This post was inspired by a friend's post on shavings and dust.
On Sunday, some friends and I went to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center (because, have I mentioned, I live in the most Catholic place in the US?) just up the way. The idea was twofold: (1) see a large collection of crèches, given that it is Christmas and (2) run the kids hard in the playroom (stocked with religious themed crayon rubbings and bells to chime). Maybe even catch up a bit, since we were all friends before kids and maintaining that is a dance we are still learning.While walking along the line of crèches, we were of course oohing and aahing the diversity of styles. An assortment of interpretations: carved wooden figures of tall lean Africans in the Zimbabwean crèche. Pudgy round ceramic Peruvian Mary. Paper bark and coiled jute Joseph from Brazil. Each case held a personal collection of Holy families, labeled in the top left with the name of the collector. Each family had a discrete tag noting its land of origin.
The third case in, I looked at the first family on the shelf. Plastic, faded colors, the Crèchiest Crèche that ever did Crèche. Caucasian Virgin Mary in a blue gown, Joseph with a full beard, looking old enough to be Mary's father. The three wise men - one painted a black-brown paint to represent darkest Africa. One with Asian features out of furthest Mongolia. One maybe Persian, with his pointy goatee. This was the distillation of Middle America's dream of the Holy Night. Brought to us here in cheap plastic molded figures, right down to the poorly finished mold lines and sharp plastic tabs.
Origin card read: CHINA
China? As in "Made in China?" This was in no way a Chinese crèche. I paused, sensing a ripple in the force. Something was changing here. Sure, it was made in China, but this was an American Crèche, maybe THE American Crèche. I showed my friend, who also noted that it was odd and disconcerting to think that this was Chinese, when, it obviously wasn't. Cultural Dissonance.
The next case it became apparent what a dilemma the curators of this exhibit had faced. On the upper left was the name of the collector. On the upper right a single card to ID the origin of all the crèches: "American-style crèches all manufactured in China."
I went back through the exhibit looking with new eyes. Only two or so of the several dozen Holy families were both American in "style" and American in origin. Those few were labeled "United States." They were folk art style - hand crafted fabric or carved wood.
So the obvious first thought is to bemoan how the US does not manufacture anything any more. Let's skip that; it's a red herring. This isn't about the origin of the manufacture, but the dilemma of something being manufactured instead of made. The problematic crèches were all mass produced in glass, ceramic, wood or plastic. They were machine-made, designed by a someone, maybe in New York, maybe in Toronto, working for a US held company, made in a factory in China, shipped back to the US and sold to US consumers. They are global collaborations and may indeed be the last of their respective kinds still in existence. I'm proud of the curators for not glossing over this dilemma by labeling the Made in China crèches as "US", which is what I'm sure was the customary habit. To the collectors (who I imagine to be venerable old priests or Catholic university scholars), these crèches are dear and valuable. They are collector items and they are on display in a museum. And who is to say they should not be... but... but... somehow there was something amiss when they were juxtaposed with hand-crafted objects.
Were those two dozen crèches at heart Chinese? American? When the maker and the object are become distanced by an industrial process, do we lose the language to describe an objects origin? Based on our brief experience on Sunday, there is discomfort in this disconnect. Perhaps the desire to see a "Made in America" stamp on the bottom of our everyday objects is not simple national pride, but also a more subtle desire to think we are closer to the makers of our objects.