A woman weaves bags in a small Burmese village. Photo: Connor Tomas O’Brien
In the developed world, we are now experiencing what is known as an ‘artisanal boom’. The words ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’ have become ubiquitous, hearkening back to a time prior to the Industrial Revolution, where tradespeople were the dominant producers of consumer commodities. A huge emphasis is placed on pursuing products that are ‘lovingly crafted by hand’, ‘ethically-sourced’, or ‘produced with the utmost integrity’. There is artisanal cheese, pickles, liquor, pizza, wheat, soap, chocolate, and even toast – $4 inch-thick slices of bread, slathered in butter and cinnamon or peanut butter and honey, then wrapped individually in wax paper. The list goes on.
The fascination with modern manifestations of old-fashioned craftsmanship is now widespread. Many of us have tried craft beer, and perhaps even developed a taste for it. The rise of thriving online marketplace Etsy, known for its array of artists and craftspeople selling their homemade wares, is a notable expression of this trend. ‘Have you looked at Etsy?’ is a common response when someone expresses difficulty finding a particular, non-mass-produced, one-of-a-kind product. Every weekend in magazines or newspapers, feature articles abound profiling the rise of small businesses specialising in a certain craft, be it woodworking or artisanal cuisine. The longing for quality, and not quantity, is a fierce inducement.
What brought this on? Unsurprisingly, the increasing popularity of artisanal goods is borne out of a direct opposition to today’s globalised mass production, which is believed to not only promote shoddy design, but also lead to dehumanising sweatshop labour. For many proponents of the craft and artisanal movements, the argument goes that if goods and services are made and sourced in an honest and humane manner, then perhaps widespread excessive consumption, and subsequently poverty, will be eliminated.
However, the irony is that the opposite appears to be true. The present global economic climate suggests that the cost required in order to learn craft, do craft, produce craft and buy craft, is grossly expensive. A hand-forged ring on Etsy generally costs at least $50, as opposed to a $10 mass-produced ring from a chain boutique. Most food labelled ‘artisanal’ costs twice to three times as much to buy compared to similar products purchased from a supermarket. This raises the question of accessibility: who then, is able to consume and produce craft?
The rise of a craft-based economy is indicative of a widespread cultural nostalgia that preoccupies itself with returning to the pre-industrial era, a supposed golden age that may or may not have actually existed. Craft-centrism and modern industrial capitalism make for strange bedfellows: despite the former’s opposition to the latter, craft operates on a scarcity scale within global economics. This means that artisanal goods become highly coveted and (consciously or not) function as markers of status; social capital is accrued as a result of owning or consuming unique and limited-edition handmade products.
The developing world is built on craft, although it is not generally conceptualised as such. Instead, it is simply a necessary practice in less industrialised societies where access to the machinery of mass-production is limited and highly sought-after. People in Indonesia painstakingly produce trinkets by hand for very little pay, men in India spend hours tanning leather amidst toxic chemicals, and children in Mali independently mine for gold using their own resources, often in treacherous conditions for long hours. Are these practices considered within the purview of craft fetishists, given they are activities people living in poverty do as their only means of survival?
Generally speaking, the current resurgence of craft is not a bad thing. At best, it can steer the current economy towards environmentally sustainable practices, and fairer labour ethics. Ideally, it will foster honest contact through proximity, which then enables trust and transparency in a rapidly automated society. Yet, in the current trend of widespread appreciation for all things artisanal, the visibility of the user’s individual tastes is crucial. Consumer sentiments are not congealed in the final product, but are rather connect and extend to the image it attempts to project.
When production reaches a saturation point, the desire to pursue ‘authenticity’ is rehashed to the point of becoming the norm. But in the developed world, is the quest for an ever-changing authenticity evidence of the romanticisation of having less? Are we yearning for a past in mediums and spaces where the present has been found wanting? All is not lost, but you can’t go home again.