On Making

by Susan Tallman

July 2012

Art is above all a playing field for ideas.

This truism is so widely accepted among contemporary chattering classes, and so glorious in its generous, abstract ambition, that it seems churlish to point out how limited a point of view it represents. In most places, in most times, when people have chosen to wax loquacious about things made by hand they focused on the how of the making. The what was usually a given—dictated by the church or the plutocrat commissioning the work, or simply by cultural habit. When Pliny wrote about the birds pecking at the grapes painted by Zeuxis, and of Zeuxis mistaking Parrhasius’s painted curtain for a real one, his point was not to investigate the idea of the grape or curtain, but to celebrate the manual skills of the artists.

It took a couple of millennia to get from Zeuxis to Sol Lewitt’s statement that “execution is a perfunctory affair” and for most of that time craft mattered. But the modern concept of art, launched in the 15th century by artists who wanted to be viewed more like poets than like cabinet-makers, has shifted the focus away from cleverness of the hand, and toward cleverness of the mind. Duchamp’s abhorrence of the phrase “bête comme un peintre” was inherited by the second half of the 20th century as a proscription against confusing “art” (intellectually rigorous and strategic) with “craft” (whatever deployment of materials was required to put that strategy into effect.

Printmaking has had a complicated role in all this. For much of the past 500 years, it neatly formalized the distinction between creative content and actual facture, crediting the originating artist in the plate with “pinxit” or “invenit,” while the engraver would identified by “fecit” or “sculpsit.” Thinking and engraving were two different jobs, like director and cinematographer. The periodic, glorious exceptions to this division of printerly labor—Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Whistler, Johns, Celmins–only serve to punctuate the rule. This is not to say that the skills of engravers were not admired (Robert Nanteuil inspired Louis XIV to make a formal declaration that engraving was a “fine,” rather than “mechanical,” art) but they were understood to be fundamentally different from those of painters. The valorization of “originality” and individual expression that caught fire in the 19th century led to a more disingenuous arrangement: the artist’s name moved from the plate to the margin, penciled by hand as if on a drawing, but the printer’s name disappeared entirely.

Things changed again beginning with Pop: print became conceptually central to contemporary art because its processes and artifacts reflected the concerns of artists who found themselves living in a world newly saturated with reproduction. Over the past five decades, the pinxit v. fecit model has infiltrated every aspect of art production as painters, sculptors, installation artists and new media artists have outsourced the job of fabrication. We can relate to such works because they reflect current human experience (or at least the experience of the privileged lump of humanity that is the contemporary art audience) at a time when everything from the cars we drive to the letters we write come into being through processes about which we are clueless.

The current fixation with all things “artisanal” is undoubtedly a reaction to this sense of distance—geographical and conceptual—from actual making. Publications such as Make magazine or Matthew Crawford’s book Shopclass as Soulcraft, activities like electronic hardware hacking, the “maker spaces” and TechShops cropping up around the country, all attest to a desire for physical engagement with stuff. An old truth is being rediscovered: the manipulation of materials leads to a different form of knowledge – a different relationship to the world at large – than simply delivering instructions does.

This issue of Art in Print is largely about that kind of physical engagement—wet, heavy, scratchy, smelly. April Vollmer, a practitioner, rather than a theoretician or historian, writes about the global spread of traditional Japanese mokuhanga printing techniques. Artist Paul Coldwell reviews the achievements of London’s Paupers Press. Printmaker Jane Kent reviews a studio manual for the 21st century. These, alongside the other articles and reviews herein, should remind us that the path between mind, hand, and physical stuff flows in both directions.

Playing fields, after all, are made of dirt.