This blog focuses on the joys, challenges and lessons of living the creative life—and make a living doing it!
Author Gayle Mahoney is an arts marketing consultant and has shown and sold her own artwork for over 25 years.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Are you a slave to your medium, techniques or processes?

Good or bad, the trend right now in "art" is that the idea is what matters, the execution only matters in that it supports the idea. The materials don't matter at all, unless the idea is about the material. Since the materials don't matter, and the execution is an open prospect, it doesn't really matter who does the production, or who touches the materials, as long as the artist is the foreman of the project and makes sure the final product is true to the idea.

This allows artists to use whatever media they like to express their idea. Because it is acceptable for the production of art to be a team effort, the artist is able to call upon the expertise of an engineer, a welder, a paint specialist, a chef… whatever is necessary to execute the work even if the artist doesn't have those skills herself. A fabulous example of this is Cristo's and Jean-Claude's The Gates that was installed in New York's Central Park a few years ago. Hundreds of people worked at various stages of production to pull off such a large-scale endeavor, but the transformation of Central Park was a successful execution of the artists' idea.

There is a downside to the idea being all-important, though. Where does that leave technique? Many artists secretly practice their craft not because of the ideas of art, but primarily for tactile reasons- because they are in love with pigments, or they dream about getting their fingers into clay (of course none of us would ever admit to such carnal motivations!). For many artists, to do work that is only about idea and abandons technique would be creative suicide. And if all that is required of art is an idea, it doesn't mean that idea is a good one! It is all too easy to just be clever, or cynical, instead of adding something important to the conversation.

Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times, in her article "Post-Minimal to the Max," February 10, 2010: 
What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand. A lot but not all of this kind of work is painting, which seems to be becoming the art medium that dare not speak its name where museums are concerned.

(Read the full article here.)

Smith points out several painters who are managing to push painting along, even as they are under the radar of the temples of the art world. 

On the other hand, on the craft side of things, while there is some movement toward more conceptual work, in my observation the world of craft as a whole has yet to break free from the bonds of material, technique, formalism or pedagoguery like the "art" world has. Much of the conceptual work in craft can still be traced to specific schools or teachers, and the trend has not yet splashed into the craft zeitgeist. The question remains as to how far the conceptual envelope may be pushed if function is one of the definitions of craft. (If you make a ring out of razor blades so that it really cannot be worn, does it cease to be jewelry and instead become "art"?)

An inherent part of craft is function, so in that sense I believe there should and will always be some connection to material, but it can be an unexpected material, and it can be fabricated in unexpected ways. When we put a particular technique before the idea, or don't experiment and push the boundaries of the techniques we learned in school, sometimes our work can suffer by those limitations and ends up looking like a knock-off of our teacher's work. Instead of crafts people experimenting with newly developed materials, processes or technology, we often eschew them before we even know what their possibilities are. Why are we so afraid to break out of the boxes we have created for ourselves?

In craft, some people feel guilty (or self-righteous) about simplifying production processes by having work cast, using technology, or using assistants. Many craft shows require that all work and components be made by "the artist's hand," but unless one has their own silver mine, tannery or mill, it is impossible to comply with such a request. There is a moralism about "the artist's hand" in craft that disappeared from the "art" world decades ago. In reality it's a standard that is almost impossible to follow to the letter if one is trying to make a living from selling their work. I don't know a single craftsperson who makes a living from selling their work without the use of production processes that take place either outside their studio or with the help of at least one assistant. 

The craft movement of today actually started in the late 1800s as the Arts and Crafts movement. It was a response to the mass-produced objects of industrialization and the decorative excesses of the Victorian age. The movement's claims were that functional objects had inherent beauty in their form, that materials should be respected for their organic qualities, that making work by hand was a good and noble enterprise, and that good design was a democratic right and that even the poor should be surrounded by aesthetically pleasing objects. Despite these lofty ideals, almost every piece made by the Arts and Crafts gods Stickley, Hunter, Morris and the rest, were not one-of-a-kind pieces made one-by-one by hand, but were made in mass production in small factories by a host of workers under the direction of the designer. 

My point is that whether we see ourselves as being on the "art" or the "craft" side, or maybe with one foot in both realms, it's easy and comfortable to settle into current trends or the familiarity of a technique. But that can be deadly to the quality and relevance of our work. Unless we force ourselves out of our comfort zone now and then (whether it be strict adherence to a philosophy or a technique), we will just churn out the same old stuff. I would like to see the "the artist's hand" find its way back into "art," but I think the craft world would benefit from being liberated from some of its self-imposed rules of formalism and pedagoguery.

I would love to hear your comments!

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