Testing the Artisanal Flowchart Using Musical Instruments

Now that we have a working definition of artisanal (see the flowchart tab above), let’s put it to the test with a series of examples.  Our first test case is musical instruments.

The primary question is of skilled craftsmanship.  If the instrument maker is a master luthier or even produced through the collaboration of skilled craftspersons we can proceed.  Quality is implied (and perhaps should have its own space on the flowchart.  A master craftsperson could produce a poorly made instrument, which would disqualify it immediately from the artisanal tag.)  If the maker is a neophyte or if the maker has not achieved a high level of skill, we stop.  The instrument, no matter how beautiful, cannot be artisanal.

The second step is about mechanization.  Most musical instruments are produced using tools.  If, however, they are produced using an automated process that allows us to mass produce our instrument, then again, we stop, for we know that mass production precludes us from creating anything artisanal.  An artisanal instrument must be made fully by hand or as nearly by hand as possible in these modern times.  Here, now, we remove any mass produced guitar, piano, mandolin, drum, etc., by major manufacturers.

In some music circles, the question of automation is a hot topic.  Just how much automation can we abide before the instrument is no longer entirely hand made?  Can we, for instance, allow a machine to cut the general shape of a hollow body guitar that will later be refined by a master luthier?  The question of where to draw the line is a fascinating one, but not to be drawn here.  All we can say is that the automation must not allow mass production.  Once it does, we are off the flowchart.

The next question is of utility.  This one is easy, for all musical instruments are meant to be played and therefore have use.

Now, is the item meant to exist as part of another item?  A musical instrument is the end product made from other materials like wood, metal, and laquer, so we can stay on the flowchart.  If we were considering only a part of the musical instrument, like the piano soundboard, we would bump ourselves off the chart, even if it was beautiful and handmade by a master craftsperson because it cannot function by itself.  It’s meant to function as part of a larger whole.

And so, we come to our final question, one which separates our group of instruments into two classes, one very large and one very small.  Does the musical instrument express the artistic vision of its maker?  This is the most important question, for the word artisanal has art at its root.  An artisanal object must have dual purpose: both as a useful object and as art.  So much of what claims to be artisanal has no artistic quality at all.  Do not confuse artistic with beautiful.  They are not mutually exclusive terms.  Not all art is beautiful.  Not all that is beautiful is art.  Therefore, for a musical instrument to be artisanal, it must be more than a fine specimen of its class.  It must express something that comes from within the artist.

Let’s run a Steinway concert grand piano through the chart and see what happens:

  1.  Made by master craftspersons?  Yes.
  2.  Mechanized?  Yes.  Automated?  No.
  3.  Utility?  Yes.
  4. Exists as the end product?  Maybe.
  5. Expresses the artistic vision of its makers?  A tough one, but ultimately, no.  Beautiful, yes.  Breathtaking sound, yes.  Clear, impressive, among the best in their class : all yes.  But do they exist as art?  No.  They exist to make art.  The only exception could be a special Steinway created to exist apart from the others as the unique vision of a single craftsperson or group of craftspeople.  If this instrument exists, then it could be considered artisanal.  I will leave it to you to tell me if it does.

Will the Real Artisans Please Stand?

FromMSN Bites on Today: a controversy over artisanal bagels has me wondering: should any food be called artisanal?  What the food producers and chefs in this article seem to suggest is that artisanal = handmade from scratch.  Really?  Is food art?

Just because a trained chef makes the dough from scratch and puts it in the oven and cares does not an artisanal bagel make.  Does not an artisanal anything make.  It’s a bagel.  Maybe it’s a really good bagel.  Maybe it’s the best bagel in the world.  But is the person who made it an artisan?

What if the chef studied for years at CIA?

What if she ground the wheat herself using an ancient mill?

What if she hand packs the bagels in decorative bags?

This article contains several troubling definitions.  One producer says, “Your process is what’s artisan, not your flavor. There’s no such thing as an artisan recipe. It’s related to the actual, physical process.”  So the process of making the bagel is what’s art, not the final product?

Or what about this definition from Dave Taiclet from Fanny May: “The reason why we believe we have permission to call it artisan (is that) it is something uniquely different than anything we’ve ever done in our history.”  First, it’s interesting that they believe they need permission from anyone to use the word artisanal.  Second, since when does artisanal mean first of its kind?

I agree with Jillian Eugenios, the writer of this article, who suggests that the term artisanal has lost its meaning.  Artisanal is a dead metaphor.  No one understands what it means because no one understands what it means to be an artisan.  We do not value true artisans or artists.  And frankly, when bagel makers make a fuss over an identity they co-opted from weavers and glass makers and potters, one has to wonder about the state of art and craft in the world today.  Why aren’t the real artisans guarding their territory?

What Is Art and What Is Craft?

What is art and what is craft?  Are they the same or do they possess distinct differences?

Many an art historian has sought to understand the nature of art and its boundaries.   The current ubiquitous presence of the word artisanal has opened this debate for me once more.  In some quarters, artisanal has replaced the word gourmet, a food or drink that requires refined preparation and may only be truly appreciated by someone with a cultivated understanding of the food or its genre.  This definition is often broadly applied to any specialty item requiring skill to prepare.  In others, artisanal appears to be a stand-in for the idea of quality and is applied to any item, regardless of whether it was handmade or mass produced.  Using this definition, any object that claims to be distinctive can be called artisanal.  In still others, artisanal is a code word for obscure or unusual.

But are any of these uses are appropriate?  On the one hand, to say that what is artisanal is in the eye of the beholder is to resist definition, almost to a fault.  If anything can be artisanal, then nothing is.  I’m not sure this is fair to craftspeople and artists.  On the other hand, to say that only items made by masters who, as I have recently read about food artisans, are completely and wholly integrated into the creation of their product, is to apply an ideal perhaps too exclusively.

What does the term artisanal really mean?  How can understanding the place of the artisan help us to understand our relationship to art, creativity, and authenticity?  Finding answers to these questions, and others, is what this blog is all about.