News from Nowhere (written by William Morris–yes, THAT William Morris, the furniture designer! mentioned and quoted before in this very blog!), you see what I mean: that utopia is predicated on a rediscovery, after a terrible calamity of capitalist greed, of beauty in handiwork as done by all members of society. Everything is free: the distribution system is responsive to need, and also everyone has an awareness of how things are made. You barter with your own skills for the services of others who have the kind of skill you want at the moment.

I know, woo-woo! But if that’s the kind of world we’re trying to build, then I think that we have to look WAY beyond “free as a marketing tool” and also way beyond “free as a way of connecting with others-of-our-own-social-class-and-general-lifestyle,” and start thinking of broader changes that the craft movement, our movement, could fuel.

Sorry this was so long–been thinking about this a long time!!

P.S.

Oops! I see now that Patricia also wondered about the newness of free; and that there is a book about how the internet’s immenseness has fueled changes in our culture through easy sharing. Still, I think that a lot of people in the world, and in particular those whose handiwork is devalued to the point of wretchedness (i.e. sweatshop workers in all areas), are not able to participate in this newfound “easy sharing” of resources. That’s something for us all to tackle, I think, unless we want to become a kind of fortress of 1st world crafters! 🙂

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