Monday, May 25, 2015



“I consume, therefore I am” the radical poster humorously proclaimed, satirizing the more famous philosophical dictum “I think therefore I am”.

But there is no human essence, no defining kernel of fate and determination.  We contain multitudes. We can create ourselves.

Under the rule of coercive authority, we have become stunted and shrunken. But we are nevertheless not just consumers. What’s missing in order to form a more accurate picture of what primarily defines a domesticated person today is the other side of consumption: production. “I produce, therefore I am” seems as accurate as “I consume, therefore I am”. In fact the two descriptions, combined together, are nearly the whole personality picture, unfortunately, for the conscripts of capitalist civilization. Each of us is expected to produce and consume, this is what citizens do.

Human the tool-user we are taught. Homo Habilis. Somewhere along the way we lost our abundance of defining characteristics, our multitudes. Are we not dreamers and fornicators as much as we are producers and consumers? But urban civilizations spread their reductionism until all the dreamers and naked savages were taken hostage behind the walls, absorbed into a living hell. From now on, they were told, you must divide your organic lives into measurable units. Dream time will no longer melt into conscious time. From now on you will labor for the Pharaohs and the Kings. Accountants and landlords and priests will rule your world, not grandmothers and shamans and your own imaginations. Whatever skills you have will no longer be used for the family, the clan, the tribe, but will be used to produce commodities for the Market or products for the Empire. The Market became dominant and colonized imperial strengths. Thus today humanity has as its main adversary the Imperialism of the Market. From being wild women of the jungle and wild men of the forest, we eventually became wage slaves in the cities.

And the once free peoples stopped singing as they wove their fishing nets, stopped lying lazily, happily, in their comfortable hammocks, smoking their medicine, telling stories, fornicating. From now on they would chant sad songs as they broke and hauled stone for the hierarchs pyramids, tilled the soil and sent their children to war for the King and Queen or huddled on small reservations, dispossessed. At least until they too became forcibly integrated into urban civilization. And so the uncivilized became the civilized and went out and conquered other free people.

But there was a beginning when work didn’t exist, when play and community were basic ingredients in lives freely chosen, when reciprocity assured equality.  A time when ungoverned individuals knew that selling one’s labor for a wage is a form of slavery. And there was resistance to the spreading Empires of the urban hierarchs everywhere they came to impose themselves, to elbow the natives out of their habitats.

     I am an artisan. I make objects out of clay. I make vessels of every shape and size: boxes and cylinders and three sided bottles. I make tea-pots and bowls, cups and plates and candlestick holders. I also create individual pieces, intended for contemplation or for inspiring conversation.

     Does this make me a mere producer for the market? Is my pottery, the product of my labor and imagination, of my sweat and time, left with any meaning, beyond that of a commodity? Do the ones which I give away, to friends, family and neighbors, for free, escape their place in the capitalist scheme of things? Naturally I hope that somehow there is a separate value, a use-value that transcends its exchange value which gives my work, and therefore a big part of my life, meaning, regardless of whether it is given or sold or even stolen. And the joy in the process must count. Or is all the positive really just self-delusion?  Isn’t the whole things just a job?

      I ask because I like conversations, because I want all of us to think about our place in the social order.

     Clay play existed before horticulture, before the dawning of cities and ruling classes, before the market and private property.  Among the more sedentary peoples, those who used a delayed-return system, vessels were created for medicine, to keep water cool in the hot sun, to store food for another season and to collect salt.  And among both the nomadic and semi-sedentary peoples, figurines were fashioned as magical amulets and talismanic objects, jewelry beads materialized from the imagination for the living and the dead. Beautiful and mysterious creatures made for blowing air into so that music could lull and soothe the ears.

      No one signed their creations, no one left their imprint trying to make a name for themselves, seeking personal immortality or wealth. The creators contributed to the greater good or made offerings so that the gods might smile down on everybody.

     But what of the later humble village-based folk traditions, which survived for millennia and in fact still exist in some places today? Could they not offer inspiration, an opportunity to help us leave behind the fame seeking, shallow celebrityism and pretentious claims to intellectual and creative superiority widespread in art milieus? Why not encourage village potters, village weavers ? No need for galleries and curators and lifetimes spent deciphering arcane vocabularies and fetishizing producers of cultural artifacts. No need for anxiety and self-doubt if one isn’t accepted into a sub-cultural scene.

     And yet there is something unpleasantly proletarian and dull and self-sacrificing in the image of the humble artisan dedicated to producing only what is utilitarian, ignoring the opportunity to experiment, to play and explore, to manifest expressions of the marvelous and the impossible. Sensual and creative skills are all non-alienated languages. They offer the opportunity to use non-verbal methods for communication and inquiry.  Creative skills provide both a look through a different opening as well as a language to communicate what is perceived, thus sharing with others a different facet of our experience.

     Ultimately, mustn’t we refuse to legitimize market imperialism dictates of social roles, like “artist”? Shouldn’t we be creating for our friends or clans or communities and not for the market? But here we are. Trapped in an era, inmates of our atomized and privatized lives, conscripts of planetary institutions of domination. And it’s not just artist/artisan that are problematic, all roles and labels that we choose from are pre-cut clichés formed by the interests of urban civilization. Drug addict, tourist, rock star, vegan activist, laborer, soldier, mayor, religious believer, they’re all scripted characters, costumes we choose (or are given) from the small wardrobe offered by the current social order.
      The masters have made it so that living costs money, and money is our congealed labor, our imaginations and life energy spun into commodities.  And so I answer my question: indeed even an artisan, like everyone else, is but a component in the reproduction of capitalist social relations, an example  of the dictum that: “I produce therefore I am”.  But I am ready for a world without commodities, to join with others to terminate this social order so that we can use our creative skills as methods of inquiry and exploration, and voluntarily and joyfully create what is needed and desired by our kin, not what is demanded of us by the Market and Authority.

Artisan X

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