In an Age of Soulless Mass Production, the Artisan Craft Worker Still Lives On

W. Rand Smith

As a new book on artisan guitarmakers (or "luthiers") shows, rumors of the death of the artisan are greatly exaggerated. (Brian Marks / Flickr)

Division of labor has always been central to industrial capitalism. By breaking the production process into a series of discrete steps, capitalists gained two big advantages. On the cost side, they could assign each worker a set of prescribed, repetitive tasks. Any given worker could be easily replaced, thus putting constant downward pressure on wages. Only the rise of industrial unions in the late 19th century was able partially to counteract this pressure.

This de-skilling” of work also went hand in hand with labor’s general disempowerment, as the division of labor enabled capitalists to determine the organization, pace and length of the work process. Analysts from Karl Marx to Harry Braverman have emphasized how capitalism’s capacity to divide and sub-divide production has made the workers’ lot one of loss — of skill, wages, and autonomy. Mechanization and, in recent decades, automation have only reinforced this tendency.

This classic portrait of capitalist production depicts the biggest losers as independent artisans: highly skilled producers who owned their own means of production” and determined their own working conditions and techniques based on handcraft.

Facing competition from mass-production factories in growing consumer markets, artisans had great difficulty holding their own in terms of costs and volume. The implicit mantra was scale up or die”: adopt labor-saving technologies and produce more at lower cost, or face extinction. In the past century, in industry after industry — from automobiles to furniture making — the harsh logic of repressed wages, automation and growing scale seemed relentless. Artisanal work appeared destined to disappear.

Alas, rumors of the artisan’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Handcraft production has not only endured; in some industries it has actually flourished. One such instance is acoustic guitar making.

During the past three decades in the U.S. and Canada, this industry has seen a boom in guitars made by individual makers using hand tools. The quality of these instruments is such that some experts consider them to rival the best guitars of the so-called Golden Age” of the 1930s and early 1940s. Indeed, prices for some new artisan guitars rival those of prized 80-year vintage instruments, and wait times for a custom-made model can stretch several years.

What explains this renaissance of artisan-made guitars? What is the nature of the luthier community that spearheaded this rebirth? What does the success of artisan-based lutherie tell us about manufacturing in the age of globalization? Kathryn Marie Dudley, an anthropologist at Yale, tackles such questions in Guitar Makers: The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America (University of Chicago Press, 2014), an energetically researched and intellectually penetrating ethnography of artisan guitar makers. Although written in a scholarly style with frequent excursions into social theory, the book is largely accessible to the general reader.

Just as every good anthropologist immerses herself in another culture, so does Dudley engage deeply with the tribe” of luthiers. Over several years she variously apprenticed in a repair shop, attended luthier gatherings and instrument exhibitions, and interviewed several noted artisan makers at length. Her goal is to analyze the ways in which luthiers articulate and enact differences between mass production and handcraft, and how their attitude toward capitalism shapes the choices they make.”

The heart of Dudley’s argument is in the sub-title. Artisanal guitar making has endured primarily because these luthiers share a sustaining set of values that puts them at odds not only with mass production specifically but also capitalist culture generally.

These values entail both an individual and a collective dimension. On the one hand, luthiers speak, sometimes almost mystically, of finding or discovering themselves — their identity, passion and purpose in life — through working directly and intimately with wood. Marxian notions of the alienation of work do not enter the luthier’s workshop. One noted maker, Ren Ferguson, says of making a hand-made guitar: Haven’t you ever held one? Don’t you want to do that? I mean, some people have to — it’s not like you want to. You can’t wait.”

On the other hand, to become an artisanal luthier is to join a particular kind of community, one based on information sharing, cooperation and reciprocity. Virtually all of these artisans received training and help along the way from more experienced and knowledgeable luthiers. Once established, most guitar makers feel compelled, in turn, to reciprocate by helping train the next generation.

Most luthiers do not see themselves as competing against fellow guitar makers for market share; rather, they feel engaged in the common goal of building a better guitar. The ethos of this production-based subculture is not so much anti-capitalist in an oppositional sense as it is non-capitalist in its rejection of soulless” mass production.

Dudley explains how the rise and subsequent trajectory of this artisanal lutherie has owed to several factors. There is clearly a generational influence, as many of the leaders of this community came of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s. This period coincided with a generational politics of authenticity” that challenged normative prescriptions for white masculinity.” Rejecting such prescriptions that included salaried corporate careers, many young people — especially, says the author, young white men — viewed building guitars as a more autonomous, creative and authentic” way of making a living.

Market influences have also shaped the artisan movement in various ways. On the supply side, the quality of guitars made by the historically dominant companies, Martin and Gibson, declined significantly during the 1970s due to internal organizational problems. This decline created a market opportunity for better products. On the demand side, however, financial success did not come immediately. Although most of the prominent artisans featured in the book got their start in the 1970s, they did not achieve significant financial success and public recognition until the following decade. Not until the late 1980s did the artisans’ main consumer base — baby-boomer men reaching middle age — have the disposable income to acquire expensive handmade instruments.

Finally, as in any industry in a state of flux, there were organizational opportunities for what the author terms network entrepreneurs”: visionaries who wanted to create a framework for information sharing and cooperation among a growing group of fledgling but unconnected artisans. Thus a small group of guitar makers formed the Guild of American Luthiers in 1973, which became an important catalyst for the new movement. The byword of this group became: we hold no secrets; we share and help one another. Today the GAL counts about 3,500 members.

All is not bliss in the luthier world, however, and Dudley expertly assesses two of the major challenges that guitar makers face. The first is technological, in that automation has made inroads even into highly skilled handcraft. Computer numerical control (CNC) machines can produce, precisely and ad infinitum, some of the main guitar components such as necks and bridges.

One maker asks: Is it a bad thing if a machine can crank out labor-intensive parts in a fraction of the time, do it perfectly, 
and save wood while doing so?” This question has divided the lutherie community for the past two decades. Important early members of the community — most notably Bob Taylor, founder of Taylor Guitars, embraced CNC technology and expanded the company’s operations well beyond artisan” scale.

For purists, this is rank betrayal of the artisan’s handcraft code. Yet every luthier confronts this existential question at some point: Do I toil largely alone, producing a limited number of handmade instruments, or do I try to maintain quality while adapting automated technology and hiring more workers? In a community that reveres highly skilled handcraft, the question How much technology is too much?” remains controversial.

The second challenge is environmental, specifically access to endangered wood species that are now regulated by international and U.S. law. Several such woods, most notably Brazilian rosewood, are crucial to artisan luthiers. In theory, the principle is simple: Woods in danger of being logged into extinction are largely banned from transport across borders. In practice, however, current regulations are ambiguous and unclear, and enforcement is spotty and often arbitrary. At a minimum, luthiers and their customers who ship or carry their instruments abroad feel increasingly under pressure to either document the provenance of the protected-species woods in their guitar — an impossible task in many cases — or risk having the instrument confiscated on the spot. The future of cross-border transport of artisan-made guitars — and by their extension, the artisans’ livelihoods — is far from settled.

Guitar Makers is an important book on two levels. It is an essential work for anyone interested in changes in the acoustic guitar industry during the past four decades. Although not pretending to be a general history of acoustic guitar making , the book provides much background and context about the industry as a whole, from mass producers to small-batch makers. Beyond this specific case, this study illuminates the conditions under which highly skilled, small-scale craft work can survive and even thrive in an age of race-to-the-bottom mass production. To be sure, specific market conditions and available technologies play a defining role, but that is only part of the story.

The current economic era, dominated by gigantic and seemingly unaccountable financial and corporate entities, still contains niches in which misfits,” to use one luthier’s self-definition, can secure a livelihood and fulfillment in craft work that rejects the dominant production model in favor of skilled handcraft. These producers, in turn, find buyers who value their products for that very reason.

Call it a search for authenticity” — a desire for products in which direct human intervention has a worth that exceeds sheer functionality. Like eddies in a rushing river, artisanal production continues to find survival space on the market’s margins. While perhaps not the wave of capitalism’s future, such production is no relic of the past. 

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W. Rand Smith is the Irving L. and Fern D. Young Presidential Professor of Politics Emeritus at Lake Forest College. He is the author of several books including Enemy Brothers: Socialists and Communists in France, Italy, and Spain.
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