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Craftsmanship [Nov. 28th, 2011|12:43 am]
Beemer
I spent yesterday afternoon tromping about the Denver Art Museum with Bats & Sarah. (Jerry sadly had to stay home with oogy tummy.)

It was fun -- Bats has posted a good picture of him and me playing with wonky perspective on one of the landings in the Liebeskind extension. (And since it's always a topic when one goes there, my opinion on the building is: you really have to see it in person to appreciate it properly, and I think it's great as sculpture but really lousy as architecture. Art museums really need a lot of vertical walls against which you can display art, and a building that is distinctly lacking in these fails at its primary function and is therefore bad design, no matter how nifty its interior spaces are or are not.)

One really nice outcome of the trip (aside from a lovely afternoon with friends) is that I can finally articulate what leaves me cold about a great deal of modern art: good art requires a high degree of craftsmanship. And in a lot of modern work, the craftsmanship isn't visible to the lay audience. I'm not saying it's not there; there was a ceramic piece that I thought was kind of dumb until we watched a little YouTube video on Sarah's iPhone that explained the intentionality of the design and pointed out aspects of it that were actually quite difficult to produce, and it gave me a much greater appreciation of the piece.

But there were also a bunch of works by Robert Motherwell on display, and one of my problems with abstract expressionism is that, no matter how much we talk about trying to "paint feelings", a huge canvas painted two shades of ocher with a black rectangular outline on it just doesn't convey any sense of craftsmanship to me. I feel like you could hand anybody the same materials and a directive to produce something extremely simple, non-figurative, and non-representational, and that in less than an hour they could produce something equivalent. Now, maybe that's not true, and it is actually a lot harder than it looks, but if that's so, then you need a background in painting to appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into looking like it has no craftsmanship, which makes it a work with a very limited audience.

Likewise, there was a flurry of ceramic pieces by Betty Woodman that I think would be much more interesting if they were unglazed. To my untutored, non-artist eye, it really looks like somebody just haphazardly slapped a bunch of glaze on them at random right before firing; it looks sloppy and amateur and ugly. And it pulls your attention completely away from the shape of the clay itself, which is actually quite interesting and has a lot of craftsmanship going into it.

The most impressive ceramic pieces were the ones that looked like an old leather satchel and a pair of old leather boots. Now, a pair of boots and a satchel are really not very interesting, but knowing that they were actually clay made them amazing, because the amount of craftsmanship required was huge and obvious and thoroughly awe-inspiring.

So I'm pleased to finally be able to have the words to say: there are works I don't appreciate not because I don't like them (since de gustibus and all that), but because I don't see any craftsmanship.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: bitterlawngnome
2011-11-28 09:05 am (UTC)
I suggest you try painting like Motherwell (or Rothko or Pollock or de Kooning ). At the very least you'll have fun making a mess.
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[User Picture]From: snowninja7
2011-11-28 03:26 pm (UTC)
*nods vigorously*

Yes, to me art is largely about the story of its making. Representational art tells that story clearly: you can see the transfer of a thing or idea into paint/clay/wood/etc, and clearly observe the work done by the artist's hands and brain. There's a little dialog going on in my brain as I observe the changes the artist has wrought on the original object/idea being represented, and appreciate the choices they've made, and wonder at the skill.

Worst case in modern art, you get the "my kid could do that" sort of work. I'm particularly uninterested in duchamp-style "artistic" repurposing of commercial products. Feh.
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[User Picture]From: bats22
2011-11-29 02:51 pm (UTC)
In case you were interested, some pics I took on that trip are on their way via email.

I definitely agree that part of me has a greater appreciation for art that shows craft--i.e., does their craftsmanship show a level of competence, based on answering the question: "Would I trust this sculptor to put in kitchen cabinets for me?" However, I often assume that art in the "my kid could do that" category is done by somebody who has gone through rigorous art training, previously showing competence... but I could be wrong... I'm curious whether that is the case or not.
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[User Picture]From: bitterlawngnome
2011-11-30 02:04 am (UTC)
You know, I really struggled with my reply to this thread, because of the whole "my six year old could do that" thing.

There's nothing wrong with admiring skill. I admire skill. I go to the scrap metal yard every week just to look at the incredible and often beautiful pieces of machinery that wash up there - because my dad was a metal worker, I got a pretty good education in what it takes to produce beautifully machined complex forms. I'm eternally grateful to him for that.

Does that level of skill make it art? I'd have to say no. Most of it was not made with artistic intent. It might have been made with love, or pride, or joy, or satisfaction, and definitely with skill and knowledge, patience, drawing on experience - but generally, machine parts are not made with the intent of communicating something about the human condition. Art is.

Back to your six year old. I think it's entirely backwards, this argument. The fact is, your six year old IS making art, almost always. S/he is communicating about his or her vision of world. It's not very skilful (yet), but the intent is there.

(As an aside - I think where people get hung up and outraged is when something apparently simple gets tagged with an astronomical price. What you need to know is that that price has almost nothing to do with the artistic value of a piece; it is mostly the work of a market speculation machine as byzantine as the derivatives market. If you want to know why a given piece is expensive, look at a) who has owned it b) who else collects that painter c) the rarity of pieces by that painter d) who is having or about to have a big sale of pieces by that painter and only last would you wonder about e) the quality of the piece in relation to the other pieces by the same artist. In the context of money, you'd do better thinking of them as antiques rather than in terms of their artistic merit.)

I think what I'd want is for you to make skill or technique only ONE of the criteria you bring to your appreciation of a piece. I would hope that a lack of skill wouldn't prevent you from enjoying something that had other good qualities. And that is why I think you ought to try making a Motherwell: splashing paint around can be a great deal of fun, and that is one of the things you could have enjoyed about the AbEx pieces. Almost all of them, no matter how morose and depressed, express the painters' enjoyment of working with the medium.
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[User Picture]From: dr_tectonic
2011-11-30 02:52 am (UTC)
I was trying to be careful with my phrasing, because I know that just because I don't see the skill doesn't mean it's not there. I know that Pollock's work is much, much more complex than many people believe, for example.

And I definitely agree that skill is only one facet. Sorry if that didn't come across! There are plenty of works that I can recognize are skillfully done, but that aren't to my taste -- and there are plenty of things that I'm willing to forgive all kinds of flaws of execution in because I love something else about them. So yeah, I definitely get what you're saying, and I'm with you.

I'm trying to articulate what I get hung up on with stuff like the Motherwell pieces a little better, and it's not coming easily, so I'll post this now and let the rest marinate a little more.
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[User Picture]From: bitterlawngnome
2011-11-30 03:10 am (UTC)
With me it's the art market that pisses me off more than anything. Really very good artists get ignored and mediocre stuff gets hyped beyond all reason, and then that completely deforms how public collections are assembled ... galleries end up spending ridiculous amounts of money on middling-imporant pieces because the funders are very often the people who stand to gain most from the appreciation of a particular artist's work. It's all a big circle jerk ... collectors, galleries, critics, appraisers, insurance companies, market speculators, academics, art retailers. Artists of Motherwell's generation knew this and from time to time purposely painted crap to mock the establishment, but the establishment won in the end cause even the crap pieces are considered valuable thanks to the marketing machine.
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[User Picture]From: ng_nighthawk
2011-12-01 04:19 am (UTC)
I just want to say that there is real innovation in color theory and composition in the works of many of the folks who you're not seeing the skill in. If you were to look at Rothko's work, for example, it's all about the layers of color and the relationship of each color to the other in the composition. The shapes aren't hard to make (though there is compositional skill in his choices there) but the work he did with color is amazing. Which sometimes, I'm told, doesn't reproduce well.

With Motherwell and, as another example, Joan Miro it's all about composition. This is the relationship of the image with the edges of the image and with the relationship between the internal shapes. The shapes themselves aren't as important as where they sit relative to each other and to the frame.

Much of art has been deconstructionist (in intent if not in philosophy) even since the impressionists. The idea is to take a few concepts that are normally part of a work and really focus on them exclusively, trying to advance an understanding of that. To reduce the layers and make a statement as simply as possible. But it's not just a case study, or a technical exercise. It's seeing what emotions and statements can be made through that focus.

Having said that, I look at Motherwell's work and my immediate reaction is, "Dear God, how he do that!" It gives an immediate, punch in the gut reaction to me. So maybe de gustibus is indeed at work here.

For me the difference between my kids' work and his is intentionality--he was clearly in control of every element on the canvas, he expressed a desire with a force of will my kids will likely lack for some time.

I think it's true that learning something about art is necessary to appreciate painting fully--but I think you need to know something about architecture to really appreciate Gothic cathedrals, too, especially as they work in contrast to Romanesque cathedrals. I think the simplicity of modern art often makes it even more accessible to naive sensibilities like my kids: I wonder if it's actually a middle ground you're standing on that is uncomfortable.
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