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Craftsmanship in the Age of Hot Glue and Tape

September 22, 2013

Recently I was asked to speak about craft to a small group of graduate printmaking students from Tyler School of Art. It was an interesting assignment: to talk about craftsmanship to people who are presumably more closely allied to painting than anything the craftworld can offer. I doubt they use the words “craft” or “craftsmanship” very often, and it might seem altogether irrelevant to their work. So, how should I speak about it?

 

To begin with, it’s obvious that good craftsmanship is unimportant in the artworld. One can even get the impression it’s forbidden. For instance, when I saw “Unmonumental,” the inaugural show for the new building for the New Museum a few years ago, there were some examples of extremely casual fabrication. Much of the work on display were assemblages of found objects, following in the footsteps of Rauschenberg from the 50s. (Think “Monogram,” his famous sculpture with the tire encircling a stuffed goat.) Some of the most notable exponents of casual fabrication were Rachel Harrison (USA), Sa Genzken (Germany) or Shinique Smith (USA). To me, the sculptures that exhibited the least amount of effort were from Sarah Lucas (UK), who did little more than arrange found objects. One piece was two bedsprings leaning on a wall of concrete blocks. Another was a chair with a bicycle wheel held to it by a stretched-out pair of nylons. Sure, there were the requisite winks and nods to famous artists – a florescent light fixture referred to Dan Flavin, the bicycle wheel referred to Duchamp. Yea, OK... and then what? I thought they were completely lame: a case of what I call the “zero craft” school of sculpture. But these pieces of crapola were in the New Museum, and I’ll sure as hell never get shown there. She made it, and I didn’t.

 

Art no longer requires craft. It’s plain to see.

 

What is craft, anyway? The social philosopher Richard Sennett says craft is work done carefully, and for its own sake. This is an expansive definition. It could apply equally well to writing a contract, plumbing a sink, or cooking spaghetti sauce. It is far broader than what we think of as the crafts (ceramics, glass, wood, etc.). But still, Sennett’s definition applies to the crafts: a good potter works carefully, and the quality of her work is, in some respects, its own reward.

 

To Sennett’s definition I would add two provisos. First, craft demands practice. Sennett makes this point, and he claims that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become accomplished at any difficult skill. Maybe. I have no idea where he got this figure, and I’m certain that talented individuals can become skilled in much less time. Nonetheless, a lot of repetition is needed to train yourself to become highly skilled. Neuroscientists have shown that practice actually changes the structure of the brain: with repetition, neural pathways are reinforced and even changed. The work becomes almost automatic. This is what Peter Dormer called tacit knowledge: skills that become embedded in the body, so to speak.

 

I would also say that craftsmanship requires knowledge of the field at hand. An accomplished furniture maker must know a whole catalogue of joints, finishes, tools, woods, and much more. He must also know furniture itself, both contemporary and historical. Without all this knowledge, the maker cannot know where he stands in his own field, and he will tend to constantly reinvent the wheel. The skilled worker must know the history and techniques and materials of his work. Otherwise, he just flails about.

 

(By the way, I have become a firm believer in the importance of fields. In this age of hybrids, we still need fields. After all, if you want to be interdisciplinary, you still need disciplines to inform the new project. Without fields, we have no reference points, no structure. Even if you want to totally screw up a structure, you still need a field to give you a framework to undermine.)

 

So, does craft have any place in an environment that seems to completely devalue it? Yes, I think.

 

The work of art today is a window into meaning. Art is a more-or-less transparent opening onto a concept. This is the legacy of conceptual art from the 70s: all works of art are required to be connected, in some way, to an idea. As Arthur Danto said, “Art is embodied meaning.” You can quibble about the details, by Danto is pretty much right. You have the thing - whether it’s a performance, a video, an installation, a sculpture, a painting, or any other type of thing that produces an experience – and you have the meaning that stands behind it. You look through the work of art to the meaning.

 

I think this business of seeing through the surface of the work of art has four crucial components. Two require some from of craftsmanship, one requires knowledge, and one requires pure imagination. When all four components come into alignment, you have an interesting work of art.

 

1. Good art demands careful thinking. If concept is the key, the whole business of arriving at an interesting and compelling concept requires that the artist be able to think carefully. The idea must be arrived at logically and with rigor. It can’t be a sloppy mess, and it can’t be stupid. If you have a bad idea, you have bad art.

 

The artworld has scrupulously avoided stressing the necessity of clear ideas. I think critics give artists a pass, which just annoys the shit out of me. Bad ideas are everywhere.

 

Let me give you one example. Ruudt Peters is widely considered to be one of the premier conceptual jewelers in the world today. A while ago, he produced his “Anima” series, which had the unfortunate property of looking just like Stan Lechtzin’s electroforms from the 70s. (Strike one!) Peters was concerned with connecting with his feminine side, which he called the anima. This term is Carl Jung’s, and he used it to denote a whole complex of female archetypes that traced a progression of spiritual awakening. (If you want an outline of Jung’s thinking about the anima, read “Man and His Symbols.”) Peters, however, took the feminine to mean only the subconscious and the unconscious. By relinquishing conscious control and simply dribbling hot wax into water, he generated forms for the “Anima” series. In so doing, Peters claimed, he was getting in touch with his female nature.

 

Is this good thinking? No. First, Jung insists that the anima is a complicated thing, a whole series of states of mind. Peters didn’t do his homework, and he made the anima way too simple. (Strike two!) Second, the equation of the feminine with the unconscious is a very old, and very bad, idea. This is the kind of thinking that equated women with animals, incapable of rational thought. You see that a lot in 19th century art and literature. Once you equate women with the unconscious, you relegate all women to second-class status. They’re intuitive, but irrational. They’re too impulsive to vote. They can’t manage money. Keep them barefoot and pregnant! They’re stupid, after all, and aren’t capable of the kinds of big important ideas that MEN deal with.

 

This is pure, stupid sexism. Peters embraced a sexist idea, one that demeans all women. Bad idea, Ruudt! Strike three! You’re out! Of course, neither collectors nor critics noticed what a dumb idea Peters was promoting, but that doesn’t alter the fact.

 

My point is that the artist must be careful in how she thinks. She needs to read and research. She must know the field, right? And she must demand that her own thought process be clear and logical. That doesn’t exclude leaps of inspiration, but flights of fancy must be grounded in cold logic. Good concepts require careful work. In other words, there is a craft to thinking, a way of thinking carefully, as opposed to being sloppy and stupid.

 

2. Second, the artist must know his field. If you’re doing performance, you are obligated to know the history of performance art, its innovators, its leaders, its great works. You have to know Alan Kaprow and Claes Oldenberg and Adrian Piper and Karen Hughes. If you don’t, you’re merely ignorant, and you have no context for your work. And, as I noted before, you’re fated to reinvent the wheel. Knowledge is crucial to making art.

 

This is not a matter of craft. It is accomplished with study and experience.

 

3. In the third component, the artist must be able to translate the idea into a visual experience. Concept and form must be matched. Here’s where inspiration and creativity come into play. Figuring out the optimum form that an idea can take is no easy task. All forms of art are open for consideration. Which is the best one for the idea? How do you make the experience compelling and memorable? How do you imbue the idea with poetry? How do you insure that the idea is communicated clearly? The best artists do all this with imagination and intelligence.

 

Matching idea with form is not craft-like. It’s a matter of creativity. Which is hard work, but not the careful work in a given context that I’m writing about. Inventing at its best is wild, playful, even undisciplined. Outside of the familiar. That’s how great art is made.

 

4. The last component is exercising control over composition. In the broadest sense, it’s about design and execution. And there is a craft to both.

 

It’s obvious that beauty is no longer the primary driver of visual art. Beauty went out the door more than a century ago. Beauty is now is an occasional visitor, but not a resident. In art, beauty has been replaced with the interesting. We can do without beauty, but we can’t do without something interesting about our art.

 

But how do you make something interesting? How do you make it compelling? How do you make art so that viewers are drawn to the thing, and can’t turn away? How do you hold your audience; make them wonder and dream?

 

To my thinking, the artist orchestrates the viewer’s attention. Orchestration. The management of visual complexity. That’s what all artists do. Artists direct attention towards certain aspects of the work, and divert it from others. The idea is to move your viewer’s attention from one element to another until clarity emerges. The meaning behind the work becomes clear.

 

One of the important jobs of the artist is to remove distractions. Distractions turn attention away from the matter at hand, and invite the viewer to focus on something extraneous. A distraction is a detour, a pointless side trip away from interesting subjects.

 

A distraction is usually an anomaly, a visual element that stands out from the rest of the composition. Anomalies call attention to themselves; they stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. Good artists control anomalies carefully, the way painters apply a dash of red to anchor all the rest of the colors in the painting. The idea is to place anomalies where they do the most good, and eliminate them otherwise. An inept artist will put anomalies where they don’t belong, unbalancing the composition and interrupting the optimum flow of the viewer’s attention

 

This is precisely where old-fashioned craftsmanship is relevant. In my necklaces, for instance, I am forced to deal with connections between parts. These connections must be flexible enough for the necklace to drape comfortably over a variety of body types. Sometimes they must also restrict movement, so the necklace sits properly on the body and doesn’t droop. Not only does this require some engineering, but it also requires real craftsmanship. I don’t want the joints to call attention to themselves, because they can’t contribute to the meanings I want to communicate. I can’t let my hinges become glaring anomalies. If they were large and complex, they would distract. So I reduce all my hinges to points of light between elements, little visual touches that are devoid of significance. To work, they must be small and perfectly made. Furthermore, they must be tough enough to endure the normal abuse that jewelry encounters. They must be well-designed and well-made. They must be well crafted.

 

Control of anomalies is necessary even if the fabrication is, shall we say, relaxed. Even if the artwork is festooned with globs of paint and garlanded with gashes, the artist still needs to make sure the anomalies are in the right place, of the right emphasis, and the right size. They must exert control. They must exercise care. And that’s pure craftsmanship. That old stuff that most people think is so out of fashion.

 

Craftsmanship will never become totally obsolete. Young artists are tempted to slap things together. Sloppy craft has the aura of authenticity. Nails and hot glue seem sufficient. But I’m convinced they will eventually see that visual art is necessarily a matter of visual control. In time, they will start to think about meaning, attention, and anomalies. And then... craft.

 

 

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