Every two or three months we have what we call a soirée at our home. It’s not as fancy as it sounds. Twenty-five or thirty of us get together and entertain each other.
Some of us sing folk or opera or pop, while some play instruments – from piano and violin to bagpipes and drums. Others read poems, tell stories or perform scenes from plays. The soirées are totally and joyfully unpredictable; we never know who ‘s going to show up, let alone what they are planning to do. While a number of the performers are professionals, many are amateurs. But we aren’t just kidding around. Although we have lots of fun, we are serious about what we do. Quality is important to us.
This is very subjective, but some of us are a lot better than what you hear on the radio.
As I look around me, quality doesn’t seem to be important in this culture. The stores are flooded with predictable, unexceptional, and cheap products, and I mean cheap no matter what the price. Even expensive designer clothes are badly made. At the risk of sounding like a snob, a phenomenal amount of music is also badly made – singers are off key, musical instruments are pounded and abused, and song lyrics are … whatever.
The market bears a large part of the blame. The ultimate validation in our culture is to sell our creations, whether they are material or cerebral. The overwhelming power of money is illustrated by the accolades accorded to films, novels, and popular nonfiction which are widely acknowledged to be drivel, but which sell like hotcakes. For the thousands who rent tables at craft shows, success – even pride in one’s work – is usually measured in dollars. Novelty sells, authentic creativity languishes. The superficiality is sometimes overwhelming.
Now, our home soirées are anything but unique. Versions of evenings such as these are happening all over the continent and probably all over the world. Thank heavens. They are important to me because I believe that they are a challenge to corporate mass culture and to its disregard for quality, to say nothing of its other noxious effects.
If we really felt that art, crafts, or music were an important part of our lives, then we wouldn’t spend so much time earning money to buy corporate-produced culture. We would do more of it ourselves and support those who do it well, especially in our communities.
To put this in perspective, I really believe that in order to survive we have to avoid being swamped by global corporate culture, whose excesses are not only destroying regional economies but threatening our biosphere. One important avoidance strategy is to be far more thoughtful about what we buy and from whom we buy. Sharing our skills has to become a much more local enterprise. While music, arts, and crafts must be part of this strategy, it includes much more.
The food movement has raised awareness of the benefits of buying food from farmers and small local processors whom we know. The same awareness could be used, where practicable, with our dishes (pottery), toys, and at least some of our clothing. We also need to be more thoughtful about beauty, which includes participating in designing buildings and public spaces as well as objects we use daily. Sensitivity to beauty is essential to cultural survival and growth.
Of course just because something is local doesn’t mean it’s good. How many times have I been to a political or environmental conference where the token music or the arts and crafts exhibits are mediocre and boring? And there are beautiful and well-crafted objects made in other countries, using ingenious techniques it would benefit us to learn. Valuing the local doesn’t exclude learning from other cultures.
But by the same logic, just because something is imported hardly guarantees high quality. The mass-produced junk and electronic gadgetry manufactured overseas is made strictly for profit. It numbs us to any appreciation of real quality, relying on novelty to grab our attention, and our money. This consumption-driven culture of superficiality, in turn, infects so many of the things we do, even local music and crafts. If we are sharing our skills and buying locally we have to confront this fact.
Grade school teachers will go for a weekend to learn how to play the recorder. Then, on Monday morning, they go into school and attempt to teach students. What do children learn from this? Probably not how to play the recorder, or to hear what really good playing sounds like. They do learn that unqualified instructors and lack of rigour is OK, especially if it’s just for kids. Don’t get me wrong: as a teacher, a parent, and a grandparent I am in awe of so many teachers, right up to university. But I have experienced directly many instances of how standards have been dropping like a rock across the whole system, as school boards and universities struggle with underfunding, lower expectations, and test score worship. Education has become a product, part of mass-produced culture.
My wife Shelly teaches drawing and fabric sculpture techniques. She is finding that very few people want to spend the time to hone their skills or to perfect techniques. They want to have an object – such as a bracelet or a handbag or a picture – within a half a day, often to sell. It’s good they want to make things, but where is the passion? Where is the care? she finds herself asking.
This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t sing or make things even if they’re not good at it. The more people participate in cooking and making things for themselves (and singing while they do it!) the better. By doing these things for the love of it we are opting out of the superficial profit mentality, which casually accepts the mediocre – as long as it sells.
But this casual acceptance of the mediocre is everywhere, even the craft scene, because our culture has become commodified on such a vast scale that it has warped our thinking. Don’t forget, culture is more than bling. It’s holidays and home cooked meals, politics and pottery, songs and stories, and they’re all for sale by multinational corporations. We buy culture instead of doing it. We buy fast food instead of preparing it or at least buying it from someone we know and trust. We buy recorded music instead of making it or listening to small live concerts, and we even buy our politics instead of participating in it. Should it surprise us that the quality of food, music, and politics has plummeted?
Allowing others to make our culture – usually with the help of complicated machines – and then to sell it to us is a recipe for predictability and stagnation. No matter how complicated they are, machines are inherently superficial. They may be able to make high quality cars, or even high quality bread, but they don’t think about quality. They can’t evolve. Quality, invention, and creativity come from the thoughtful use of skilled hands in the making of music, painting of pictures, adornment of bodies, preparing of food, making of toys and even clothing and houses. These activities are all small scale and local, like our soirées, although these days, more than ever, they can be enriched by ideas and products from everywhere.
We have reached the point where a small number of corporations has orchestrated the triumph of mass consumption, which is a form of trance. And amnesia about quality is part of that trance. Let’s wake up. The soft underbelly of corporate culture is vulnerable to our remembering that the tastiest meals, the most moving songs, the most beautiful adornments, the most beloved toys are created carefully and thoughtfully, with a respect for experience and quality, and with a thirst for the unexpected.