Since World War II the boundaries of all artistic practice have been repeatedly challenged, but currently there seems to be a pressing sense of the need to “rescue” the “making” of art and its mediums. Making now occupies a strange territory wherein it’s both fundamental and peripheral. Post-studio practice (the rejection of the studio as a socially relevant seat of practice) and high production values transformed art at the end of the last century, bringing to near-completion the slow deskilling of studio practice. With deskilling came a degradation of work, a suspicion of craft, and a premium on time. Through deskilling, studio mastery became synonymous with tedium and lack of intellectual rigour, and despite the avant-garde’s socialist sympathies, deskilling distanced modernism from labour altogether.
Many artists working today are engaged in a form of parasitism between ideas of the central and the peripheral — the Town and the Country — incorporating craft’s techniques and mediums into their art practice as a shared vernacular language. The role of craft within this moment of post-studio art practice is, in many ways, the articulation of a desire to locate a believable and sustaining continuity between medium, community, and message and a rejection of what has been called the “trash and spectacle”1 1 - “From Trash to Spectacle: Materiality in Contemporary Art Production,” Public Lecture Series,Department of Fiber and Material Studies, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Spring 2009. of current post-studio production, by seeking a more direct and intimate model of material and social engagement.
Where the nineteenth-century craft movements were driven and inspired by the industrial revolution, the current discussion of reskilling focuses on revisiting craft as a place from which to critique or react to the post-digital age of software-specific art and design, consumerism, condensed time, and globalism. But rather than looking to the medieval utopian fantasy of the Arts and Crafts movement, here there seems to be chewing over of the legacy — the politics and rebellion — of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1970s, site-specificity and the radicalized local was put forward in North America as the new cutting edge for making socially engaged art in the belief that the local and the regional could become a decentralizing and democratizing force for broad social change.In 1979 Rosalind Krauss expanded the critical discourse to mesh multidisciplinary practice — which was unfettered by the conditions of any particular medium — with the idea that a more egalitarian society required a more egalitarian art.2 2 - Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, Vol. 8. (Spring 1979): 30–44. The contemporary ideal of post-studio production is frequently located in this historical moment of minimalism and post-minimalism and the dematerialized art object that emerged. Eliminating the aesthetic earmarks of virtuosic studio crafting and subjective anthropomorphism via the factory site of an industrially-based assemblage tradition, minimalism championed a trajectory of abstraction that prioritized the artwork as a literal object, leaving behind complex forms and figuration as an artistic subject. Finding the use of artistic medium as a conduit for personal expression to be an exhausted tradition of visual-material deceit, minimalism’s rejection and refusal of “subject” within the artwork was a way of transforming the arena of contemporary artistic activity, one that would surpass art’s traditional role as a communicative vessel for history, nation building, faith, fantasy, and subjective memory.
But today, the factory finish and the readymade no longer sustain the presumption of objective criticality, the socio-economic democratization of artistic medium, or the emancipation of artistic labour, and the current interest in craftsmanship under this broad umbrella term “reskilling” seems to contain a moral and ethical imperative about how we artists make our decisions, what we choose to put out into the world, and the material processes we use. There is much discussion and activity around the return to a kind of decentralized art practice. Discussions about local involvement and geographical specificity are pursued as a form of resistance to the ethical relativism and alienation of labour that accompanies our endlessly expanding fields of outsourced material production and dissemination as a “gift with purchase” juggernaut.
Within this broad conversation, a problematic blending of the concerns of “reskilling” with those of the “unmonumental” frequently occurs. Reskilling and the unmonumental do share an interest in the conditions and potential of material modesty. However, the unmonumental typically puts forth the lack of skilled labour to forefront material and referential juxtapositions and formal inventiveness, while reskilling asserts the residue of labour and process, frequently elevating labour-intensive processes carried out by the artist as important and integral. The unmonumental sustains the Modernist tradition of deskilling, and, through the lens of Modernist deskilling, reskilling can be positioned as a regressive or conservative retreat by the artist to the role of artisan catering to the wants and tastes of a clientele, mindlessly crafting objects that exist primarily to display the artist’s trained manual dexterity and the client’s financial ability to acquire the resulting products of time and skill.
But part of what I value about craft within this historical moment is just how much “the jig is up” between artisanal production and the capitalist market. Craftsmanship has always been about money and time, and in our culture time is money. Can subjective forms of expression be reconciled with capitalist methods of production? What is the place of artisanal production in a technological society? There is a limited history of “artistic disinterest” in the Modernist tradition within craft, and I consider that to be craft’s conceptual “ace in the hole.” Artisanal craft is up to its armpits in objecthood, money, class, status, ancestral pedigree, and associated privilege. The evaluation of such presumed attributes is key in my own work. At this moment of post-studio spectacle and hidden production values, the clarity of the social art history of craft is becoming increasingly attractive to artists looking to rectify the space between saying and doing. Let me unpack this thought.
In Robert Storr’s essay “Saying & Doing” for Frieze Magazine, Storr laments contemporary art’s confusion about the difference between praxis and practice — arguing that, as opposed to practice/critique as an end in itself (of which Storr is highly wary), praxis, at a minimum, requires engaging in some activity for a sufficient period of time to test one’s ideas against the reality one seeks to address. Storr argues against using politics as an artistic platform if the artist has never experienced social upheaval or participated in practical forms of political organization, and maintains that the application of political critique to the art practice of many — without the artist demonstrating a methodology of sustained activity of measurable outcomes — is meaningless. Storr issues a challenge to artists about lip-service forms of equity and pseudo meritocracy that runs rampant within the contemporary art community in order to address the current gap between theory and production. He writes:
It is therefore possible now for people who have never made anything with their hands or a machine to speak authoritatively about process and product, while they or others like them confidently pronounce on politics without having experienced social upheaval or done much in the way of practical organizing.
When pointed out, the most frequent defence is that intellectual effort should not be invidiously compared to the sweat of the brow and that making theory is praxis. Well, perhaps, if one reserves that division of labour for the handful of writers who actually think new thoughts and convincingly render them in words, as distinct from the legions who more or less opportunistically apply the thoughts of such “master minds” to art criticism, academic treatises and museum scholarship, not to mention mutually congratulatory round tables and exhibition and book reviews. . . . Yet, if there is every reason to be wary of art worldlings who critique institutions until the moment one hires them, or who preach the Foucaultian diffuseness of power while scrambling to consolidate their own, there are better ones for paying heed to artists who have dialectically matched theory and praxis in both their art and their lives.3 3 - Robert Storr, “Saying & Doing–The difference between praxis and practice,” Frieze, no. 125 (September 2009): 17.
I was elated to hear someone articulate these concerns so clearly. Perhaps I have come to feel this particular conflict more keenly than I would otherwise because I work as a professor in a university where the struggle to define just what exactly constitutes academic research within a visual arts practice is a hot point of contention with endless professional and financial repercussions. Regardless of the why and how, it is an issue that I have sought to articulate within my studio practice.
In the middle of the last century, drawing was a platform for much debate within Modernist ideas of deskilling, and drawing was frequently discussed as a mere proficiency, a tool that could be acquired, but not inherently interesting in its own right. Before that, drawing had historically been a preliminary medium. So for me, reskilling started with drawing. In North America textiles are at the most elevated (or at least their most financially competitive) when they have been on the receiving end of a paintbrush — when paint has been applied to canvas. Creative speculation, immediacy, personal vision, modesty of means, unfinishedness, and open-endedness have always been characteristics of drawing. Not so for traditional textiles. Normally textiles are deeply math based and pattern oriented, the loom being the first computer. Felt, however, is quite a different beast and is my textile medium of choice. A cloth made from the pressed mass of wool and hair, it is the only textile that can unintentionally evolve as a byproduct through the action of heat, moisture, and pressure. In his essay “Felt’s Alterity” theorist Kenneth Hayes ascribes to felt an outsider status intrinsically comprised of socially constructed meaning.
The knot by which felt is made is an ancient figure for despair at the intractability of the world; it inspires dreams of a release that can only be imagined as magical. In mythology, a single thread sufficed to undo the winding labyrinth, but the Gordian knot had to be severed. All woven textiles constantly threaten to unravel, and this unraveling is a compelling metaphor for the loss of a hard-won and carefully maintained order. This “coming undone” is irresistibly imagined as the dissolution of a self that we understand as a kind of woven tissue. Felt, on the other hand, does not ravel.4 4 - Kenneth Hayes, “Felt’s Alterity,” Felt, (ed.) Kathryn Walter (Toronto: The Museum for Textiles, 1999), 7–8.
Kenneth Hayes’s articulation of the intractable knot of felt’s creation is a useful analogy for this newly emerging, amorphous, and unruly research area of “reskilling.” My work and thought process is fraught with regressive contingency, subjectivity and process, so I use sewn paper, drawing, and needled and industrial felt to partake in these conversations from a distance, outside the traditional mediums of painting and sculpture, while conducting a concurrent dialogue with contemporary craft.