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Craft Identity in the Post-Conceptual Environment

While I was out in California, I did guest-artist gigs at California College of Art and San Diego State University. Since I don’t teach full-time, these quickie jobs give me a sense of craft education today – at least how it looks from a metals studio. I can tell a lot from talking with the students: what frustrates them; where their true interests lie; where they position themselves along that craft-art spectrum.

CCA offered an interesting case study. The metals studio is headed by Marilyn Griewank-da Silva, who earned her MFA in 1977, the same year I did. She’s very concerned with giving her students a good foundation in technique, a grounding in the craft. My guess is that she’s not terribly comfortable dealing with the brand of post-conceptual, post-disciplinary art that has become the house style of many art departments and art schools. And yet, that’s exactly what plays at CCA.

The California College of Art is divided, literally. The old main campus, where the jewelry studio is located, is in Oakland. All the grad students are housed together across the bay in San Francisco. The grad building doesn’t permit fire (no torches, no kilns) so metals grads can’t make metal objects in their primary studio. (The furniture studio, allied with the design department, is equipped for woodworking in the SF building.) Still, it’s fair to say that the culture in the San Francisco building is focused on conceptualizing. Back in Oakland, it’s equally fair to say that the culture is… schizophrenic. Divided, just like the campus.

Post-conceptual art practice as it’s taught in the academy has a basic structure. A student might choose to deal with theory or history or politics, but she must spend time conducting research into the idea at hand. Only then does she figure out how to make it manifest. Medium and technique stand in the service of a larger idea (or ideas). If the idea changes, medium and technique must be negotiable and thus disposable. Making objects is acceptable, for sure, but any kind of product from writing to performance to installation is also acceptable. Upon completion of her project, the student presents a verbal summary at the critique. The student is assumed to be a thinker first and foremost, and the emphasis is on language. She’s a craftsperson only if the situation demands. In extreme cases, the verbal summary of the art school critique can harden into text and theory that precedes the work of art itself, like operating instructions.

Janet Koplos came up with a nice catchword for this kind of art: “text-dependent.” (See “Out of the Woods” in the October 2008 issue of Art in America.) The heroes of text-dependent art are 70s figures like Lawrence Weiner and Joseph Kosuth, artists who specialized in word-art. I suppose it’s good to have rigorous and uncompromising artists like Weiner and Kosuth, but I wonder if they make the best model for art students.

After all, post-conceptual art is moving away from highly theorized production. Recent exhibits like “Thing: New Sculpture from Los Angeles,” “By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art” and “Unmonumental” all pointed to a revival of interest in enigmatic objects. The newest generation of artists eschew the heavy-handed conceptualism of their teachers. They do not make conceptual art anymore. The new art is smart and self-conscious, but it’s also open and poetic.

Back at the CCA, craft students are forced into the academic mold whether they like it or not. A few of them adapt. They learn to talk artspeak and they find a way to make the kind of art-craft hybrids that teachers go for. But I saw many more craft students who were utterly confused. They came to art school to make things, but meet with deeply ambivalent reactions. Within the metals studio, Marilyn da Silva (and her sabbatical replacement Curtis Arima) are supportive of craft and its traditional applications. Outside, their teachers demand the standard post-conceptual thing. In effect, they are confronted by two contradictory expectations. Two cultures clashing.

Craft students typically look to their emotions: they like making things; they are interested in this or that. When asked to conform to the post-conceptual approach, they tend to produce symbols or metaphors. Or they give up their craft altogether. Generally, the results are unsatisfactory for all concerned.

In the face of this mess, I suggested to several students that they treat their emotions as subjects. The temptation is to treat art-making as the expression of emotion, a model that has been around for some time. Instead, students can treat their feelings dispassionately as a subject for research. As I noted above, study is the first step in the post-conceptual formula. Once the students have a subject, the rest of the process is relatively straightforward.

However, I had to be honest: any subject might lead a student away from craft. And there’s the rub. If the student is drawn to craft in the first place – to either the making or the forms (like jewelry) – they often feel betrayed by the expectation they must give up one or both in the service of art.

I can see two possible solutions. One is the typical post-modern device of taking the medium itself as a subject. For instance, students could treat jewelry as a subject, which many academic jewelers have done in the past 20 years. Or they could treat making itself as a subject. I’m not quite sure what this might look like, aside from an anthropological study of makers – which may not interest a craft student very much.

Alternatively, I think craft can be linked to identity politics. This occurred to me when I rewrote my artist’s lecture a few weeks ago. When I looked back on my career, it seemed fair to say that I AM a craftsman and a jeweler. Just as much as I’m a middle-class white guy and a heterosexual, my sense of myself is determined by my identity as a maker of jewelry. Considering Frank R. Wilson’s research into the biological basis for handwork of all kinds, it’s not far-fetched to claim both an evolutionary and a learned basis for self-identity as a craftsperson. (See my essay “The Hand: At the Heart of Craft” for a summary of the biological connection to handwork. Or better yet, read Wilson’s book.)

Given the American sensitivity to identity, particularly on college campuses, maybe there’s an opening here. If professors have to allow for identities based on race and sexual orientation and learning disabilities – African-American, lesbian, and dyslexic, for example – why couldn’t a student simply claim she IS a craftswoman?

It may sound like I’m trivializing identity politics, but I’m not. The need to work with the hands is hard-wired in humans as surely as the need to choose a sexual partner. It may not be very strong in some individuals, but it is undeniably powerful in others. Some of us have to be musicians: nobody would question that. Others are natural mathematicians. And others are craftsmen and craftswomen. I think any experienced crafts teacher would agree with me.

So, why can’t students deploy the assertion that they ARE craftspeople? Much as I dislike assertions in any argument about art and craft, this one seems credible. If I can assert that I’m a craftsman, why can’t a student? And why can’t she deploy her identity as a rhetorical position that can’t be assailed by skeptical art professors? If identity as member of an ethnic group stands beyond question, why can’t identity as a maker of things? Once the identity is claimed (and defended), it can’t be questioned. The student is safe to practice her craft as she wants, free of further interference.

As a rhetorical device, claiming identity as a craftsperson could clear a certain amount of space. The claim wouldn’t exempt students from thinking about whatever they do, but it would permit them to keep their work within the context of the crafts. Certain difficult questions would get pushed off the table. Teachers wouldn’t be able to demand an explanation for why artwork is made carefully by hand, out of clay or metal or whatever. Students could be free to be jewelers or potters or glassblowers without intimidation.

Obviously, most students aren’t sophisticated enough to make this argument themselves. They don’t know the literature, and they don’t know how powerful identity politics is in the academic world. They would need teachers to prompt them, to feed them enough information, to rehearse the argument before it’s presented in a critique. That, in turn, would require teachers to do some homework.

And, of course, the argument might not work. Art teachers are a hidebound bunch, not sympathetic to challenges to their own rhetorical positions. But still, it’s an interesting idea. Anybody willing to give it a try?

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