This blog started as a rage against the misuse of the word artisanal.
Artisanal somehow became a synonym for “unique” or “well made,” and this drove me crazy. I’ve seen it on products like corn chips and honey. Really?
But we wore out artisanal. Now the buzzword is hand-crafted.
My coffee from the local donut shop is apparently hand-crafted because the server made mine as I requested: no cream, no sugar. Just coffee. Coffee like I get everywhere.
My beer is hand-crafted because it was made in smaller batches than Miller. Look. I make beer in my kitchen. If you want small batch, that’s small batch.
Food from restaurants is hand-crafted and what you get on your plate is something that looks like a failed architectural model with a sprig of mint placed just so. Just for you.
Hand-crafted used to mean something substantial. Today, what it suggests is, “I made this just for you. You are unique and special. You deserve this.”
Am I the only one who finds this deplorable?
I don’t need to be made to feel unique in this world when I buy food or beverages or internet content or entertainment or clothing because hand-crafted is a lie. This stuff is mass-produced. And I’m okay with it. Really, I am. Just serve me the damn beer.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not asking for less quality. I’m asking for more honesty. Let’s let coffee be coffee and beer be beer. Let’s remember that bees make honey, not artists. I want my steak to look like a steak.
My dad, Max Ranft, made his living as a fine artist. He really lived it. He had a studio. He taught life drawing. He sketched on every scrap of paper. He taught me how to draw. He taught my brothers. He set up his easel in the snow. He trekked through the forest preserves and churned out landscape after landscape after landscape. Before he got his job at J. Walter Thompson, he traveled the Midwest doing church murals. And he is one of the only people I ever met who knew–I mean really knew–how to draw the human figure.
He hated working from photographs, whether he was painting a portrait or a bridge. The light isn’t real. The shadows aren’t real. The colors are not real. Whatever he was trying to convey was not containable in a snapshot. He needed more than that to say what he had to say.
I remember when I finally got it. He was painting, I was sketching. I could see him from where I sat, measuring, looking, mixing, adjusting. We were out there for hours, a beautiful spot by a lake. The birds, the sunshine, the sound of leaves against the wind. I realized my father spent a good deal of his life observing nature. I thought he was just the guy I saw at dinner. You know, eating. Getting mad at world news. Fixing the gutters. But what I realized by the lake was that what was blue or white to me was not to him. He’d cultivated a way of seeing, a way of knowing the natural world that most people don’t know. He knew stuff, unique stuff, and he was trying to pass this stuff along to me.
Today he has Alzheimer’s. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about lost arts.
If there’s someone in your life with Alzheimer’s, then you already know what I’m going to say. Everyone’s personal or family disease is important: it makes its own strong and particular mark, it takes you down paths you don’t think you can walk. Alzheimer’s–I’ll venture to say–is one of the more stranger ones. What is it–what!–that allows him to play chess (and win) but not remember what he said five minutes ago?
Not long ago, we had a visit from the great nephew of my dad’s teacher, Louis Grell. Richard is doing research on his relative for a book and my dad was one of his closest pupils. (If you’ve ever been to the Chicago Theatre on State Street, you’ve looked at the murals inside–those are Grells.) My dad revered Grell. Mister Grell, as he called him even well after he died. I grew up with stories about Grell and the impact he had not only on my dad’s art, but on his thinking. It’s all lost. My dad couldn’t recall anything significant about his apprenticeship to this man. And no one in my family had written anything down.
You think the stories you have in your youth are the stories you’ll have your whole life. They are the stories you live with, that shape you, that make you who you are. If you forget a detail, no matter. The storyteller will tell the story again. You can have the story back in all its vivid detail any time you want. Or so you think.
So much else is gone, too. I’ve been wracking my brain to remember what he taught me about the color of clouds, about how to paint a sky, about how to measure the human form. What was I supposed to do with half tones? What exactly was I supposed to look for when the weight was on the opposite hip of a figure at three quarter turn? What did you mean when you said to soften the shadow? These are the stories I heard every day of my youth. Of everything he taught me about art, I internalized only maybe ten percent. The rest is gone. Just gone.
This sudden and desperate sense of loss has made me frantic about the lost arts of our world. Where does all the knowledge go? Who is keeping track? Who’s writing it down? Better yet, who’s practicing it, making it present? Here are a few on my current watch list (in no particular order):
Dark room photography
and, of course, hand spinning
Maybe you know some people who practice these arts. Maybe you practice some of them yourself. But let’s face it. These crafts are endangered. My list has a decidedly Western bent, but that’s the culture I know. Please send me more and I’ll add them.
Recently, someone said that she struggled with deciding when to consign an art to history. This really took me aback. I don’t want to lose any of these arts to history. But then I thought how many people I know who are looking to buy a hand-tatted collar. Zero. Who wants a hand-carved bed? Who needs their books rebound? There are reasons we don’t practice these crafts like we once did. But, gosh–is that the reason to let them go? Zip? Gone? Disappear forever like my father’s memory? Maybe I’m too emotionally invested here. If I am, talk me out of it. But somehow I don’t think so. Besides all the practical use I get from my spinning wheel, there’s another reason I make yarn by hand. I do it, damn it, because there’s value in the doing. Like my father standing in the forest, under the sun, measuring, mixing, creating what only he could create out there that day, there’s a knowledge in the doing that only comes from doing. Do we really want to lose that to history? Really?
Reader Jeremy P. recently helped me understand a bit more about how high-end saxophones are made. He was responding to my recent flowchart test that used musical instruments to determine when an instrument maker can apply the artisanal designation. Jeremy’s point was that automation has improved saxophones: many high end makers use computer-aided technology to determine precision tuning. Can we begrudge them an automated process if it results in a superior product? Certainly not. Again, as long as automation is not facilitating mass production, we’re still on the chart.
Now, let’s apply Jeremy’s question to something more commonplace: how much automation can we allow and still call an item homemade? We throw around the word homemade far more often than we use artisanal, so this discussion should be even more juicy.
The question, again, is one of definition. What does homemade mean? For starters, it must be made at home. This ought to be obvious, but it’s not. For example, why do restaurants routinely call their food homemade? That can’t possibly be true. (More fascinating is that diners don’t object–but I digress.)
Second, a homemade thing must be made by hand. We can say this because homemade can be used as a synonym for hand-crafted. People who use the term hand-crafted to describe their item may not like the comparison because homemade bespeaks a sense of homeyness or crude, even slip-shod construction; but, it can also mean made from scratch and made by oneself and this gives the word a sense of ingenuity and self-sufficiency.
The made-by-hand requirement, however, is also where the trouble begins. Especially today, automation is almost impossible to overcome. To show just how difficult it is to avoid, consider baking. Most people who bake do not mill their own flour. They use store-bought flour that was mass produced using automation. Nor do they make their own butter or harvest their own sugar. But few people would object to calling a cake made in a kitchen homemade. In fact, many people would be pleased to call a cake from a mix homemade.
We just don’t live in a world that will allow us to mill our own flour or churn or own butter. With a few exceptions, we just don’t have the time or the resources. We did once, and this indicates to me that the definition has shifted. Maybe not when a person bought the first bag of milled flour. That moment was probably a celebration of survival. But that first cake mix must have been a threat. Is a box cake a real cake?
Once, this was a big deal. Today, we think nothing of it. Homemade is a shifting target, and that’s why restaurants can claim it for their own. Just like artisanal, we no long know what it means.
I don’t know about you, but I find this slippage exasperating. Too much arbitrary shift.