Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Craft, Art & Education

Over the last several years I’ve had the chance to visit with students and faculty at several of the educational programs around the U.S. that offer an M.F.A. degree in book art, or an M.F.A. with a concentration in book art. The programs vary greatly from one another, but each in its own way confronts the unique status of the artist’s book in respect to art and craft. Tracking and reporting on those programs is one of the projects underway by the College Book Art Association. It is a challenging undertaking, as many, many schools have incorporated book art coursework in departments that include art, English, graphic design, intermedia, and the library. Sometimes it’s a matter of just finding where the program resides, and depending on its “home,” the coursework itself can vary widely.

I could not help but think about that diversity and the challenges of integrating book art into higher ed pedagogy while reading a recent book by Glenn Adamson, Deputy Head of Research and the Head of Graduate Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The V&A, as it’s called, is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. Adamson published Thinking through Craft in 2007, one of a number of recent books that have responded to an upswing in interest in craft. There is much to talk about in the book, and I will be commenting further on it here and elsewhere in the next few months. I recommend it, in part because I would very much like to hear other readers’ thoughts on Adamson’s ideas about craft and art, which is an area of confusion and debate that affects book art in general and letterpress in particular.

At one point in the book Adamson talks about teaching craft in post-secondary education, and his comments apply to the book art field as well. Adamson sets historical context by describing the debate over Progressivism in the 1930s and later, as promoted by John Dewey, when, concurrent with the expansion of schooling to the working class, social reformers pushed craft-based teaching. The critique was that the well-meaning infusion of craft contributed to a two-tier educational establishment, with the working class directed toward craft as a means of vocational training for marketable employment in an industrial economy, and the upper class accorded more abstract approach keyed to a more reflective, liberal education. Behold the beginnings of craft’s ambiguous profile in art education. Adamson goes on to describe philosophies that occupy different places along the spectrum of craft- or process-based teaching, including a section on Joseph Albers, who believed that, “art is not an object, but experience.” [86]

Adamson’s premise in all of this is that education plays a huge role in how craft is perceived by the larger culture. Indeed, Adamson suggests that the educators among us may hold the final balance of power in the ultimate dispensation of craft in art, as the attitudes inherent in their teaching are passed along to the next generation of artists and teachers.

Moving into the later twentieth century, Adamson points to a change that occurred in the 1970s as higher-level art educators began to teach skills to students “as and when.” The change instigated a sea change in craft education. In this approach, students in the arts are trained to approach their art-making much as a professional artist would, where concept is king. Students are exposed to a range of materials and techniques, they read extensively, and then they devise a project. At that point, they learn the requisite skills to execute their project. Their work is idea-driven and conceptually-based. As a result, content is divorced from in-depth and sustained training in process or “making.”

In itself, this may not seem like a bad thing to teachers wishing to emphasize content in teaching, but when Adamson projects that disconnect beyond a student’s education and into the community, he finds art fairs that are populated by artists who “may present sculptures, paintings, etc, each with a high degree of conceptual sophistication and (unless the fabrication of the work has been hired out) amateurish production values.” Adamson goes on, “This post-disciplinary approach to making art is compatible with [the] notion of skill not as a calling in life, but as friction applied to an action in the service of any intended outcome.” [74] In other words, skill bent solely toward the realization of an art object and not as an investment in the process itself, dislocates an artist from another, organic means of art-making and a sense of material that develops from a sustained immersion in technique and material.

But the answer is not simply to ride the pendulum to the other end of its trajectory into pure process. My sense of the most successful book art graduate programs honor craft, process, and material, even as they challenge students to begin to find a voice, to work through content. Denying or devaluing craft leads to, in Adamson’s opinion, “The craft world [that] often seems like a ghetto of technique, [with] the art world as an arena of the free play of ideas shockingly divorced from knowledge about process and materials.”

With these words, Adamson summarizes the contentious climate in higher education today in which many of the educators among us must operate, gamely trying to balance concept to craft, or perhaps simply lining up with one approach or the other. Is it possible to achieve a balance, or is that even a preferred option? Is it possible to study letterpress at the collegiate level (or for that matter, at a community arts organization) without time spent with an experienced printer at the press, learning the craft? Is it possible to make good art without craft? How does diy translate into letterpress?

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