Originally published in Artweek, April 2009
The bubble is burst. The boomtown shanties are abandoned. The era of globetrotting art superstars and collector feeding frenzies at lavish art fairs feels as distant as Weimar Germany. There is an admirable presidential administration in place that asks us to behave like adults and roll up our sleeves and get to work. No more evil cabal to resent and fight against (and use global corporate profits to fuel the art boom). What is an artist to do? The unease is palpable. But many are also celebrating the open possibilities and the end to bloated, pointless art. Like a growing murmur, craft is emerging as a reinvigorated force. Design, its more successful and hip twin, has enjoyed unparalleled success in the market place and academia in the past decade while craft shrunk in the glare of shiny stainless steel surfaces and square backed modernist objects. Design within reach is even more out of reach than it was before. Now the switch is flipped– everyone is looking down to see that we are not on solid ground, but hanging in air and falling into the ravine below. And so to many craft looks suddenly attractive.
Craft like another field I’ll discuss here– comics– is one of the Northwest’s strongest exports (I could also mention indie music and the culinary arts but that gets too far afield). In Portland the Museum of Contemporary Craft moved from its former WPA built home into a bigger, more visible space downtown. Pacific Northwest College of Art (where I am a faculty member) recently announced a new MFA in applied craft offered jointly with the Oregon College of Art and Craft. PNCA is in the process of partnering with the Craft Museum. While craft is beginning to realize it needn’t be embarrassed to be itself, cartoonists have already felt the glow of legitimization. The Portland metropolitan area is home to some of the top comic artists working right now– from Joe Sacco who creates searing visual journalism in graphic novel form to Craig Thompson whose best selling graphic memoir Blankets is a gateway to serious comic literature for many people to Brian Michael Bendis, the architect of the current Marvel Comics universe. Portland is to comics what New York was to abstract painting in the forties. In fact last year, Mayor Tom Potter officially declared April Comics Month in Portland.
At this point, you might be wondering what the two have to do with each other. What do two disparate fields with virtually no overlap have to do with a deflated art economy? A great deal. Places like Portland, Seattle, Eugene and Vancouver have always served as halfway houses, seedbeds and purgatories for artists. In an earlier column in this magazine, I referred to these cities as islands in a cultural archipelago. Each island has a certain ease of living as well as an anxiety of exile. For those artists hoping to affect the mainland of art history and remain on the island, very special strategies need to be employed. But there is another kind of artist who finds a home in these mid-sized cities. The artist who willfully thumbs his nose at the establishment, or the art school dropout who finds the art world proper to be filled with phonies and of course there are those who never cared either way. These last exiles often take up a potter’s wheel, letterpress, loom or a cartoonist’s pen to work in a medium that appears more honest.
If the art world is in fact full of phonies and artists stopped making work based on “quality” in exchange for a dodgy conceptualism, then the craftsperson or cartoonist will make something great out of humbler fare. There is a sense in the position of some of these craftspeople and cartoonists that they are holding the line against the disintegration of true art for the people. What both camps (the craftsman and the cartoonist, and I use cartoonist to describe anyone working in comics in general from the most mainstream to the most avant-garde) share is a retrograde love of dying mediums, a perception of working in a more honest and ethical medium and a direct relationship to the market. What I mean by this last statement is that unlike the mainstream contemporary art world, in which billions of dollars are spent yearly to support the whole system, but money is seen as a necessary evil, sometimes even a contaminant, these two groups want to sell directly to their audience. Their goal is practical. They want to make a living from their art. They partake in craft fairs and comic cons, and sell in shops and bookstores rather than galleries or museums. The surfeit of cash that filled the art bubble came from the very sources of the recession. Speculative buying, exclusive brand name must-haves and lavish martini fueled cocktail parties defined the art world up to this past year. But anxiety and distrust lurked beneath the surface. Notions of value and the expectations of the market have suddenly evened the playing field. The craft and comic communities already know how to sell you something directly with very little mediation.
The borders between art worlds are porous however. There are just as many artists working within the more provincial fields of craft and comics hoping for a spotlight to shine on them from the Olympus of New York or L.A. as there are artists working in gallery settings that try to sneak in an earnest love of the well-made thing. And the art world has already laid the groundwork for this crossover. In recent years social practice and relational aesthetics (another strong tendency in Portland thanks to the influence of artists like Harrell Fletcher and MK Guth) replace the native social context of craft objects for an amorphous theoretical one. Martin Puryear’s 2007 retrospective at MoMA and Grayson Perry’s 2003 Turner prize demonstrated reconsideration of high craft. Chris Ware and Robert Crumb’s acceptance into the fold of art history as well as Takashi Murakami’s Superflat all demonstrate a serious evaluation of comics as something to value in their own right. The current scene is a very different stance from the bland Pop appropriation of Roy Lichtenstein and Mel Ramos. The main tension between comics and craft purists and art world hardliners is one of value and philosophy. When the former is absorbed into the latter, something fundamental changes in context. Most practitioners of craft or comics value the directness of their respective mediums. Cartoonists and craftspeople are proudly populist despite the very rarified palette it takes to truly enjoy The Frank Book by Jim Woodring or a crusty wood fired pot. They tend to be frankly conservative in the truest sense of the word. Artists who have appropriated “low art” techniques and imagery or risen from the ranks of the provinces lose that connection to the direct and become by default more rarified. In short, the mainstream art world is urbane. It values wit and cleverness, while the craftsmen and cartoonists are townies. They value “common sense” and directness.
In Richard Sennett’s recent book The Craftsman he examines the role of the craftsman in western economic culture. Sennett expands the term beyond makers of traditional crafts to include Linux programmers and hospital workers. In his definition of the craftsman model, the satisfaction of good work is its own reward and the healthy competition and camaraderie of a community of crafts people can make for a much more effective work model. In a discussion of architects and the rampant use of CAD programs he talks about the pitfalls of “disembodied design”– architects who don’t actually know how to build or don’t have a true sense of a site. The brand-name artist who flies from biennial to biennial to plop down a diluted version of his or her signature style, the CEO touted as a “visionary” who has no real material grasp on the workings of the company or the architect who creates purely conceptual buildings that end up serving as unusable follies are all models of disembodied design. We have come to value an idea over physical reality. This kind of visionary thinking could be inspiring and help promote great leaps in culture. The flip side however is a naked emperor. While the going is good, who needs to have the party pooped on by some nay sayers who can’t see that if you dream it up and convince enough people of your Ponzi scheme, it will be true? But now the house of cards has tumbled.
A healthy dose of physical reality is just the medicine we all need. We need those cantankerous makers of actual things to remind us of the simple pleasures. Right? Not so fast. The entrenched distrust of pure idea inherent in the craft and comic worlds brings with it a stultifying tendency to squash nuance. While the very directness that makes them so attractive in the first place could be killed by academic forensics, the inbred tendencies of both worlds foster lazy work. The romance of the Luddite working ethically against a modernist tide is naïve and untrue. A shot of some complex theory enlivens craft and comics. It must be also said that different contexts call for different approaches. Some times a Johnny Ryan fart joke is just that. No need to do anything but enjoy it. It is best to understand the context in which something works best. However, the cellular structure of community in which makers work directly with their audience both in terms of content and the market is a good model for the art world. Rather than think in terms of provinces versus the city, it might be more constructive to think in terms of mutual interconnectedness. What these townies marooned on these islands and cul-de-sacs have to offer is a better model for making a more meaningful visual culture. The correction of the market and the lesson of scenes like those in the Northwest is that a balance could be struck between seemingly disparate goals. Artists are synthesizers of ideas. They work in a field of ideas and make them physically manifest. There is nothing vital about artists in our current consumer culture. A Damien Hirst is really just a signifier like a Patek watch. Artists need to regain their place as purveyors of the physicality of ideas. Ideas and context must exist directly in the economic blood stream. The things artists make must be dirtied with the mud of the market but contain seeds of light– bright metaphors and shining ideas, complexities masquerading as junk.