The utility of it all

March 10th, 2002 § Comments off

The March issue of Metropolis featured an article (not online) about collectors of African utilitarian objects, including ladders made from forked tree trunks. Collectors pay $250 or more for these ladders. The art dealers who bought them from African farmers paid about $5 apiece:

So if you buy a Tamberma ladder, you are certainly purchasing a utilitarian object with an authentic connection to the rhythms of life in a premodern society. You are also helping to fetishize those objects such that, when sold to Westerners, they are worth vastly more than anything the people who actually use them could ever produce from them.

That’s not intrinsically wrong; most aesthetic judgments fetishize their subjects to some extent. The problem is the unequal distribution of benefits. The solution, obviously, is to pay the farmers more for their ladders.

It’s not a bad model for globalization as a whole. In a recent American Prospect article, Amartya Sen argues that

the main issue is how to make good use of the remarkable benefits of economic intercourse and technological progress in a way that pays adequate attention to the interests of the deprived and the underdog. …It is not sufficient to understand that the poor of the world need globalization as much as the rich do; it is also important to make sure that they actually get what they need.

That goal doesn’t seem like it should be difficult to achieve. Which shows you what I know.

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