Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Kill Skill

Exitus Acta Probat --The outcome justifies the deed
"The outcome justifies the deed"

There is increasing evidence that the brain/hand connection is not exactly master and slave. We have big brain, in part, to control our amazingly useful hands; after all, what good would they do us otherwise?  So our intelligence is there to serve our hands, not vice versa.
We survived as wimpy little monkeys in a tough, cruel world because we could hold clubs and bash our competitor’s brains in with what is known as the power grip. This gave us the competitive edge to survive another day.  Later we developed a precision grip, which allowed us to throw, specifically to throw spears and kill from a distance.  The precision grip led to more sophisticated tool use, which, in turn begat even more complex tools.  
Skill is a form of knowledge.  And as a species, that is one apple we’re not about to uneat. Why is it that skill makes me think of original sin? Or impending doom? Telling people to rein in their curiosity or tone down their exuberance or to cut out the questing and tinkering will never work.  Who gets a new tool, er, I mean toy, and doesn’t desperately yearn to try it out?
Why does it seem that the minute our brains hooked up with our hands in a double helix of upward thrust, we were damned if we do, damned if we don’t?  Perhaps we retain a vestige of primal horror at what our hands are capable of and where it all will lead.
I started out as a young Turk completely rebellious against skill.  I was conceptual!  I knew what was important!  And it wasn’t some type of mindless devotion to creating perfect solder seams.  I was so bad, and this is true; that on at least one occasion, my work fell apart at the opening.
But then something happened…and it wasn’t horror or shame at presenting sub-par workmanship to a possibly paying public. What happened was 30-some years of practice. With little thought to the matter, I gradually improved.  Until, to make a long story short, I now find myself highly skilled.  And having come to this place, I now have the perspective to understand why it is worthy. But! The world around me has suddenly awaked to agree with my younger self!  Now there is this movement in the arts to de-skill it. How very inconvenient!  How utterly ironic! 

When I was a painter at RISD in 1980-1982 (before I switched to glass) painting had been largely deskilled.  We stood in front of our canvi, as second semester sophomores and were expected to manipulate paint with the effect of profound “personal expression” or maybe some enactment of primal creativity, it was pretty unclear. 

There was no instruction on the techniques of painting beyond that.  Nothing about how to properly prepare a canvas or grind pigments, no talk of glazing or under-painting or anything like that.   There was no continuity from freshman drawing, no instruction on how to translate drawings into paintings. And, personally, I doubt I would have the patience for any of that stuff, being an early adopter of flaunting of my short attention span and ADD, etc. Anyway, this disinterest in skill is a direct result of the mid 20th C Modernism.  Painting was a liberal art, not a vocational one and thus technical training was not the main event.

In a world that devalues skill, what does a 50-something, like myself, with mad hand skills do?  Its not like I could turn back time and unlearn it all even if I wanted to!  Well, now I discuss skill in my graduate seminars. I teach at both the NY Academy of Art and Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts—two schools anachronistically engaged in the atelier model, where students can learn the old fashioned way, how to achieve painstaking realism by relentless drawing from plaster casts etc.  So we talk about skill and why we feel it is important, no, crucial to art making!  De-skilling sounds kind of like “They” want people to drop out of schools and burn down the libraries.  Why would any authority council against something so obviously beneficial? And we agree that those who would try to take it away from us are evil ignoramuses.
Its preposterous to not value skill—it has undeniable practical value!  We want our surgeons and plumbers to be skilled!  We admire, reward and even worship the skill of athletes.  We even have these weird talent shows on TV that seem to be about skills.  We fetishize craft in so many areas of life, but not in the arts!

Search Amazon and you find we have books with titles likeThe Art of Football”,  “The Art of the Deal”,  “The Art of the Steal” “The Art of Striptease”, and “The Art of War”. But will you find “The Art of Art”? No way. Not for real artists! I was more than pleased to see that Subway counter-persons are now called “Sandwich Artists”.  Take that, fine arts! 
What happened to the idea of mastering one’s art?  Why did it become so déclassé to master one’s medium?  Why did it become de rigeur to make work that is constructed like junk (and looks like junk too?) And that’s the talk I wanted to give! I was imagining that I could give a rousing rah-rah, “hooray for the home team” cheer.  Empower skill now! But what I found was that skill was a trickier topic.  One that is nuanced and fraught with assumptions and conceptions that may or may not enlighten the issue.
One thing is true, and that is that skill is intimately tied to notions of craft, as we barely understand it. 

Since that defining moment in Modernism when Duchamp went urinal shopping, hand skills have been discredited and the brain has been given privileged status. 
Artistic creativity is often seen as a zero sum game wherein every iota of manual dexterity is literally stealing from the allotment of intelligence allowed a work of art.  “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us” kind of stuff.
Common conceptions of craft and craftsmanship conflate it, at least partially, with skill and/or technique as though the terms were identical.  Ask any fine artist what craft is and they will say something along the lines of  “it’s the technical part of art”. 
(Craft with a capital “C” does not register on their radar, except perhaps as a group of would be gatecrashers at their party.) The tendency to see craft and skill as virtually the same is really a pity if what you want is to be accepted as being a “Fine Artist”.  If Craft really wants to assimilate itself, it better dispatch with its association with skill (and material).  Just sayin’.
But skill isn’t “the technical part” what it is is a way of going about the technical part.
K-12 education does little to promote hand skill as valuable to our culture.  Face it; the division of academics from Vocational/Technical is largely seen as the divide between the smart kids and the losers.  School is about competing for white-collar positions, not about material creativity.  Industry has been deskilled, and the world has moved on from old timey yeoman to new technologies so why waste time teaching our children to make things the old fashioned way when that’s what the robots (or 3rd world labor) do?  In fact, few people really do much in the way of handwork at all other than a few home-ec like things like cooking, sewing and gardening and trades like being a mechanic, or contractor. For better or worse, not exactly considered the pinnacle of achievement in our culture.

“De-skilling” is a term from industry and economics that has migrated, like, say a global pandemic, to the arts.   It somehow mutated from a cost-saving technological development into a mandate that art be about the spirit and the intellect and not about showing off how clever one is with one’s hands and the tools and techniques of yesteryear. 

Like any issue, to gain any purchase in convincing people you had better understand your opponent’s position. There are very good reasons why skill has gone from being the central protagonist to the villain in the arts.
Let’s examine the issues, shall we?

Most humans in our culture live above a subsistence level of survival.  And that means we crave more than mere sustenance, it turns out. We want meaningfulness and beauty!

For many centuries in western culture, skill has been tantamount to the ability to make proficient imitations of nature or replicas—be that “naturalistic” paintings or a lot of chairs that don’t fall apart when you sit on them.

This is, pretty much, just learning a bunch of tricks and shortcuts.  Anyone with ability can be trained to do it and that’s why it doesn’t matter if someone hires an assistant. Since the Renaissance, the interests of the Fine Arts have been predicated entirely on ineffable qualities like genius, character, spirit and beauty and truth and this puts mechanical skill in a subordinate position.  It is not seen as a source of inspiration unto itself.
Despite the growing evidence that hand use was a prerequisite for the development of our intelligence, skill seems brawny, not brainy.
In these postmodern times, why bother working up a sweat developing skills and executing mere procedure when it’s perfectly acceptable, encouraged even, to purchase stuff and display it?  Was Duchamp not a genius?  What’s important about art—perfect construction or the lofty singing of angelic souls?  Is it the physical stuff of art that matters or is it the thought that counts?  
Physical stuff is tricky!  It can so quickly become an issue of how many ounces of gold are worth how many dollars.  It’s easy to see why the art world might find those thoughts utterly repugnant; what are you worshipping here?
This brings up to labor versus management: why bother with skill when it’s acceptable to get assistants to do that part for you? 

Presumably, this frees up the artist to do the juicy part—the conceiving part!  And who doesn’t want to conceive all day long? 

Much of what constitutes artistic activity is just tasks.  Entire days can be taken up with mindless busy work that is more or less utterly devoid of creativity.  In my career, I have, time and time again, noticed people admiring my work because it’s so labor intensive.  “Oooh, the images is so…difficult but look at all that hard work!” And while that’s very true, I would really hope that the appeal of my pieces goes beyond the number of man-hours involved in making it.  Maybe it is especially comforting to know the artist at least worked hard when confronted with ugly subject matter.  As though effort compensates for a world of sin and that drudgery is a sign of virtue.

Civilization and socialization are all about favoring nurture over nature.  Goodbye Garden of Eden! And good riddance!

But ironically, the more we manage to eradicate nature, the more we yearn for it in maudlin nostalgic ways. As technology gets more complex, the more we cherish primitivism. From Burning Man to Arte Povera we fancy ourselves The Noble Savage. It is a pose, of course. But a very soothing one in the face what havoc technological determinism has wreaked on the earth.
Very, very white eagle, indeed.
Skill is a quality that falls into the category of the truly “unnatural” as it must be carefully cultivated and part of the whole point of skill is to manipulate things to our will and our preferences. Many artists, especially young ones, want to be skilled enough to mimic the slick surfaces of machine-manufactured goods. 

We have come full circle to place wherein the signifier of handmade is to be a wee bit sloppy—or a big bit sloppy, as the case may be.

Out of this same sentiment, we have this longing for things to be simple, innocent and uncomplicated and we often seek reductive solutions. Things that look simple but aren’t, can seem dishonest.  One of the things about skill is that, often, it makes something hard look easy.  There is a thin line between artfulness and deceit, between cleverness and trickery.  Or a magic trick, than the result of years of practice. 

As I said above, for the most part, people are not really engaged with hand working activities anymore. Skill has become covert and we entirely take it for granted until, god forbid; we have the rare occasion of having to do it for ourselves. Have you ever watched “This Old House” and tried to do something you saw on that show afterwards?  Were you stunned by the discrepancy by how easy they make it seem compared to what really happens?  Materials don’t behave!  They don’t conform to instructions.  Mostly when you try something, you fumble and make a mess of it.
The idea that there is an easy way, that one doesn’t have be a Master to be a genius, is very tempting.  Journeymen artists are sometimes really intimidated by how far they have to go to learn anything.  Who has the time, the money or the patience? Have any of you ever read “Zen in the Art of Archery”?  The author isn’t even allowed to begin releasing the arrows for over a year, so painstaking is his instruction. The investment needed to foster skill is daunting.   
Its not just a huge undertaking for the individual either—there have to be venues to learn, venues to practice in, equipment to learn on, and hours, years, decades spent practicing in which the entire community must support an endeavor that has an uncertain outcome with patience and resources.
To think there’s a simpler, even more authentic way is not only sane but also necessary lest people and societies edit themselves right out of the running. 

On the other hand, there are artists who try to impress us with their skills, perhaps to substitute for their lack of creativity. 

How dreadful to be in the presence of art that is skilled but little else.  How utterly inadequate and unfulfilling! Hand skill isn’t a performance art. There is something about technique as the sole offering of art that is both arrogant and disappointing; it can inspire envy or nausea rather than admiration. No one likes a show-off who has some narcissistic need to make him/herself look good at the expense of others.

 Then there’s the born genius versus trained monkey argument, which sort of embodies both brain vs. brawn and nature vs. artifice. Why bother with skill when it’s better to make work that’s considered “raw and direct”?
It’s certainly true that years and years of art school is no guarantee of artistic brilliance.  Au contraire!  There seems to be much evidence that it can actually neutralize sensitive artists who aim to please, leaving them sort of stupefied and ineffectual.  It takes a mighty strong ego to resist the influence of one’s education, which, I might add; one actually paid a lot of money to receive.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
At any rate, there are plenty of great artists who work at all levels of proficiency, as anyone with the slightest exposure to the arts knows.

I think skill is very widely presumed to be the very thing that allows for the best manifestation of one’s artistic expression.  
Talent means never having to say you're sorry
I especially hear this from younger art students who will often say they wish to acquire a lot of skill, then later they will figure out what to do with it.  Gracious, how wrongheaded that is!  And yes, it is yet another example of the pernicious Cartesian dualism in the arts, which we should strive to mend and not widen. Deferring the inspiration part or the content part or assuming that once one is skilled it will just fall into place is close to insane. Developing one’s “voice”, learning to think diversely, creatively, expressively and with agility is far better done early, while the brain is still elastic as the analogy of learning languages so aptly demonstrates. If one practices an art for any length of time, the skill part will happen on its own. Figuring out how to express yourself gets exponentially more difficult as your brain calcifies into set ways of thinking.

Skill does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with creativity.  The awareness that skill bestows can hamstring one’s creativity as easily as facilitate it. Let me repeat that for emphasis, skill and pedantry go hand in hand more often than skill and inspiration! Having a tested method that avoids epic structural disasters and catastrophic collapses in the studio can be too tempting to resist. But avoid it, one must! The benefits of skill are so easily offset by what they inhibit. Knowing how- to prevents one from being inventive, innovative and experimental. It represses the daring necessary to find out that how- not-to can sometimes lead to the miraculous.
For what is skill if not a model of how something should be done, a system of rules, a prescriptive regimen? And what is less creative than that?
Once skill is internalized, it can easily lead to poisonous perfectionism. Perfectionism is a form of fear  (fear of failure to be specific) masquerading as a noble attempt to do one’s best. It is not just the biggest buzzkill out there, but also a path towards guaranteed failure. It is a great paradox that in attempting to do a good job, one cuts themselves off from the very sources of inspiration that might allow for them to do a great one.

The rewards of perfectionism.
So there we have good reasons why skill is problematic in the arts (and elsewhere).  The art world is no monolith and any attempt to ascribe intention is probably misguided.  But trends get codified and assimilated as law and quite frankly, the art world comes across as reactionary. It would certainly seem, in the past 50 years or so, that the rejection of skill is a wholehearted ejection.

We should resist deskilling in general, not just the arts, because it makes people dumber and lazier. In separating ideas of creativity from handwork, we inadvertently cut ourselves off from one of the wellsprings of invention. Lest we forget, creativity may well arise from handwork as opposed to our hands merely the obedient labor force employed by our heads. In Frank Wilson’s book “The Hand” he argues “… that any theory of human intelligence which ignores the interdependence of hand and brain function, the historic origins of that relationship, or the impact of that history on developmental dynamics in modern humans, is grossly misleading and sterile.” Wilson goes so far as to say that when hand skill equals brainpower, it equals language*.  And language...well, cognition controls our reality now doesn’t it?
To any discussion of skill, this is a vastly important idea—to any culture wherein “de-skilling” is being seriously discussed, the implications of how that might impact our brains cannot be ignored!

There are three main costs to deskilling. 
1. We personally lose the knowledge of how to make things and we lose knowledge on the grander scale if we outsource it as a society.  This loss is one of those things that leads to a descending cascade of consequences ending in the loss of freedom of choice. Because when skill is lost, obviously you haven’t got the choice to use it.
2. We forget that we ever could and we deprive ourselves of an entire domain of creativity. 
Remember Idiocracy! Freedom of choice isn’t just things that are handed to us, but opportunities we develop for ourselves 
3. We empower those who can make things.  Say hello to your robot overlords! 

What does it mean to be a human being or a culture that can’t make anything?  What toll does it take on the human spirit to be only part of a system and never see projects through from inception to completion?  What does it say about human creativity if it avoids the material and the technical?
The fate of our culture.
Skill should not be irrevocably disassociated from art because they are not mutually exclusive. In rejecting skill, art cuts off its nose to spite its face. Given how much of our brain is given over to the function of our hands, I gather that being a “conceptual” artist would actually involve significantly less grey matter than one who did their own hand work.
In addition, much of what we term “beautiful” has to do with togetherness, cohesion, coherence, harmony and coming together.  We only like chaos with hindsight—when we can control it, or when we have survived it. 

One of our deepest, darkest fears is of being disconnected (from our selves, from our loved ones and our group, and from our world), and of things (or our bodies) falling apart (which is merely a metaphor for disconnectedness). If art can ever reconcile itself to beauty then skill has some bearing.  Why is this important? Who puts things together?  CRAFTSPERSONS, that’s who! 
This is why, in part, we should be respectful of skill and all craftspersons who deploy it.  They put stuff together.  And thus, they can control taking it apart.  Skilled craftspersons are the holders of secret knowledge!  

The whole sequestering of concept from process in art lines up on mind/body split lines,

—as do, ultimately, all issues that would divide art from craft. Anything that dissociates inspiration from process or soul and material will be reflected in Art versus Craft.   Skill is one end in the learning curve of process. It has little to offer as a sole criterion by which to base or assess an art experience and I can see why artists, theorists, critics etc. would begrudge so-called art works that are of this ilk. Skill for its own sake is as bereft as the notion of bad technique justifying or ensuring the primacy of concept. It must be attached to some deeper meaning for an artwork to resonate deeply.  What should be judged in an artwork is how credible and inevitable the interface between matter and spirit, be that a rude and crude modality or precise and refined, regardless of whether it is related to utilitarian function or cerebral contemplation.  For in the end where is the dividing line between spirit and matter anyway? 
This gets to the very heart of why skill should be understood as a component of craftsmanship as opposed to a synonym.  To be highly skilled, is ultimately an advantage, but it’s a very tricky one. It needs to remain a choice rather than a mandate.  As artisans, we transition from holy fools to journeyman to master and ultimately into something like a Zen Master.  We go from simple play to learning, to knowing how to fix our mistakes to knowing when fixing them is desirable or not. And hopefully, ultimately, how to balance striving for perfection and when to play like a child. To not go through those stages is to deprive one’s self of full actualization as an artist.  To stop at Holy Fool because that’s what the art world favors is to stunt one’s growth in a pantomime of a Shaman.  Lame. The cost of that cannot be calculated by just listing all the lousy artwork that is the collateral damage of that ill-considered misconception.  

As I said above, skill can be disastrous to inspiration and creativity. However that doesn’t mean that there is some intrinsic reason to assume it always is!  For some, process, technique and skill can be a vital agent of inspiration. Did you ever think about why there are so many more Dale rip offs than there are Lino’s? I mean, yes, Dale is more popular, but besides that.  Both depend on highly skilled labor, why should it easier to make “Chihuly’s”? It’s almost as is there are Dales out there that haven’t been made yet and if you have the chops, well then… Does it really matter who’s hands did what? Isn’t that just an issue of branding?
Well, something gets left out with an artist who farms out the labor.  You don’t miss that something if you never saw it in the first place but if it is there?  Wow.  It’s irreplaceable. A piece cannot be informed by its own creation if the artists is awaiting the goods in some separate room making design decisions as a matter of management.  Lino isn’t just having ideas and then making them.  He’s having the ideas while he’s making them.  He’s allowing the process to be a major factor in his inspiration, and he is inventing and innovating as he goes.
Lino is excited about trying things that are really hard for the very reason that they are a challenge and they lead him brand new places conceptually. His work is inspired directly by process and the outcome is directly informed by it. Every phase he goes through responds to his prior level and outdoes it. Lino can top himself by creating a dialectic between process and concept that has forward momentum.  That cannot happen with Dale’s work and for this reason its possible to make “Chihulys” but not “Linos”.  You can only re-create an existing Lino or Lino’s last season look.

The other thing about Lino is he’s not just skilled; he’s an absolute maestro.  His pieces are technical achievements the equivalent of summiting Everest.  Why did George Mallory climb Everest?   
And who ever heard of hiring a studio assistant to climb it for you. (Don’t even think about it!)
And if you don’t personally climb Everest how will you ever know what’s at the top?  And beyond??  How will other people know what the limits of human capability are?
 Why should we do pursue skill?  Sometimes we do it to prove we can. Because its there, but this mountain is within the core of our very being and to the heart of what we can potentially be.  And to deny that is to deny something that makes us who we are and who we can be as humans.

There is one more thing about the value of skill that I have been struggling to say in words for a long time and I am still not able to say it right but I will try. To master anything in this day and age is to buck the tide of what’s normal.  It takes years and years of mighty and patient effort that goes largely unrecognized and unvalued. Contemporary art practice demands, as a compulsory matter of self-evident truth, that “real artists” follow the idea, not the medium, ultimately leaving artists largely influent in all technical, meticulous languages. It is presumed that this is all just fine and there’s no cost. Over and over again I hear glass artists, who are probably wetting their pants in fear that they will be referred to as a “Glass Artist” say that they choose glass merely because it best suits their ideas.  

God forbid they should cop to a love of a single material or system of techniques over their incandescent concepts. Is it really skill that’s in disrepute or is it fidelity, commitment and love itself?  Sometimes I wonder..

 Let me put it this way: when a mechanic does a poor job fixing your car, on one level it’s merely annoying. 
And yet, on another its grandly insulting as we can’t help but be reminded of how much is missing from this modern world.  I mean, if the mechanic loved you, they would have done a better job.  Silly, I know.  But when it comes to art, you see the point.  Skill is a form of love.

There is a giant cloisonné lion at the Penn Museum in PhillyIf you know anything about cloisonné, the first thing that will strike you is that cloisonné is a technique used mainly for small; precious objects and this lion is honking ginormous.

 It must have taken forever to make it and it was a forever full of aching fingers and doubt! Ages and ages of thinking “I simply cannot go on, there has to be an easier way!!”
Why…why, for god’s sakes why would anyone bother to DO THIS?  Especially since nine out of ten times the viewer is too ignorant to appreciate the effort it took?  Why is adequate never good enough in the arts?  

Why spend eons on something like that lion?  Because this lion isn’t there to solely to please the public.  It isn’t there only to flatter some rich guy. No, regardless of whatever the artist claimed they intended, the lion exists as a gift—a gift to honor “god” and humanity.  Its not a gift like a waffle iron; the point of this type of gift is to prove we can “get it together” even in times when we are otherwise occupied with life.  It is to demonstrate that, even when the chips are down, we can go beyond our personal interests and risk hardship just to be generous. The point is to make a sacrifice in the name of love.

Ah sacrifice!  What a wordIt implies devotion, piety, worship and loss.  Sacrifice is at the very crux of what makes art beautiful, meaningful, poignant and worthy. Without sacrifice, art is superficial, glib and kitschy. And, yet, sacrifice, because it is hard, demanding, costly, against the dominant paradigm, impractical in all strata of life, entirely not what is expected or required of citizens and generally not fun, is exactly what is in grave peril in art these days. And while one can simplify the task by merely making images of sacrifice, or talking about sacrifice, it is far better to enact it and to embody it.  And what better way than by devoting your blood, sweat and tears to a cloisonné lion?  What better way indeed.  It’s positively radical.

We don’t see it, because we are not looking, but it happens all the time. Sacrifice for its own sake is under-rated as the generator underlying conception. To make something deliberately difficult and with passion and reverence towards process reveals the true nature of creativity. We create for one reason only: because we love it so much we can't bear to live without it. And when one feels like that you do the very best job of it you can.  To do it the easy way would be to miss the point entirely. Probat acta exitus: the deed justifies the outcome


*Wilson theorizes that tool making in groups may have been a social activity around the time of the “Great Leap Forward” and that this was critical in the development of language.

©Judith Schaechter 2013


Anonymous said...

Brilliant, Judith. I think you've taken the argument much further than I've seen done before.

Anonymous said...

Judy, another justification of technical skill is that it make collaborative art possible. While I cannot pull an example from the realm of glass art to mind at the moment, think of skilled artists in a musical setting. One artist dares to venture into a mode of expression that an uninspired technician would consider 'ill-advised.' If the artist remains respectful of other 'rules of the craft' such as tempo and dynamics, the musicians who are performing with him can provide the crafted framework against which his flights of imagination may truly shine.

Another point; skill need not be traditional. I'm sure that you're familiar with the lucky accident that results in a pleasing result. The true skill is in learning how to reproduce the accidental.

Anonymous said...

Did you mean to refer to the Nobel Savage or was that Noble?

Judith Schaechter said...

Thanks, Avid and thanks Charlie--great points! And I meant "noble"...ooopsy!
(I changed it)

Anonymous said...

I am not an art school graduate, but I studied painting (because my grandmother made me) all through my young years. I took a community course with an aged old lady who sang in the Ave Maria choir and raised babies, but painted like Sargeant. I was never so tired of fruit still life and pastels. But I learned a TON. Now, as an adult, I work as a contractor in many Philadelphia universities, including highly ranked art programs, where I have the opportunity to see MFA thesis projects. If you really want to break your parents' hearts, spend upwards of fifty thousand dollars to create a thesis sculpture with vacuum tubing (unless it is of Janet Eichelman magnitude.). Just because you CAN doesn't mean you SHOULD.

On a different note, your art is exquisite.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting this into words. As an educator I would add the observation that some students find their 'voice' or subject in dialog with a process, material, or format- like Lino - and to lose the objects inspired by that, or to mute those voices by devaluing learning skill with materials as a means of inspiration/ connection robs culture of diversity and richness, and artistic expression is dominated by homogenized multimedia installation.

Peter Bremers said...

Great lecture from a very skillful and very talented artist!
I worked with many materials myself but when I started working in glass I learnt as much about it as I could before realizing that I did not want to compromise my ideas to my own skills! A very important moment in my career! So I started developing a relationship with a master glassblower, Neil Wilkin and a great team of assistants, working for almost 15 years together. While my ideas developed, his skills grew accordingly. As he once stated: "I would not make what I make for you if you would not ask me too, pushing me to keep developing my skills". As I see it, we were co-creating but if it was not for the ideas, the co-creation would not have happened in this way.
Now, I work mainly in kiln-casting techniques but use glass also in many other ways for large commissions. I have no kilns or ovens. I seek the best craftsmen and work with them to execute my work. This enables me to focus on my artistic process.
When a composer writes a symphony, he or she does not need to be able to play all the instruments but needs an understanding of the instruments possibilities. Composers have pushed the envelope time after time again and created/co-created a world of music that keeps expanding. Skill and concept can go hand in hand, the left and the right or yours and mine.
Peter www.peterbremers.com

Anonymous said...

Nice essay, Judith. The equation of skill and sacrifice is brilliant. And new. I admire you for that. But... skil is not the bugbear in art that you pretend it is. Skill has been outsourced, that's all. Koons and Kapoor, for instance, employ highly skilled flunkies to manufacture their work. So they (and presumably their clients) get the best of both worlds: the luxury of being a brain-worker, PLUS the luxury of extraordinary labor. But the labor, being bought rather than earned, is placed comfortably in brackets where it can't really threaten us, or upset our comfy worldview...

susanstinsmuehlenamend said...

Thanks, Judith. Very telling and insightful about the IDEA of making. and yes, it is interesting that if you keep doing something, developing a skill because you like the results, eventually you get better! Better may even take longer. And the idea of being able to master more than a few of these skills comes to seem impossible. I too started in the world of craft/glass rebelling against quality and proper technique and somehow, along the way, have committed to doing something"well". The suffering remains as concepts and technique don't seem to get any easier. And, also, take more time. And there is always more to say and ways to push the skills that would not be possible without the history of hands-on discovery

jafabrit said...

I so needed to read this, and I can't add much more than what others have said. My first response was WOW, and as frustrating as it is at times, YES I want to climb that mountain.

thank you

ellen abbott said...

Excellent essay. I've lamented the decline of making in our culture on my blog. I find it to be a major decline. there was a time when we were virtually all 'makers' of one sort or another. I took art classes growing up and went to college as a fine arts major and dropped out after a couple of years. Maybe that was my saving grace because once I found the material that would grab me and not let go and started creating works with that material, I was pretty much on my own, having to learn by trial and error what was and was not possible. Maybe since they did not teach me how to paint in art school was why I gave up painting, that and I prefer three dimensions. Devaluing skill is not the way to go as you so elegantly and humorously point out. Making is part of the reason for what I do. I'm less interested in the piece I finally got tired of working on and more interested in the one I am still working on. Does that make me less of an 'artist'? I don't know and don't really care.

Judith Schaechter said...

Thank you all very much for your comments! :)

Matt Chinian Painting blog said...

Spot on Judy! I just posted a link on my FB page, Matt

Unknown said...

Well-written. Besides your work, I like the writing style you employ. You are willing to place photos and that makes it easier for those like myself who are not trained artists. Yes, I wish I was encouraged to work with my hands but my father never did and I grew up almost scared to build or create. Yes, its good to have brain skill but to not have hand skill saps the soul. Thanks-Mark

Bourjoi said...

Merci beaucoup pour votre profonde générosité en ayant pris le temps d'écrire ce texte extraordinaire. «Skill» aussi est également la démonstration que notre espèce en devenant humaine est arrivée à transcender le peu d'exigences du monde naturel qui ne requiert de tout ce qui vit que la capacité à vivre et à se reproduire. Nous avons appris à voir le réel aussi bien qu'il se montre et à le montrer aussi bien que nous le voyons simplement parce que cela montre à quel point nous sommes devenus humains, à quel point notre nature devenue humaine se superpose à notre nature naturelle qui ne saurait pas encore reconnaître Mozart alors que nous devons être humain pour cela. Encore merci! Marvelous. Sorry for the langage. It's the best i've got. Deep thanks for your generosity in writing this. ;-)

Judith Schaechter said...

and merci to you too, Bourjoi!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Judith! This should be required reading.

Oisín said...

Just stumbling upon this post at 3:30am, and it's definitely stirred up some turbulence from my mental sea-bed.

John said...

Judith -- One of my favorite quotes on the subject --

“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.” -- St. Francis of Assisi

Besides being a set of definitions, I see the quote as offering good advice to the aspiring artist, and right in line with the themes of your excellent essay. One of the aspects of the old studio system was the way that it led the apprentice through these steps -- first to learn the hand-skills through cementing and cleaning windows, then glazing and soldering, then head-skills of design and reenforcement. Only when these skills had been mastered would the apprentice be allowed to begin painting -- first boilerplate border, then trace and matte work, then if they reached that level, and showed the ability, flesh pieces. But the studio system produced a certain product -- a certain type of window -- a certain type of artist -- that seems to be what you and other contemporary artists are rebelling against.

Without the studio system the aspiring artist is on their own. Yet I believe that the wisdom remains. You cannot communicate human emotion through the creation of material objects if you do not understand your materials, and you cannot understand the limitations and possibilities of materials if you cannot control them with your hands. You talk about picking this up as you go along, and perhaps that is the better way. But it's good to have a road-map to where you want to be, and skill should never be disparaged! It is the foundation!

I'd appreciate any comments you might have on this particular formulation.

Judith Schaechter said...

Hi John--
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I will answer in full soon—but I have one question. Are you in Bryn Athyn for the AGG conference? If so, I will answer you in person!

John said...

Judith -- No I am not.

Judith Schaechter said...

Hi John—
Thank you for your comments.
I shall attempt to address some of them.

“One of the aspects of the old studio system was the way that it led the apprentice through these steps -- first to learn the hand-skills through cementing and cleaning windows, then glazing and soldering, then head-skills of design and reenforcement.”

I agree that there are advantages and disadvantages to this system. I am saddened, no HEARTBROKEN, by what is lost when art is taught as “pure creativity” unconnected to rigorous drawing practice, for example.
But, I will say, I think it is equally wrong to assume that art can be taught the opposite (old master system) way. 99.9% never find their own voice. They are great at imitating the master, however.
What I hope my essay conveyed is that, in my utopia, both must be taught concurrently. A skilled artist has more freedom of choice and that is a very, very good thing indeed.

Secondly, no one should be rebelling against the old studio system, on account of the fact that that system was "defeated" a century or more ago and to continue to rail against it is ridiculous.

“You cannot communicate human emotion through the creation of material objects if you do not understand your materials”

I respectfully disagree. I believe you can. Your point that one must control their hands is well taken, and I would say that what they end up expressing, may well be out of their control. But that can be a good thing, indeed. Sometimes out of control results far exceed what one is capable of at their controlled best.
Being skilled, however, offers an artist more choices. But, and it’s a big but:
Once you have been indoctrinated with a “correct” methodology it can be close to impossible to gain back the confidence and freedom to explore. You can lose the confidence to find your own path and voice, which are often defined in the trenches of the struggle with the material. You lose the precious “ignorance” to make “mistakes” and “failures” which often lead to the most cutting edge discoveries. You lose the courage to be truly, radically creative, because you have been made aware of the consequences—which are that 99% of these “failures” will be actually failures! More pandering to fear ensues. Creativity takes guts, but a little foolishness really helps. Why cut it off at the source?

“But it's good to have a road-map to where you want to be, and skill should never be disparaged! It is the foundation! “
How can you have a road map to an unknown location?—a road map will only get you to a known place. Creativity should lead to previously unconceived of places!

However, I hope you understand that am in no way disparaging skill, as I am sure you know since you carefully read the essay! Skill opens up more choices.

Anonymous said...

I was reminded of a beautiful Victorian nautical era window.
On closer examination I could tell the cement work was a little sloppy and the solder joints weren't smooth.I love what your saying about perfectionism stifling creativity.How can you draw the line and create beautiful works
Sincerely John Kilpatrick

Jayesh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mini Site Ninja said...

Em um exame mais atento, eu poderia dizer que o trabalho de cimento era um pouco desleixado e as juntas de solda não eram lisas. Eu amo o que você diz sobre o perfeccionismo sufocando a criatividade. Como você pode desenhar a linha e criar belas obras

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I love this... "that's one apple we're not about to un-eat"

It just shows the ridiculousness of religion. The apple being metaphor for knowledge, which God didn't want us to have. Forbidding his hungry creation from feeding itself.

I can't help but imagine God as a parent about to leave their kids at home for the weekend...

"lets lay down some ground rules. I'm going to go ahead and give you guys free will... so feel free to do whatever you please..., as long you just make sure to do everything I say... and... ugh... believe whatever I command, and everything should be ok... otherwise, I'll have to send send you two to hell..

let's see... what else? Oh yeah.. don't touch any of my apples... I love some apples... I love you guys too..., but I love apples more..., and I will kill you over some apples...

ok so ...I think that about does it, you two have fun..., but not too much.

And don't forget to feed to Satan." lol

Rental LED Dispaly said...

i like :He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.