Traditional crafts and culture in modernity
I was asked to reflect on the role and state of traditional crafts and culture in the modern world as a part of the “Väinöntalo Eläväksi” project – why has so much changed, especially since the 1950s? Why have so many local traditions and cultural elements disappeared or been replaced by new ones? Have they actually been lost, or is it something else we are witnessing? Why are so many younger people – and often the older generations too – not interested in learning more about local history and traditions?
This is a complex question, but I will briefly share a couple of thoughts on the matter. Very much has indeed changed over the last 50–60 years, among other things, because of urbanisation, TV/radio, and the spread of popular culture. These tendencies have brought along not only new ways of doing things, but also new ways of seeing the world. Although traditional culture(s) are also subject to change, it is generally more inert than modern culture. Change, though, is not necessarily uniform and homogeneous, and culture is also very much a question about ‘class’ or social position, as well as other aspects such as, for example, location (rural/urban, local/national), language (dialect/standard, national/foreign), profession, age, gender and so on. We also need to keep in mind and differentiate between the past vs. the memory of the past. How do we think it was in the past, and how much of this is actually a creation of the present?
Overall, however, cultural elements associated with the old peasant society have not always been valued very highly in the post-war era. In fact, a great deal of old farm houses, barns, mills, bridges, dry stone walls etc. were torn down when building new roads in the 50s and 60s. One of the reasons why people were uninterested in or even negative about ‘old’ times is definitely, in my opinion, poverty. The war is probably another. Because, when the war was over, people felt a need to distance themselves from the past, and from the many difficult memories connected to it. There was a great need for something to look forward to; something new to place hope in. Society needed restructuring, there was a lack of housing, goods, everything. All of this coincides with the upswing of liberal-democratic ideas in post-WWII Europe, which brought about new values and ideals, a belief in progress and rationalization, technology, industrialization, mass-production, and so on. This could also at times have been a source of feelings of shame – seeing what others have, and having the experience of lagging behind, not being able to afford to buy things etc. The contrast between the memories of the past, and of the promises of the future were probably huge.
The whole time, however, some people have actually been preserving both material cultural elements, as well as traditions and crafts. For example, some are actively maintaining buildings and learning traditional techniques, others are keeping crafts such as needlework and hand spinning alive. Others yet are renovating old cars or horse-drawn wagons. Often though, these kinds of expressions are mostly confined to individuals and small groups, such as local museums and clubs. Traditional practices can, however, also receive new momentum in modern times, provided there is a need for them. An example of this would be the ‘comeback’ of the draft horse in forestry at the turn of the millennium. Especially in Sweden, but also to some extent in Finland, there has been a huge interest in working with draft horses again, both as a hobby as well as professionally. This is not to say that people are doing it exactly the same way as in the past – for example, the equipment has been renewed and upgraded with timber grapples i.a. – but the core of the practice is the same.
Many traditional practices have also survived, but are perhaps so mundane that we hardly reflect on them, for example, knitting and the use of wool for clothing is becoming huge all over the world again. There has been a growing interest in self-sufficiency and do-it-yourself practices across the whole Western world during the last couple of years, something which I am investigating in my doctoral thesis in folkloristics. And even more important question to ponder therefore is perhaps what is actually a traditional practice? And are traditions really disappearing, or are they merely changing form? For example, the reason why we are pulling farm equipment behind a tractor nowadays is that we used to do it with a horse in the past, before the world had become industrialized.
Finally, many people are starting to experience some of the negative tendencies of modernisation, for example, environmental pollution, climate change, wildlife extinction, loneliness, lack of meaning and belonging, health-related issues and welfare diseases etc. Especially the generations born in the 80’s and later are starting to experience these things for themselves, while at the same time not having any memories of the negative aspects of life in the past (e.g., war, disease, poverty). That is at least one reason, I think, why so many people nowadays are longing for something else than what modernity has to offer – for a different way of life. Phenomena such as global warming or plastic pollution can also appear as enormous and insuperable threats, to which there seems to be no apparent solution. Trying to create some sort of change on a personal level, for example by adopting a simpler and more ‘ecological’ lifestyle, might alleviate such feelings of uncertainty and despair. A “return to the past”, or a reestablishment of lost cultural connections, might be part of such an endeavour.
by Andreas Backa 1.4.2021
Andreas is doctoral student in Nordic folkloristics at Åbo Akademi University.