Nick Offerman and the Limits of TV Craftsmanship

His new show focuses too much on Etsy-style arts and crafts, but it's worth watching anyway. Here's why.

With so many aspects of our lives having moved from the tangible to the digital, it seems like crafting is a relic of the past. Many a scrapbook is collecting dust on basement shelves as we post our photos on Instagram. Target and Home Goods, meanwhile, provide us with vintage-looking quilts and knitted throws, minus the labor.

Some would argue that, in this transition, we haven’t lost all that much. Those cutesy scrapbook pages and felted sewing projects were hardly artisan material. The massive digitalization of our era, coupled with the ease of factory-produced goods, have left our homes with more room to breathe and less “stuff” gathering in corners and garages.

But maybe we’ve lost something, too. In many ways, that’s the argument behind NBC’s “Making It,” a fun and glittery show modeled after the BBC’s beloved (and irreplaceable) “Great British Baking Show.” Hosted by actors Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman (of Parks and Recreation fame), the show follows a team of “makers” through a series of challenges, slowly narrowing down the competition until one is awarded $100,000 and the title of “Master Maker.”

Offerman is himself a talented craftsman: he grew up on a farm in Illinois where his father taught him woodworking, and he owns a wood shop in Los Angeles. Offerman’s admiration of Wendell Berry and old-world furniture joinery suggests that he cares less about kitschy craft projects than he does about old-fashioned “craeft,” the sorts of skills that require true artisanship and virtuosity.

But this isn’t what “Making It” is about. There’s a reason the show refers to its contestants as “makers” and not “craftsmen”: while it offers some lovely creations, it’s less about artisanship than fun expression. That’s fine, to some extent, but it did lead to some cringeworthy moments in the show’s first episode—like when an interior designer’s paper-and-glue-gun creation beats out a woodworker’s intricate Japanese-style quilt motif. Time will reveal whether, as the competition heats up, the judges lean more towards craftsmanship or Etsy-inspired arts and crafts.

Craftsmanship, historically defined, refers to a degree of power and excellence on the part of the creator. In learning a trade such as woodworking or baking, a craftsman did not just gain mastery over his respective medium; he gained a degree of mastery over his own life. The craftsman who can build a table, sew a quilt, or make a loaf of bread no longer relies on the market to do those things for them—and thus transcends the oft-enslaving nature of our consumptive society.

But the contestants on “Making It” are not interested in this sort of craftsmanship. For them, stencils and glue guns provide opportunity for creative expression. This is craft in the modern era: we no longer need it to survive—and so it has become a rather bourgeois pleasure, one that offers its aficionados tactile therapy and enjoyment.

While that may be a limitation of craft historically understood, it is not necessarily a bad thing. One contestant on the show’s first episode admits that his parents disowned him after learning he was gay and he has no ties to his family. For him, the episode’s final competition—which requires the makers to create art reminiscent of family heirlooms—is painful and emotional. Despite that, he manages to create a lovely paper quilt from his experience. This may not be what historical craft was about, but it is still good.

Perhaps just as importantly, the show lauds and celebrates a return to the tactile and present over the digital and disconnected. At one point, Offerman notes, “Using tools, knowing how to make stuff with your hands, involves a part of your brain that so many of us have lost. My dad taught me to carry a handkerchief, and I’m 47, and I still think about him every time. It makes me mind my manners.”

The tactile ties us to the past and the present. It offers us the opportunity to share our bounty in good times, and gives us something to hold onto when grief or adversity hit. “Making It” reminds us why we used to do things like scrapbooking or quilting: not because the finished project was always stellar, but because it offered comfort to our souls, minds, and bodies.

“Society has changed,” says contestant Jemma Olson. “People spend too much time on their phones. Why not take all that energy and put it into real, live memories?”

If I’m honest, I’d rather watch a Nick Offerman-hosted show on woodworking—perhaps something in the “This Old House” vein—than “Making It.” The kitschy cuteness of the show’s projects just aren’t interesting or exciting enough (at least thus far) to warrant further viewing.

That said, the show’s friendly, laid-back vibe makes it enjoyable and relaxing, especially in contrast to the more cutthroat nature of most television competitions. We will never get another “Great British Baking Show,” but this one offers similar pleasures. And for a lot of Americans who are sick and tired of digital debates and television pundits, that just might be enough. If it inspires even a few of us to get off our phones and pull one of those dusty photo albums out of the basement, “Making It” will have succeeded.

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.

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8 Responses to Nick Offerman and the Limits of TV Craftsmanship

  1. Youknowho says:

    Planned obsolence is killing craftmanship. At one time people knew how to repair things, and they could take things apart and put them together, because they were expensive so if something went wrong it could not be replaced easily.

    And if you take something apart a few times, you learn how it is put together, and how it works. And you figure out what to do about it. You can create a new appliance, you could make repairs with some wire. So, you were forced into craftmanship

    Now we just throw things away and buy a new one. Craftmanship becomes just a hobby.

  2. Youknowho says:

    For a show that shows real craftmanship try watching the SyFy channel’s “Face Off” Movie makeup artists compete against each other in creating truly amazing creations. It is not cutthroat, because, after all, when the show ends, they might end up collaborating on a project, or being hired by a competitor. So they help each other.

  3. Jon says:

    What? Spending one’s days in the leisure of stuffing piece-by-piece a wooden boat into a bottle as a craft to while away the time! This is the trivialization of craftsmanship.

    As an artist, I witness this with the paint-and-sip moneymakers. The participants see this as a playful hobby. Yes, they realize that their skills cannot match those of a painter, but their experience fails to endear them to the fine arts.

    Instead, they see it as no more than the social pleasures of banter at a coffee klatch while sipping wine or some other cold beverage as they smear acrylic paint across the canvas in imitation of their instructor. It does not arouse any deepening appreciation for what the artist tries to convey through his or her art.

    Often times people look at envy at my work telling me how I have found a marvelous hobby for myself in my retirement. They know little of what it is like to have a calling and thus a passion for an endeavor. They know nothing and care little for the creative process, for harking to one’s inner muse to pour one’s soul into one’s work.

    They know nothing of how we had in the Renaissance defined ourselves as homo faber — shaped by our daily labors. They celebrate the glories of the marketplace but disdain the work of the guilds which protected both markets and labor and ensured full employment.

    Video streaming or TV programs such as the one cited in the blog above only further trivialize the role of the artisan. And those who depend financially on their own hands and minds often face a lifetime of financial woe with the constant threat of starvation and homelessness.

    Here, I dare not exaggerate. Depending on such websites as Etsy for a livelihoods does not guarantee even receiving after expenses even a minimum wage for one’s labors. The life of the craftsman is all too often a life of poverty. Without the protection of guilds, the artisan depends upon the vagaries of the marketplace and the absence of interest or appreciation on the part of the public that sees the craftsman as making tsotchkes bearing little monetary value.

    We ought to address this societal problem where the artist (playwright, dramatist, musician, composer, poet, painter, and sculptor) is cast to its margins. Society no longer values beauty.

  4. Nick Stuart says:

    Without commenting on the show, there are real benefits to even kitschy paper and glue gun “crafts.”

    1. It’s a start. A true interest and craft skill may grow out of that tole-painting/stenciling hobby

    2. A more-or-less permanent artifact is created that can be passed down through the family (my great-grandparent made this). It will give posterity a concrete link to the past, even if it is modge-podge or macramé.

    3. Even if the work product is a pony bead bracelet, it cannot fail to be a more productive use of time than hours spent on social media, binge watching TV, or video gaming.

  5. Frank D says:

    I highly recommend Forged in Fire. The new History Channel competition show. I have no interest in blades or knives but the way the show highlights the processes and craftsmanship of the contestants is amazing.

  6. LouB says:

    Ugh.
    OK.
    In the dimly remembered past of the 1970’s, almost everyone I knew made stuff, or did stuff without any cute labels for the activities.
    People understood electronics because it was a hobbyist activity as well as an occupation.
    People understood woodworking because it was a hobbyist activity as an elective at all public schools.
    People understood auto repair and modification because it was a hobbyist activity as well as a skill passed between generations.
    Sculpture and painting wasn’t an esoteric activity to be engaged in only by academically approved practitioners.
    Public school training in musical performance, theory and composition yielded generations of musical professionals as well as a piano in most homes that actually got played.

    Not any more, I guess….

  7. grumpy realist says:

    1. Glue guns can be useful to glue gimp braid on upholstery projects. Otherwise it’s a lot of tacks/staples.

    2. Anyone who watches cooking shows should look up Nora Ephron’s essay on covering the Pillsbury Bake-off contest. It’s hilarious. After describing in detail the multiple casseroles which were the contest “main dinner entries”, Ephron finally comments: “all I could think of was a steak.”

  8. Anne (the other one) says:

    Thanks for this article. This show was charming.

    I may even pick up my hot glue gun again!

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