I had a visitor in my shop not that long ago, talking about this and that. He ended up staying for a bit to watch me carve. It didn’t take very long before I could tell he was agitated about something. Finally, in a low conspiratorial tone he said, ‘you know you can get a robot to do that right?’
Maybe… I’m not so sure. The digitally carved work I’ve seen actually looks pretty limited – no under cuts, no incised lines to flute cuts, no thin parts, and certainly no way to improvise on the fly. Much of it has a lumpy, yet regimented quality (which is as odd as it sounds) when the pieces are un-sanded. And when they are sanded they look like bars of soap that have been left in the shower for a month. I’m not saying that the technology out there won’t catch up to me sooner or later, but for now, it’s not even that close.
What struck me about this visitor mentioning the robot thing wasn’t his lack of sophistication about the technology though - it was more that there was a clear desire to help me overcome the sheer inefficiency, or even drudgery, of what I was doing. This realization got me thinking. There have been lots of people who have asked me how long a particular piece took to make, and a lot of the time I found the question to be far from interesting. But now I realized that what they were really asking had less to do with how, and more to do with why. My studio visitor, conjuring his non-existent technological short cut, was in essence asking much the same thing.
Why, as opposed to how long, is a perfectly fair question of course. There is a deeply held aversion towards needless labor that’s probably old as humanity itself, and if anything, that aversion has only increased in our automated present. With that in mind, it seems clear that a very large part of what I’m doing has to do with labor itself, and that inefficiency and drudgery are both intrinsic to the conceptual starting point of the work. This is in response to the contemporary world, which has put so much value on exactly the opposite approach, by prizing efficiency over pretty much everything else. That in turn has had the unfortunate consequence of making things like beauty and durability sound like unreasonable extras. My work posits the idea that they should be let back in. And as odd as it sounds to most contemporary ears, inefficiency and drudgery are an excellent way to accomplish that. Inefficiency, for example, ambushes rote repetition in favor of surprises, and improvisation. And drudgery makes clear that spectacular results don’t happen by stringing together spectacular moments – the lows exist there right along side the highs.
My interior reverie didn’t end there though. The other thought that occurred to me was to consider a world in which the carving I had just made could in fact be carved by a robot. Would that be a win for humanity? And what exactly is our relationship to technology in the first place? At what point do our lives become so distant from the world via technology, that it actually makes us worse off, rather than better?
It’s not exactly a new thing to think about. People have been asking that question since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The Luddites became famous as the machine breakers in the early 1800’s – destroying the mechanized looms that they felt were taking away their livelihoods. William Morris followed that in the 1860’s, when he starting the arts and crafts movement, based on a his very critical assessment of the industrial revolution. And so began, in fits and starts, a long line of proto hippies, which progressed until the actual hippies showed up, in the 1960’s. Now we have all the locavores, and slow food enthusiasts, the slow fashion movement, the small house movement, and the Etsy crafters, among a whole lot else.
There have been doubters about technological progress from the beginning, despite the fact that they tended to be the minority, and despite the fact that they tended to be viewed as a little nuts. Which is the way a lot of movements start, if you think about it. Suffragettes, or civil rights advocates, or feminists, or environmentalists, all seemed out of step, until the day came when they didn’t. Whether we are to that point with technology yet, as always, is an open question.
What is pretty clear though, is that spinning a dystopian bummer about the evils of our current technological moment, with all of our gadgetry, and fractured attention spans, would be an easy thing to do. But I’m not going to do it. Because at this point, new technology has to play a role in un-fucking up a lot of what our old (and current) technological fuck-ups have wrought. Food production, clean energy, clean water, environmental issues, medical breakthroughs, transportation, among a whole lot else, need to be solved in order for billions of us to avoid the catastrophe we certainly face. We are too far down that path to change it now.
What I’m doing by laboriously bashing on blocks of wood certainly talks about technology by way of its absence, but in my opinion that strategy isn’t a clear condemnation of it, far less a plea for us to return to caves. It’s an acknowledgement that a physical relationship with the world is still absolutely essential, and so too is the human agency required to negotiate it. That frequently overlooked fact means that we will have to find a sustainable relationship with more than just what’s left of the natural world, we will also have to find a sustainable relationship with our technology. So far, we aren’t close to doing either.
Understand that my own work depends heavily on technology – I’m not carving large blocks of wood with my fingernails. True, my process requires no screens to peer into, and no set of digital instructions to program, but the technology involved in making what I make is still high nonetheless. Metallurgy, tool design, and even lighting and dust collection are all things that have relentlessly been improved on over many centuries, and I couldn’t do what I do without them. At the same time, I also couldn’t do what I do without understanding that the tools I use, powered or not, aren’t magic – they won’t make things appear without my hands knowing what to do. The short cut that tools represent is misinterpreted if we conflate ‘fast’ with ‘good’ and ‘fastest’ with ‘best’. We have plenty of evidence all around us that shows the unfortunate outcome of thinking that way.
Not that I’m mad at efficiency, as a goal. I’m mad at efficiency replacing awesome as a goal. There is no question that technology has been really successful at shortening the distance between wanting something and getting it, but maybe a bit counter intuitively, that often puts awesome further out of reach. And it does so in a couple of unfortunate ways: the first is to convince us, quite logically, that taking on long term, challenging tasks is for suckers. And the second is to cut us off from how the basics of our lives come to exist. By now, we are hazy on how our food arrives in the grocery store, how our shelters are made, how our clothes are stitched, our phones assembled, because all of it just seems to appear like magic. What this means is that not only have we limited our ability to intersect with systems we don’t understand, we have also limited our desire to try. For people who face a lot of problems, that’s not a good place to start.
Making things posits another approach to this particular predicament, by trading away drift and paralysis for agency and action. It connects our own abilities, physical as well as mental, to our own ambition. It makes clear that acquiring a high level of agency means acquiring a high level of ability. And gaining agency over something is to unravel the power dynamic of the contemporary world, which is set up on the premise that if we willingly jettison a portion of our initiative, knowledge and power, then we will get our needs to met by a group of invisible others (inevitably browner, poorer, and far away) in return.
If the work starts with the idea that actions are freighted not only with political consequences, but also form a very reliable portrait of one’s values, then it’s clear that actions, far more than words, reveal us. So what actions do we choose? Carving might seem like an obscure outlier as far as actions go, but it’s actually deeply embedded into the human experience. In fact, it pre-dates the appearance of Homosapiens, by a lot. Our proto-human ancestors, Australopithecines, started carving at least two million years ago, and probably closer to three. For that reason, tool use is now thought to have inspired our brains to expand and adapt to our hands, rather than the other way around. Pretty much every culture, in every era, figured out how to carve. That means most of us relate to carving as an activity without relating it to a specific context, unlike performance art say, or painting. Chances are good that you saw something that was carved today – maybe in a church, a park, a public square, a cemetery, or maybe on a fire place mantel, a piece of furniture, on a building, or maybe even in a museum or gallery. All of this adds up to carving being a very good vehicle to demonstrate a tangible interaction with the world, via a very familiar method, in a very familiar material.
And a sidebar here about making: what I’m talking about is the opposite of romantic amateurism understand, where a gauzy nostalgia, and a studied lack of ability can often end up as art – maybe only end up as art – because what else could such a thing be? No other sphere but art would accept making something poorly as a premise. And that ends up being a problem, because if there is a formula for making something look like art, then plenty of us will see that as enough. If there is a formula for eliminating a laborious search for art, then we won’t look as hard.
What I’m talking about instead is pretty much in the opposite direction to that, by working towards gaining knowledge, skill, and competence - clear thinking meeting clear ability, and using both to push each other forward. That requires discipline, following through on what you start, and doing something with love. Oh - and making it plain that love is work. Sound like a bumper sticker? Yeah, well that’s fine. The results of this particular approach may or may not be art, or contemporary art, or craft, or any hybrid thereof. I’ll leave it to others to name it. All I can do is persist in making sure that the work reflects me, that it reflects my values, my interests, and my concerns. If it does that, then I’ll name it successful.
That word concern really taps in to the last part about why I’m spending so much time laboriously making stuff. I’m concerned about responding to the world in some tangible way. The opposite of that of course is no response, no engagement. Which, for the nitpickers out there, might form a response of its own. But I’m not interested in that kind of apathy. To me, it’s as if I can hear the world in a low humming voice ask me if I have truly paid attention to it, truly seen it, heard it and felt it. (Or is that voice Bruce Nauman?) The work I do is trying to say yes to that, as respectfully as I can.
Thinking that way has made me realize that the reason I’m doing this is not because of all the contemporary art I saw as a kid – suffice to say that there wasn’t any in Anchorage Alaska, where I grew up. No, the reason I’m an artist is because I saw and experienced plenty of other things that most of the time didn’t call themselves art, but inspired me nonetheless. Things like native carvings, frontier architecture, airplanes, hippy crafts, the Northern Lights, and opera. (Yes, I said opera. I worked in the set shop for the small opera company in Anchorage). I was a voracious reader as well, and through the words of others, I saw views of the world that where starkly different than my own. This spectrum of stuff had a cumulative effect on me that can only be described as wonder.
The curious thing about wonder, as opposed to awe, or admiration, is that it not only draws one in, it also encourages participation at the same time. It’s the music that inspires the dance. Which is why the grab bag of stuff I was looking at seemed to call out for a response from me. It just didn’t seem crazy to think that I too had something to add to all I had seen and experienced, and that my participation might even be necessary. Wonder has that power.
Back in my studio, my visitor stood to leave, and my thought train came to a screeching halt. I hadn’t really answered him about the robot, probably because it would have caused more confusion than clarity. But if he were here right now, like you are, I would tell him that I’m content to participate in the way that I already am - with inefficiency and love, and drudgery and respect. I’ll skip the robot… but thanks for the tip.
“We do not know how art began anymore than we know how language started. If we
take art to mean such activities as building temples and houses, making pictures and
sculptures, or weaving patterns, there are no people in all the world without art. If
on the other hand, we mean by art some kind of beautiful luxury, something to enjoy
in museums and exhibitions or something special to use as a precious decoration in
the best parlour, we must realize that this use of the word is a very recent
development and that many of the greatest builders, painters and sculptors of the
past never dreamed of it.” - E.H. Gombrich
For thousands of years, art making in a western context was a trade - masters taught
apprentices how to make objects. Now it’s a field for academics. Professors teach
students how to conduct research. It used to be blue-collar, now it’s mostly white
This all happened starting around the 1860’s, as two dueling styles, Romanticism
and then Realism, were slowly taken over by Impressionism. That began the
cavalcade of ‘isms’ that defined modernism, and modernism is what really changed
art from a trade devoted to decoration, into a far more intellectual pursuit, devoted
Sure artists still make stuff. Lots and lots of stuff as a matter of fact, which is curious,
given the fact that doing so at all is unnecessary. But the way they do it, and whom
they do it for, is profoundly influenced by Art’s new academic identity. I’ll get to the
nuts and bolts of that in a minute. But for now it’s important to understand that
artists are no longer mere decorators; they are also philosophers, and sociologists,
and anthropologists, and psychologists, and critics. Most of them have taken
advantage of this new and tremendous opportunity to invest their art with
socio/political and psychological layers that wouldn’t have been possible a mere
That’s made it an incredible time to be an artist. Freeing up the role of art freed up
the idea of what defined art in the first place. This inspired a mad rush to strip bare
the roots of art itself, and all the aforementioned Isms quickly followed. After
Impressionism came cubism, fauvism, futurism, surrealism, minimalism, de stijl,
dada, expressionism, color field, abstract expressionism, op art, pop art, installation,
earthworks, social practice, and so on. The irony is that the whole time we thought
we were out there looking for the cutting edge of art, what we were really doing was
finding the cutting edge of ways to contain art. All of the above list, (and then some)
simply amounted to formal approaches designed to invite art in. For that reason, it’s
fair to say that modernism concerned itself with a very rigorous exploration of form,
not necessarily content, and what it proved after more than a century of dedicated
effort, is that the form doesn’t really matter much. Sometime around the early
1970’s, we realized that any single Ism we came up with was probably as good as
anything else, which essentially meant that art could land anywhere, at any time,
beckoned by anyone.
This is where things get very interesting. If we accept that anything is art if an artist
says it is (the famous description coined by the artist and writer Donald Judd), then
making art doesn’t seem all that special. How could it be if it’s anything you want for
chissakes? Of course, you don’t have to agree with that theory - maybe art still is
something specific. But if it is, then by default you are (still) a modernist. That’s
because if art is something in particular, and not just anything, then doing that thing
becomes important. Not doing it means that you’re not making art after all. As Piet
Mondrian said, (certainly a poster child for modernism) “true art like true life takes
a single road.”
Most of us by now would reflexively disagree with a sentiment like that, and defend
the right for artists to do whatever they want. No single road for us! But being able to
follow any conceivable path instead of just the one has some pretty interesting
implications. And the main one is this: if art has no real definable characteristics
anymore, then it’s possible to see art as potentially anything. If it’s possible to see it
as anything, then it’s possible to see it as everything. This for all intents and
purposes eliminates art as a definable category. And while there is a certain poetic
vastness to that, akin to the ‘we are all stardust’ thing, the big picture view
eliminates our ability to take it in, making it unknowable in any functional sense. Which makes art essentially meaningless, right?
Wrong! While it may be true that art is a thing that resists definition, we also know
that the definition that modernists were looking for was a formal one. Imagine a
cup, and in that cup is a small amount of water. The design of this potential cup is
virtually limitless - almost any shape, size, or color would do the job well enough - it
just has to hold a bit of water after all. But what happens if the cup doesn’t hold
water, due to some truly adventurous design tinkering? In that case, what happens
is that the water just splashes to the ground and goes somewhere else. So too with
art. Dispensing with the different forms to contain it – the cup in this analogy –
doesn’t mean that we have dispensed with art itself. Making the cup go away doesn’t
make art go away. What it does mean is that the conversation has profoundly
shifted, away from what the cup might look like, to where to find the water.
Not that long ago I realized I was asking myself one simple question every time I pondered the contents of a museum or gallery: is it art, or is it artworld?
Art is famously hard to define of course. Artworld on the other hand is surprisingly easy - that’s because artworld has become a genre, just like craft is a genre, and pop-surrealism is a genre, and public art is a genre, and burning man is a genre, and vernacular art is a genre, and glass art is a genre, and so on. To understand artworld, the genre, all that is required is to go to artworld, the place (i.e. any contemporary art museum, gallery, or art fair), and look around.
The first thing to notice upon entering artworld is the sheer amount of stuff, the staggering variety… how in the world could any of it be lumped together? Simple: artworld stresses the importance of the idea over the object, and shies away from the technical skills found in other genres. The caveat to that is artworld allows unlimited fabrication razzle-dazzle from paid assistants, as long as the artists themselves retain a sort of white-collar managerial role. But for the most part, pushing the idea forward, and removing (or disabling) the hand, has really come to define artworld’s signature style. That’s why it’s nutty to imagine re-staging any of its marquee shows at the Renwick say, or the Cooper Hewitt, or the Mint, or installing them bit-by-bit as public art. The contours of artworld reveal themselves as soon as one steps outside of it.
It should be noted here that artworld is fantastic, a lot of the time, and it’s just filled to the brim with talented and fun people. So the real question is why does the whole genre thing even matter? To go a step further, genres are not only fun, they actually serve a function – innovation and insight are direct outcomes of sinking into any field deeply. The result of that is really the story of civilization itself. Why shouldn’t that same model apply to artworld?
It should. And it does. And by god we have innovated the shit out of artworld. This is no screed denouncing that, or denouncing genres in general. What I’m trying to do instead is explain why art isn’t one, and why that matters.
Imagine that there is a station on the radio called The Music World. It’s at the end of the dial, past the jazz station, and the hip-hop station, and the reggae station, the oldies station, the rock station, the metal station, and soul station, and country station, and so on. Music World is great. It’s definitely your favorite. But regardless of your feelings about the rest of what’s playing, the other stations play music too. Hopefully the analogy that I’m making here isn’t too terribly subtle: artworld might have the word art right in the title, but it sets itself up for a particularly unreasonable set of expectations if we imagine it to be the only place where art lives - much less the place where importance lives, or relevance, or meaning – because it’s simply the place where artworld lives. Art and artworld aren’t the same thing.
Before I get much further, I should describe how art, the word, got emptied of any specific meaning. If you don’t think so, then just ask any artworld denizen to define it quickly, and watch the tongue-tying begin. It’s necessary to explain how that happened, because despite what I’ve just said above, a lot of people still think of art as exclusive to museums and galleries - which is to say, art and artworld actually are the same thing. But starting about 150 years ago, art really dedicated itself to discovering it’s own borders, and by the time the dust cleared, it turned out that there were no borders – no hurdles, no barriers, no walls. And in that great expanse, the more we looked for art, the more we found.
The first real move towards figuring that out was impressionism, followed quickly by post-impressionism, then fauvism, cubism, expressionism, De Stijl, and so on and so on, at an increasingly dizzying pace. Modernism is described as the era of the Isms, and really it’s impossible to know how many came along during that time, but certainly it was in the hundreds. The upshot of all of this exploration was the realization sometime in the 1980’s that pretty much all avenues had been explored, and the only thing left to do was to make work pointing that out. The result of that realization gave us the last Ism in a long line of them: postmodernism. By that time, many of the proceeding things, from as far back as dada, up through earthworks, social practice, and a whole lot else, had moved things way beyond a particular venue, medium, or discipline. The final kicker in the whole search for borders thing was to realize that all the new avenues to be discovered in the future wouldn’t really have to convince anyone that they were art, like the old one’s had to. In other words, the battles that abstract painters waged, or minimalists, or performance artists, or even photographers, just to be considered art, would no longer be necessary. That's because art that challenges whether or not it's even art, as a conceptual approach, has by now become orthodoxy. You want to be a cook at your opening? That’s great. Do you just want to hire actors to greet gallery goers at the door? Excellent! How about making the lights turning on and off for your museum show? Yes please! Let’s give that one the Turner Prize. (Those are three of my favorite artists btw). The famous quote by Donald Judd, uttered in the early 70’s, about how art is whatever an artist says it is, has come true in practice: art has not only literally left the building, (those being museums and galleries), but it has left the studio as well. It re-appears there on occasion of course - art comes and goes as it pleases, free of any specific address - but wherever it goes, it’s only a visitor, not a permanent resident of anywhere.
Meanwhile, possibly because of some kind of autosuggestion built in to the name, art and artworld have gotten hopelessly tangled. People have tried to pin art on the artworld alone, while at the same time denying or diminishing art as a part of other genres. Here is the philosopher George Dickie, outlining what he calls the ‘Institutional Theory’ of art: “The primary function of the Artworld is continually to define, validate, maintain, and reproduce the cultural category of art, and to produce the consent of the entire society in the legitimacy of the artworld's authority to do so. The Artworld is distributed through a network of institutions (schools, museums, galleries, commercial market systems, and professions), all of which participate in constructing a global, international system or network of networks for Art. The Artworld is thus part of our system of professions, and many parts of the artworld network are now highly professionalized and careerist.”
In Dickie’s definition, art is a thing that springs directly, and solely, from the institution of the art world. This line of thinking defines what I think of as the Invisible Membrane Theory, where art exists only in certain places and contexts. Here’s George Dickie again; “What makes something an artwork is invisible: there's no "there there" outside a position in the artworld network. What makes something an artwork is not an observable property in an artwork itself. The work is a node in a network of forces without which it would be unrecognizable-- literally invisible.”
But the Invisible Membrane Theory has some very obvious problems. For starters, any complete definition of art essentially attempts to make an open ended concept, like art, which is based on the idea of endless revision, into a closed system, where it exists only when it satisfies certain conditions. To close the system is to fundamentally cripple the idea of endless, which means that any revision that happens must do so within the borders of a genre.
But the second thorny problem with the invisible membrane theory is that it’s like saying that beauty only exists within the fashion world, or that intelligence only exists within academia - that these concepts become genre specific. ‘Beauty’ and ‘Intelligence’ are both pretty squirrely concepts to nail down of course, but very few of us would see them as the exclusive property of a specific place or people.
And the same goes for art. In fact, it’s pretty clear that the stuff of art is everywhere - if it wasn’t, than it would be meaningless to encounter it in a museum. It’s the day-to-day experience of living our lives that makes art a possibility, and not the other way around. Before we knew what art was, we knew what living in the world was. That means that art – or the building blocks of it – are everywhere.
But the same can’t be said for artworld. That became clear to me in school, where I was discouraged from pursuing certain things (furniture, utilitarian objects, craft), discouraged from using certain words (illustrative, narrative, vernacular, traditional, regional, artisanal), and even discouraged from living in certain places (anywhere outside of New York, Los Angeles, London, or Berlin). At the very same time, ironically, I was told how art was a place free of borders, or even rules. That story isn’t exactly wrong – art probably is free of all that - but artworld isn’t. It’s pretty clear which one of the two I was being taught.
Not like I blame school for that. Artworld is actually teachable, like any genre is, while art, (that indefinable thing that floats around indiscriminately), not so much. But the schism between the two really begins when school tries to make them one and the same. The irony is that academically approaching art is like academically approaching free jazz say, or punk rock – good in theory, but rooted in paradox. As soon as there is a pedagogy designed to teach freedom and flexibility, the cognitive dissonance begins. Meanwhile other genres, like craft, or furniture, or glass, already know this, and are content to dispense technical information as part of their training, without calling the results art. Art school on the other hand sees their goal as teaching art, full stop, rather than what it actually is, (or should I say usually is) – artworld.
The other thing that school doesn’t tell you is that artworld exists primarily as a high end, luxury brand for the wealthy. Again, there isn’t anything inherently bad about that; it’s at least logically conceivable that meaning is available for money, and that the most meaning is available for the most money. It’s the conceit of artworld that it can make those distinctions. But it’s illogical to conceive of a situation where the only way to experience meaning is to buy it, because those of us who don’t collect art still manage to have meaningful lives. That means that despite artworld’s heroic effort to commodify art, (and godspeed to you artworld), its success at doing so has been dubious at best. What it’s been hands down brilliant at is finding new exciting versions of artworld. But just like the idea of buying anything intangible, like love, or virtue, or truth, the buying of art is more aspirational then proven - who knows what the hell art is?
That’s how we have arrived at a point in time when using the word art actually confuses things rather than clarifies. If art can be anything, anywhere, via anyone, then it really has no functional meaning. The solution that artworld has come up with to deal with this state of affairs is to install a complex series of gatekeepers, tasked with winnowing out the art from the non-art. Or should I say the artworld from the non-artworld? Meanwhile, as the specialization of artworld increases, due to the influx of a lot of non-artist, academically minded arbiters, the knowledge required to participate in the conversation also increases. But despite that sophisticated chatter, there still is no reliable litmus test for what art is, so that effectively means doubling down on the artworld genre. What else is there really to decide on?
In the 1970’s, the Artist Joseph Beuys described something that he called ‘Social Sculpture’. He emphasized how politics and economics required a humanizing force to make them bearable, and that humanizing force was art. In his view, participating in culture was enough to qualify anyone as being an artist – artistry was required for the greater good of society. His famous sound bite ‘Everyone is an artist’ comes out of identifying this universal need.
The whole thing is a very compelling argument, though Beuys chose to retain the word art – which ironically, he himself did so much to make meaningless. So let’s start over, with a new word: is it culture, or is it artworld? It should be implicit by now that cultural relevance is not bestowed simply because of allegiance to a genre – which is why a movie, a video game, a novel, a You Tube video, or an art show at the Tate Modern might have cultural relevance, but then again, might not. The curious corollary to this is that even if they turn out to not be culturally relevant, they could still be perfectly acceptable examples of artworld. Which is where we run into problems.
Making perfectly acceptable artworld, for an artworld-centric audience, is to really take advantage of the fact that every genre I’ve mentioned is more defined than ever. In fact, our era could really be described as the era of the developed niche, the rabbit hole, the echo chamber. We can disappear into our instagram, our chat rooms, our twitter feed, our blogs. And before you blame it on the internet, a brief look at history will confirm that the postmodern arc we were already on really was sending it in that direction anyway - the internet just turbocharged it.
Postmodernism is in politics, it’s in art, it’s even in things like science, and sports, and television. Postmodernism was the method by which we fractured narrative down to smaller and smaller bits, deconstructed as it were, and in so doing we created many different stories, rather than just one.
That was a good thing. The arrival of postmodern thought was logical, and necessary. Postmodernism ultimately allowed a lot of voices that weren’t being heard, to have their say, even if it was only in a muted form a lot of the time. Which is why there is still a need today to cast light on dominant forms of power in order to challenge them.
But like anything at all human-related, there were unintended consequences as well.
Different stories means different allegiances. It was once famously said by Daniel Patrick Moynihan that we are all entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. Now, in the postmodern era, we are finally entitled to our own facts.
Rather than having one story that we agree or disagree with, there are many, a cacophony. Choosing sides in a debate today, on any subject, means retreating into our various bubbles, with facts and studies quoted to support whatever side we want. But how can that be possible if we soberly assess the data in front of us? Easy. A life lived under a constant stream of advertising has made all of us extremely wary of ‘facts’ and ‘studies’. Couple that learned wariness, with a primary human impulse towards emotionally spinning information, and the motivated reasoning begins.
Motivated reasoning is a clinical term by the way - psychologists have studied this phenomenon for years. Motivated reasoning is emotion enabled by data, usually parsed, and often flat out wrong. It’s reasoning not designed to uncover the light, wherever the light might be. It’s reason designed to generate it’s own, and shine it on what we want to see. Voila! The result is a world that makes sense to us emotionally, even if it doesn’t remotely add up intellectually, or factually. And that sets the tone for a postmodern world – the one filled with conspiracy theories, endless political debate that goes nowhere, incredible passions, and equally numbing apathy.
It’s not surprising that a lot of us have discovered how comfortable it is to stay deeply ensconced in our particular niche. Disappearing up our collective asses is more available to us now than it’s ever been - our warm, safe, comfortable asses. And that’s about as useful as it sounds.
We have cultural problems that need to be addressed that require talking to each other. Not just a few of us, but all of us – our problems span the globe, they span races and creeds and economic strata, and they are devilishly complex. Talking through all these things amounts to more than a political imperative at this point (though our racial dysfunction alone should make that clear), and more than an economic one as well (though billions of us live in squalor), it’s a species survival imperative. Our emergencies are real, and multiplying, even as we retreat from them.
Beuys was basically right – the peculiar super power of culture is that it is able to connect pretty much everybody. We reject that power when we are content to make stuff look like art, and sell it at art fairs - winning at artworld doesn’t equal cultural relevance. Beuys himself was a very committed teacher, and found that to be one of the most important aspects of what he did. He also made stuff for artfairs, ‘natch, because that’s no crime. But he had the presence of mind to understand the difference.
So the real question becomes, how do we learn to poke our heads up from our developed niches/genres every now and then, and maybe even learn to travel freely between them? What is the mechanism for going beyond what we already know and agree with? How do we learn to talk to each other, and maybe more importantly, to listen? How do we learn to be visitors, like art is?
When people first see my work, a good portion of them ask me one simple question: how long did that take? To which there is a simple answer: I have no idea.
The reaction to this, most of the time, is poor. I’ve seen confusion, and even suspicion cloud people’s faces. Gears churn, judgements are rendered. Why doesn’t he pay attention, set a timer, do some basic book keeping here? But the truth is, my total disregard for time keeping is actually worse than it appears: I don’t ever bother to date anything I’ve done, (or sign anything for that matter), so I don’t even know when I started a particular piece, much less the specific hourly total it took to finish it. Clearly, the time spent is a detail I just don’t think about. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of a detail that matters less.
On the other hand, I sure can think of one that matters a whole lot more: total awesomeness. But how long does awesome take? Yeah, I don’t know either. What I do know is that the total time spent is moot when all that matters is the end product – I’m sure as hell not getting paid by the hour.
If we can all agree that awesome takes awhile, (assuming that it’s achieved at all) then a better question might be, why strive for such a lofty goal in the first place? Answering that means first acknowledging that there are plenty of other things for people to look at besides my sculptures. Like things from the Renaissance for example. Or Egyptian ruins, or Gothic cathedrals, or Mayan pyramids, and so on and so on. To expect people to look at what I’ve done for any length of time, much less deeply or contemplatively, a pretty high bar has to be cleared. With that in mind, awesome doesn’t seem crazy, it just seems reasonable.
Seen from that wide angle view, the onus is on me to get really really good at what I do. And it goes without saying: having an onus on you is pretty motivating.
So pretty early on in my career I spent a lot of time getting better at making things, settling in to a role as a perpetual student, taking the discipline of it seriously. And as I did so, things took a surprising turn: getting better increased my technical skills, true enough, but more importantly, I gained a kind of fluidity with my creative thinking, as well as increased confidence in trying new and dificult things. In other words, working with my hands had a mental, and emotional pay off, not just a technical one.
And I noticed something else: merging ability, confidence and creativity sets in motion a proccess that begets something I’d never really understood before - ownership. Notice I didn’t say mastery, which is perhaps a synonym, because mastery sounds like a rank, and I’m not trying to earn a black belt at this. Ownership is my preferred discription, which to me simply means the co-mingling of knowledge and ability. The result is alchemical. The better I get, the greater the ownership I have. The greater the ownership I have, the greater the agency.
Ownership, knowledge, ability, agency…the jargon mounts. But really all of it leads to that last one: agency. Agency relates to options, choices, avenues…my dictionary defines it as “Active force; action; power. That by which something is done…” Gaining agency therefore operates in a different way than buying something, which is really the more orthodox path to ownership. Buying, (usually with the swipe of a card), gives said swiper the right to use, and then store, that something in perpetuity. Ownership, as I’m defining it via agency, is more about expanding on one’s powers, rather than simply paying a usage fee.
At this point I should interject that I understand the sheer utility of paying for stuff – buying things is great. Thank you capitalism! (Though I prefer the part before the oppressive plutocracy takes hold.) But the convenience of the one method doesn’t erase the truth of the other.
Expanding on one’s powers, or even having any power at all, is an essential human need. That’s how money takes on such a mystical aura – most of the time money is the replacement part for power – we usually see it as one and the same in fact. It is certainly hard to argue that buying other people’s knowledge and labor is an easy and addictive short cut to knowing much of anything at all. On the other hand, one could argue (and I would), that true poverty is ignorance, and no matter how much money you have, you can’t pay cash for knowledge. That’s why it’s completely possible to be rich, and ignorant, and powerless.
Buying information is possible of course. So is downloading it for free on the Internets. But I now understand that there is an important distinction between knowledge and information - information might spark knowledge, but then again it might not - it’s neutral, inert. Here’s an example: Imagine a bunch of sticks lying on the ground - An architect draws up plans to build a house with them. The plans are information. Knowledge is the thing needed to actually build the house, (or to artfully conceive the design, and draw up the plans for that matter). Knowledge can be gleaned from the assembly process, if those involved actually follow through, (because it’s a lot easier to not follow through on plans after all) and if those involved pay attention. The really compelling point out of all this is that knowledge comes out of actions, not just words, and results in a physical artifact. After awhile, if a bunch of houses get built, and all the attendant hassles and challenges are overcome, that now familiar alchemical process of merging ability, confidence, and creativity is set in motion to form… well like I said above, to me it equals ownership.
We live in a time when we are removed from the world, physically, and creatively. The cycle of buying things, as opposed to knowing how to do things, means that we are more and more dependent on the ability of others for the necessities of our lives. Our creative interaction withers as a result, because we can’t tinker with systems we don’t understand. I like the idea of understanding a system, of really being on the inside of something. Knowing something, really knowing it, in any sphere (it sure doesn’t have to be carving), becomes a transferable skill - it might not mean that you can become an expert at everything, but it does mean that you can confidently attempt pretty much anything.
So how long did it take? No idea. I’m still working on it.
It wasn’t that long ago that I ran across an image of something made by Marcel Duchamp that I was completely unfamiliar with: a chess set. He had made it in 1918, during a nine-month sojourn in Buenos Aires, Argentina. That I was unfamiliar with it surprised me; I was pretty sure I’d seen every single thing he’d ever made.
Not like that’s a real feat of scholarship by the way. His output, compared to pretty much any other artist out there, could charitably be described as sporadic, and sparse. It meant that when I did actually see his chess set, designed and made by his own hand, it felt like finding something in King Tut’s tomb that had been overlooked somehow; a forgotten artifact in one of the most picked over spots in the world.
A couple of things struck me about it immediately: the first was that he was a woodworker, like me. This was such an improbable realization I laughed out loud. The image I saw in my head of Duchamp surrounded by sawdust, with cuts and calluses on his hands, seemed to upend everything I thought I knew about him. True, he probably had help with it, and true, most of the pieces looked like they were turned on a lathe, but the knights and the rooks were definitely carved, something that Duchamp was known to do in his past. The second thing though was that it was free of any kind of oppositional posturing, which is a quality that permeates virtually all of his art. The feeling I got from it instead was one of comfort, utility, and beauty, three words that I would have a hard time attaching to anything else he ever did.
It could be said, of course, that he wasn’t trying to make art with the chess set, which is why it reads so differently. But it could also be said that he didn’t really want anything he ever made to look like art - he bridled constantly at what he considered traditional art making, without ever being able to fully free himself of it. That’s because, while he might have made non-art instead of art, the negation of something is only possible if the original something exists clearly in the mind of the negator. But all of that gamesmanship (no pun intended) falls away with his handsome, carved wooden chess set, free of any kind of obfuscation, humor, or oppositional critique. It’s just…a chess set.
Something nagged at me about it though - there seemed to be a set of contradictions bundled up in there that begged to be untangled. It had always struck me as ironic that Duchamp was (and is) exhibit A when it comes to defining iconoclastic, rule-breaking artists, yet at the same time, he was slavishly devoted to a game whose rules he happily accepted, played on a mere 64 squares. The irony of that extends even further with this chess set, because it intersects with aesthetic decision-making, and actual hand-making for that matter– the stuff of traditional art. It makes clear that he had a certain posture in the art world, a certain stylistic and conceptual starting point, that simply fell away as soon as he was outside of it.
That realization quickly lead to another: if one has separate aesthetics for art and for life, then how do you make art about life? To which the answer might be – you don’t. As Duchamp himself once said: “There are two kinds of artists: the artist who deals with society; and the other artist, the completely freelance artist, who has nothing to do with it – no bonds.” It’s pretty clear which one he saw in himself. And while Duchamp was original in most things art related, his no-bonds thing was very much a product of his time. The image most of us have of the unshackled, rule-breaking bohemian artist is very much a modernist invention, and defines how we view artists even now. It’s such a cliché that we forget why it was so important for artists to be unshackled in the first place. And it was because freedom was important.
Pushing the boundaries of art defined progress, because artists saw the freedom of art as analogous to human freedom in general, and they very consciously saw themselves as being the ones tasked with enlarging its sphere. As Gordon Matta-Clark said in one of his letters: “The value of art as it services and sometimes flourishes in our system is so closely related to occidental beliefs in individual rights of free expression that one can accurately speak of the state of art as a measure of the state of freedom in our society”. The idea of artists getting into the weeds about feelings and desires, or human foibles, or just making something beautiful, wasn’t nearly as grand a vision as enlarging the human capacity to be free. Art was a noble struggle. For that reason, art wasn’t about showing life, as much as it was about being life - this the crux of the work by Jackson Pollock for example, or Mark Rothko, two artists whose work attempted a spiritual realism, while being mislabeled abstract expressionism. And while they and others like them might seem laughably romantic to us now, viewed through our suspicious postmodern haze, understanding this fundamental impulse during the modernist era is key.
Into this project stepped Duchamp. Or should I say, he stepped in for a minute, and then he stepped back out. His patience with the art world could at best be described as limited, which explains why he was in Buenos Aires in the first place; he was trying like hell to run away from it. That also explains why he was in New York, (the place he left to get to Buenos Aires) he was trying like hell to get out of Paris. Here he is sharing some of his observations about the art world to his friend Katherine Dreier: “The more I live among artists, the more I am convinced that they are fakes from the minute they get to be successful in the smallest way. This means also that all the dogs around artists are crooks. If you see the combination fakes and crooks how have you been able to keep some kind of faith (and in what?) Don’t name a few exceptions to justify a milder opinion about the whole “art game.” In the end, a painting is declared good only if it is worth “so much.” It may even be accepted by the “holy” museums. So much for posterity.” And here he is, writing to his friend Alfred Stieglitz, who asked him if a photograph can have the significance of a “Work Of Art”: “You know exactly how I feel about photography, I would like to see it make people despise painting until something else will make photography unbearable.” And here is one more, in a letter to his sometimes-patron Jacques Doucet: “ All expositions of painting or sculpture make me ill.” And so on.
He may have been running away from art, but in Buenos Aires he found something he could run towards: chess. He had always liked the game, but his time in Buenos Aires made him into what he later described as a ‘Chess Maniac’. He joined a chess club, he hired a coach, he played so often, and for so long, that his girl friend left him. He made the aforementioned killer chess set. And he basically embarked on a new career.
When he came back, he said in a letter to his good friend Man Ray, “My ambition is to become a professional chess player”, which he did. At this point it’s important to note that those who think Duchamp’s incessant chess playing was some kind of performance piece, and that he was really an artist the whole time, tend to ignore not only his words, (lots and lots of words), but his actions. As Calvin Tompkins notes in his biography on Duchamp, “For about 15 years, from 1918 to 1933, Duchamp’s activities had very little to do with art.” but everything to do with chess. In time he achieved his goal and became a touring professional, he wrote a book about chess endings, (woah) and even represented France in the Chess Olympiad. Here he is describing the difference between artists and chess players: “From my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” Even when he wasn’t really in the art world, he still took the time to flog artists now and again.
For decades afterwards, it’s difficult not to get the sense that Duchamp was a chess player first and foremost, who occasionally, on a strictly part time basis, and with very limited conviction, made art. That phase lasted until well into his sixties, when people like John Cage coaxed him back into the art world. Even then, as a new found fame was settling on him, he said: “Art is only one occupation among others. It’s not all my life, far from it.” To which he added this capper: “Art is a habit forming drug. That’s all it is for the artist, for the collector, for anybody connected with it. Art has absolutely no existence as veracity, as truth. People speak of it with great religious reverence, but I don’t see why it is to be so much revered. I’m afraid I’m agnostic when it comes to art. I don’t believe in it with all the mystical trimmings.” And so on and so on.
Spending a lot of time outside of the art world really allowed him to identify the invisible membrane that separates the art world, from the world world, and artists from regular civilians. He was able to see an insular aspect to the art world that simply did not occur to his peers, subsumed as they were within it, and dependent as they were upon it. His readymades in particular seem to demonstrate that anything within that membrane can plausibly be seen as art, while those same things seen outside of it, not so much. That’s how a urinal flipped on its back could be art – it was dependent on the context to make it so. The same could be said of a cheap postcard of the Mona Lisa, with a mustache and goatee hastily drawn on it. Inside the membrane, it’s a comment about authorship, appropriation, gender roles, and so on. The commentary and scholarship on that piece alone is vast. Yet outside of that membrane, it’s just visual detritus, graffiti, or a prank. And to Duchamp it actually was a prank of course; if the whole alchemical process of the art world seemed suspect, and worthy of his mistrust, well it was - in his era, and in ours.
There is an inherent irony to this observation of course. (The word just can’t be avoided with him). If art is a thing separated from life by context, and that separation seemed like it was worth pointing out, then he failed to notice that he was guilty of doing the same thing - that’s how a chess set and a readymade don’t operate in the same way. Not like Duchamp thought they should – he was into the no-bonds thing after all. But if art was about being life, and not simply showing it, then his chess set is a whole lot more convincing than a snow shovel, or a bottle rack – things he deliberately chose because he had no connection to them, aesthetically or otherwise.
Be that as it may, his shots across the bow of the art establishment, on those rare occasions when he actually made art, were exactly what it wanted, and exactly what it needed. Which is…ironic. And so is the idea that his very mistrust of the art world ended up setting the stage for his chief artistic contribution to it, which was to understand that art was a thing dependent on context rather than on aesthetic choices, much less on the vagaries of taste. The ability to understand that required having a clear view of the big picture, and seeing the big picture required distance. Duchamp did distance better than anybody.
Today, it’s very hard to resist accepting as gospel what Thierry De Duve calls the ‘Duchamp Syllogism’; that is, Duchamp is generally assumed to have said that if a urinal can be art, than anything can be art, and therefore, anyone can be an artist. Duchamp managed, in other words, to single handedly liberate art from any conceivably objective definition. That didn’t happen of course. First of all, it’s necessary to note that ‘Fountain’ wasn’t really seen by anyone until Duchamp’s retrospective in 1963. The original object was lost not long after it was created, 46 years beforehand, and had never been shown. Secondly, Duchamp wasn’t really positing artistic liberation, as De Duve further points out. He was more concerned with poking the eye of the Society Of Independent Artists. They were the group that held the show that ‘Fountain’ was submitted to, a group that Duchamp was also member of. They wanted to have a juried show based on the idea that everyone who entered it would have their work accepted. This was pure hypocrisy of course, as Duchamp made perfectly clear, by submitting something that was summarily rejected. But as we’ve seen, his concentration on critiquing art meant that art was the context that defined him - he was never fully free of it, despite repeated attempts.
While other artists in the 60’s may have garbled Duchamp’s message that anything could be art, the fact of the matter is that the membrane that separated art from life was finally breached for good, making the Duchamp Syllogism essentially true. That this happened at all was a lesson in how misreading historical precedent is every bit as effective a driver of change than actually understanding it. What people like Beuys, Kaprow, Judd, Warhol, Matta-clark (Duchamp’s godson), Smithson, Rauschenberg and Cage took from Duchamp may or may not have been what he intended, but it was definitely what they needed. Their subsequent efforts made Duchamp one of the 20th centuries most important artists, and prompted the walls separating art from life to all come tumbling down.
Today, we live in an environment that has made the idea of defining what art is, or who exactly artists are, essentially moot. There are not many people left who would say that there is a narrative structure that defines art, or a training regimen required to become an artist. (That would eliminate Duchamp by the way). So while we are generally able to agree that art is an environment free of limits, there seems to be latency in understanding what that actually means. What happens if you demand freedom and you actually get it?
The first thing to realize is that expecting artists to figure it out what happens next is to miss pretty much entirely what just happened. And what just happened (really over the last century or so), was an incredible effort designed to make the word ‘Art’ functionally meaningless. That in turn has meant that the people who describe themselves as ‘artists’ are essentially out of a job – who exactly are ‘artists’ without ‘art’, and what exactly do they do? At this point though, we are pinned on the horns of dilemma – there may be no more art as we formally understood it, but there is definitely a need to digest the experiences of our lives, and the need to share those experiences with others. We are beings who are aware that we are aware after all, able to contemplate the past and the future, along with the consequences of each. It turns out that the existential questions that awareness entails don’t go away even as we tinker with the semantics related to describing it. Which is why, as the dust clears, we become aware that art hasn’t completely disappeared; it just has gotten subsumed by something bigger – life.
In 1912, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote this about Duchamp: “ Perhaps it will be the task of an artist as detached from aesthetic preoccupations, and as intent on the energetic as Marcel Duchamp, to reconcile art and the people.” To which Duchamp himself responded later, “What a joke!” Forcing art and people to become friends seemed as silly to him then as it probably does to most of us now. If anything, we are more comfortable than ever with the idea that art is not suited for a general audience, a stance that Duchamp himself would have undoubtedly approved. In fact, within this vast new territory we find ourselves, it’s not surprising that a whole lot of people would prefer that the walls separating art and life were still there. Call it Basel Syndrome. Into this latency comes what I now think of as the Neo-New - a genre of activity that retains the words ‘art’ and ‘artist’, and casts both in the familiar roles of Modernist Freedom Fighter.
And yet, Appolinaire’s wish that art and the people reconcile in some ways sounds more prescient than goofy, mostly because that’s exactly what happened. Not like people in general are suddenly endorsing contemporary art right now – they aren’t. Contemporary art is a niche experience at best. But they are endorsing the need to digest the experiences of their lives through visual information, the same as they have done for what increasingly looks like millions of years. This end run around the established art world can be seen in the rise of things like the Pop Surrealist movement, glass art, the interest in websites like Etsy, Instagram, and basically the entire Internet. Feel free to scoff at the philistines who are responsible for this stuff (art people scoff the loudest), but visual culture has moved on, with or without artist’s approval, much less control.
That lack of control is in some ways the fulfillment of the modernist mission to morph art into life, though somehow that conclusion has the feel of an unintended consequence. The shock of what that actually looks like is probably analogous to what rich landowners felt like when they allowed everyone to vote. Modernism essentially allowed everyone to vote. Spurred on by Duchamp, and re-assessed, re-cast, and re considered by others, it knocked down every wall, hurdle, or barrier designed to limit what art could be. No limits means no edge, no edge means no more membrane separating art from life, and no more membrane means art dissipates like a puffy little cloud into a clear blue sky, falling as life-giving rain now and again when it’s needed. Part of a larger eco-system, rather than creating it’s own.
Today, we could see someone like Sam Maloof, the MacArthur award winning furniture maker, being an equally important figure in this conversation, as well as someone like the carver and craftsman Wharton Esherick. Neither of them was ever concerned with art as an end point. Here is a picture of a chess set Esherick made in the thirties:
The difference between Duchamp’s chess set and Esherick’s of course is that the rest of Esherick’s house looks like it, all of it designed and made by his own hand. The idea of having separate aesthetics for anything wouldn’t have occurred to him. And as for Maloof, his own 22-room house, also made by him, is now a museum. The way he lived his life is every bit as important as any piece of furniture he ever made.
These are people for whom life was the subject, and the artifact was art, rather than the other way around. In fact, maybe the word ‘artifact’ can be thought of as describing a welcome byproduct to something, almost by accident, and 'art’ is just shorthand for whatever that is. For example: if one wanted to facilitate thinking, and daydreaming, and reading, and having long conversations, it might be logical to make a chair. The artifact would be the result of that original intent. A crap chair wouldn’t do the job efficiently of course, so making a good one would be key. Artists wouldn’t call the results Art (too crafty!), and neither would Sam Maloof, but what exactly is art again? And what is it supposed to do? The repercussions of deliberately eliminating art as a description of anything specific means that trying to achieve it as a goal is functionally impossible. And as the old saying goes: if you don’t know where you’re going, all roads lead there.
Maybe the new conversation that we have, the one that starts when we have fully digested the repercussions of no longer needing to have an art world to have art, involves talking about living life as a full expression of one’s values, and then seeing what comes from that. This represents a fundamental flip in approach – the modernists made art, and the outcome defined their lives. The new approach sees making a life – and the outcome defines art. Seen through this lens, we might start talking about the time that Marcel Duchamp, the famous chess player, made a lovely chess set. He would be so relieved.