Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Meaning/s of Craft

For me, craft happens at the intersection of the haptic and the object, as it expresses an artist’s investment in process and response to materials and medium, as well as a response to tradition (or not), and to daily use (or not). The complexity of that response is carried through to the reader. The final piece to this is a sensual engagement that to me is undeniably enhanced when content and intent are carried through with skill in a process and with materials and finally in the object that emerges.

What do you think, printers and book art folk among us? What does craft mean to you? Is it about pace, about engaging the body in process, about trace-making? it irrelevant, a distraction, a non-starter?

As I have more consciously begun to read about and talk with artists and others about craft, I’ve encountered a range of opinion, much of it emotional, about the role of craft in this field. Much of this is déja-vu, We are schizophrenic about craft. Consider this. Earlier this year, Columbia College Chicago Center for Book and Paper Arts sent out a postcard announcing the exhibition: "Makeready, Choke, Bleed, and Knockout." The first line of the description began: "High speed rotary offset printing requires a significant degree of craft." Craft in offset printing? The idea might surprise some letterpress artists, especially if they have picked up on an attitude still held by some passionate offset aficionados--that two-step of, “if it’s letterpress, it is only about craft” (read: not conceptual and not content-driven). However blatantly wrong this assumption is, the bias still surfaces today. Maybe that shouldn’t surprise us, as it is echoed in the larger art world too.

So when others who work with offset adopt the term, craft, to indicate a level of skill and care in printing, it stands out. Personally, the idea of craft in offset doesn’t surprise me at all. Offset printing has its own aesthetic and technical demands, and, for a small number of printer-devotees who have mastered the process, the enormous demands of the medium can be directed toward nuances in effect that could be characterized as craft. (For those of you interested in offset printing, let me recommend an excellent catalogue from 2007, Production not Reproduction, curated by Tony White, Head of the Fine Arts Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, for the Center for Book Arts in New York. The catalogue includes an essay by White—in which I find the statement, “High quality offset printing requires a significant degree of craft at multiple levels”—along with family trees of printers that include where and with whom they studied.)

My research this year has focused on letterpress, but a discussion of craft in related media such as offset, or in other kinds of printmaking, as well as papermaking and bookbinding, or for that matter in sculptural and installation work, would be of equal interest. Does the meaning of craft change depending on the medium or object created? What is your response when asked by a student, or a collector, or a friend: 

What is craft and how is it embodied in your work?

1 comment:

  1. Dear Betty, I came to your blog via the BookArts ListServ and I'm fascinated. I'm an intaglio printmaker with no experience of doing/using letterpress in my work but great delight in the visual qualities of letterpress, so perhaps my practice and experiences are not directly relevant to your research. I am intrigued to see, however, that you address issues that appear in my practice. 'Craft' for me has particular resonance in the sense of 'expertise' or 'knowledge'. There are implications of learning, striving and development over time and for me these are embodied in the marks I make. Not just the marks found in the image but also in the evidence of how I handle the paper, register the plate or use my press. Clearly I value 'craft' in my work and I strive to acquire more skills in order to improve my work. I have come across some very negative responses to printmaking, however, that imply that craft = process = poverty of imagination or skills that would/could/should, in a 'real artist, be directed towards painting as the only true form of art. Extraordinary. I shall look forward to reading more here... best wishes, Sara (