The “Artisan” Hoax: Has That Word Become Meaningless?

When Domino's and Frito-Lay start referring to their products as artisanal, you know they're taking absurd liberties. But does it matter?

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Courtesy of Domino's

Domino's Artisan Pizzas

It obvious to everyone, of course, that “artisan,” when applied to Dunkin’ Donuts bagels or Tostitos chips or Domino’s pizzas, is a laughably transparent ploy — a shameless buzzword used by marketers in their endless, desperate lather to sell more bad products. At least Domino’s, which launched an ad campaign last month for its Artisan Pizza, admits that it is using the term “with a wink and a smile.” The irony is mixed at best, though. While the box proclaims, “We don’t wear black berets, cook with wood-fired ovens or apprentice with the masters in Italy,” there’s also a line on it where the store manager is supposed to give his hand-written imprimatur. (By the way – black berets? Really? Who is writing copy over there? Ernie Bushmiller?)

I mention Domino’s not to single them out for mockery, which would be about as courageous as making Kardashian jokes. No, I actually think that Domino’s is the most interesting and proactive of fast-food chains. (Can you imagine McDonald’s announcing that it was changing its hamburger recipe?) So when Domino’s got on board the artisan trend in such an oddly ambivalent way, I took notice.

(MORE: Wanna Help Sell a Food Product? Toss in the Word ‘Artisan’)

What does artisan mean these days? The idea, perceptively described by Adam Sachs in Details, is “the spirit of the handcrafted, the painstakingly procured, the small-batch. And this spirit comes in individually blown glass bottles, each with its telltale imperfections, the label numbered by the hand that made it.” It’s a sentiment as old as the Victorian Arts & Crafts movement, a rejection of modernity, with its assembly lines and impersonal relations between maker and user. Artisan goods, in their purest form, are made by somebody you know: bespoke pants, say, made by the tailor who measured you or house-made bitters for the drink your bartender is preparing. You know where it came from, you know the guy who created it. It has a certain physical reality which is increasingly, and rightly, being seen as a luxury.

But the truth is that artisanality has almost nothing to do with quality and everything to do with delivery. It’s the transaction that matters. Did you ever have an artisanal cola? Was it as good as a Mexican Coke? I bet it wasn’t. I can’t speak to bespoke suits, since I can’t afford them, but I know for sure a neighborhood artisan can’t make a hamburger as well as Steak ‘n Shake.

(MORE: What’s Wrong With A Dunkin’ Donuts Bagel?)

So while I am not unsympathetic to the New York City bakery that is taking legal action to try to get Dunkin’ to stop calling its bagels “artisan,” there really aren’t that many things — outside of bread, cheese and shoes — that aren’t better in high-quality manufactured form. But I also know that when you buy artisanal goods, you are getting something other people can’t get. It’s not enough for you to tell the world that you have extra money to spend. Anybody with a credit card can buy a bottle of Petrus or a tin of Osetra caviar; that’s why those things mean less than they used to. Luxury goods are now mass-marketed. But true artisanal goods are the one thing that can’t be mass-produced: they are in short supply and they come with a story behind them. And that story can’t be told truthfully by any mega-brand, no matter how clever the branding nor how excellent the product.

We like artisanal products not because of quality, morality, or anti-modernism, but — just as the Victorians did — because they are hard to find and a signifier of quality (as opposed to quality itself). Again, I think, as I so often do, of the character from The Corrections who wished that “all Midwesterners [would] revert to eating pasty foods and wearing dowdy clothes and playing board games, in order that a strategic national reserve of cluelessness might be maintained, a wilderness of taste which would enable people of privilege, like himself, to feel extremely civilized in perpetuity.”

That, more than any black beret or wood-fired pizza, is the true spirit of the “artisan” label. Give me the black beret any day.

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