Why printmakers can’t talk.

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Why printmakers can’t talk.


Nelson, Robert.


Australian Print Symposium. Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1987 - ongoing.



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Why printmakers can’t talk.
by Robert Nelson


Well, they can talk – they have plenty to say about their art – but they have not persuaded the rest of the art community that printmaking is really hospitable to sustained discourse. Their talk is among themselves and lacks an interdisciplinary life: it tends to the unspeculative; we miss the agonies about interpretation, abstraction, referentiality and (bizarrely) the very reproducibility which lies close to the heart of the craft. It would seem logical to assume that the prints, rather than the printmakers’ talk, are responsible for this emptiness. Perhaps printmakers have not engaged with theory or attracted the interest of theorists because they are not making an interesting product. But surely not! Would anyone be able to identify a lack of fascination in prints, ideologically sensitive issues, imagination, subtle or ambiguous motifs or powerful expressiveness?

The problem, one way or another, relates to talk. The unreadiness of printmakers to engage in discourse demotes their product. Because they are unwilling to construct, as Ruth Weisberg lamented, ‘a framework of ideas and concepts that would locate our practice in relation to the larger intellectual paradigms of our time’,[1] printmakers leave their public to doubt that their product does exist within such a framework. And so, without confidence in an intellectual frame of reference, the critical spectator is left to think the worst and the very virtues just mentioned are devalued. The fascination in prints is a mysterious but superficial and mechanical condiment of the aesthetic; the ideologically sensitive issues are hypocritically rehearsed in pristine commercial galleries; the imagination is ultimately vain formalist baggage or wanton tropes; the subtle or ambiguous motifs are a rhetorical game whose ironies are defeated by self-consciousness and pretension; the powerful expressiveness is an emotional form of Kitsch. Printmaking remains a modest medium and any claims to dialectic are thin and pompous.

Perhaps an art which does not take care of its reception indeed deserves whatever contempt it encounters. But if only this vicious circle of dread silence and harsh scepticism could be broken! Printmakers would do well to examine an analogous situation prevailing in the craft world 10 years ago but which has been substantially reversed from the late ’80s to today.

At the very burgeoning of postmodern consciousness in both design and fine art, craft was perceived as well nigh obsolete by the critical community: it was retardataire, hippy in the most naive sense of embodying unlikely alternatives to the industrial world. There was scant discourse of any theoretical vigour, no semiotics, no sense of challenge from within and, consequently, no projection of internal dialectic to the outside world. Talk in craft seemed dominated by congratulation about superb formalist mastery, tedious claims to authenticity and honesty, sometimes inspiring hymns to earthiness and quaint alternative spirituality. Admittedly, some of this still goes on – and so it should, just as there will always be a place for the notorious brown pots of the 60s and 70s – but it has been offset by powerful interrogation and craft has become, as I see it, one of the foremost areas of discourse. From a bunch who had probably never heard of French literary theory, craftspeople are now used to reading ambitious texts in their journals and seem poised to contribute a valuable redefinition of the objects which they make.

Craft has lost its self-satisfaction. The critical revolution has occurred through a number of themes. First, there is the distinction between art and craft. As art has been perceived to have greater value than craft, an understandable but lamentable emulation of art by craft was detected by theorists such as Caroline Miley. Miley unsparingly deplored the direction of craft practice which denied craft its logical and historical identity. Second, there is the distinction between craft and design (in the sense of industrial design), a theme pursued by critics such as Peter Timms. Third, the meaning of craft objects arises through ‘stories’, forever related to ritual, issues of gender, the whole gamut of social conditioning. The private sociology and politics of craft have been explored by practitioners such as Anne Brennan as well as by scholars such as Sue Rowley. Finally, and it is the area which interests me particularly, there is the phenomenology of all objects of use, a study which may lead to the expressive redefinition of objects according to a poetic understanding of their function. All four areas are loaded with values, hence contention. And all relate the notion of craft to the realities of life outside the studio.

Printmaking, like the other fine arts, is not privileged with access to the new glamour of craft. Like the other fine arts, printmaking has no immediate relation to corporal experience. We do not put prints in our mouth or slip them around our writs; they have little bearing on the rituals of daily life which give to craft objects (and objects of design) their striking critical prestige. Any yet nearly all the themes above have some application to printmaking. In particular, the relation between printmaking (qua fine art) and its neighbours, print media, photography, illustration, cartoons (and so on, before we even get to computers) seems to be an inexhaustibly fruitful theme for debate. I am sure that there is no shortage of agonising to do. It is safe to assume that the reason for the chronic taciturnity of printmakers has nothing to do with an absence of critical themes.

The anti-analytical temperament

My title is provocative. Why printmakers can’t talk. Let me become outrageous. Printmakers can’t talk in the same way that they can’t draw. Of course, printmakers as artists can draw; it is just that printmakers as printmakers cannot or, if they do, they do so evasively, in a special language of marks which deflects the perceptual onus of traditional drawing practice. Many printmakers rank among our most talented draftspeople.[2] But what happens when they make prints? Something so inimical to perceptual drawing that we have become used to identifying the printerliness of a print by a peculiarly elliptical kind of drawing, a mineral sort of representation whose natural element seems allied to strata of sand rather than light. I* go around the studios and the galleries and seldom see a figure in space rendered with any convincing likeness. I do not often see the consistent representation of light striking all surfaces in a coherent way; instead, I see much exquisite scratchy and filtered mark-making without great care for a ‘sensible’ definition of motifs.

No, I understand that printmakers are not obliged to belong to the perceptual tradition; but why this alienation from that long tradition of illusionism which printmaking more or less shares with painting and drawing? And sure, I also understand that contemporary painting is not by and large defined through perceptual traditions either; but painters nevertheless still have an alternative, an alternative which they may despise but whose vitality remains in the background to be drawn upon (no pun) by postmodern painters, especially, of course, those working in a historicist mode. To the extent that printmakers have inherited the dominant aesthetic of printerliness, they are hindered in developing such an alternative. They are light averse. And this reluctance to describe analytically has special implications in an art with so little reflexive discourse.

Printmakers think mark. They do not think light. On a blank sheet of paper, an artist may explore the visual world analytically, registering the logic by which forms emerge in light; but if the same artist takes the drawing to a print – and seeks that stylistic quality which we call printerliness – the drawing must undergo an initiation of lo-tech mysteries: amnesia for light will creep in and a cryptic incantation of signatures and notations will substitute for all features previously analysed with graphite. Thus, a foot may turn into a wedge; a neck will become a coil; eyes will become golf balls. Little analytically life-like will survive that acid bath and the sense of three dimensions will be squeezed out in the press. A portrait in printmaking will be a caricature, even if it is flattering to the sitter. In any case, portraits in printmaking are rare, just because they demand so much visual analysis, so much drawing skill (in my favourite sense of the word drawing).[3] Printmaking is an art by and large without visual curiosity. In printmaking, the world is predetermined as so many marks.

The technology of printmaking is not in itself the problem. We are usually dealing with the same medium as that used by Rembrandt. On no account must we seek a technical explanation for a conceptual limitation. Printmakers cannot draw (in my favourite sense of the word drawing) because their aspirations to printerliness are generally driven by non-perceptual conventions. Why? Why is our understanding of a print so removed from perceptual drawing, when the medium of paper and the drawn trait are essential to both in their purest form? Drawing on paper is relatively unlike the physical process of painting; nevertheless, the tradition of painting is informed by drawing. What happened to printmaking? Why the separation from the tradition of drawing with which it would seem to have natural affinities?

Gloom in the chapters of light

There are at least two ‘revolutions’ in the vision of light assisting the development of modern art. The first is photography, a technology for mechanically registering light on paper. The second is Impressionism, let us say a style in painting which proposed the autonomy of light, its free agency in the sparkle of things, often confused and ‘dancing’ rather than constructively linked to the plasticity of solid volumes. It is no accident that in the perceptual dimension of Impressionist painting, the accent falls on colour rather than form. Painting moves away from printmaking (which is ‘naturally’ less chromatic) and photography moves toward printmaking. Compromised on one side and deserted on the other, printmaking will be left holding a gloomy baby.

In short order, the Symbolists made light artificial and, unlike most Impressionists, they made prints. Printmaking was ‘natural’ to the Symbolism, printmaking would have to become purified beneath a sparge of aesthetic nuances. It would become an art of visual extrapolation. As its motifs arose from the imagination, the forms of representation would need to be more arbitrary, more evocative of their own evolution, than any perceptual tradition had hitherto developed. With printmakers like Redon – so popular today – [4] the passages of marks and biting encroach upon the definition of structure within motifs. The modern clairvoyant notion of printmaking is born. Although printmaking does not yet become abstract, drawing in the perceptual tradition is losing its grip on the medium. The subjective incubus of the modern print was anti-analytical. Printmaking divorced itself from analytical drawing because it belonged loosely to a discourse, a discourse super-saturated by an anti-empirical mood. Printmaking in its non-perceptual clairvoyance was the ideal vehicle for late Romanticism.

The print as clairvoyant poem would depend upon a gloomy style, an imagery of solitary things against a universal ground of formalist erosion. The print would be a couch for phantoms; its upholstery would not be a skin of subsidiary motifs but the direct wadding of crafted marks. Figures would occupy a non-place, sometimes the edge of the world, sometimes the ocean of firmament, but in all events the element, the plate in its mineral disposition, affected by the attack of a fierce inorganic fluid or, in lithography, an organic slipperiness between fluids of incompatible surface tension. It would be the lo-tech antidote to the ubiquitous and undiscriminating specificity of outdoor photography. Instead of systematic machinery privileging the incidental motif as much as the key motif, the print would dispose of the rest of the world. There would be no pitter-patter caused by light penetrating trees. The print would contain no innocent person’s leg as he or she is about to move out of frame. The same leg in a print would have to be portentous or sinister. And, unlike the Impressionist painters, printmakers had no interest in the splashes of light in all corners. Instead, they developed a form of design – a great cliché in Munch's lithographs – which enveloped the key motif in a frame of giddy gloom.

The print as clairvoyant poem was certainly offset by other kinds of print (such as illustration and many manifestations which we would now describe under the term graphic design) but the print qua fine art would be haunted by the heady quest for fantasy, by delicate rêves from a poet’s bed-time delirium. The inwardness and social irresponsibility of the Symbolists did not remain to spook all succeeding printmakers but certain visual conventions in the medium were set in place. They are conventions by and large ideally suited to late Romanticism, to the thrill of the dream's unscripted trajectory, to a Liebestod, consumption or an exquisite decapitation.

So where does that leave printmaking today, now that a Symbolist discourse would be yet daggier than brown pots and no vigorous postmodern discourse has replaced it?

Must printmaking still rely on some form of romanticism to be valid? Or will neo-expressionism, whose emotional rhetoric was influential in the 80s (and which is congenitally light averse), take printmaking into yet gloomier introversion? Will printmaking ever be redeemed by sounder ideological and epistemological identifications? It is possible. An examination of the status of drawing in the art would help bring it about. But whether or not printmakers revise their drawing, we may be reasonably sure of one likelihood: they will not rebuild the credibility of their art unless they practice some talking.


Printmaking suffers from an anti-analytical temperament. This emerges both in the lack of discourse surrounding its imagery and the paucity of perceptual drawing within its dominant stylistic conventions. Printmaking seems somehow bound to one form of romanticism or another, even when it takes on that megalomaniac exhibitionism seen in the Master-Printmakers show in Canberra and Melbourne. What can we learn from those modernist celebrations of the machinery of popular imagery? The romancing of popular culture reinforces the view that printmaking has a manic and uncritical relationship to concepts of visual artificiality.

If printmaking today is predominantly romantic and self-referential, the solution lies not in a sudden politicising or technologizing of its imagery. In the prevailing anti-analytical mood, the politicising would be emotional and indulgent and the technologizing would become another modernist myth. The solution lies within the deeper tradition of printmaking itself. As suggested earlier, the medium is not intrinsically inhospitable to analytical thought, neither stylistically nor iconographically. Etching, after all, was one of the tools by which the Enlightenment undertook the publication of empirical science. Postmodern discourse offers so much scope for printmaking to tackle its history, to deconstruct its modernist assumptions and to cultivate a more challenging, more analytical conceptual basis.

© Robert Nelson, 1992.
Paper presented at The Second Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1992.

[1] ‘The absent discourse: critical theories and printmaking’ in The Tamarind Papers, vol. 13, 1990,

[2] And, of course, some do introduce such drawing practice into printmaking, such as Caroline Durré and Graham Peebles. There are plenty of exceptions; but I want to focus on what seems to me to be the underlying direction of the art in today’s practice.

[3] I have tried to develop a definition of drawing in my article ‘The end of drawing: semiotic history of an essential art’, in Agenda, vol. 25 (forthcoming at the time of writing).

[4] The Symbolist mood had a similar effect on works on paper in general; one could say that the tradition of drawing was redefined in the period, with artists like Lévy-Dhurmer exploiting charcoal and so on to suggest irreality.