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Triumph of the Artisan by Jesse Bluma

Triumph of the Artisan

The revival of piece work and artisan products is exciting.  We can point to baked goods by local bakers, vintage products, and custom furniture items.  It is remarkable to see the craftsmanship, the work ethic, and entrepreneurship across the globe.  A look at farmers’ markets, online stores, trade shows, business networks, events, food trucks, and pop-ups demonstrate a renewed interest and appreciation for the homemade, the need, and desire to economically progress.  Etsy, for instance, “is a marketplace for handmade goods, vintage items, and supplies for making. Our community is made up of independent creative businesses from around the globe.”

The flourishing market of artisans and piece work is not new.  Networks of trade and manufactured goods is centuries old, from Africa to Asia, to Europe, to the Americas.  Money is an important theme in this story.  Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister in France during the 1600s, sought to create more trade.  His ideas and policies supported monopolies, promoted manufacturing, and mercantilism.  This centralized the economy with close government oversight and expanded trade oversees with exports to India, North America, and the West Indies.  

Contemporary artisans and small business owners also parallel some other movements throughout time.  Adam Smith promulgated what is called “free enterprise” during the 1700s.  This system centers upon individual freedom to conduct business.  Workers, investors, owners, and consumers benefit from the laws of supply and demand.  This system was a shift for many away from mercantilism.  Smith promoted self-regulation, self-interest, and sympathy “for the help of brethren” in The Wealth of Nations.   Smith’s view is in keeping with the “natural laws” of competition.  

There are several challenges and influences artisans, craftsmen, and business owners have always faced.  Profit, power, and religion are further themes in this story.  In England for example, religious persecution, growing numbers of wealthy, and risk makers spurred on migration to the New World.  Thousands of people immigrated to New England, forever planting European cultures, religions, laws, and commercialism in the New World.

As the The Ottoman Empire declined in the 1600s, European expansion and progress was in gear.  Commercial and financial expansion to lands overseas outpaced that of the Ottomans.  This historical tale demonstrates the power of money coffers and the making the governments and leaders as significant stakeholders in the world.  In contemporary times and times past we see economic expansion affects, influences, improves, and can decimate the lives of artisans.  The eternal spirit of great artisans is a triumph.  

Population growth, decline, risk-making, and pure sweat equity are also key in this story.  The amalgamation of freedom, great participation by the populace, big and little actions, and excitement lead to synergy within trades, professions, and businesses.  We are left with much to ponder.  What forces are important to us?  How should and do artisans and craftsmen respond?   National identities, securities, insecurities, developments, and alliances are forged through dramatic events like imperialism and expansion.

Other factors include human tendencies toward violence, curiosity, competition, power, and security, and superiority.  For example, discoveries and exploration for gold, spices, and other goods were made possible by enhancement in ships and navigation.  The Portuguese made a name for themselves in ship building, designs that allowed them to sail the globe.  These advancements helped traders from Portugal compete with the Ottomans.  Today craftsmen utilize computers, websites, and various applications to meet demand and become sustainable.

Great cooks, tinkerers, designers, and engineers rely on education and training.  The current excitement around local businesses would not be possible if something did not occur before production, distribution, and marketing.  Throughout time and time to come education is key.  Etsy, social networking, apprenticeships, schooling, independent practice, and formal training is needed to become an authority and develop skills.  Etsy and other networks provide a guild system, offering classes and authorities to improve mastery of skills.  Similar to the guilds and divisions of labor popular throughout Europe in the 1500s.  These private associations of merchants, such as butchers, goldsmiths, vintners, and plumbers, provided instruction, legal aid, and standards.  

We see many reasons contemporary artisans and craft makers enter the marketplace.  For some, it is the expression of their personality and art that drives them to work.  For others it is the expression of their personality preferences and desire for economic freedom.  Necessity is also a key factor.  One must work for survival.  Still others have a calling.  For those such as Martin Luther, work is a form of service.  For those such as John Calvin, work is the will of God.

This Protestant Work Ethic, this work with a calling, enhances and elevates vocations and provides a dignity and equality of value.  The break from traditional work, doing as your parents did, as supported by Calvin and others spawned more interest in other fields and capitalistic endeavors.  From ancient to modern times it is these desires from a multitude of backgrounds, values, and ideas that forge new relationships and inspire others.  As Milton Friedman explained, “The only way that has ever been discovered to have a lot of people cooperate together is through the free market”.

We must also understand relationships to better understand our story of contemporary artisans.  For instance, European expansion ignited internal and external changes within the continent and across the Atlantic, into China, and Japan.  A major consequence was the intertwining of economies, politics, interests, and personal lives.  Interactions varied and led to different results.  Accordingly, Japan was more isolated than other civilizations.  This geographical characteristic reflected their response to those that landed on their shores.  From Myron in ancient Greece to Michelangelo in Italy, Talbot and photography, to Thomas Keller in the culinary world, relationships, struggles, interests, and culture have shaped and been shaped by the artisan. 

The contemporary and historical story of artisans is one of change, triumphs, strategy, disasters, migration, society, priorities, resources, and security.  The breadth and depth of the topic leaves us with an immense amount to think about.  An interesting cast of characters is always in the mix, from the elite, to non-elite, kings, and queens, peasants, Pilgrims, bakers, jewelers, and gadget makers.

It is exciting to see spirited business owners of all forms be at their best and work on becoming their best despite the obstacles.  Over time, with internal and external challenges, power shifts, and various perceptions, we see concepts such as collaboratives, capitalism, market economies, socialism, cottage industries, mercantilism take shape, be reshaped, and rise and fall out of favor.  Never going extinct.  Only melding and shifting locations.  There is always an international mix, a context, for artisans and skilled masters to overcome and enjoy.

Ultimately, as Robert Putnam explained in Bowling Alone, “[t]o build bridging social capital requires that we transcend our social and political and professional identities to connect with people unlike ourselves”.  Great artists, workers, and professionals are key to building that social capital.  Those rich benefits that can only be supported through education, farmers’ markets, online stores such as Etsy, trade shows, business networks, food trucks, and pop-ups.  The good of those in business, their patrons, and supporters is fundamental to continuing the legacy of the arts, crafts, trades, and financial health of everyone.  This revival of piece work and artisan products is compelling.

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