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Harry Willson's
"Art and Labor'"

     Several warnings were given, so it was my own fault that I
found myself in a small shit-storm recently.  I should have
spotted a clue when the lady thought it was so very, terribly far
from Eubank Boulevard to Fourth Street, when she brought her
chair to my wife's shop for me to cane.  Then she called me three
times to ask if it was ready, as if hers was the only chair in
line, and as if it took only ten minutes to do the weaving.
     I've never yet met the lady.  When I deliver the chair, the
husband tells me she wants to talk to me on the phone.  She's in
the hospital with a broken leg.  Well, she's flipping far out,
saying that my price for caning the chair is "outrageous."  The
last time she had one done it cost $20.  The question has to be,
"when?" and "where?" -- my bill is four times that.  In Long
Island, she says, ten years ago.  I don't believe it.  The
husband wants to know why we didn't settle the price before I did
the work.  I tell him I gave her the formula over the phone -- 
count the holes and multiply by 95 cents.  I couldn't give an
exact figure by phone, because I couldn't see the chair.  When I
do see it, I assume that they know the value of their antique,
that they can count and multiply, and that money, for them, is no
object.  Error!  I offer a 10% senior citizen discount.  He
reluctantly pays me and I leave unhappy.
     "You can't fight ignorance," my father-in-law often said,
and he was right.  But it does inspire additional thought.
     The caning of chairs used to be done by slaves, who were
paid nothing at all for their marvelous efforts.  Some of the
intricate work done, especially in France, is irreplaceable. 
Then the task fell into the hands of blind persons, who were also
paid very little.  I assume the blind persons were glad to be
useful, and didn't do it "for the money."
     Now the work is being done by artists, and we have banded
together here in Duke City, all two of us, in order to insist
that we be paid no less than one half of the minimum hourly wage. 
I do it because it cross-fertilizes my other art -- I am a writer
of rants and fantasy novels and short parables, and time spent
caning is time spent in an altered state of mind, which is good
for the imagination.
     To explain all this to a person who has never done any kind
of hand work is very difficult.  Persons who knit, or crochet, or
do needlepoint, persons who weave, and especially persons who
make baskets, do not think that we who cane chairs should be left
unpaid.  Persons who do not work will not be able to understand
the chair caner's method of pricing, nor even be interested in
it, as I recently learned.    
     The price of cane itself has increased six-fold in twenty
years.  The prices of everything a working person needs in order
to live has increased greatly also -- gasoline, water, clothing,
food, housing.  Well-to-do persons, who have never done hand
work, or any work at all, will not notice these inflationary
changes.  But those of us who do work do notice.
     The current attitude toward work itself in our culture
worsens the situation.  Everyone wants a job, but no one wants to
work, and very few enjoy their work and take pride in it.  When
workers band together, for whatever reason, the owners have
managed to convince the general public that something bad is
happening.  Also, by making jobs scarce, owners have set workers
at each other's throats.
     It could be that caned chairs will become a thing of the
past, relics of the days of slavery, museum pieces roped off from
the backsides of visitors.  A chair with the caned bottom broken
out can be bought nowadays at the flea market for $5.00.  It will
blow the best part of a hundred dollar bill to get a caned seat
put in it, except for persons who know how and have the time. 
Poor people, working or unemployed, can't afford hundred dollar
chairs, and wealthy unaware persons may decide that a caned seat
isn't worth that much, since they cannot comprehend what it takes
to put the seat in.  They only know that it involves hand work,
which the slaves should be content to do for nothing.
     I find all this somehow relevant to my other art work, that
of writing.  "The laborer is worthy of his hire," the Book says. 
But in the writing field, a few celebrities receive almost all
the payment, and the rest are generally regarded as hobbyists. 
But we are not.  We are artists, who take our work seriously, and
fully expect to be paid eventually.  Jealousy among writers is
similar to the hostility workers feel toward each other, thanks
to the scarcity of paying jobs.
     The M.F.A. thesis of one of our authors, Michelle Miller, is
entitled, "The Artist as Culturally Authorized Deviant."  A
healthy culture does indeed allow and encourage individuals to
examine and question and even deviate from what the culture is
doing.  Michelle does exactly that in her writing, on topics that
range from gender roles to Christmas.  I do it in my work also,
in the novels and the short stories and essays, including this
monthly rant.
     The rant is designed to stir response.  I realize that the
woman who didn't want to pay to have her chair caned, won't want
to pay what it's really worth for reading matter either, and no
doubt looks for hers in drug stores, if at all, certainly not on
the Internet.  So, who is out there, reading this?  It's a little
spooky, and writers have wondered about that before this.  How to
find an audience?  How to help an audience find one's work?  How
to get paid?  Check our catalog and order blank...
* * *

Copyright © 1996 Harry Willson

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