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Hot Glue & Staples

Hot Glue & Staples

Hot Glue & Staples

June/July 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Bruce Metcalf
Sarah Lucas Assemblage

When Bruce Metcalf saw this assemblage by Sarah Lucas in an exhibition at the New Museum, he was struck by the seeming absence of craftsmanship. Photo: Alison Brady, courtesy of the New Museum, New York

Craftsmanship often doesn't seem to matter in the contemporary art world. It should.

Last year 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 presumably are more closely allied to painting than anything the craft world can offer. I doubt they use the words “craft” or “craftsmanship” very often, and craft might seem altogether irrelevant to their work. So how should I speak about it?

It seems obvious that good craftsmanship is unimportant in the art world. One even can get the impression it’s forbidden. For instance, when I saw “Unmonumental,” the inaugural show for the new building for the New Museum, there was more than one example of extremely casual fabrication. Many of the works 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.) To me, the work that exhibited the least amount of effort was from Sarah Lucas, who did little more than arrange found objects – a sofa bed, a wooden box, some light fixtures. Sure, there were the requisite winks to famous artists – the fluorescent light referred to Dan Flavin. Yeah. OK. And then what? It was completely lame: a case of the “zero craft” school of sculpture. But this piece was in the New Museum, and I’ll 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: 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, claiming that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become accomplished at any difficult skill. Maybe. I’m certain talented individuals can become skilled in much less time. Nonetheless, a lot of repetition is needed 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.

So does craft have any place in a setting 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, but 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 form 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 art world has scrupulously avoided stressing the necessity of clear ideas. Critics give artists a pass. 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 Stanley 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 series of female archetypes that trace a progression of spiritual awakening. Peters, however, took it to mean only the subconscious and the unconscious. By relinquishing conscious control and 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 the anima is a complicated thing, a whole progression of states of mind. Peters made the anima way too simple. (Strike two.) Second, the simple 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 it 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 foolish, 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 – strike three. 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. 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/ 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 Allan Kaprow and Claes Oldenburg and Adrian Piper and Karen Finley. If you don’t, you’re ignorant, and you have no context for your work. 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/ 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 ensure 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 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 toward 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 be-come totally obsolete. Young artists are tempted to slap things together. Sloppy craft has the aura of authenticity; hot glue and staples 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.

Bruce Metcalf is a jeweler and sometime writer who lives near Philadelphia. He is the co-author, with Janet Koplos, of Makers: A History of American Studio Craft. This essay was first published on his blog, CraftGadfly.