American culture, artisans, arts, B. Traven, beauty, capitalism, commercialization, crafts, creativity, Don Gutierrez, humanism, industrialization, Native American art, quality of life, shopping, traditional crafts
[In this most commercialized of holiday seasons, let’s reflect on what it means to have a creative gift, to create something unique, to support the artists among us, and to share the creative spirit. Originally published in Common Sense (May 1998), this essay is included in Don’s new collection, Feeling the Unthinkable, Essays on Social Justice.]
Maker/Worker/Profit-Maker: B. Traven’s “Assembly Line”
by Donald Gutierrez
Creativity is one of the basic needs and satisfactions of a good life. The ancient Greek word for poet was “poietes” or maker. In a sense, then, almost every human being is a potential artist, one who can make something beautiful or do something well, or make “beauty” by giving meaning or value to some aspect of his or her life.
The nature of modern industrial technology — its modes of operation, organization and distribution — has made creativity through wage work difficult if not impossible. Although modern industrialists can produce goods in huge quantities and at low prices, both product and producer-worker suffer. The product suffers because much of the mass of goods turned out is superfluous and inferior in quality; factory workers suffer because industrial societies have traditionally dehumanized them by assigning piece work, which is only a small part of a creative process. Factory workers do not have the overview of “their” work that a “maker” would have. As a result, they are deprived of meaning and, thus, of beauty in a basic life experience.
A vivid example of how the quality of our work determines the quality of our lives can be found in a short story entitled “Assembly Line” by B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the less known but stunning novel The Death Ship. Traven skillfully compares the life of a small village in Mexico to the metropolitan pressures of New York City, and dramatizes two opposed ideas about the value and purpose of work. “Assembly Line” revolves around a discussion between an American businessman named Winthrop and a Mexican-Indian basket maker concerning the possibility of mass production of the latter’s baskets. It is an allegory of the Capitalist and the Artist, of mass man versus primitive individualist, of city versus village culture.
Winthrop, aware of the beauty of the baskets, and hearing how cheaply they are sold by the Indian (fifty centavos, or four cents each), realizes that he has chanced upon a potential gold mine. Described by the narrator as a “dynamic promoter,” Winthrop pretends that the baskets have “no real use whatever.” However, he soon returns to New York where he bargains with a candy merchant about creating a massive marketing plan for the baskets.
Thus, the Indian appears to get enmeshed in an extensive economic scheme, in which, as manufacturer (or, more accurately, wage-laborer), he would be the production part of a marketing system. Winthrop and the candy merchant would be profiteering middleman and retailer respectively. (It is virtually taken for granted that the fourth and most important constituent of this scheme, the consumer, would be overcharged for the finished product.) There is no question about who would do most of the work on this “assembly line”: “Each basket cost him [the Indian] between 20 and 30 hours of constant work, not counting the time spent gathering bast and fibers, preparing them, making dyes and coloring the bast.” The uniquely creative aspect of the Indian’s work emerges early in the story:
“It was clearly seen from the small baskets he made that at heart he was an artist. Each basket looked as if covered all over with the most beautiful sometimes fantastic ornaments, flowers, butterflies, birds, antelopes, tigers, and a score of other animals of the wild. Yet, the most amazing thing was that these decorations, all of them symphonies of color, were not painted on the baskets but were instead actually part of the baskets themselves.”
The fact that the Indian actually finds his materials in his natural environment and transforms them into works of art radically distinguishes his work from that of many working people in a commercialized industrial society. Despite making hundreds of baskets during his life, no two of them are alike in design. The satisfaction arising from the creation of beautiful objects is deep and lasting enough to make the poverty and hardship of his daily life bearable.
Winthrop tells the Indian to calculate a mass-production rate for baskets according to this formula: (a) 100 baskets at fifty centavos, (b) 1,000 baskets at…? By capitalist standards everyone, including Winthrop, expects a lower rate per basket because of the higher quantity of the sale. Producing a large number of commodities usually lowers the cost per item–but also it often leads to a reduction of their quality and of the worker’s creative involvement in the work.
The Indian, however, arrives at a very different formula. For him, the more baskets he makes, the more expensive each one is. The increasing value of each succeeding basket is a measure of his increasing artistic skill; further, it recognizes the increased difficulty of producing more and more, but still esthetically successful, artwork. The artist’s formula, then, controverts the capitalist’s: one recognizes the value of individual expression, while the other recognizes the value of mass consumption.
In response to the Indian’s formula, Winthrop suggests that because gathering materials for a basket takes so much time, the Indian either persuade his village relatives to cultivate his field for the corn and beans essential to his survival, or even to help gather materials for the baskets and help make them. The Indian responds with a shrewd question: if his “relatives” help him in mass-producing baskets, who would tend their fields and cattle? Untended, the price of staples like corn and beans would rise so high that no one in the community could afford them, and all would starve. Even the price of baskets, concludes the Indian, would have to go up.
What Traven describes is a cooperative agrarian society which manages to survive by not practicing the extreme division and specialization of labor associated with industrial mass societies. It ekes out a living, creating just enough flexibility to permit one of its members to make works of art, though with no profits for the artist and at great cost of time and effort to him. Although Traven’s village is no artist’s paradise, following Winthrop’s scheme for increased output would not only separate the artist from his art (transforming art-baskets into commodities), but also destroy the whole structure of a simple, cohesive society.
Thus, two types of societies are opposed: one is devoted to creative work, and one is devoted to making a lot of money. The first makes work meaningful and society beautiful, and the second creates unlimited goods for potentially high profits (too often hoarded by a few), but at the cost of making work meaningless and destroying humane values. People existing in a Winthrop society learn to endure their senseless work, and the discontent that arises from it, by accepting the idea/value of the production and purchasing of more and more goods. In the end, the Indian tells Winthrop why his plan would not work:
“I’ve got to make these canastitas [his baskets] my own way and with my song in them and with bits of my soul woven into them. If I were to make them in great numbers there would no longer be my soul in each. Each would look like the other with no difference whatever and such a thing would slowly eat up my soul. Each has to be another song which I hear in the morning when the sun rises and when the birds begin to chirp and the butterflies come and sit down on my baskets so that I may see a new beauty.”
A potential victim of universal human greed, Traven’s Indian survives and continues to enjoy a creative fulfillment. Such an end must be possible and more widely available if modern society is to become fully human and beautiful.
“Maker/Worker/Profit-Maker: B. Traven’s ‘Assembly Line'” by Donald Gutierrez was published in Common Sense, May 1998; The Horsefly, April 18, 2000; and Desert Exposure, September 1999. It is among the 48 collected essays and book reviews by Donald Gutierrez that comprise Feeling the Unthinkable, Essays on Social Justice, 2012, Amador Publishers, LLC.