What is luxury?
It has been defined as many things over the centuries and seems to be difficult to pin down. For the purposes of this post let us just agree that luxury is what the rich have and the poor do not. (Never mind even attempting to define rich and poor.) Luxury is something that we may not be able to define precisely, but it is something we each know when we see it. Most consider it something that is unnecessary, extra, maybe even extravagant. Our ideas of luxury effect how we relate to ourselves, how we relate to others and society, and even how we relate to God. This is a pretty heavy burden for something we can’t be more specific about. Our individual definitions are often colored by what we personally have or don’t have access to, which just adds to the confusion. Throughout history luxury has been seen as something to strive for at times and something to avoid at other times. It has been considered a vice and a virtue; sometimes both simultaneously. But what I am most interested in is where handcrafted objects and their inherent cost fits into our current perception of luxury.
For centuries the material of an object, the skill of craft defined it as luxurious. Then in 1759, Josiah Wedgwood changed all of that bringing well made beautifully crafted, factory produced ceramics to the masses. All of a sudden intricacies of design and materials had little distinction. And other fields soon followed his example ushering in the industrial revolution.The market became much more level. Ideas of luxury began to be attached to brands and cost rather than value. As mass production grew and pervaded the marketplace, common craft skills started to fade and become more rare. This in turn brings up their relative cost, value and sense of luxury. Today’s production is so high and cost so low that anything handcrafted will be more expensive, more unique and therefore thought to be more luxurious or unnecessary. Right? But this bothers me. The product of a man or woman’s passion, hard work and skill should not by virtue of price make it something extravagant. Is paying anything over the rock bottom price extravagant or foolish? Assuming all things comparable (quality, materials, etc.), is the best deal the most responsible, respectable way to go. Is it excessive to spend more to invest in an individual’s life and passion rather than a corporation’s bottom line? Is it immodest to spend more in order to invest in our community, an individual’s life, or an economy that is personal, rational, and comprehensible. I feel that these things are worth my time, effort and money. And I do not feel that they are a luxury or unnecessary. What it does mean is that we have to be much more conscientious of my choices. We have to be careful to weigh more than just the price when making these choices.
When I began this article my plan was to make an argument that handcrafted goods should not be considered luxurious. I wanted to convince you that they are reasonable and respectable alternatives to bargain hunting, but can require a bit of sacrifice. But as I processed my thoughts and emotions I came to the conclusion that handcrafted things are a luxury. And it is not my place convince you otherwise. The truth is that almost everything hand made can be bought for less, and when finances are tight the situation decides for us, regardless of our best intentions. This is just survival, and in times like these we are thankful for Wal-Mart. But for those times that are not so tight I would like to encourage you to consider something different, maybe even better, than the lowest price. Otherwise we will slowly eliminate any viable avenues for craftsmanship to exist outside of being hobby. We get more of what we spend our money on. If all we want is mass produced cheap products then there is no need to support our local craftspeople. But if we want both; if we want the choice between the cheap and the handcrafted we need to support those doing the crafting. I sincerely hope this post is not too preachy; but this is something I get excited and riled up about and I did my best to reign back my rants and hopefully present a logical thought albeit impassioned. This post is really just a small part of a much bigger conversation about the social and political ramifications of how we choose to spend our money. As a society we have tremendous power in our buying ability, the trouble is that as a society consequences are difficult to discern and change is even more difficult to accomplish.
photo credit: LUXURY CRIME, AGUS SUWAGE, 2009