Crafting a New World

A few weeks ago, I was watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations: Brittany and I was struck by the statements of local purveyors of fine foods in the region.  It had the same affect as a town slogan would have - Home of the Blueberry Pie, Cranberry Bog Capital of the World, Home of the Salmon Burger - but it resonated with me in much deeper and more profound ways.  Whether the shop owner created caramels or uniquely canned sardines, they each said the same thing when confronted with Bourdain's question about increasing the production of the product for maximum exposure/tons of profit: "No, we won't, it would affect the quality."  Every shop that offered a specialty food product in the region said the same thing...and not with an ounce of reservation or regret.  There were time honored rules that shop owners would insist consumers adhere to if purchasing their product; a pastry shop owner refused to sell a specialty cake to customers unless they were going to eat it within hours of purchasing it, noting the quality degraded each second it wasn't consumed.  The villages were proud of these shop owners, showing them off to Bourdain as treasures of the region.  This doesn't happen in America.  We think that this approach is arrogant.  Look around you - it doesn't exist.

The show was poetic and moving; it reminded me of the independent shops I visited while living in Basel, Switzerland who were prized by the local government and filled to the brim with local delicacies; additionally, they were supported fully by the local community and when they were sold out, they were sold out.  My American sensibilities tell me that if a person can produce a wonderful product, something that people will buy/desire/love, that producing it en masse is indicative of success.  At that point, the person has fulfilled the mythic American Dream.  As I become more integrated in the indie craft world, I see how this is important.  I'm skeptical of indie crafters who are integrated into the mainstream and I'm concerned about how meshing our creation with the mainstream would not only devalue the quality of what we make, but the quality of who we are.  This thought has been circulating in the back of my head for many months, but it really hasn't gone anywhere.  I've admittedly become caught up in the machine of business that indie craft has created in America - specifically spearheaded by e-commerce giants like Etsy and ArtFire - who have placed a capitalistic carrot in front of us, encouraging us to move at a pace that jeopardizes the enduring quality of our work and our souls.

UTNE recently republished an interview that was originally printed in American Craft (Oct-Nov 2009) between Suzanne Ramljak, art historian and editor, and Richard Sennett, sociologist.  Entitled Crafting a New World, it is both a profoundly innovative yet reflective piece that encourages handcrafters AND society to realign our priorities.  Sennett, who is also authoring a three-part series called The Craftsman, asserts that reintegrating craftsmanship and crafting back into society as we know it will realign our value system, increase the effectiveness of our educational system, question the efficacy of capitalism and settle our personal priorities in a way that will lead to more profound self-actualization.  He also discusses how society, specifically in reference to class, has systematically devalued work that is made with human hands.
The lack of research on the mental activity involved in making physical things has important social repercussions. People who are competent in verbal symbols are thought to be more gifted than those whose development occurs through physical or manual experience.  There is a terrible blindness in modern society to people who work with their hands, and this leads to class differentiation and even contempt for manual work.
His comments on pedagogy particularly satisfied the student in me who once wished to be an elementary school teacher.  He asserts that by not incorporating measured repetition and deep absorption of a concept or task, students are shortchanged.  We grow up being incapable of concentrating and are unfulfilled.
The capitalist economy sacrifices the logic of craft, which results in poorly made objects and a degraded physical environment. This capitalist model of productivity then feeds back into the schools, so the very training of people becomes industrialized. The craft model of education—slow, concentrated, repetitive—is seen as dysfunctional and irrelevant in the modern world.
It isn't any shock to me, given this perspective on the modern educational model, that so many people wind up not knowing what to do or who they are, and that they are so "satisfied" becoming part of the white collar machinations of American society.  No, we are not all destined to be artists but we all craft in some way, Sennett suggests.  It's incredibly profound to think about our purpose and the meaning of life in terms of humans being crafters. He references, at one point, Linux geniuses creating a cyber world committed to discussing and improving that one specific operating system.  They saturate themselves in it and therefore, it is bettered and they achieve more profound wholeness.

As a critic of capitalism, Sennett also posits that value and rewards should and can be something other than monetary.  He also says that in order for society to value small, craft-oriented enterprises, that we need to revolutionize the way that government supports business and education.
We don’t pay master craftsmen to take on and train young people. We don’t see that as a social good. This is the single policy we could enact in the United States to get people engaged in the transfer of physical knowledge from master to apprentice. So they can learn skills directly from those actually practicing their craft. I would really like to see this happen.
I think that we often forget that universities and colleges are puppets of business and are particularly indebted to the capitalistic machine.  In most cases, they are a means to an end, in which "mentors" educate "students" and send them off into the world to be self-sufficient, financially independent parts of American society.  Scholars being asked to teach 100-level classes, full of redundancy, multiple-choice tests and lacking in any complexity, insults both the mentor and the student.

Overall, the interview with Sennett is inspirational.  It gives dabblers and crafters like myself the permission to enhance our skillsets in fields that interest us, and to seek out skilled mentors in the process, but it also serves as a reminder that quality will always trump quantity for both society and our souls.


  1. What a wonderful post. Before Christmas I wrote a big post on my blog about craft burn out due to the sheer quantity of goods I was struggling to make, even though I was not making amazing success in monetary terms. I've since found out thatI am not alone in this sentiment and I've really appreciated what you've written.

  2. This is fantastic. I find that in my business we're frequently struggling to push harder and harder to make the product our consumer demands without sacrificing quality- because that's what we're about, really. It's such a hard line to tread.


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All content © Meaghan O'Malley, 2009-2012. Header image by Rebekka Seale.