Saturday, 27 August 2011

a field student of doors

As Field Study’s Man in E17, I have been looking at (pictures of) ‘The Gates of Paradise’, while waiting with my 5 or more humble senses preparing to embark upon the E17 Art Trail 2011. How did I arrive at this phantasmagorical 16th century Florentine threshold?
Following a discussion earlier in the week I had cause to anticipate some of the boundaries of the trail and assess the risks of straying into and beyond the blurs. Our discussion posited differences between art and craft and a dialogue exploring the relationship of art to craft ensued. We speculated many artists do not make their artworks with their own hands; they employ studio/workshop assistants. Bridget Riley was cited as a fine artist/painter who does not paint all the paintings created and exhibited in her name.
This artistic mode of production is not new. Artists have for a long time run studios and workshops which employ a variety of skilled designers, craftspeople, artisans, engineers, technicians, researchers … and so on according to the manner of the art. This creative workforce produces according to ‘thee’ artist’s direction and vision.
In this system the artist is the mind and the artisanal workforce the hands - the latter, Animal laborens, in service of the former (and for some, superior), Homo faber.
Why is Homo faber considered superior? According to Richard Sennett, one of his teachers, Hannah Arendt, believed the mass productivity of the 20th century resulted in mass destruction and annihilation as a consequence of Animal laborens lacking the guidance of Homo faber. Sennett sets out in ‘The Craftsman’ to promote the misunderstood Animal laborens as Homo fabers compassionate and benevolent multi-intelligent guide. A well practised cultural materialism will qualify Animal laborens for this new role.
What of the trail of E17’s cultural materialism when the gates of paradise swing open? Will we be jostling for the definitive creative pole positions? I assume most of the contributors to the trail enjoy making via the myriad processes contemporary culture offers. On show will be a culmination of diverse handiwork, a collective intelligence inviting similar and different intelligences to appreciate it. On what terms will the offers, invitations and appreciations be made? Of course I am not saying the materiality of culture is predominantly reliant on handicraft unless I were to make a tenuous link or lineage between the pleasures of hand held smart devices of recent and not so recent times.
Photographs in their diverse material forms may represent a (slightly tongue in cheek) celebration of the capabilities of the index finger (at the moment of capture/exposure). Which leading photographers e.g. develop/print their photographs? How are (or can) photographers be involved in the production process? A photograph may signify social skills and experience necessary to set up the photographic moment; the photograph being a memento of many skilful interactions. Could we say the darkroom technicians are craftspeople who provide the artist photographer with a choice of images; the artistic role being to choose the best vision of a particular moment - a matter of heightened sensibility and connoisseurship?
I might accept someone presenting themselves as an artist not having made/manipulated the artwork - or, even, not having made an artwork at all - as far as e.g. a proposal or design constitutes an art work not made. Artists have adopted such epithets as ‘celebration consultants’ (Pierre Huyghe) in an attempt to subvert the constraints of materiality.
I am less likely to accept someone identifying themselves as a craftsperson - even artist-craftsperson - if they show things in their name they have not made, at least even once. There might be ways around this suspiciously deep puddle of categories and definitions. Tanya Harrod comments on craft, saying:
‘it’s changeable, slippery identity is, as usual a good barometer of current anxieties, hopes and confusions about modernity and our place in a world over which we apparently have little control’
If I slip on a piece of craft while out and about on the trail, who could I blame? Who would be responsible?  Harking back to the bedtime reading of my art and craft student days, it was Ernst Gombrich and his ‘The Story of Art’, which offered some insights into relationships between art and craft. Gombrich’s rationale and historical perspective on their distinctiveness was based, in part, on the work of Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ghiberti (& co) created two sets of doors for the Florence Baptistery which took more than half a century (15th/16th) to complete.
The first set of doors was, according to Gombrich, a craft work. The artisanal work imitated the processes and products of a tradition which in turn they sought to perfect.
The second set, (The Gates of Paradise) 27 years in the making, was an art work in that it broke with tradition, no longer imitational, but experimental, expressing progressive and original ideas and forms.
Gombrich has been criticised for his peculiar 20th century bias and perpetuation of a myth of art and craft that projected the dilemmas of that time onto the past. What else could he do? The construct of mind and matter, and the ideological implications, persists. What Field Study’s Man in E17 wants to know is, if the definition or resolution of the gates on the other side of paradise are blurry/blurred, will it be an immateriality through which he can exit without opening - in the event of an emergency?

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