Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Cargo Cult Crafts

I went to a pumpkin carving party last Saturday with a coworker. It was an interesting experience.

There were a lot of young teenagers and preteens there. Most of them were not carving actual pumpkins. They were carving styrofoam replicas of pumpkins. They were not using anything like a real tool; they were using cheap plastic things sold specifically for the purpose of carving these styrofoam pumpkins. And they were not using these to be creative or inventive; they were copying patterns from pre-printed pieces of paper that they had bought.

This seems wrong to me. It is, on every level, a fake and shallow imitation of what crafts should be, all image and no substance.

The activity seemed designed mainly to consume as much of their time as possible. They were encouraged to transfer the patterns to the pumpkin with little pinpricks, and then slowly saw between these pinpricks, in a process that usually took over an hour. The end result was typically a ragged-looking low-resolution replica of a complicated drawing, much like a bad mimeograph.

I came with an actual pumpkin. I grabbed the biggest kitchen knife I could find, and spent about ten minutes total to take off the top, remove the innards, and hack out a vampire face of my own devising with bold swift stabs.

I liked the result. It was simple and striking. It was also what I think a jack-o-lantern should be. Very few of the patterns being carved were actual faces.

When people realized that I would not be using a pattern, they asked me "Are you carving your own face?". I assumed that they were asking me if I would make the pumpkin a self-portrait, and said no. But they were asking if I would be doing something without using a pattern.

This difference in assumptions reflects the differences in what we consider to be impressive. As they saw me carve, they commented that I was like an artist. I have never gotten such a compliment before.

After I was done carving, I took the guts from my pumpkin, and also the ones that my coworker had brought for her children, separated out the seeds, and roasted them with salt and pepper and olive oil. These were quite popular. They were the only real foods in a sea of candy and junk. In this way, they were much like my carved pumpkin, compared to the styrofoam things.

In my mind, crafts should be about the process of taking raw materials from the world around you and transforming them into something that is useful or creatively yours. I turned a pumpkin into 'my own face' and good food. (I am still turning it into good food. It is in my fridge now, and I have eaten a fourth of it so far. My pumpkin ended up being very thick, with lots of good flesh.)

But the 'craft' of the preteens at the party was just the consumption of a manufactured good. They were just being consumers, not learning how to impose their will and creativity upon reality. As I compare my childhood to the children I saw at the party, I realize how lucky I was to grow up in a time and place and with parents that emphasized a connection to the natural world around me, and how I could interact with it and make things from it.

I understand that there are safety concerns with giving real knives to immature people. But maturity is a function of experience, not age. I definitely remember cutting myself with knives when I was growing up. But I healed, and I learned, and now I can handle blades of all kinds with deftness and confidence.

In the past, I did not understand the complaints about how our society was growing shallow and materialistic. Recently I have become more sympathetic to these arguments. Many of the young people I see seem programmed to be consumers rather than creators, and often do not even know what real creativity is. This 'pumpkin' carving party is an example of how the real things of previous generations are being replaced with fake replicas that do not generate the same benefits, and this concerns me.