Denis Dutton, the recently deceased author of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times a few years ago in response to the auctioning of one of Damien Hirst‘s infamous medicine cabinets:
The pricey medicine cabinet belongs to a tradition of conceptual art: works we admire not for skillful hands-on execution by the artist, but for the artist’s creative concept. Mr. Hirst has a talent for coming up with concepts that capture the attention of the art market, putting him in the company of other big names who have now and again moved away from making art with their own hands: Jeff Koons, for example, who has put vacuum cleaners into Plexiglas cases and commissioned an Italian porcelain manufacturer to make a cheesy gold and white sculpture of Michael Jackson and his pet chimp. Mr. Koons need not touch the art his contractors produce; the ideas are his, and that’s enough.
Sophisticated gallery owners or curators normally respond with withering condescension to worries about the lack of craftsmanship in contemporary art. Art has moved on, I’ve heard it argued, since Victorian times, when “she’d painted every hair” was ordinary aesthetic praise. What is important today is not technical skill, but skill in playing inventively with ideas.
Dutton uses the rest of his piece to demonstrate that objects that are well crafted, made by hand (in the most positive sense), and beautiful have always played a role in our species’ history, a point of view expounded in more detail in his last book.
The importance and role of craft and handmadeness are on my mind these last few weeks after having viewed the final exhibits for three different MFA programs. Based on the work featured in these three shows, it is clear to me that each program has a tacit—or in some cases, explicit— attitude about the importance of craftsmanship in contemporary art.
Invoking the Roberta Smith taste test* (my personal version of Occam‘s razor for navigating the world of art) I give a high five to Rhode Island School of Design. Yes it is a great art school with extraordinary resources and easy access to different disciplines and programs. But respect for the hand and the craft is evident even when the work is taking a counter position. A RISD value, “to encourage generative thinking and making” is clearly evident in this show.
Beyond the sprawling MFA exhibit however is additional evidence of how the school views handmadeness. Quietly on display in RISD’s spectacular library (situated inside a massive bank building brilliantly repurposed by Office dA) is an exhibit of handmade books by the students of Jan Baker. Baker has been teaching a book making class for 25 years and her collection of student samples is close to 500. Baker has chosen 200 and painstakingly created a “displayscapes,” lovingly populating the museum cases with these exquisitely crafted works. Arranged by themes—story telling, travel, animals, food, alphabets for example—each display cabinet invites your eye to explore a miniature world of artistic mastery. Baker has color coded each piece by the decade in which it was done, pointing out that much of the meticulous cutwork had to be done by hand. “These older works were made long before we had a laser cutter.” I could have spent hours excavating inside each one.
Displaying artist books has been frustrating curators for a long time, and Baker is equally stymied by how to share objects that are designed to be held in the hand, paged through slowly and carefully. Her kimono-like styling—a page open here, a pop up offered there—is more enticing than most artist book shows I have seen. But the longing to jimmy the glass and reach in to hold these gems is constant.
The show is up through July. The displays are on several levels, so be sure to visit all of them, including the window box in the Special Collections wing. This is an unforgettable exhibit.
*The Roberta Smith Taste Test:
What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.