At its most fundamental and pedestrian level, Rees's service does what it says on the tin. You can either send him a pencil to sharpen, or have him select a new #2 pencil for you. Rees sharpens the pencil to perfection, using blades and sandpaper. He then slips on a point protector, pops the whole thing into a mailing tube and mails it to you. Total cost: $15.
Yes, it really is a thing... and (I believe) a kind of art installation, as well.
Portlandia sketch, but it should be." David Rees is a resident of New York's Hudson Valley and former political cartoonist who has turned to the art of sharpening pencils. As he tells it, it had been years since he had sharpened a pencil when, as an employee of the 2010 Census, he was handed a pencil and a sharpener. The first time he sharpened his pencil, he felt a spark of connection.
"If I could figure out how to get paid to sharpen pencils, I would be happy," Rees thought to himself. Lo and behold, his Artisanal Pencil Sharpening service was born.
(Rees has also authored a book on the topic, which features a foreword by John Hodgman.)
To all outward appearance, Artisanal Pencil Sharpening is what it is. There is no knowing wink to be found, no Stephen Colbert-like sidelong glance. And Rees clearly has a genuine love for sharpening pencils.
The elephant in the room, then, is obvious: this is completely ridiculous. But why?
A sharpened pencil is meant to be used. And it loses its sharp point fairly quickly, in my experience. Thus, the buyer is paying $15 for one brief moment of perfection that will be gone all too soon.
But how is that different from paying $15 for a truly exquisite slice of cheesecake, or a mid-range steak? At least a sharpened pencil will, in the form of lines on paper, leave you with a permanent record of its passing. At a restaurant, you pay $15 for the experience of having eaten that good cheesecake. With Rees' service, you pay $15 for the experience of having written or drawn with a perfectly sharpened pencil.
And maybe it says something about our society that we are willing to even consider paying someone else $15 to sharpen our pencils for us. What happened to fixing our own broken appliances, to raising our own food, to sharpening our own pencils? Our grandparents did everything themselves, and were the better (or at least more skilled) for it.
In the end, if there is a joke, it is us. And what more can you ask of a work of art, but that it reflects us back so perfectly?