I was struck by two opposing thoughts during my letterpress class. The first was, if this was my job, to manually set type, I’d go crazy scheming for a more efficient solution—something not unlike the combination of word processing software and a laser printer. Thank you Xerox Parc for doing the heavy lifting.
But in the moment, I was completely enthralled by the process of setting type. It was almost soothing—a feeling I imagine may have been more widespread up until the time industrial presses and affordable computers sat everyone in front of a cathode ray tube instead of a California job case.
I keep thinking about the little sacrifices we accept with every technological advancement. What has concrete wrought on architecture, photography on painting, computers on writing, and now digital photography on chemical? Isn’t there something to gain by adding (rather than removing) constraints?
Surely the productivity and accessibility associated with new technologies far outweigh the idiosyncracies of the old, but how cognizant are we of what we lose when we upgrade?
The time and care involved in using a press suggests it may be put to better use in making art. The combination of beautiful, heavy paper, and the precise physical impression of type, handset text on handmade paper. This emphasis on handmade these days seems to fly in the face of everything we believe about progress. Why do we value handmade goods (usually made in other countries, objets more relevant in the context of other cultures), but spurn the manual labor required to make them?
Perhaps it’s a question of having the choice. At work I do everything I can to reduce the amount of work I have to. Not by dillydallying or procrastinating, but by finding more efficient, effective, consistent, streamlined ways of doing things. But when I’m not at work, the constraints are different. I want to have the time to savor what I’m doing. As Brian says, I want to slow down. I want to appreciate the process as much as the product. Handmade makes sense at home. And I think for a few lucky people, handmade can become a sustainable venture.
There’s a curious thing that happens when you call something art. Or handmade. Or a thousand other adjectives like artisanal, gourmet, etc. It seems to escape that thing from the capitalist’s imperative of bigger, faster, cheaper. It seems to give people a greater freedom to explore and enjoy the process of making while somewhat releasing them from the slaughter of mass market prices.
And these days it seems that art is being invoked on incredibly personal levels (in addition to the incredibly industrial: think Apple’s iPod). With the internet (as Robin mentions in the comments), what might have been hobbies before now take on the mantle of art in the eyes of an expanded community. They still may number no more than a dozen, but a dozen unencumbered by geographical diversity.