Lifestyle

The US artisan revolution: how the simple life came in from the margins

Is the transition from industrial to artisan production reaching critical mass? With the public discussion around “quiet quitting” – doing just enough to meet your job’s position description – taken as a sign of resistance to the nine to five, and the foregrounding of anti-corporate and pro-environmental sentiments, one US-based cultural anthropologist believes it has.

Grant McCracken, author of the recently published Return of the Artisan, says that consumer culture, dominated by big business and conforming identities, is being transformed by a third-wave artisanal revolution in which passive consumers become producers with an artisanal sideline.

“When I first heard of this in the 1960s and 1970s, I thought it would be a minority play, but it’s really now gone from the margins to the centre,” McCracken, co-founder of the Artisanal Economies Project and formerly a teacher at Harvard, Cambridge University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Observer last week. “Things are beginning to cohere from a collective enthusiasm to something more like a movement.”

Research conducted in the US last month found that 88% of people in the survey were familiar with the phrase “farm to table”; that half were prepared to call themselves “foodies”; 83% preferred locally grown food; 62% preferred goods that are handmade; 60% would like to live in a small town filled with artisans; and a third would like to start their own business as an artisan. A full three-quarters said they prefer buying from a small shop owner.

“Even people living in cities and fully engaged in the industrial economy expressed what might be a hankering for the artisanal alternative,” said McCracken of the study. “Covid really did make a difference because small communities of artisans working in small towns found themselves being visited by people with deep pockets from the big city and that gave a foundation of sophistication.”

Of course, the effects are becoming apparent: rising property prices in regional towns, unresolved stresses between local residents and visitors and questions over whether the artisanal shift is more than would-be Marie Antoinettes churning butter, as she did in her laiterie d’agrément, or pleasure dairy, at Versailles.

“There’s a longstanding tradition of that,” said McCracken, “but the sharp rise in property prices in small communities that have a walk-to-town opportunity doesn’t quite fit the template of splendid isolation in rural beauty.”

Echoes of the shift, he said, can be seen in the “great resignation” – the unusually large number of people voluntarily leaving their jobs in the wake of the pandemic – and in quiet quitting.

“I think we can take that as a measure of which people are relatively unhappy with their present circumstances,” said McCracken. “To the extent that people don’t have a picture of the artisanal alternative as an alternative, they’re merely unhappy and not yet ready to bolt.”

A woodworker practises his craft
A woodworker practises his craft. Photograph: Rene Schmidt/Alamy

McCracken estimates thatthe alternative – the “maker” or artisanal movement – contributes to 28m small businesses in the US and these create two out of every three new jobs.

All this is encouraging, but not a guarantee that everyone can make it as a cheesemonger or woodworker, or in basketweaving or candle-making, or by fashioning stylish clothes from offcuts of leather and denim, or in beekeeping or some kind of crop or animal husbandry. But as an alternative to Zoom meetings and a full return to office life, “maybe the dignity of running your own career, of shaping you own life, is worth the risk after all”.

According to the Institute for the Future, “the coming decade will see economic transformation and the emergence of a new artisan economy. Many of the new artisans will be small and personal business – merchant craftspeople producing one of a kind or limited runs of speciality goods for an increasingly large pool of customers seeking unique, customised, or niche products.”

Echoes of the shift may be seen, too, in the battle to get workers back to offices. According to US payroll provider ADP, 68% of American workers said they would consider looking for other work if they had to go back to the office full-time.

Last month, Apple tried again to bring workers back to the office with a mandatory three-days-per-week policy, only to be met with a petition arguing that flexible working from home resulted in “exceptional work”.

McCracken writes that the “industrial half of capitalism is losing its prestige and influence”, but he also acknowledges that “we cannot hope to supply the world from cottage industries”.

The artisanal movement finds some of its reasoning in the 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft in which author Matthew Crawford argued that “time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favour: manual competence, and the stance it entails toward the built, material world”.

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The poster child for the artisan shift may be Jony Ive, former chief designer at Apple, now installed in a West Country workshop filled with lathes and handcrafting tools.

“We are surrounded by products that were designed and modelled digitally, with little regard or understanding of their real, material attributes,” Ive said in the Financial Times in May, reasoning that our relationship to the physical world is connected to curiosity. “As humans, we tend to be more responsible stewards of the things we truly understand.”

Another might be Kate Moss, who recently posted a skinny-dipping video on Instagram before the launch of a beauty products line, Cosmoss.

Whether that is back to nature or an artisanal in nature, the veneration of craft has found its way into fashion and publishing as an expression of emotional authenticity. In the spirit of concession, Kanye West sold his recent Gap collection out of rubbish bags.

The roots of this artisanal drive may be found in the radical environmentalism of the 1970s. That instinct was expressed by Alice Waters in her writings, by Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand and by groups such as Earth First! Each offered a slightly different take on artisanal thinking, including protest and direct action advocated by members of Earth First! And each stepped away from the hippy instinct towards disconnection.

A beekeeper tends a hive in Somerset
A beekeeper tends a hive in Somerset. Photograph: Cephas Picture Library/Alamy

Keith Makoto Woodhouse, author of The Ecocentrists, a study of the political rather than cultural consequences of the radical environmentalism to which artisanal life is responsive, says the trend may also be playing to a revival of the 1970s left-leaning degrowth economic movement and the idea that economies based on ever-increasing material consumption are doomed to environmental calamity.

“There’s always been a strain of environmentalism in calls for a return to simpler living,” said Woodhouse. “It goes back to Henry David Thoreau and, later, the 1970s- era counterculture move to leave cities that sometimes included more traditional ways of living and sometimes an embrace of alternative technologies.”

What do people do while they wait for their artisanal apotheosis? McCracken suggests initial participation in small ways such as an artisanal diet from local markets. “Ploughing up the lawn for a wildflower garden or keeping chickens was once to sacrifice all your claims to be a sophisticated person. It’s now perfectly OK,” he said.He has noticed, too, in his Connecticut village that artisanal spirit has helped break down the anomie that once existed. “The closest you’d wanted to get to your neighbour was to wave at them an acre away. Now, that’s really broken down with this walk-to-town inclination.” The local cheesemonger is a village celebrity, another unexpected sign “that the movement is growing”.

The conversion may still only be beginning to take shape, but McCracken writes in a spirited conclusion to Return of the Artisan that the artisanal revolution could help to demolish a “dietary-industrial-cultural system that stood astride the 20th-century organising identity, aspiration and standing, telling us what we wanted, who we thought they were, and where we stood in the world”.

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