Publish or die.
Publish or die.
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Publish or die.
by Jeff Gibson
As the editor, printer and publisher of Courts and Jesters, a limited edition portfolio of artist’s prints, I’d like to talk briefly about the whys and wherefores of this particular venture, as a pretext to indulging in a couple of pet digressions concerning the location of printmedia across the art/craft divide in the Australian context.
Courts and Jesters was published in July 1992 as an edition of 20 portfolios, with a further 6 artist’s proofs. It was printed at the Tin Sheds Art Workshop, Sydney University, either in collaboration or in close consultation with the artists. The portfolio contains work by Janet Burchill, ADS Donaldson, Dale Frank, Matthys Gerber, Geoff Kleem and John Young. It was produced specifically for sale through Ars Multiplicata, a small Sydney gallery that specialises in editions and multiples. The portfolio represents in many respects exactly what Ars Multiplicata was set up to trade in. It is really the end result of discussions between the gallery’s director, Susan Shehadie, and myself, that actually predate the existence of the gallery.
Ars Multiplicata, as does Courts and Jesters, looks to Europe and America for its models and reference points. Group artist print ventures in these centres of Western art and culture, have a certain currency that is lacking here. The works literally move outwards (initially at least) by virtue of their multiplicity, towards a relatively broad audience that is reasonably au fait with the history and theory of art. While interest in contemporary art is not especially high in Australia, publishing can, I believe, still serve to promote or extend arts sphere of cultural influence. Furthermore, while prints may have once been generally perceived as a kind of underprivileged artistic spin-off, in a postmodern world they potentially constitute as legitimate a form as any, through which the signs of art might circulate.
To my way of thinking then there are parallels between the Courts and Jesters portfolio and say some of the Fluxus and Pop Art portfolios published throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. In all cases the intention was not only to promote an interest in art by providing relatively affordable objets d'art, made more accessible by their location within a peer group context, but to use the conventions of the print medium to document and extend the concerns of a group of artists of roughly the same generation.
In selecting the people for the portfolio, I was not so much concerned with constructing some kind of over-arching, all-inclusive thesis, but simply with describing an artistic territory, as diverse and idiosyncratic as its inhabitants might be. The title Courts and Jesters came very much after the fact. The portfolio is in essence, and for better or for worse, a collection of ‘prints’ by people whose work I admire and appreciate. The choices initially were that subjective. Upon reflection however it became apparent that what characterised, and possibly attracted me to this line-up, was a productive interplay between the twin tropes of formalism (Courts) and humour (Jesters), either within or between individual works.
None of these artists are, strictly speaking – ‘Printmakers’– and would in fact probably resist such descriptive tags; seeing themselves, in my opinion, as artists first and foremost, for whom a craft or medium is but a means to an end – which brings me to my first digression – how do we differentiate ‘art’ from ‘craft’, and more to the point, what do we mean by this newly coined term ‘craft-artist’, that’s being bandied about at the moment.
The meanings of these terms are of course hotly debated, and like any other terms, they are mutable, continuously re-defined by their applications. However, to me, art would seem to be described by a set of practices that take place within any given culture, that probe the limits and mechanisms of meaning and sensory response. They assume a degree of critical distance so as to be able to identify and/or refigure the rules by which we apprehend our world – a sort of creative disobedience – that although generally confined to a gallery context, might just as well happen anywhere that an audience exists. Craft, on the other hand, operates within a given set of variables. While it might engage critically with the increasingly blurred material and technical parameters that contain its various forms, it is by definition, conventional. That is, unlike art, it is not inherently meta-critical.
The Visual Arts Craft Board inspired term ‘craft-artist’ would therefore seem to constitute a kind of tactical contradiction, a bureaucratic oxymoron no less. While art may certainly be well crafted, that is effectively executed, or even adopt particular craft conventions for critical purposes; craft, according to my definition at least, cannot be artfully produced or it ceases to be craft, involving itself in a distinctly different critical agenda. You just can’t have it both ways. But where there’s a will there’s a word.
So why this conflation, why this attempt to homogenise cultural production by placing art and craft under the one banner? The old ‘craft is art’ argument, although long since discredited, is still a perennial chestnut, pointing to a kind of craft discourse theory-inferiority complex.
The current theory push around craft would seem to indicate that the crafts are undergoing in the 90s something of the theory fascination/phobia that gripped the art world in the 80s. Postmodern deconstructive theory was perhaps the critique the visual arts had to have. However, just as some 80s ‘thesis-art’ masqueraded as philosophy, some of the theory being grafted onto craft objects at the moment seems more concerned with identifying craft as art by dent of its association with high brow theory, than with analysing the mechanisms of production and reception specific to the passage of craft through culture. What’s more, an atmosphere of intimidation surrounds the craft-theory discourse, as it did the 80s art-theory push, that has given rise to an escalating and misguided wordiness that gets further and further away from the object of analysis.
Just as this preoccupation with theory was, and perhaps always is, necessary to rethink the nature and function of art, post-whatever, the preoccupation with theory for craft might also be necessary to rethink the nature and function of craft. However, redefining craft as art, once again, would seem to be a critical red herring, at best a curious aside, and at worst a careerist and/or paranoid beat-up.
The term ‘craft-artist’ then, is in my opinion a kind of semantic band-aid or rationalisation for decreased support for art and craft as different forms of cultural production. While a degree of overlap and cross-referencing obviously exists, and is perhaps favoured under this new regime, this dovetailing of terms must surely result in the trimming off of those aspects of art and craft that are completely irreconcilable – that is, the more esoteric end of art, and the more traditional and populist end of craft. This has certainly been borne out in the latest round of professional development and fellowship grants.
While something is still better than nothing, in terms of government support for the arts, and complaints like these play right into the hands of the enemy, who would rather see the whole business shut down, the fact remains that what we have here is a closing off, a narrowing of options, a middle-class bland-out, and an attempt to rewrite the critical cultural agenda to suit a severely compromised arts funding policy.
So where does ‘Printmaking’, and more to the original point of this paper, the Courts and Jesters portfolio, fit in relation to all of this? Printmaking has long been thought of as a ‘minor’ artform, or craft, alongside the big guns or so-called ‘major’ artforms of high culture – painting and sculpture. With the collapse of foundationalist thinking, and high/low cultural hierarchies, the medium is these days, to those who subscribe to this logic, but a vehicle or a sign system, and the distinction between fine arts and crafts lies more with the identification of the degree of critical intent. That is, whether the object operates within, or beyond, the epistemological strictures that govern its context. In other works, according to my schema, the distinction between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ is these days based not on the chosen media but on the critical function of the object or utterance in question; meaning it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
Although the art market favours unique originals over multiples, on the basis of their rarity, and hence investment-based collectibility, an exclusive preoccupation with a particular medium might just as well indicate a subjective material empathy with the medium's distinguishing characteristics, that can be deployed towards a variety of ends, as it might indicate a non-reflexive fascination with the medium's traditional aesthetic regime. Accordingly, print media might just as well provide the means by which an artistic proposition can be most effectively put, as it might also simply re-plough the fields of conventional ‘Print’ aesthetics.
The majority of the works in Courts and Jesters have been screenprinted, simply because the process is versatile, reproductive, affordable, and available. I talked through the options with all the artists, attempting to coax out of them forms and ideas that would translate well into the medium. What we ended up with is to my way of thinking, a document and a catalogue of artworks, a kind of six for the price of one partial index to a group of Sydney contemporary artists and their respective concerns.
In a recessionary climate what meagre market support ever existed for contemporary art has shrunk back on all sides. As we all know the publication of edition prints places high culture within the financial grasp of a relatively broad audience. Therefore, though hardly popular culture, edition prints serve to promote an interest in contemporary art. They are, ideally, not only artworks, but in their multiplicity, a promo campaign of sorts for a set of aesthetic/philosophical propositions.
As terminally bourgeois as high art culture may be, it does at least provide space for critical and speculative activity unavailable elsewhere. It is in fact its immediate sociological uselessness that enables its esoteric abstractions and analyses. However, none of this it seems is valued highly within our culture and but for the grand delusions of the artistic ego, art would I’m sure, wither and die in such an un-nurturing environment. Courts and Jesters was therefore, I believe, not only the first of hopefully many attempts on my behalf to give form to a generation of artists, but also a shot in the arm for an ailing contemporary art scene. So, in conclusion, might I say – publish or die.
© Jeff Gibson, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1987.