Craft is an extremely important part of my work. I use the word in conjunction with craftsmanship, intending these words to refer to an attention to and appreciation of technique, skill, materials, production values, and a general sense of intentionality in the process of making works. Much of this comes from my background in printmaking, where my training emphasized technique and formal concerns over politics, concepts, or theory. Further training followed by years of making a living as a graphic and web designer reinforced for me the connection between creativity and technique, and the idea that the true function of art is to communicate.
To some people, the word “craft” implies production work, multiples, and purely decorative or functional ware—via its association with handcraft, handicraft, and the nineteenth-century arts and crafts movement in Britain—as well as a lower position in the art hierarchy. While some of my work is reproducible, and I have concentrated my practice on production work in the past, I don’t find such areas to be of compelling interest at present. Having said that, I must reiterate that I have the utmost respect for people working in fine craft, and that there are areas where the lines of distinction become blurred. Roger Lipsey writes that
Craftspeople often grasp… that the stages through which a work must pass to reach completion parallel the maturation of the human being… It follows by analogy that to study a craft is to study one’s own nature; hence the firm association between craft work and the search for self-knowledge. (Lipsey 1988, 469)
Both printmaking and graphic design can be looked at as skilled crafts. Their impact on my self-development was to give me a sense that it was important to spend time on important details. Sculptor Constantin Brancusi held to the maxim that “Whatever you do, it is not for fun or for study. You must treat it as the best thing you will ever do.” (Noguchi quoting Brancusi in Lipsey 1988, 339) These ideas of art and craft as a training ground, and of their practices as important, often difficult and challenging activities, seem to have fallen by the wayside, supplanted by the romantic notion of the artist as bohemian renegade.
Brancusi said about the creative process that “It is not difficult to make things, what is difficult is to reach the state in which we can make them.” (Lipsey 1988, 243) While I agree with Brancusi in some respects, his implication that it is easy to make things is misleading. I find that at the end of a productive day in the studio—and even on days where I work hard but get nowhere with the practice—I’m completely worn out. I feel used up in a way that is very similar to how I felt in my late teens as a middle distance runner, after having completed a three-thousand meter race. On good days in the studio, the elation of having accomplished something is combined with the knowledge that there is little left to give. For me, the apprehension about reaching this state of feeling wrung out is the part that causes the difficulty. Much as we might dread to go into the gym for a workout, or a child might complain about having to go to school, once we are there, the process takes care of itself. I think this is what Brancusi means.
This is the reality of my own creative life. It’s really hard work and I’d often rather have a career in which I could do mundane things that are easy to walk away from at the end of the day. In contrast to this reality, there seems to be a perception among non-artists that the life of the creative person is all fun and games. This attitude is a multifaceted problem that makes people take artists lightly. I think the primary causes of this are the issues of simplicity and fun. Simplicity is deceptive, and what looks like fun to one person is intensely difficult for another.
I think works should be simple if at all possible, because complexity unduly restricts my audience. As a professional communicator, I see it as my job to reach as many people as possible. I see complexity—where it is used to give a sense of difficulty—as a barrier to interpretation. But complexity is not the same as multilayered, where a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations are possible. So too with simplicity. It is easy to dismiss a work of art—or a book, or a scientific theory—for its simplicity, but I am not talking about the banal or works that speak to the lowest common denominator. Sometimes the most difficult task for an artist is to distill the work to its essence.
Whereas someone looking at a simple piece may dismiss it by saying “I could have done that,” or “My five-year-old could have done that,” the fact is that they didn’t. This has been debated in many contexts, especially when publicly-funded institutions spend large sums to acquire high modernist colour field paintings. I, too have experienced this dismissive attitude. When I was a web designer I remember reading about the web design process and how at the end of all the consultation, engineering, development, design, testing, and revisions, often the end result was a site that looked so simple that the mind boggled at the sheer amount of toil that no outsider-to-the-process would realize had gone into it. Clients, when hiring a designer, believe they are paying for complexity rather than clarity. They want the white space filled up. They seldom realize that “simple” absolutely does not mean an absence of depth or nuance. And the process of distilling something to its essence is not necessarily easy, at least not the first time around, when all of the “machinery” has to be invented or customized. So too with art, where the first words out of a potential buyer’s mouth after seeing a price tag form a query about how long it took to make the piece. It’s as if they are trying to calculate the artist’s hourly wage or profit margin. Would that it were so easy to put a price tag on the distillation of life experience. The Taoist story of Chuang-tzu taking ten years to draw the perfect crab is illustrative of this situation:
Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. “I need another five years,” said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen. (Calvino in McLaren 2003)1
The story makes me wish that more art patrons were as patient, understanding, and wealthy as the mythical king in this story. Of course, the other half of this equation is that the artist must be able to produce the promised work.
From the misconception of art or simplicity as easy, it’s a small step to talking about art as fun. Because most people have happy childhood memories of doing arts or crafts, there is a perception that art is easy, that is is fun, and that it is therefore not a serious pursuit. I would argue that perhaps the ease with which children engage in art is specifically because we are predisposed to visual engagement with the world, and as such exercising the visually-oriented parts of the brain is innate.
In school, art class is often the reward for, or distraction from, studying an academically difficult subject. It’s no wonder that artists are not taken seriously when people are educated to see our work as frivolous. Because most people in the workforce discover that the world of work is usually difficult, they sneer at artists for taking it easy, avoiding “real” work, meanwhile not realizing how much more difficult it is than it might appear on the surface.
As well, the role of the artist in contemporary society is unclear. With so many different possibilities open to artists, we sometimes have little idea of how to proceed. There is the stereotypical path of the bohemian, the other usual suspects such as the commercially-successful painter, the conceptual artist who lives from grant to grant, and so on, as well as a number of careers that at first don’t seem to be “art,” such as commercial illustrators and corporate designers. This existential dilemma is, I think, caused in part by the rise of what I call technological documentation—photography, television, film, video—and its takeover of what used to be the artist’s job of depicting our experience of the world and our important stories. We find ourselves asking whether we, as artists, have become obsolete. And if so, what have we become? Are we simply a research-and-development department for the insatiable consumer machines our society has become? Maybe, but I think that with so many media tools serving to reflect back at us, we need our artists to reflect on—or otherwise make us think about—our state of being. I still see the role of the artist as fundamentally unchanged from its historical function of reflecting the values of our societies back at us, and making our culture’s ritual and fetish objects.
To this end I think it’s my job as an artist to translate my experience of the world into something that others can look at and appreciate, enjoy, and learn from. I used to have a quote tacked to my studio wall which read “Art is a celebration of life and wholeness. Art is a way of interpreting the beauty around us, and giving it back to the universe.” I don’t know where this came from, but this attitude was an important aspect of my practice from around 1998-2003. I eventually returned to a more well-rounded practice, paying more attention to the many facets of art that this feel-good statement ignores in its unquestioning embrace of bliss and beauty. Still, despite its shortcomings, the quote is relevant to my practice if for nothing else than the fact that it does talk about art as beauty in a society where such a focus is often absent.
I believe that creating art is an important job. I make art because even though it is often a painful, frustrating, difficult process, for the most part I like doing it and I like the sense of accomplishment. And when I make material works, I enjoy holding or touching or being physically present with them. This sensuality is in great contrast to theory-based contemporary art practice, which I find interesting more as its own kind of research and development, and where the experimentation happens primarily in the intellect.
One of the big weaknesses I see in contemporary work, especially installation and concept-based work, is that because there is so much emphasis on theory and intellectual pursuits, students and practitioners in these areas are inexpert in the practical arts of craftsmanship and presentation as they relate to their concepts. Indeed, they often build elaborate theoretical constructs—in their minds—that negate such aspects of art practice. Because of this, even when the ideas are substantial, many contemporary works appear cold and mechanical, or else amateurish. It seems that an emphasis during art school on the theory means that there is little or no time to learn, let alone practice, the art. Such work is often so inconsistent in execution that any manifestation of skill, and often any appearance of aesthetic quality in the work seems to have happened by accident or chance rather than through the artist’s intention. Weak execution is often forgiven or ignored in such work because the art world gatekeepers are in love with the concepts or politics of the work. Add to this a general decline in the respect given to experts and professionals—and the frequent suspicion of such people—and it is no wonder so many contemporary art venues are often so empty of humans and humanity.
I’ve pontificated in Essay 4 (Processes and Issues of Practice) about the necessity of drawing—or some form of attentive observation—in a visual arts practice. Regardless of the practice, there needs to be an indication that there is a practice. Lipsey, in making parallels between spiritual exploration in twentieth century art and the craft traditions of many eras of Western history, talks about craft as a training ground for the self and what he describes as the “association between craft work and the search for self-knowledge.” (Lipsey 1988, 469) While I find this view overly romantic, I do agree with the assessment that painters and sculptors—and by extension the visual arts industry and its tastemakers, fashionistas, demagogues, and associated
leeches hangers-on—have bought into “the antithetical myth of the athlete who reaches peak performance early in life.” (Lipsey 1988, 469) I find that many artists—often regardless of their age—haven’t lived enough to have anything meaningful to say. I become skeptical when they start making grand statements about the world and society we live in. If they simply promoted themselves as decorators, this wouldn’t be an issue for me. As Lipsey says, “Craftspeople tend to understand that excellence requires patient application over many years. They do not expect a great deal until the person and the technique have matured together.” (Lipsey 1988, 469) I find this view in keeping with my own art practice, and not merely because I am older than the average student graduating from art school.
The idea of gradual maturation can be interpreted to suggest that an artist’s life is lived relatively free of material cares with little thought of the mundane world. It might connote a romantic notion of seekers disappearing for years into hermetic isolation. I don’t find this to be the case at all. I look at my practice as both private and public. It is private in the sense that while I’m working I’m primarily concerned with the work itself rather than the audience or issues of presentation. These issues may have been addressed prior to starting work on a piece, in the parameters I’ve set for myself but they are rarely at the forefront of my actual process of making. On the other hand, because I see my role as an artist as being a communicator, the work needs distribution outside of my studio into the view of an audience. The goal of actually making a connection with my audience is an important aspect of the practice, and this goal is often a consideration when I am setting parameters.
I need outside interaction because I need to make a living, and want to be able to fund the practice via the practice. I do admit to enjoying having my ego stroked and wanting professional recognition, though fame isn’t my primary motivator. One of the reasons I try to make my work so lush and seductive is to draw in an audience. When people first encounter my work, I want their reaction to be “Ooh, shiny!”—in the sense of being immediately eyecatching—followed by their becoming drawn into the work, enveloped in it so that they become transported or otherwise moved into introspection and/or contemplation.
I want my art to be accessible to non-professionals and professionals in the field, and I don’t believe that these two audiences are mutually exclusive. I believe that the true value of art is if it speaks directly to its audience without needing intermediaries and interpreters. Web pioneer Jeffery Veen, talking about the power of blogs and how they connect people wrote recently that “If your audience is 20 people, but you connect with 100 percent of them … well, I’d say that’s pretty successful.” (Veen 2006) This attitude has parallels with my own practice, not because I want to have a small audience, but because I want to connect with a large proportion of the people who see my work. The goal of actually making a connection with my audience is an important aspect of my work and helps me remember that above all, my work is about communication, and in order to communicate I need an audience.
- According to the site I quoted the story from, it is from ‘Quickness’, in Italo Calvino’s in 1988 book Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Furthermore, “the story is probably originally from the Chuang Tzu text (or Zhuang-zi), which was compiled during the Tan Dynasty, 202BCE-220AD.” (McLaren 2003) I’ve taken a cursory look at a few online translations of the Chuang Tzu text but have so far been unable to find the original story. ^