With Artisanal Dead, Let’s Move on to Homemade

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.

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.