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Industrial production versus the artisan myth

by Marco Romanelli. Every age generates myths and is nurtured by them. Until they crash and burn. If anyone in around 1968 had dared to criticise the imperfection of an artisan-made object, the unique lightness of blown glass, the heavy materiality of a piece of stoneware, the organic nature of woven lacustrine straw, the stunned intellectual present would have been appalled, arguing that the destiny of things is to be produced on an industrial scale: thousands of identical pieces, ready to be rolled out all over the world.

Forty years on, i.e. right now, things have been turned on their head. Talking about serial production, manufacturing or the democracy of an object that is “always identical to itself” is tantamount to swearing. Suddenly everything has to be handmade or at least hand-finished or at least hand-packed or at least, or at least … As if human creative design could no longer be assessed on the basis of aesthetic/functional results, but merely in terms of production process. Would any of you set off for the moon in a handmade rocket? I seriously think the time has come to take stock of this recent cultural stereotyping and assess the reasons for its existence, the pros and the cons.

While the recent cultural ostracising of industry undoubtedly derives from albeit shared ecological and environmental safeguarding values, it has ended up by fostering much more serious ideological compromises. The western world sees regulated industrial production as infinitely more “healthy” (and less polluting) than artisan production, which is much more difficult to control.  Furthermore, the former, unlike the latter, marries with the principles that generated the theory of design, i.e. “an object for all”, with a clearly defined function but also boasting good looks. Therefore, upstream of any production strategy lay the political value of equal opportunities.

On the other hand, the recent nebulous glorification of artisanship overhangs many different issues, from workplace hygiene to the toxicity of production processes, the fake creativity of process and the exponential rise in costs.

At this point, a distinction has to be made between artistic craftsmanship, in which the maker truly has control over the entire process, producing an object of great value and humanity, and the now more widespread “artisanship” in which the repetition of actions is comparable to those involved in assembly lines and the end result is simply “imprecise.”

Basically, I don’t believe that an unequivocal position can be taken when comparing craftsmanship and industry, where the former and the latter have both been demonised or sanctified in turn. It would make more sense to imagine a production world open to both genuinely artisan-made objects and frankly industrial objects that could exist happily cheek by jowl. This sort of relationship could embrace the semantic categories of “exceptional” and “background” in which the exceptional would be handled by artistic craftsmen, producing one-off pieces that delight the eye, while the background could be handled by an appropriate industrial process, producing simple, silent pieces destined to withstand time despite being in daily use.

Not to mention the half-and-half situations, that is to say the reality and the closely guarded secret of Made in Italy, in which a product is created by an industrial process and then “finished” using artisan techniques.

On the other hand, the ridiculous solutions generated by an industry that fakes artistic artisan details and artisanship that justifies everything and the opposite of everything in the name of supposed artistic quality should definitely be censured. The end result is simply that the plethora of products on the marketplace grows ever higher, muddying the water in terms of the true value (and therefore the price) of the individual objects.

I believe that what is standing in the way of finding a balanced solution between artisanship and industry is the lack of a basic parameter, which is really a conditio sine qua non – i.e. the culture of the user. How many people can still tell the difference between blown glass and pressed glass? How many can gauge the fineness, and therefore the value, of porcelain as compared with random stoneware? As always, it all boils down to accuracy of information on one hand and a person’s education, on the other. Only a fresh aesthetic awareness can help us distinguish an original from a copy, ascribe the correct value to things, and recognise the worth of objects designed some years ago, that still cater to our functional and psychological needs and do not, therefore, need to be replaced.

In essence, every manmade object, whether produced industrially or artisanally, has a story to tell, and it is the sincerity of that story that we should be in a position to judge, without prejudice.