Parsing Art and Artistry, by Hand, in Hand.

In my Art School days the great debate was “Is it Art or is it Craft?” It was a time when Formalism ruled the roost; called Minimalism, or Primary Structures, it was a spare, cut to the bone movement. We’d passed through the flourescence of Abstract Expressionism and it was time for a spare, no-nonsence experiment in how so little could say so much. We had Ad Reinhard’s all black paintings that spoke to the Gestalt, the Ding an Sich, the thing itself. We had The Stations of the Cross by Barnett Newman, the passion of the crucifixion with all its implications of the human condition, of life, of suffering, and of redemption told with a stripe of black or white paint. Seriously? Strange to think now, how something so arid and downright chilly could rise to the front of attention. But it did. Follows, is Wallace Stevens poem to make an accounting.

Stations of the Cross Barnett Newman 1958-1963
The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
School kids getting the low-down on Newman’s The Voice of Fire 18′ X 8′

The Voice of Fire purchased by Canada’s National Museum for $1.8 Million USD stands a marker for just how far the “nothingness that is” can shine a light on the human mind hard at work, mapping out the extremes of human experience. Finally, in this regard, the Vietnam War Memorial, stands as the apotheosis of the minimal project. The visitors are reflected in the mirror-bright finish of the black granite in this gash in the earth adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial on the Capital Mall. This is no cipher of contemporary Art to figure out, it’s message of grief rings loud.

Vietnam Memorial Maya Lin 1982—minimalism adopts human feeling.

In it’s heyday, the ’64-74 decade, the minimalism project, as well as the gush of Pop Art, with its snarky poke directly in the eye; a DaDa haughty sniff at the poignancy of narrative, and emotion, posed a confusion to a lot of folks called to Art-making. Confusion for any audience too. This led to a resurgence in the Crafts, with ceramics as king (queen), woodworking, weaving, metal smithing—the intelligent hand at work. Boosted by the counter-culture lean to do something authentic, crafts saw a blossoming of the Bauhaus-inspired handy work. The Bauhaus, along with the Glasgow School of Renne McIntosh romanticised craft—the purity of hands-on, almost fetishized as a way toward “one-ness” with the human spirit. I had a sculpture teacher who had actually been a student at the Bauhaus, Bert Schmutzhardt, who had a romance with the tools of the trade. We made our own tools for sculpture and ceramics as a part of his course in Sculpture 101. A very Bauhaus move.

Artistry is the craft piece of the Art/Craft puzzle. It’s doing thing things well, according to a plan, a preconceived embrace of fine-finish. In the last years artistry has risen to the front of our attention in food preparation. The proliferation of cooking TV shows is testament. Follow the recipe and you’ll be eatin’ good, and who isn’t a fan of good eats? Food prep as craft. La Tequnique by Jacques Pepin stresses the right way of the kitchen, if you do it this way, you will have success. It’s a cookbook with no recipies (per se). It was said in my Ceramics 101 class that you had to make 100 perfect cylinders on the wheel before moving along to something “creative.” If you want to eat delicious cheese, you better look to an artisan, and not an artist fooling around to see if “maybe this will be good.” In France among the 398 different cheeses, you can count on this one or that one being true to a delicious form because they are artisans. Artists may have invented a new cheese, but you probably don’t want to take your chances until a lot of craft is at hand.

Cup with Handle Ron Nagel ceramic

Of all the gagillion tea cups made in a jillion ceramics studios, this cup by Ron Nagel stands as a uselesss object for delivering a hot beverage, but it does deliver a beautiful message of the creative soul at work. This little “cup” stands tall in the annals of what to do with a piece of clay, because artists of all ilk, when there is Art on the table, brush that table clean to start with “what if I…?” Not following a recipe, but seeing just what comes next. In my teaching life it was exactly this. I would demonstrate in the classroom like this: I’d paint a bunch of washy brush strokes and hold the paper up and say, “Whatever the first voice tells me to do, I will do it.” At first the thirty or so students would be furtive, and then a flood of suggestions, seeing if they could say something so outlandish, I would’t do it. I always took the first suggestion. Always. The paintings unreeled in suggestion after suggestion. They were weird and nothing like anything I’d ever done on my own, but together they had a coherence as if an invisible someone had created a body of work in preparation for a one-person exhibit…following are three choice examples…

“Put a purple bull in, that one needs a skull (then, she needs a party hat), how ’bout a rose (I wrote Arose), the giant is eating a village…” It was a fun way to teach and though these pictures would never find their way to the market place, they did test me, and tested the class toward the motive thrust of “just do the next thing.” This “just do the next thing,” DNT was a mode I had adopted back in grad school. I would go to my studio every day and make something. I couldn’t quit for the day until I had completed one thing. Just one thing. My precedent was Jasper Johns whose famous dictum was, take an object, do something to it, do something else to it. This is not an artisanal way of working, rather, the attempt is to access something not necessarily new, but something that comes from that well, that unconscious churning away, that dips into what some call primary process, the embodied mind, the shared consciousness of the human animal. What philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls Eco-phenomonolgy.

So, here are two worlds that obviously cross-pollinate and what you want is some of both. The Art of Barnett Newman stands as a marker for a moment, at a time when Art was looking for a purity, totally at one end of the Art/Artisanal dichomety. Those stripes of paint came from a deep place in Newman, a place where his very confidence and bravado WAS the art, if you wanted to make a painting like Newman’s you’d have had to retrieve something from a place unknown by most people, otherwise it would look like just a stripe and nothing more. How do you give that stripe “manna”, spiritual worth? I believe in that ol’ DNT. Do the next thing that occurs to you, and one thing for sure is to do it everyday, even if it’s a stripe. It’ll get you somewhere.

What am I trying to say here? By DNT you can access something of value, even if it’s the just the next stepping stone. And sometimes it’s all by a kind of accidental intension like this Raku Teabowl used in the Tea Ceremony, full of the accident of it’s making. How do you “try” to make this…

Ryoji-Koie tea bowl, a long way from Ron Nagel’s cup. Art? Artistry?
Tea Bowl 1960 Shoji Hamada 1884-1978

Hamada was the teacher of my teacher Teruo Hara, here’s one of Hara’s bowls:

In Japan, Hara was one of those “Nails sticking up,” as the expression there goes—A nail that sticks its head up needs pounding down. He found the US to be a copacetic spot for his Art, as he had become the “bad boy” of that Art world. And I think this is the point; that the discussion of Art and Artistry leads to ever clearer maps of the creative process, remembering of course, that the map is not the territory, and to the point, as I follow my nose in THIS little DNT venture, that the fun is in the finding out. In the mere act of writing this, new information has spilled out. Have we found out anything here? Anything of use? As it seems Artistry makes Art useful. Part II of this report is coming next.

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