The Privilege And Ego Of Artisanal Markets


Craft Fairs. Artisanal markets. Bazaars. Sometimes they’re seasonal, annual maybe, but they can be as prevalent as the mossy squares of city-kept greenery standing distinctly brown and leafy against the grey sidewalks. They appear every corner or so, several to a block in some neighborhoods. They have healing, kinetic, grass-roots brands, taunting, tough-yet-inclusive female empowerment slogan-sounding names, or luxuriate smugly in the throwback simplicity of their “flea” or “flea market” identities. Craft is serious in Brooklyn. It’s a craft capital of the U.S., rivaled only by a small number of DIY crazed cities: Berkeley, CA, Austin, TX, Portland, OR, Portsmouth, RI and a few others.

I’m what would be described as craft-y, in the recreational activity sense and no other. I also prefer to buy my clothing (not undergarments or socks), books, music, furniture, appliances, bikes, etc. second hand, certified pre-owned by a person, the street or a thrift shop clerk. I have an Etsy page. I know from experience that having a constructive practice, building something with your hands and brain, and participating in commerce are activities with high feel-good returns. But here in NYC, in 2012, I avoid the borough’s fairs, fleas, holiday marts and warehouse artisan co-ops like they are chasing me with a knife.

My thoughts on craft are at best cynical and at worst aggressively depressing to myself and to a flourishing consumer trend with strong standing in the zeitgeist. In part, my negative feelings about craft are that it’s yuppie and elitist, and sells itself as exactly the opposite to the yuppie and elite (through claims of authenticity, uniqueness or connection to a simpler age lost to the modernized majority) and although I truly believe that specialized, creative products are and will be essential to the US economy, at least domestically — and that the merch hawked in these spaces falls under this heading — the DIY mentality doesn’t always, or often, produce better or vital goods and services. It’s a supportive, self-congratulatory, free-love market with an assumption of demand that surpasses, or soon will, even the most gratuitous niche luxury product desires of the chronically financially surplus-ed.

The cottage economy can be empowering, which is good.

Democratizing business and entrepreneurship provides open access to learning experiences perhaps inaccessible through alternate means. Self-directed, acute thinking of the kind required to design and sell something is one of many solid ways to add dimensions to our understanding and augment confidence and creativity in practical ways.

What if anything real, novel or significant, is learned in college or university business courses that cannot be learned better, quicker through experience? Overwhelmingly, I think answers to these questions fall between nothing at all and very little — but having also avoided these classrooms like the walls themselves thirsted for my blood and brains, I have to admit this conclusion is anecdotal.

Although I’d rate taking adult ed advanced basket-weaving or selling hemp dreamcatchers dyed in the colors of the sunset at a waterfront market far above any business management or communications course (except for the networking benefits) and though I can, if properly prepared, find the good in a superbadass rebel flea organized by a consortium of lesbian blogs or the supergranola green deal sponsored by the five leading donors to MoMA’s PS1, there’s a big glass ceiling on my appreciation for the trend as a whole. It’s not just the synthetic demand, the nonessential, almost reactionary character of the market sector, or the frequently subpar, overpriced product. Sell! Buy! Enjoy your 10$ home-bottled elderberry and lime soda.

It’s not that the community is hip and preachy. This repulses me, but it’s not that either. Communities are good. In the big bad world, they serve individual members well and, with notable exceptions, have negligible impact on the rest of us; if the community is nonviolent and non-supremacist the potential for negative impact drops to zero.

It’s not even the insular misperception that these products are healthier, less wasteful, more environmentally and socially responsible than larger-provider alternatives. Sure, they can be, but this artisanal stuff isn’t subject to the same standards of regulated (socially or bureaucratically) industry; however flawed the system, when Apple buys parts from a Chinese factory that employs child laborers it’s a global story. If the woman who sells repurposed Indian sari apparel uses dyes sourced from warlord-controlled territory in Africa, or simply purchases materials from a vendor that over-packages and ships inefficiently, no one, perhaps even the woman, may ever know.

Here’s my question, craft lovers and leaders:

If we’re spending our time digging through bins of vintage NYC subway maps set in frames of period postage stamps and trading chunks of our disposable cash to take these things home and hang them on our walls… what are we not doing?

Whoever we are, crafters, if we are the yuppie elite, if we’re art-y people or idea men or women, rich or poor, talented or not, if we defy categorization, it appears we can convince society in large numbers, ourselves among them, of the essentiality of craft and can sell it as better, healthier, hipper, smarter, branding it with an identity that calls different types of people to act, to spend their time and money. If we can do this, can we get different types of people to not actively hate one another? To combat intransigence, mollify fears that lead to blindness and violence, to be open — eyes, ears and minds — to have faith in ourselves and our future?

Something less grossly ambitious? If we could get middle school kids acting even slightly more human, that’d be great — make curiosity cool and punditry un-cool, provide safe, public spaces for balanced discussion of divisive issues — any of that would be great. Personally, I’d really like to see boys and girls trading cards with scientists on them rather than baseball players or Pokémon. Start small.

Craft isn’t a pernicious trend, but a reminder of undelivered promise. Not (I don’t think) a first or even a conscious step in the right direction. When I feel heartless, for not practicing my love of making things and forsaking a sincere appreciation for artisanal traditions passed down through generations I remind myself that humanity is creative and productive by nature and that these practices will endure, but we can do better, be better, bestow our cultural benediction on a worthier name.

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image – Michelle Spaulding