Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thinking through Craft, Art, & Letterpress

Who reading this has described what they do as craft? If the term is used by others to describe your work, do you smile or flinch? Craft is one of those words that generates a visceral reaction that can differ dramatically depending on who you are and what you do in this bookish universe of book art.

At the same time, what are the limits of craft in art, and in book art? How about if we were to agree that craft meant the knowledgeable involvement with a technology, material and method to the degree of executing work of a high standard on a consistent basis. I just made that up—does that define craft for you, and if not, what does?

Since my current research focus is on letterpress printing, it was inevitable that craft would come into the picture. And anticipating attending MCBA's Biennial this Saturday, with one of its panels, "Book: the Object," being about craft among other things, I’ve been considering the meanings of craft, and how those meanings survive (or not) when talking about letterpress practice. This is important because those meanings lead us toward key concepts that shape the way artists and others perceive this work.

Debates around craft and art, and around letterpress and book art, express dichotomies that have long been in the larger art world. That art/craft divide influences views of letterpress, and despite rising evidence of an interest in process and material in the art world, within our field some still b
elieve that an investment in craft removes a work from serious art-world consideration. So, even though we may wish to simply ignore the bias, it is undeniable that this attitude has repercussions for artists and others. I’ve decided to read what has been written about craft, in the hopes of coming to an understanding of its place in artistic expression today.

Let’s begin by talking about definitions and how they change. For example, consider letterpress. You’ll note I’m using the term letterpress rather than fine press or fine printing. Many printers today describe themselves as letterpress artists, perhaps because the term letterpress returns us to, well, the medium of relief printing, and removes any value judgment or cultural connotation suggested by “fine press.” At the same time, the cultural norm of literature implicit in the term, “letterpress,” as Inge Bruggeman recently noted (at the "Hybrid Book" conference in Philadelphia), establishes a relationship with language that remains active in assumptions about letterpress whether or not the content in the finished work carries any text.

Equally important, there is not one kind of relief surface for letterpress printing. Historically, letterpress was associated with handset type (and then linotype). Today, type can still be lead or wood, but for over a decade now, type can also be made of plastic, “cast” in a relief polymer plate and composed from a design “set” on one’s computer. The involvement of computer technology vastly expanded the expressive range of letterpress, even as it unseated any simple equation of “handset type” with a justification of craft.

Where does that leave ideas about craft? I believe that we have entered the 21st century of craft, where definitions are fluid and distinctions multiply. Evidence of craft (or lack of it) can still be most readily discerned in a hand-thrown pot, but I think that a sense of craft can enlarge and diversify to also represent values about making. My own changing opinion about what constitutes craft is what led me to pick up Thinking through Craft (above right), a book I've written about recently in this blog. In that earlier entry I considered Adamson's observations on art education. Today I'd like to look more closely at different meanings of craft and art, and how those meanings might affect our expectations about letterpress printing or book art.

Thinking through Craft, as I mentioned before, was written by Glenn Adamson, who is Deputy Head of Research and the Head of Graduate Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design. Thinking through Craft is one of a stack of books to appear in the last five years that track and analyze an upswing in interest in craft, and it places us squarely in the midst of more questions than answers.

What I appreciated in Adamson’s book is not that I agreed with everything he said, but that hi
s thinking repeatedly forced me to revisit and clarify my own ideas about craft. He states his main premise as, “Craft is not a defined practice but a way of thinking through practices of all kinds.(p. 7, my emphasis) With this statement Adamson suggests that craft’s profile is fluid and responsive within the larger universe of making. At the same time, I wondered, how can craft not (also) be a defined practice? In book art alone, the Guild of Book Workers has been sponsoring Standards of Excellence seminars since 1982. I would suggest, instead, that the identification of one’s own work as craft is determined by the artist first, with all the risks implicit in that choice. In other words, craft can reflect a work’s standards of production, or it can depart from or comment upon such standards, more like Adamson’s sense of craft as “a way of thinking.”

In this way the artist directs the traffic, so to speak. At the point that a work is released to a
n audience, however, those of us who encounter it weigh in with our own responses, judgments, and biases about craft. But what about art? Where is art in this discussion?

Art, for Adamson, is not here at all, at least for most of his book. To achieve the end of craft as a way of thinking rather than as a defined practice
, Adamson asserts that craft will regain an active artistic profile only when it is set free from what he sees as its static condition, a condition that has accrued from the term’s historical and philosophical associations. In fact, Adamson argues that we must “dispense with the simplistic formulation that the crafts can (or should) be art.” (p. 2) This is because of three facts about craft: craft is supplemental, it is material, and it is about skill. These attributes remove craft from the realm of art. Let’s begin by unpacking these three terms.

By supplemental, Adamson means that craft does not function as the vehicle of rigorous internal analysis that art does. Craft is instead a supplement to the artwork, that which “provides something necessary to an
other, ‘original’ entity, but which is nonetheless considered to be extraneous to that original.” (p. 11) This is, to me, an outdated definition of craft that has been projected onto it by a larger art community in which concept and content are somehow leeched from material and process. This is not my meaning of craft, but I understand that Adamson is seeking clarity through opposition.

Adamson explains further that, by supplemental, craft is not, then, what he calls autonomous. Art is autonomous, because it is independent, it “strives to stand apart from the interests that are everywhere manifested in the rest of the world,” as “a zone of free practice” (p. 9) that seeks to critique social, political and cultural institutions, including art itself. The frame around a painting, for example, asserts art’s detachment.

I am disagreeing with Adamson by this point. For one thing, this distinction he makes for art as being at its essence inherently separate and self-critical is the goal of much art but not all art. The face of art can certainly be critical through biting commen
tary or satire, but art can also explore formal qualities of its genre, or it can be elegiac, or celebratory. Clearly my sense of what art is, differs from Adamson’s.

And when he asserts art’s autonomy, its presumed independence from the stuff of life, I fear that Adamson has become ensnared in the same kind of romanticism that he later points to in some of craft’s supporters. Art’s autonomy is true only as long as everyone in the room follows the group-think. In truth, issues of art patronage undermine any claim for autonomy, to cite just one example. For hundreds of years patrons have supported artists, and in some cases at least, they have influenced
art, and today that support exists as foundation or government grants or a university’s resources available to its artist-instructors in off-hours. Art is many things, but autonomous? I don’t believe so. Later in the book, Adamson will suggest that contemporary craft can actually take on an art persona when it embodies a self-critical
ce. One artist whose work he pictures is Mike Kelley, who attaches stuffed animals and afghans to a quilt which is then hung in a gallery.

I try to give both art and craft more room to
maneuver. I fundamentally disagree with the opposition that Adamson has chosen: autonomous for the art object, vs. supplemental for a crafted object. I think that craft, and, for our purposes here, book art that incorporates evidence of craft, occupies a much more charged position in the culture. There is nothing supplemental about an object in which the process and act of crafting is integral to its ultimate expression. If that were true, then we could turn the tables and apply it to a work of “fine art,” say, the painting, Old Books, by British artist Howard Hodgkin (above). Would this work exert the same powerful presence if we scraped off the impasto and left the surface flat and without articulation? I think not. Hodgkin’s brushwork is as much craft as art, revealing evidence of the exchange between brush, paint, and surface.

Let me suggest a different term which may better align with craft’s characteristics. Let’s consider the word, integral, as it represents the role of craft and art as they coexist in Harry Reese’s Arplines (cover, right). Integral is defined as, what is essential or fundamental, that makes a whole complete. When craft works within the realm of art, it does not supplement anything but plays a key role in contributing to the ultimate expression of a work along with image, text, symbol and form, even as it asserts physicality, invites touch, and teases us with a record of its making.

Arplines was publ
ished in 1990 in an edition of 43 copies. Its ten folded sheets are held within a chemise wrapper and box by Sandra Liddell Reese. On each cover panel of the completed boxes Harry Reese created an original acrylic painting. The content of Arplines consists of Harry Reese’s selections from the poems and writings—the lines—of Jean Arp. Reese recombined those phrases into a new voice, and then responded with a shifting palette of pattern and line created from a surprising means of mark-making.

On this page (below) we have
one of the meldings that punctuate the book, as the reader sorts out what is Reese, what is Arp, and where the two have merged. Collaged fragments appear from a French book that was coincidentally given to Reese at the project’s inception (coincidence being an aspect of art-making that Arp and Reese both embrace). These fragments appear to have drifted down and settled on the surface of the opening. On the righthand page a fragment sits on an irregular patterned field, and below it the fragment is echoed, more or less, by a space of absence caught in a loosened grid.

The background pattern is actually composed of a most commonplace material: cellophane tape adhered to a type-high wood block (below right). Reese realigns Arp’s phrases into a poem that references Reese’s process in constructing the poem, and, more subtly, in
image-making itself: “I stuck together, unstuck, began again, and destroyed, / But language broke in my mouth. / I shut my eyes, chose words and lines from newspapers. / From that time on I’ve used only the most primitive forms.”

In another opening (below left), Arp’s words are at once stuck and unstuck, present and not-there, due to the blind-printing that Reese reveals through strokes of graphite. The reader is led irresistibly to follow the type’s impressions, a finger drawn across the page, like a child learning to read, as if to conjur again the transformation from silence into speech. Arp’s reconfigured text calls for creating “new appearances” through the use of “new materials which were not weighted down with tradition.” In his turn, Reese renders “new impressions” that evoke a range of voice possible with letterpress. His typography here is as quiet as an exhalation, the shapes to left and right subtly biomorphic.

In the previous opening Reese fashioned a field out of cellophane tape. Here, he again follows Arp’s approach of inspired improvisation by coaxing texture from inked bubble wrap (in blue), and in gray, what Reese describes in his "Guidelines for Arplines" as, “a strange spongy material [sent by] LA Type a few years a protective wrapping for some type we ordered.” Materials so ephemeral as to be un-identifiable, the resulting stippled effect would no doubt elicit praise from Arp himself. To return to terms, let us remind ourselves that, as opposed to Adamson’s autonomous art object coolly reigning separate in its presumed objectivity, and craft restrained in its supplemental, subsidiary role, the word, integral, suggests the complexities of a crafted object engaged with larger ideas beyond the object itself, even as it is situated in the everyday and open to the intimacies of reading.

Now let’s move on to Adamson’s second point, that craft, unlike art, is, “grounded in material specificity.” Adamson contrasts that materiality to modern art, which he describes as visual, a purely optical experience. In contrast, craft’s investment in the material places it at odds with what he calls, “the normative idea of modern art [that generally-held view, which]...involves the transcendence...of just this encounter.” (p. 39) The assumption is that art is primarily optical, and craft is primarily sensual. This simple opposition only grows clunkier when applied to books. The opposition of material to optical doesn’t work for artists’ books that carry text and image, the tactile experience and the intellectual response altering as they are unearthed page by page, cumulative in every sense of the word.

Third and last, Adamson equates craft with skill, which is a no-brainer, except that in order to enforce his opposition, by extension he divorces skill from art-making. Again, this dichotomy doesn’t work: art means concept but not craft; craft means process, but not content. Does this make sense to you? This dichotomy seems outdated, and sure enough Adamson supports his assertion by hearkening back to Conceptualism of the 1960s, to the idea as the machine that makes the art. The historical reference is accurate, but in this field at least, conceptual content is a rich vein often quarried by book artists, letterpress printers included. Art today is never one thing and often too many to enumerate—or maybe we are simply capable of seeing now what was always true: idea and material, image and object, language and its absence can layer into a palimpsest that is revealed differently to different people over time. Books are not either/or; they are implicitly and.

Consider Arplines once more. This kind of book is far from a unilateral and univocal object. Its conceptual program engages chance and the legacy of Dada, and its voice is literally multi-vocal, as Reese uses French, German and English, thus varying the degree of comprehension for each reader. Add to that his playfulness with the readable (printed) and the once-invisible (revealed through the act of rubbing). Confronting non-English words, language itself becomes an element of mystery if you don’t know the language, and, play, if you do, as punning wordplay can extend into concrete poetry. Reading Arplines we integrate touch and sound and sight, and add texture and scale and weight, all senses firing, and accumulating in time: this, then, is the artist’s book, the ultimate challenge to any simple dichotomy.

In regard to skill, Adamson suggests elsewhere that not all crafted works should be treated as art. Many works can bring pleasure as objects that fit the body and enrich the visual landscape of our daily lives. As such, these works should be prized but not subjected to the kind of critical apparatus brought to bear on artworks today. Instead, they pursue a more traditional ideal of craft as excellence in technique for its own sake, free of a larger conceptual program or agenda. Adamson suggests that such a designation should not devalue a work, and I add that this is another instance when the artist’s intent is crucial. In our field, the general term of the book arts designates that larger sphere of activity that acknowledges and celebrates the contributions of binders, papermakers and printers engaged in the ongoing investigation of a craft. The research conducted by these practitioners feeds in turn the artistic development of the field as a whole. I agree with Adamson, that we could profit from a more pointed consideration of what constitutes art and what craft, but I also acknowledge that such an exchange will need to address the persistent art world bias that seems to lie behind some of Adamson’s own observations.

I feel that to be fair to Adamson I should emphasize that he does not reference book art. When he cites craft, he discusses ceramics, fabric, or wood. I am left to wonder how he would view books. As I have noted, books have numerous streams of content to deploy. Books (often) carry language and embrace multiple voices, in text and pictorially. A book’s conceptual program may extend from the page to its binding, even its materials, such as a vellum-bound book that magically flexes and relaxes when held in a reader’s hands, skin to skin, craft and concept cohered.

As I have suggested, and no surprise, the book form greatly increases the complexity of expression on every front, and so it follows that a debate over craft and art is similarly fraught. On the one hand, a choice to print books by letterpress implies a stance to engage a letterpress aesthetic (note that I say, a letterpress aesthetic, not the letterpress aesthetic). Each printer finds his or her way through or around standards of design and printing. If the printer chooses the longer route, to ignore printing standards and instead engage the medium in a free spirit such as we find in D.I.Y. (do it yourself), printers should then heed Adamson’s warning that, “when an artwork is not made to the standards a viewer might expect...skill becomes all the more present as a consideration. It is most conspicuous in its absence.” (p. 69) A rejection of traditional craft standards may be exactly what an artist seeks—but in the end the book’s success will turn on its cohesiveness in form, content and execution.

Adamson’s book includes observations on a number of related topics. To mention just one, he explores the historical contexts of craft in Britain and the U.S., although that history is salted throughout the book in a way that is a bit difficult to track. Although I wish the book were organized more coherently, I appreciate Adamson’s ambition to address what he sees as the reasons for craft’s perception as “second-class.” Adamson’s solution is to apply his reframing of craft to all manner of production, even including architectural design. Upon finishing the book, however, I was left wondering why Adamson didn’t attempt what I see as a greater ambition—to identity those traits that coexist in art and craft rather than to reinforce the artificial oppositions that have served so long to prop up art world clichés still active in some gallery cultures, which underlie a market economy of art held separate in the frame, to adopt a trope of Adamson’s.

The apparent contradictions in, Thinking through Craft ultimately paint a portrait of a transitional time in craft and art. Turn that around and it becomes a time of opportunity for each of us to add our perspectives to the mix. Adamson’s book succeeds in making us think about craft, and about how patterns of thought may impede fresh considerations of craft’s artistic identity. His findings suggest that we have much to think about, summed up in the compound term of “book art.” Book joined to art challenges us to find our footing on the slippery ground shared by art and craft. Adamson has found his; I’m still looking, and what about you?

We need to begin a discussion with one another from a 21st century perspective, to better articulate why this work matters. It’s not about making a case for craft to measure up to art. It’s about understanding how the book and letterpress can create craft and art together, how those two entities find in the book an optimal medium and format for integrating all manner of expression: visual, haptic, sensual, perhaps literary, in a format that continues to challenge and reward makers and readers alike. When that happens, when the forces align, memorable works result.

Toward the end of the book Adamson states that, “craft’s specificity and limitedness [have] offered a possibility for useful friction. In such sleights of hand, the challenge is always to see craft not as a subject for celebration or self-congratulation, nor as a disqualification for serious artistic enterprise, but rather as a problem to be thought through again and again.” (p. 168) With this, I agree, and again, I recommend Thinking through Craft as each of us thinks through what is craft, what is art, and why it matters.