Like probably every artist out there, my intention is simply to make the stuff that I would most like to see. For me that means making objects most of the time, because making objects strikes me as badass. Furthermore, it means carving a lot of those objects, because carving strikes me as being extra badass.
And that really about does it for any kind of artist statement. This is where I scroll down to Save File As… and get up to do other things. Except I can’t quite. My own impulse to make work seems clear enough, but talking about it always makes me wonder: Where are the other carvers? Try counting up carvers in a contemporary context- after about five it gets tough. Heroic googling will get you to around ten. This, despite the fact that there are an incredible amount of artists out there, making an incredible amount of stuff. It was never my intention to get out of the way of pretty much everything else happening in the art world, but the practical result of being a carver does exactly that. So it was with a mixture of curiosity, and trepidation, that I began asking myself more specifically why I have made the choices that I have made. And why (maybe), other people haven’t. Which leads me to what follows below, the addendum, the footnote, the epilogue, or something or other.
Before I go further I should probably define my terms here. Carving itself is very much a living thing, in almost every cultural tradition, except for the one that I primarily draw from. That would be the one that started in Greece thousands of years ago, and came to define Western civilization. To be sure, no form of carving is especially well represented in the contemporary art world, (sorry Native American carvers, Asian carvers, African carvers, chainsaw carvers, Aboriginal carvers, Eskimo carvers, etc. you are all awesome) but the style that I’m talking about, the one that included practitioners like Praxiteles, Michelangelo, Riemenshneider, and others in an unbroken chain that lasted for centuries, is especially and conspicuously dead. It died, swiftly and totally, at the end of the Beaux Arts movement. How swift, and how total? Look at the tops of the four columns at the entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Raw blocks of stone lay in piles atop the carved columns. The four carvings that Robert Morris Hunt had intended Karl Bitters to do sit unfinished- he was run over by a car and killed in 1915. No one was found to replace him, and to this day the stone remains untouched.
The Beaux-Arts movement limped on from there, alive but slowly losing steam. The Lincoln Memorial was built in 1922, Riverside church was dedicated in 1930, and Mount Rushmore in 1941. But in 1945, the Piccarelli brothers, carvers of not only Lincoln’s Memorial, (from 28 pieces of white Georgia marble, weighing 159 tons), as well as the lions in front of the New York Public Library, the frieze on the New York Stock Exchange, the figures on the arch in Union square, quietly closed their doors for good. Really at that point, it was all over.
That didn’t exactly kill off sculpture, much less art in general. In fact the rise of the modernist era cranked up virtually every other artistic activity imaginable. The art world today is inclusive of everything, everywhere, all at once, a profusion of art coming at us from every corner of the globe. How curious then that there are a few traits that link so many of these disparate activities together- that in an incredible defiance of the odds and the numbers, most artists have signed on to just a few starting points for their work that are nearly universal. How curious also that carving in one way or another undermines or even defies them.
How exactly does all the art of today relate to each other? The first link is that it is overwhelmingly conceptually based. That is, driven by ideas, over any particular medium or method. This point logically leads to the next; if a medium or method is not really primary to an art object, then most artists will understandably reject the idea of becoming technically proficient in any one of them. In other words- an art object (or experience) should be just facile enough to get the idea across, and no more. It should never ever be confused with craft.
The description above has become the default way to think of contemporary art, essentially moving past fetishizing mute handsome objects. Meanwhile, the modernist creed to “Make It New’ envelops us totally, so totally that rarely do we notice that it is, well, old. For a century at least, we have been acclimated to look for, and indeed are most comfortable with, art that raise doubts about whether or not it even is art. Along the way a particular philosophical framework- that the idea comes first, and the hand is removed- has become the foundation of a new tradition. Conversely, artists making things at a high level of tactile mastery (minus the army of fabricators), and following the work in a way that is unconcerned with self-expression or even particular ideas, represents an older one. But no matter how you slice it, in the postmodern world it has become impossible for artists today to work without a tradition.
Most of what I see in galleries and museums exhibits a nod towards both an idea, and a studied lack of craft, as well as a third trait I’ll get to in a minute. So much so that now the overwhelming majority of things I see have come to define what I would call Traditional Contemporary Art. In this definition, people like Elliot Hundley, or Rachel Harrison, or Urs Fisher, or Harrell Fletcher, or Jeff Koons are really representing the norm, rather than the fringe. A quick peek at their long resumes, blue chip gallery affiliations, and high auction prices will attest to that. Furthermore, they and many artists like them, are doing their particular gig so well that any desire I might have to try add to that genre is pointless. Kudos to them! I love a lot of that work. But I’m interested in making the things I’m not seeing, not adding to the things I am. And I’m seeing an awful lot of what they are doing.
Despite the above description, it’s a highly ironic fact that the definition of orthodoxy within the art world still stubbornly sticks to something like carving. But the reality is that carved things haven’t come close to being in the mainstream of contemporary art for at least a century, especially if they are technically proficient. The definition of orthodoxy has flipped.
In the meantime, tradition has become inescapable. Finding a creative act that is without precedent is not only impossible, but searching for it in the first place seems retrograde, a modernist task in a postmodern world. Congratulations and all that in the unlikely event that you find it, (a creative act without precedent), but it’s not like it’s the main task of art to look for it anymore. Art has no main task. Precedent for everything means ‘Tradition’ is something that is impossible to operate apart from. And that’s good. But ‘Tradition’ is used as a pejorative in the contemporary art world so often that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it simply refers to something that is readable in a communal way. In order for traditions to have any meaning at all, they must rely on the context of community. In fact, traditions are one of the ways communities show their contextual boundaries; they are a display of the very binds that tie them together.
The opposite of tradition is ‘Freedom’, which is the unraveling of those communal bonds in order to gain autonomy. Taken to its logical conclusion, there is a relationship between freedom and alienation, due to the fact that fully unraveling those bonds means being unreadable by anyone at all. Being totally bound is no more preferable than being totally free of course, so it would seem logical to chart a course that moves in a nuanced way between both poles. Which is why art at its best it seems to be both strange and strangely familiar, allowing for discovery, and connection simultaneously. The ability for art to operate in this way might at first seem like a paradox, but only if one discounts the fact that new things come out of old things rearranged and reconfigured. This is why traditions are therefore alive: they reflect their moment, while acknowledging the steps taken to get there.
Acknowledging tradition is to acknowledge that for many centuries, people made things with a high level of skill. Despite that fact, craft and skill in any pre-modernist form didn’t come up much when I was in school, other than as a historical artifact. And while I really didn’t think about it much at the time, its very absence was instructive. It was really only after I left school that an observation about my experience within it began to creep up on me, which is simply this: crafting an object takes the attention away from the artist, and puts it on the object. Conceptualizing an object (or a performance, video, intervention, social practice, soundscape, etc.), on the other hand takes the attention away from the object, and puts it on the artist. The first was deemed bad. The second was deemed good.
How can conceptualizing an object put the attention on the artist rather than the idea? Because a conceptual artist at some point needs to be present to explicate what the idea is in the first place. Thus, even though the Concept of the art supposedly shines through more clearly minus the hand of the artist, their face and voice and personality appear instead, due to the fact that some form of salesmanship is required for that particular thing to be understood. Which leads to the third major trait I see in work today- the way that the ‘concept’ can be elastic enough to encompass merely the flavor of a personality. This is Conceptual 2.0, where it is enough that the concept is a compelling story or entertaining explanation. This is why ours is the era of the Art Opening, and the Artist Talk – how many artist talks do you suppose Picasso did, or Manet, or even Duchamp? This is how we’ve come to focus our attention on artists talking about ideas rather than simply on objects that embody them. Objects have receded to the background, as artists have come to the fore, and that flip has come to define most art in a contemporary context.
This reality elides over a very important question though: are artists and ideas really the most important elements of art? If so, then art has moved into an area that seems to be a hybrid of philosophy and show business. Which actually sounds kind of interesting. But to accept this state of affairs means assuming that the intellect is the most valuable part of us, the most reliable part, the part that we should elevate above anything else. The best art (in this calculation) will always be the smartest art, which leaves out art made with joy, or sadness, or anger, or boredom. It leaves out intuitive art, or beautiful art, or ugly art, or process art, or tactile art, or interactive art, or crafted art, or outsider art, and so on. In other words, all the stuff that starts without a heaping dose of the intellect.
Starting without it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t pick some of it up along the way of course. In fact, it invariably takes on a more unpredictable side of it. So rather than illustrating ideas that are already conceived in the mind of the artist, starting without them allows room for discovery, for challenging assumptions, for serendipity and surprise. It allows for following a path that isn’t really clear. It allows in other words, for exploration.
Starting without fixed ideas means starting without the mind isolated from the rest of us- it accepts the body, the hands, and the senses, as equal partners. Including them brings back the possibility of making things. In fact, it almost demands it. And as the artist begins the process of making something, a human activity with at least a two million year history, a further observation is easy to make: if the body and the hands act as the guide, then they better be capable. The sheer discipline of making something becomes an avenue of discovery, a way of creating something the mind can’t exactly plan, or explain. That comes in after, the explanations, the questions, the criticism. And when it does, the physical and mental work together again to refine whatever was made, iteration after iteration, creating something greater than each one alone would be capable of.
The argument against working like that of course is that the hands can take over. And it is true that becoming highly skilled at something and leaving it at that does have some real problems attached, problems that require some understanding on the part of the artist to avoid. Simply put, it’s that craft in and of itself isn’t really much of anything. Learning it, like a writer learning the rules of grammar, is a good thing. But learning it and then thinking you’re a great writer is a creepily misguided thing. Many of us have met artists who can’t tell the difference, and have understandably decided to run in the other direction.
The problem is exacerbated when it’s noted, with perfect historical accuracy, that we are now able to pick and chose our influences and call whatever we do art. I noted as much two paragraphs ago. But while we are all subsumed in a postmodern world, there are clearly cracks in its description of reality. For example: we can borrow all we want, but we only get to describe our own experience, and really no other. Arthur Danto described this conundrum quite well when he talked about how artists in the postmodern era are able to pick and choose styles from other eras, true enough, but are forever unable to live the contexts that gave rise to them in the first place. This means that artists who try like hell to paint like John Singer Sergeant, or sculpt like Rodin, are not making art, they are making eerie monuments to the dead. Being influenced by them is one thing; becoming them is quite another. Until someone invents a time machine, artists are really only allowed to ask what Right Now looks like, and what is relevant to a description of that experience.
While a suspicion of craft for craft’s sake is legit, a suspicion of craft itself is usually how that suspicion plays out. Which I’m taking some pains to point out is nuts. Understand: denying craft to make a point is perfectly fine. I can see denying the sensual in a sensual experience in order to do that. Also fair is to expand on the idea of what sensual is in the first place. Still good. What is totally crazy is to banish sensuality forever.
But there is a further hurdle for craft to clear, and it’s probably the highest: nobody really wants to become highly skilled at anything anymore. Doing so could take years, and maybe even a lifetime to achieve. Who wants to spend a lifetime doing anything? Our culture is described quite well by the researcher Linda Stone, who identified a mental state she described as Constant Partial Attention. In other words, skimming lightly over everything, and sinking deeply into nothing. Constant distractions, and shorter attention spans, mark the mental state of most of us.
The problem is that tangible skills are still relevant. For example: whatever life choices you have made for yourself, thank a farmer for growing the food for you to pursue it. Somebody, probably an immigrant, stuck their hands in the dirt to make sure you had something to eat. Just as somebody made you a house to live in, a bed to sleep on, shoes to wear, and so on and so on. Our distance from most of this stuff doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, it just means we’re rich enough to ignore it. Should we care? You get to answer that for yourself of course, but for me, as most of us disappear into constant partial attention, my answer is yes.
The personal is political, and one’s art is one of the most personal, and therefore political things of all. Hands-on skills for the most part are in decline, and I think it is a political act to re-engage with them, a political act that seems relevant to our disassociated postmodern present. It’s unfortunate to me that artists in particular get really touchy around anyone technically proficient, like furniture makers, or fabricators, or welders, or machinists or even the occasional sculptor. They tell each other that their ideas make them better than mere craftsmen, but most of the time, they struggle to articulate what their ideas actually are. To paraphrase David Hockney, they think they’re poets, but nobody taught them how to spell.
I hope my own work can reclaim some of the agency that I’m not sure I really have anymore. Can I overcome my own Constant Partial Attention? Can I find a level of competence in myself, when I’m not really sure that I know how to do anything well? Can I make something beautiful, rather than say something clever? Can beautiful and smart be the same thing? Can art feel necessary? I want to make the things that ask those questions, and so far I’m not sure I’ve managed to articulate clear answers of my own. But what I do know now, years into all of this, is that thinking about what the answers might be is every bit as rewarding as the making, and that the making led to the thinking. Both form a continuum, always being added to and refined, never becoming definitive, and never finished. And on that note, I have some carving to do.