We recently visited London’s Victoria and Albert Museum to see a show called “The Power of Making.” The show begins with this eloquent statement by its curator, Daniel Charny:
“Making is the most powerful way that we solve problems, express ideas and shape our world. What and how we make defines who we are and communicates who we want to be. For many people, making is critical for survival, for others…a way of thinking, inventing and innovating. And for some it’s simply a delight to be able to shape a material and say, ‘I made that.’ The power of making is that it fulfills each of these human needs and desires.” Charny concluded by saying, “The knowledge of how to make – both everyday objects and highly skilled creations – is one of humanity’s most precious resources.”
I left this extraordinary show wondering if we at home were losing the knowledge and power of making. America is still a great innovator, but we’ve lost much of our postwar status as the great maker of things.
Over the last few decades we migrated from tangible value creation in the making and manufacture of things to intangible, if not questionable, value creation by simply asserting agency. That is to say, we became agents of, rather than creators of, value. We let others make our things; we found it was easier and just as profitable to insert ourselves into the value chain rather than initiate it.
Now that world economies are slowing down and income levels in former slave labor economies are rising, opportunities to intermediate are shrinking; and so true value creation is reasserting itself as the principal economic driver. But our factories are rusting; our skilled labor has been out of work for decades; and our children show little interest in engineering and innovation professions.
In the arts, the making of things is thriving, while its agencies are in decline – with record companies, agents and publishers all at risk. New technologies have allowed artists direct access to markets as they conceive, realize and promote their conceptions.
We need to look ahead and find our way back to the making of things. In a world of reduced expectations, our children will need to learn to understand, make and repair things as their grandparents did. We’ll need to educate them in the power of making and innovating and creating real economic, artistic and human value. The show was a testament to the durable will of invention and creation. Sadly, many of the crafters in the show were of previous generations or lived in foreign countries where the making of things is still a necessity.
On the positive side, there were several extraordinary homemade 3-dimensional printers that converted code into objects formed out of quick-drying foam. With no intended irony, one handmade printer kept producing endless replicas of the Statue of Liberty.