Why Do You Carve?

 

 

I make things out of many different materials, which doesn’t make me particularly unusual. What does make me unusual is that I have chosen to carve some of them, a method that virtually none of my contemporary colleagues seem to share. The result is that I am asked to explain the carving aspect of my work more often than almost anything else. And the funny thing is that the more I’m asked about it, the lousier I am at coming up with an answer. Not that I haven’t thought about it. Quite the opposite. It turns out that I’ve thought on it so much that the answer just keeps getting longer and more complicated, so long and unwieldy at this point that my answer goes mostly unsaid.

 

I could try sound bites of course. Mention that I think better with my hands in motion. Or that the serendipity of responding to the material in real time allows me to follow the work rather than lead it to a predetermined conclusion. Both of these responses are part of the answer anyway, and both are true enough. But that’s not the whole answer. Mostly because that’s not the whole question. “Why do you carve?” has an invariable follow-up: “How can carving be ‘conceptual’ when everyone knows that object making is about craft?” And then: “What is contemporary about this?" and then: “Couldn’t you just find fabricators?” And “Isn’t there a machine that does that?” And so on. The complexity of this ever-metastasizing question seems to require an equally complex answer. It’s not made any easier by the fact that what I have to say about it challenges many assumptions that lots of smart people still have about the way art should look, how it should be made, and what it should do.

 

Still, the question deserves a response. What follows is the reason, or more accurately, the reasons, that I carve. The whole answer, length be damned. So I hope you are in a comfortable chair.

 

The Six Things 

 

Before art, there was carving. For twenty-five millennia at the very least, we have practiced it in every corner of the globe, in virtually every culture. The best of it seems to make the impossible not only possible, but credible, a previously unimagined reality sharing space in a room with us. Carving is to 2-D art like live theater is to CGI effects in movies: the real thing versus pleasant illusion. How can one really explain Bernini’s carving of Daphne turning into a tree for example? Antonio Corradini’s veiled girl? The wooden flowers of Grinling Gibbons? The floating angels of Tilman Riemenschneider?

 

In short, carving seemed badass, and I wanted to learn how to do it. I had my suspicions that it would be difficult, sure, but how hard could it be? I realize now that my high level of confidence can be explained in two short words (young, dumb), and that what was actually involved in learning such a thing had completely escaped me. Undaunted (the remarkably powerful byproduct of being young and dumb), I slowly progressed anyway due to my own sheer bumbling effort. I remember telling myself that it would start out hard, and get easier as I improved. It never did. And so today my bumbling continues, marginally more efficiently, making me the slightly tragic embodiment of the bumper sticker that says “I may be lost, but I’m making good time!” To everyone who has ever asked me what my tricks or shortcuts are, I have a most unsatisfying reply: There are none. Carving is hard. That’s all.

 

Another thing my young self hadn’t counted on is that expending all that effort might have been pointless anyway. There was (and is) a good dose of ambivalence about carving in the art world, which meant that—assuming I learned to carve at all—who would care? Ask any Native American carver, Eskimo carver, African carver, chainsaw carver. As a group, they are almost invisible in a contemporary gallery context.

 

To most people, carving seems retrograde historically, it intersects with craft, with skill, with brute labor, all with a whiff of romanticism attached. I certainly didn’t get a lot of encouragement to pursue it in school, and apparently nobody else did either. I can count about three carvers working in a western tradition that are of any note in the vast sea of contemporary artists today. But being so fantastically wrong about how long this was going to take to learn, as well as how it would be received by my peers, has not managed to sway me away from my choice. If anything I find myself more committed to it now than ever before. That’s because the more I carved, the more I began to notice certain traits inherent in the medium that had a depth, and even a subversive quality that kept me interested in it. I started to catalog them. And after a while I got to six.

 

I know, I know, six might not seem like a lot, and maybe it isn’t, but my list doesn’t pretend to be scholarly, or even comprehensive. I might find more soon. These are merely the things that have intersected with my thinking and deepened and informed my work, both the carving and the non-carving part of it, and have made me more of a fan of it than I was in the beginning.

 

Still, explaining these six things turns out to be a more complicated affair then it might appear at first. The six things started off kind of simple and then built on each other until they became not very simple at all. Be that as it may, what follows below is a description of each, as best I understand it, easy ones first.

 

The first thing is this: carving is solidly thought of as a genre of fine art, but it seems to stretch the boundaries of what a genre is in the first place. We think of carvings in art galleries and museums, but it also figures prominently in architecture, furniture, in religious ephemera, in monuments, in our very view of history itself. It has become shorthand for archaeology. It is the ruins of Egypt, of Greece, of Rome, the caves of Cappadocia in Turkey, the Venus of Willendorf, the Bamiyan Buddahs, the temples of Petra, and so on.

 

The second thing is equally simple. Whether or not it is intended to be in a gallery or a museum, and whether or not it actually resides in one of those receptacles of culture, it always seems to maintain its status as sculpture. The same can’t be said of painting or photography or video or any number of other media, which rely a lot more heavily on an institutional context to support them into being. Sculpture, and carving in particular, just needs a building, or a cemetery, or a lawn, or a mantelpiece to exist and be appreciated as a work of art. The reading of a carving remains remarkably constant despite the different contexts it might find itself in.

 

And this gets to a third unique property of carving, which is that despite its firm footing inside the art world, it maintains one foot placed equally firmly outside of it. Being outside of the art world might not seem like a big deal, but it turns out to be a very big deal indeed, especially now. In order to describe why means taking a trip in the time machine, back to the momentous year of 1964. It was then, as crazy as it sounds, that the “Art World” was invented. Before then it didn’t exist. Sure “Art” existed, and lots of it, but the idea that a “World” was necessary to contextualize “Art” was new. So totally does the Art World subsume us now that the idea of somebody inventing the term has an air of implausibility around it, like fish finally identifying water, or birds first noticing air. But somebody did invent it, and it should comes as absolutely no surprise that it took somebody outside of the art world’s all-encompassing confines to do it.

 

That person was a philosopher named Arthur Danto, who coined the term in a lucid essay simply called “The Artworld,” published in the Journal of Philosophy in October of that year.[i] That he was moved to write this essay was because his painter wife just so happened to take him to see a show of very unusual objects by an artist named Andy Warhol. And by Unusual, what I mean is that their very Usualness made them so Unusual as to become something extraordinary. What he saw of course were a series of extremely faithful reproductions of everyday objects, and Danto got snagged into trying to figure out why these near-replicas of Brillo boxes and such were art, while their doppelgangers in the grocery store were not. He was a clever enough guy to realize that there had to be a theory tied to this work that connected it to some larger conversation. He was also clever enough to know that the theory was probably modernism. He knew this from his study of Descartes, who with his famous dictum “I think, therefore I am,” started a conversation about how we view the world not according to any kind of bedrock truth but through the filter of our thoughts and perceptions of it. This shifted a very long philosophical conversation away from gathering “objective” information about the world and toward a conversation about how we know what we know in the first place.

 

Artists had followed a very similar path, spurred on by technological advances such as photography, which challenged profoundly the goal of pure verisimilitude in painting and sculpture. Suddenly mimesis was redundant, and artists found themselves instead asking questions about the nature of representation itself. Artist began to create and debate representations of representations, which meant that art had chiefly become its own subject. Danto (still standing in front of the Brillo box) further surmised that this new discussion of art talking about itself had moved at such a rapid and complex pace as to leave the general populace pretty much completely out of the picture (no pun intended), and there too he was correct. Artists had sprouted Ism after Ism, completely outstripping the understanding, or even acceptance of most people. For an artist to make work that added on to and expanded that conversation required an increasingly specialized audience and an infrastructure that could receive it. In short, it required an Art World.

 

Danto was on fire. And he wasn’t done. His final insight was to realize that he was staring at the end of the conversation. The Brillo box had collapsed the distance between representation of a thing and the thing itself. This one simple object had made the space between art and reality essentially nothing, thus proving that artists had total freedom to do or make anything of their choosing. In Danto’s opinion, that made the Brillo Box the final definitive act of modernist art.

 

It’s worth taking a little time to follow Danto’s line of thought here and clarify why a simulacra of a Brillo box had such power, so I will briefly quote him: “Conceptual art demonstrated that there need not even be a palpable visual object for something to be a work of visual art. That meant that you could no longer teach the meaning of art by example. It meant that as far as appearances were concerned, anything could be a work of art, and it meant that if you were going to find out what art was, you had to turn from sense experience to thought. You had, in brief, to turn to philosophy.”[ii] One more quote: “Once it was determined that a philosophical definition of art entails no stylistic imperative whatever, so that anything can be a work of art, we enter into what I am terming the post-historical period”[iii]

 

Post historical. Most people are more comfortable with the term “postmodern” perhaps, but whatever you call it, the Art World has changed drastically from the time of modernism. Now I realize that it’s debatable whether a singular work by Andy Warhol is the thing that brought us to this point. Perhaps it was Duchamp’s ready-mades created in the late teens, or maybe it was Mike Bidlo’s paintings, or Sherrie Levine’s photographs created in the mid 1980s, or a long list of other potential candidates in between. What is not debatable is that the thing was done, and today we find ourselves in an era where we all agree that the barriers to what is acceptable within the confines of the Art World have been systematically erased. Joseph Beuys declared that everyone is an artist. (Danto points out that Beuys didn’t say that everyone could be an artist, everyone is.) Modernist artists determined that anything could be art. The borders between art and life became blurry, and then disappeared. And a place without borders is a very interesting place to be indeed.

 

It turns out that you can erase a narrative, but what can’t be fully erased is the need to have a narrative in the first place. In the midst of a very fractured and fundamentally directionless endeavor, art had to find some semblance of order in all of the art that people were producing (which continues to come at us like a runaway train), and the way that was found to do that was to simply decide which was the most “Contemporary.” The problem with that is that if the goal is to make the most Contemporary art possible, and if Contemporary defines “Right Now,” than it must be understood that Right Now disappears in an instant. In a state such as this, conflating art with stylistic invention is not only possible, but inevitable. Stylistic invention can be described in many ways (fashions, fads, trends), but art is quite reasonably defined in opposition to that. It’s “News that stays news,” to quote Ezra Pound, and as much as an artwork might owe to its particular moment, it can’t be anchored to it. Indeed it must translate to beyond it in order to succeed. In order to translate, it must draw on other things that have also succeeded, a progression forward using templates from the past, with what the mathematician and architect Christopher Alexander calls “A pattern language,” because nothing is made in a vacuum. The unique human ability to see the past as well as the future means that we not only draw on history to inform us of the present, but that we also are allowed to dream up things that haven’t happened yet. That’s what makes good art strange and familiar at the same time.

 

By physically making something, engaging in what Donald Kuspit calls “The repersonalization of work in a world of depersonalized work”[iv] issues of craft and tradition versus stylistic invention are inevitably raised. Carving in particular, which has been so universally practiced, and for so long, negates any discussion about style or originality. It has none. It must invariably be seen through the lens of familiar carvings from the past, some of which might have been in a gallery or museum context and some not, putting it well outside the realm of Contemporary ideals. Which leads me, finally, to the fourth thing that carving does, which is to leapfrog over a discussion about style by accepting carving, and therefore art, as an expression of a tradition. I’m more interested in evolution than revolution because there is nothing left to overthrow. The use of tradition really becomes the ultimate form of sampling in a postmodern sense. It uses the heretical notion (also employed by the progenitors of the Renaissance), that it’s okay to look backward to see a clear way forward, which, to the Curitoriat, trained to look for Right Now, is a very difficult proposition to swallow. As Nabokov said, “The future is obsolescence in reverse.”

 

This segues into the fifth thing pretty easily, which is that carving, as an obvious outsider to contemporary practice, seems to remind us that the parameters of how we judge art today remain attuned to modernism. That this is so seems somewhat surprising given the fact modernism has been dead for so long, fifty years at least. There is no question that our current era is far more easily described as postmodern rather than modern, but there is also no question that there has been a return to modernist aesthetics in art and architecture, and even literature, in the last ten years or so. Or maybe more accurately, a certain thread of it never went away, and that thread is gathering steam due to a mixture of familiarity and nostalgia. That this interest exists I think is due in no small part to a weariness induced by postmodernism’s relativism and murky uncertainty. The academic Barbara Epstein describes quite well the cautionary tale that is postmodernism, and the desire to have something else to hold onto when she says: “It is difficult to debate postmodernism because it is not a set of claims. It is a set of attitudes, the central one being the suspicion of all claims—and the concomitant effort never to make any claims, or at least, never to acknowledge them.”[v] In comparison, the appeal of modernism’s pure ocular pleasure and unshakable moral and intellectual clarity seems quite understandable. Even the goals are more understandable; art must innovate, it must transgress, it must have stylistic originality. All of these ideas are modernist inventions of course, and didn’t exist in the same way before or after the modernist era. But we happily and unquestioningly endorse them all. And so today it seems that most of us would still rather be Picasso (lothario, stylistic innovator, badass), than Robert Rauschenberg (collage guy).

 

As the historians Best and Kellner make clear in their excellent book The Postmodern Turn, postmodernism is not a monolithic idea that everyone all over the world subscribes to. We live with modern, and even premodern ideas that mingle with the postmodern. If we can pick and choose through everything that has ever happened, then it stands to reason that we would at least try to use a modernist yardstick to assess artistic practice, because modernism had a yardstick. But we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to recognize that we are measuring is no longer modern, even if many of our approaches to making art remain rooted there. Carving seems to defuse any kind of stock modernist critique (Is it original? Does it transgress? Is it on the cutting edge?) by making the point that all those criteria have either been undermined or eliminated in a postmodern world. Everything is fair game if anything can be considered art. Furthermore, if it’s true that art talking about art has exhausted itself, and that such a conversation existed only within a context called the Art World, then today it stands to reason that moving forward requires artists to step outside that world and change the subject. Carving seems to take that position seriously by doing both.

 

In our era, painting, carving, weaving, all of these traditional forms, are as valid a choice for artists to pursue as any other, because there are no invalid ones. In fact, the more traditional they are, the more they seem to make the point that this is so. Conceptual art, social practice, performance art, technology based art, or any other iteration that downplays making an object are also stylistic choices, as much as curators and critics of our day would like to see them as orthodoxy. They are newer, and more fashionable perhaps, but there is no longer one way that art looks or acts. The narrative about what defines art is over.

 

Postmodernism introduced the idea that not only are all things valid, but that no one thing is more valid than anything else. The question that is raised almost by default in a state such as this is simple: If everything is indeed valid, then what actually matters? We live in a world described quite eloquently and convincingly by Baudrillard, Debord, and others, as a simulacra, removed from anything real. Art making has become pastiche, full of pop culture references, full of irony, full of cleverness as opposed to intelligence. As Baudrillard said, “Generally speaking, the play on quotations is boring for me. The infinite nesting of box within box, the play of second and third degree quotes, I think that is a pathological form of the end of art, a sentimental form.”[vi] The basic premise is that everything has already been done, and we are just sampling this and that and putting them back together in an endless series of mash-ups. Where contemporary theorists and artists see this state of things as cultural exhaustion, and therefore a problem, a carver realizes that there is no such thing as working without a tradition, because everything has a history, a provenance, and it is a relief. As noted above, revolution was the preeminent modernist endeavor, while evolution is the postmodern one. To see postmodernism as an endless play of mash-ups and pastiche is to lose sight of how this process is itself traditional. Building upon what has come before is the building blocks of art, while originality (as a means of defining the limits of art itself) is merely the building blocks of modernism. In this sense, the angst that Baudrillard, Debord, and others felt was the result of expecting modernist goals to be met in a postmodern world. The disappointment that resulted is understandable, but preordained. Holding on to the idea of paradigm shifting disruption is not especially tenable for a postmodernist, not just because it’s unlikely, but also because it’s not even that useful. Art’s long foray into self-definition and reflection is over.

 

Modernists wanted to define the outer limits of what art could be, but postmodernists realize that there are no limits. It is an amazing mis-read of our moment to storm the battlements as an artist when there are no battlements left, no hurdles to clear, no walls to breach. What we have before us is a far more interesting assignment than that however: reaccessing agency, redefining effectiveness, rediscovering relevance.

 

This leads to the final thing that carving does (at least, until I notice another one), which is to demonstrate the machinations of agency itself. We think of art as something powerless, maybe even useless. But what kind of nihilist nutcase would spend their lives pursuing something devoid of use, and, maybe even more confounding, why would anyone care? The question raised above about what matters forms the backdrop to what many artists are grappling with right now. Certainly they aren’t grappling with technical issues, or trying to redefine art. The modernists did us the favor of tabling that discussion. Now that we know what art is (anything an artist says it is), we get to ask what art can do in a way that no other era has been able to. The angst of self-definition has fallen away.

 

Carving engages these very basic concerns about agency because agency permeates it; how can we manipulate a material that will strongly resist such manipulation? Offshoots of the various answers we have come up with have become architecture, furniture, weaponry, art. As we drift away from a tangible relationship to the world around us, it’s useful to remember how long-standing that connection has been, and how it continues to be necessary.

 

It’s an exciting time to be an artist. Responding to the world, rather than the Art World, seems expansive and freeing, and for my money the six traits I’ve described above about carving make it an excellent vehicle for doing so. Changing the subject, and critiquing the conversation that got us here, is accomplished by carving with remarkable directness. The more I do it, the more convinced of that I become. Some might say that in times such as these, some grand gesture is needed perhaps, something quick and theatrical, not something slow and plodding like carving. But there is something that a carving does by demonstrating competence at an understandable level that seems exactly right, the opposite of theater in a world built on artifice. It’s not the shattered view of modernism, with its puffed-up intellectual and moral superiority, or the wry ambivalence of postmodernism, with its ability to make all choices and its inability to say which ones are good. It’s a response, created with effort and skill, with a kind of credulity that seems like the antidote to all that.

 

The great furniture maker George Nakashima faced his own version of a dystopian world most profoundly when he was interned by his own government during World War II. His response to this indefensible indignity was not what one might expect, but was equal parts grace and pragmatism nonetheless. He learned to be a wood worker. At that time, he had been all over the world, living in Paris, Japan, and India. He had thought that he wanted to be an artist, but Paris in the ’20s had disabused him of that notion. He said then, “It was time to move on, and I would leave the whole modern art movement with its egotism and lack of beauty”[vii] (1988, p. 7). Which he did, and never looked back.

 

In the camps he met a Japanese carpenter, who taught him skills in a traditional way. He describes this man simply, but powerfully: “He had the discipline resulting from long years of experience in which each step was learned with consummate perfection” (p. 23). Nakashima himself learned those skills, and with them he connected himself to wood, to trees, to the landscape, and to the beauty of the world. In so doing, he triumphed over the ugliness that had put him there in the first place.

 

I will never be George Nakashima, but I too want to learn each step with consummate perfection, and I too want to find a way of making something beautiful. The steps I have taken so far are few, with a baby’s wobbling determination, but I will keep going, egged onward by the firmly footed examples of those that came before me.

— D. W.

 

 

 

 


Notes

[i] Arthur C. Danto, “The Artworld,” in Journal of Philosophy 71(19), 1964: 571‒584.

[ii] Arthur C. Danto, After the End of Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Pres, 1997), 46‒47.

[iii] Arthur C. Danto, Embodied Meanings: Critical Essays and Aesthetic Meditations (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1994), 13.

[iv] Donald Kuspit, Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries (New York: Allworth Press, 2000), 166.

[v] Barbara Epstein, “The Postmodernism Debate,” Z Magazine (October 1996); cited in Stephen Best and Douglas Turner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford, 1997), 22.

[vi] In Stephen Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Turn (New York: Guilford, 1997), 178.

[vii] George Nakashima, The Soul of a Tree: A Woodworker’s Reflections (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1988), 23.

 

 

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