By coincidence, I spent Memorial Day in the town where the holiday was born: Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, which is in Centre County a few miles from State College. The town naturally tries to milk this designation for all its worth and holds a day-long festival with Civil War reenactments, a maypole dance, local school kids reading patriotic essays, folk music (we heard “Roll Out the Barrel,” a Pennsyl-tucky favorite), and a parade that culminates at the cemetery where Memorial Day first occurred. (The festival also coincided with the Boalsburg Firehouse Carnival, where I played 25-cent Bingo and ate funnel cake. I steered clear of the deep-fried dill pickle.)
Along with the festivities were booths lining the town’s two main streets from which people (local artisans mostly) sold a variety of tchotchkes. Much of this was what you’d expect—quilts, soaps, candles, Penn State toilet-seat covers, homemade scrubbies, salad-dressing kits, wrought-iron garden ornaments, caricature drawings, hand-lettered wooden plaques with such slogans as “What happens in the Hot Tub stays in the Hot Tub” and “It’s hard to be pretentious in flip-flops,” bird feeders, wooden jewelry and whatnot. A lot of it was reminiscent of faintly discreditable stuff you’d see advertised on late-night TV or home-shopping channels, products that seem novel for a moment, before you realize how unnecessary or how unlikely to deliver on their promises they are. I end up feeling skeptical, thinking that the stuff would be sold in “real stores” if it were any good—you see how the retailers have me right where they want me. (The aura of authenticity that retail stores cast over their merchandise is of course a carefully calibrated accomplishment akin to the brand equity produced for products through advertising.)
Craft fairs don’t rely on bargain pricing, an approach the TV hucksters sometimes try. With the merchandise at craft fairs, room for bartering is typically built into the prices of the doodads on offer, but they also include what might be considered an anti-tariff, a fee meant to remind buyers that these are artisan-made goods, built by craftspeople and local artists and not Chinese factory workers (even when the goods are in fact Chinese imports, as was the case at a few booths). The extra expense (which in theory would drive consumers to choose cheaper foreign-made alternatives) serves as a kind of guarantee of that, it reinforces the feeling one gets in shopping at craft fairs in the first place: “I’m supporting local people, real people.” Buying local goods is environmentally beneficial (saves on transport costs), but ethnocentrism seems to be the main feature of craft fairs, even when some particular kind of folk art is not specified by the occasion. Ethnocentrism and a chance to indulge pious nostalgia for hardy craftsmanship may even be considered the primary goods for sale at such events. More important than the good is the connection established with a particular artisan, the good becomes a souvenir for that good feeling of providing patronage.
What struck me most about my Boalsburg experience, though, was one particular booth that had some moody lithographs and spare, unsentimental prints—a silhouette of birds congregated on a telephone pole, set at an ominous angle with the frame, for example. Nothing wildly original, but clearly an entirely different aesthetic sensibility than that embodied by the bedazzled teddy bears to be seen elsewhere. The booth’s proprietor was not a middle-aged flea-market veteran, as with most of the others, but a woman in her mid-20s, probably a recent art-school graduate who made the most likely difficult choice to give an honest go at trying to sell her work to a paying crowd. In the past, I might have found her to be sad, sort of pathetic, and quite possibly would have considered her to be some sort of sellout. But I see that impulse now as a defense mechanism, because I know I lack the bravery to do something like that. I wouldn’t be able to handle the rejection or the ego bruising that comes with general indifference to one’s precious creativity when it’s put on display.
The woman at the fair seemed to me more sincere about her work than, say, artists in established artists’ neighborhoods in hipster districts, amid an audience of friends and fellow “artists” who won’t bother to challenge their conceptions of what artists should do—which seem to be to elect one another to an elite class of art appreciators and applaud one another’s originality and distinct vision. They make art as part of a lifestyle, and teh lifestyle draws a circle around itself and wards away the outside world. The woman in Boalsburg confronted that outside world directly. It seemed to me that she wasn’t out to be recognized as an artist so much as she was trying to send her work out into the world where it might do something other than serve as a testimony to her sense of self. There’s a good chance that she probably didn’t sell a thing all day, but for me, anyway, she was the jar on the hill in the Wallace Stevens poem.