Printmaking as a Craft
SOURCE: Artichoke 17 no1 38-40 Spr 2005
"The creation of a work requires craftsmanship. Great artists prize craftsmanship most highly. They are the first to call for its painstaking cultivation, based on complete mastery. They above all others constantly strive to educate themselves anew in thorough craftsmanship. It has often enough been pointed out that the Greeks, who knew quite a bit about works of art, use the same word techne for craft and art and call the craftsman and the artist by the same name: technites."(FN1) One wonders what sort of work Martin Heidegger was thinking of when he wrote these lines in the 1960s, a time when the mainstream art world appeared to have abandoned craftsmanship altogether, first in favour of abstraction, and later in favour of appropriation, industrial production, and mass reproduction. However, one need only question the definition of craft -- that is, what sort of things craftsmanship may be applied to -- to see his true meaning, which is that techne denotes "a mode of knowing" and not art or craft per se. Put another way, techne is neither the work of art itself nor the process of its creation; it is, he explains, the bringing forth of truth from its concealedness, or what the Greeks called aletheia.
Today we understand craft differently, by opposing it to mass production on one hand, and to fine art on the other. The German critic Walter Benjamin tells us that "the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition,"(FN2) thereby diminishing its "aura;" a term he uses to encompass the work of art's authenticity and autonomy. Benjamin seems at first to be arguing that art loses its uniqueness when it is thus separated from the "fabric of tradition," but instead he claims that "mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual,"(FN3) thus freeing it to become politically engaged.
What this means for the artist today is not simply that all technologies and media are now available for art-making, but that a balance must be found between traditional methods and materials (which can still carry the aura of art) and political currency (socially relevant meaning). This is where we may find techne today, and it is especially manifest in printmaking, the field which first felt the impact of technical reproducibility.
In the past, printmakers were in the enviable position of having their work available in more than one place. They could now reach the masses; however, their practice was still undeniably a craft requiring technical skill. Even the typesetters of the nineteenth century were craftsmen. Contemporary printmakers find themselves walking a fine line between this fabric of tradition and the political realm. Printmaking encompasses centuries-old media, such as woodcut and stone lithography, as well as newer technologies like etching, silkscreen, and photolithography. But does it also include digital art? Does experimenting with new forms of reproduction mean abandoning the umbrella of traditional printmaking? And how does the size of the edition affect our determination of what is a print? An offset press may produce two thousand copies per hour, but would we consider them to be as valuable as a dozen hand-pulled prints? Would we still consider them to be art? Clearly, printmaking as an art form relies on some notion of the indexical trace, the touch of the artist's hand, despite the intervention of reproductive technology. Printmaking as a craft, meanwhile, is still hindered by notions of mechanization and the removal of the artist's hand. This paradox has resulted in the virtual exclusion of printmaking from both academic discourse, which is greatly concerned with politics, as well as from other craft practices, which traditionally focus on the unique handmade object.
Nevertheless, a new term -- fine craft -- has evolved in recent years to encompass craft-based media with political content. Fine craft endeavours to account for the gray area between fine art and decorative or functional craft. This definition has been incorporated in the Canada Council's granting categories and is slowly being adopted by other agencies as well. The Saskatchewan Craft Council recently adopted a new definition of fine craft as "an artistic endeavour characterized by the creation, with skill and by hand, of three dimensional work that is rooted in, but may transform, transcend or maintain the traditions, techniques, and materials of the utilitarian object."(FN4) Only painting and drawing are excluded due to their adequate representation elsewhere.
Leslie Potter, one of the scc's exhibitions and education co-ordinators, suggests that defining craft is no longer necessary. "Fine art and fine craft have been crossing boundaries and converging for so long now, it only places limitations where we don't need them."(FN5) While there is still a latent theme of craft as specific handmade object-based media without overt political content, there is also a growing recognition of craft as an evolutionary field, one which encompasses techne.
In 1996, Lee McKay was one of the first print-makers to be included in the scc's annual Dimensions exhibition. McKay is known for his refined woodcut reduction technique, as well as collographs and etchings; however, his real interest lies in colour. His woodcuts commonly use eight to twelve colours, and are often printed on delicate rice paper -- an especially difficult ground due to the paper stretching during impressions, making registration difficult. Lately he has begun to experiment with transparent inks and varnishes, an approach that developed from his experience in graphic design and offset printing. A visit to McKay's studio reveals a continuous flow of ideas from the sketchbook to the computer to the woodblock. Mckay's own take on craft, on techne, seems to lie in the very practice of art, where ideas grow from hard work and discipline; a far cry from contemporary conceptual art and its approach of "applied philosophy."
If we return to Heidegger and accept techne as neither the product nor the process but rather as a mode of knowing, of uncovering truth, we may conclude that art is intended for reflection rather than consumption; that it is a process of thinking that extends from intention to interpretation. Hegel, who foreshadowed both Benjamin and Heidegger, saw this clearly: "The work of art has not such a naive self-centered being, but is essentially a question, an address to the responsive heart, an appeal to affections and to minds."(FN6) What better definition can there be of political currency, of meaning in art?
Misa Nikolic is a Vancouver artist.
Lee McKay's prints will be Featured at the Saskatchewan Craft Council Gallery in Saskatoon, June 24 - August 14, 2005.
Luminate - 1, reduction woodcut, 29×40 cm, Lee McKay, 2004 photo courtesy of the artist
1. Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art" in Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1971, p. 59.
2. Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations, New York: Shocken, 1968, p. 221.
3. Ibid., p. 224.
4. Interview with Leslie Potter, September 2004.
6. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, New York: Penguin, 1993, p. 78.