Has Technical Become a Dirty Word: Part Two - The Fall of The Maker

Cow with two tails, Ben Dolman 2013

The relationship in art and design between the technical, the maker, concept and subject [matter] underwent dramatic changes as did most things towards the end of the twentieth century. In England we saw the rise of Thatcherism, the fall of our manufacturing base, the explosion in consumerism and the service industries, the growth of national and personal debt, the undermining of community and the herald of individualism. Globally we saw the end of the cold war and the start of the religious and oil wars, we witness the unstoppable advance of the digital revolution, globalism and free trade, the start of the decline western power as its industrial based was moved to cheaper labour markets and the subsequent rise of developing countries like China and India, the old world order is in a state of flux and change.

The end of the twentieth century marked the end of modernism, the end of what some term the second part of the industrial revolution and the arrival of the third part, the digital industrial revolution, the first parts of the industrial revolution were marked by water, stream, electrical and oil power. Modernism brought an era of rapid social and environmental change, the continued mechanisation of making and the subdivision of labour, the urbanisation of the world’s population, invention and wonder in the arts and sciences, political conflict, ideological extremism and two world wars.

At the tail end of modernism and at the height of the cold war some in western society had become exhausted by what they saw or perceived as the relentless, brutalist and increasing bleakness of modernism and sought something else. From the late 1970’s and into the next decade there was a break with the post war consensus. In politics when the cold war came to an end with the collapse of the eastern bloc there was a rise of right wing liberalism and the free market. In England it’s traditional manufacturing base collapse as production was exported to developing countries with cheaper and more exploitable labour markets, there was a decline in investment in new technologies and innovation which coupled with labour disputes that led to a breakdown of trust between employees and employer and a fall in workplace productivity. In the place of industry and manufacturing in England there was a rise of consumerism, de-regulation of the financial markets and the credit boom, war on unionised labour, the fall of the manufacturing north and the rise of the hedonistic south. Power and wealth seemed to flow to the privilege few, individualism triumphed over the community, greed over mutual responsibility, social cohesion was thrown into a flux.

In industry and science new digital technologies replaced previous analogue modes of production and innovation, harnessing the power of computerisation factories could replace people with robots, the human genome DNA was be sequenced, the known universe mapped and visualised, the world got smaller connected together by the world wide web. In photography the film camera was being replaced by the digital camera, the family photo album by social sharing media networks. In art and design the new visual manifestations of post-modernism first appeared in architecture and then in the other arts as pioneered by the Memphis movement. With post-modernism came an increase in the appropriation of the visual past put together in ironic and witty pastiches that sought to represent the new now, a bastardisation of styles as you will. Some artists referenced Pop Art which suited the new brash consumerism, others the absurd art of DaDa to the Surrealists searching for shock [value], the one line joke and the ironic. In the 1980’s there was a re-emergence of figurative and mannerist painting and sculpture in the visual arts which quickly found an art market to satisfied the new monied class of the city. The art of the 1980’s could be more easily be packaged, sold and hung on the newly converted lofts than the conceptual, performative and land art of the 1970’s that it proceeded. In the 1990’s there was a renewed interest in the work and ideas of Marcel Duchamp in art school’s like Goldsmiths which gave birth to the YBA’s [Young British Artists]. YBA’s supplied the increasing appetites of the new rich and the expanding art market whose white gallery walls offered a ‘cultured’ retail experience but this time the artists helped shape the market, working in unison with the dealers and collectors in promoting their work, artists were now complicit in the consumerisation of the arts. From the 1970’s onwards photography started to figure more in contemporary art practice through artists using the media of photography as their prime medium of creation in their own work, there was also a wider apprehension of photography as a ‘valid’ art-form and a reassessment of photography by progressive museum curators. Art dealers and collectors also sought photography as a more affordable and alternative art form in an art market that was becoming more expensive and exclusive in the sales of its more traditional art.

In the traditional arts the term technical once offered a craftsmanship to the making process, the technical offered new materials and tools to the artist who took time to learn and execute them well. Some artists continued to employ technical skills in there making whilst other artists employed external craft and technical staff to execute the making on their behalf. Today some artists that reside in a generation that seek instant gratification considered the time to learn a skill and process properly as inconvenient and distracting as such  knowledge in the now and present is irrelevant and pointless, the technical skill and it’s execution for some artists has started to become unrelated to the process of making, for them making became less visually inclined and physical in the traditional sense. There was also another group of emerging artists who chose a more textural and conceptual approach to art, that of the slogan, the ready made and the appropriated, the act of making sometimes did not figure at all in their artwork. The traditional visual arts like painting have since the advent of the printing press and then later with the emergence of photography lost their central role in society to communicate and represent the world around us. They became more internalised, abstracted, experimental and expressive whilst retaining a sense of our humanity and responded to our ever changing world with a visual intelligence and emotional insight, post modernism seemed to break this thread.

With advent of post modernism we have seen the rise of the maverick in art which is not new but it has become the norm in certain art circles, a self marketing maverick with the one line joke or bite sized concept whose art was maybe apt for the age, that of self gratification and the superficial. The past was plundered and refashioned and offered as something new, the invention and questioning of the conventions avant grade was mistaken as the need to shock rather than as a consequence of, a shock for shock value alone, a shock of the fun ride at the fair rather than something deeper in the human psyche. The subject and concepts of art became more and more self referential, the art of the ME for the ME generation, the image of the self firmly fixed in a mirror. The ego in art has always been there since the Renaissance that put the individual artist on the centre stage, but in the history of art it has tended to be in the context of other things, now it is just the artist and an increasing narrow view of art theory and practice. This maybe a symptom of the age, a sad indirect reflection of todays celebratory obsessed culture and Facebook or MEbook which was to become a prevalent form of social media after the turn of the twentieth century. Sometimes I feel like saying f**k ‘the ME generation’ a generation that grew from the 1960’s onwards, the culture of the narcissistic that refers to its children as little princes and princes, the cult of the self-[ish], to grab one’s 15 minutes of fame without doing and making something, taking no responsibility for anything and contributing nothing to society, to take and never give, to be celebrated for the mere act of just being.

The language and the methods of teaching in art and design departments are in some cases becoming more paradoxical, logic and rationality are being sidelined and in their place there is a promotion of something called  critical thinking and the invalid argument that has little time for the technical and a more rounded view of the subject. It seems in certain areas of higher education in the arts that it might be best put technical in a separate box now, narrowed the subject matter, restrict the context to a ‘leftist’ political or ideological viewpoint and just reflect on politically correct pre-defined concepts and themes, an ideological conceptual practice that only offers a mono-creativity that refers only to itself, an art that is insular and increasing elitist, an art that is distant and whose language is no longer that of the common tongue.

Taking in a common tongue, the ability to communicate to a wide audience a given specialism be it art or physics requires great skill. I often go to conferences and talks and note that the older or should I say more mature the speakers are the plainer the language is and ease they communicate complex ideas in a simple, engaged and effective manner. Perhaps this is a reflection of a deep understanding and context of their subject whilst younger speakers such as PhD students, who are sometimes the worst offenders in using long words, complex terms and constructs seem to do so as a misguided willingness to impress their immediate peers or to create a mask for a lack of understanding and wider knowledge of their subject and its context, this lack of understanding or confidence manifests itself into a self-referential and alien like language. An introverted and convoluted language is understandable for someone young finding their feet but from the mouth of someone in their middle years one does wonder. Speaking of one in their middle years if you find some or all of my posts descending into gibberish and using fancy long words feel free to rise an eyebrow and wonder if Ben might not know what he is writing about. To speak outside one’s discipline to a wider audience in a plain language is not to dumb it down, far from it makes it more intelligent for it conveys knowledge to others which brings to mind TED talks and BBC documentaries, science and natural history programmes at their finest, the broadcast of thoughts and ideas.

Some streams of contemporary fine art practice draw heavily on western art theory and philosophy developed over the last couple centuries, it offers interesting insights into the western social psyche, but it must in my view be handled with care. Like all things a depth in the understanding of subject is of prime importance before one can make an informed comment on it and employ it in one’s work. It is a bit like learning the history of art just from the start of Impressionism, madness, best start at the beginning with cave paintings and earth works, the same is of philosophy, if you find this intellectual field of inquiry interesting and it informs your work best start with Plato and Aristotle and noting that there is perhaps not a universal truth and look at other cultures’ philosophical writings beyond that of western civilisation.

Personally I find modern philosophy in relation to art theory hard work, in my youth I found that I could absorb it but as I get older and see more of the world, hear other views, observe different ways of doing things I see too many paradoxes, arguments that are for me too subjective and I cannot test them. I can manage a couple of pages of art theory before my eye lids become too heavy and I drift off, thats me, others seem to consume it with vigour and passion. I prefer reading social and natural history, biographers on art and photography, newspapers, technical and artists blogs and subjects about science, design and engineering, it suits the way my mind works and deals with knowledge now.

The greatest form of knowledge for me though is through observation, looking at the world and trying to figure how it works, the process and cycles of nature and humanity. I often refer to my observations of the world and the resulting visual documents as ‘visual intelligence’, these visual documents or artefacts are different to that of ‘literal intelligence’ and very different in my view from a ‘theoretical intelligence’. What underpins my pursuit of a visual intelligence in making an artefact is a technical process, a technical process that is as integral as the subject, the concept and the context they are placed in. It does not matter when I do a painting, make a chair, take a photograph, design a website or create a virtual object I employ a ‘blue collar’ work ethic, that of manual and technical application in the creation of things. In the third act of this essay ‘the rise of the tweed jacket’ I shall expand on what I mean by using the term ‘blue collar’ in the context of the visual arts and design.

Perhaps in hindsight in the flux of postmodernism and the rise of ideological and cultural dogmas in fine art practice it might have been best that concept should always be balanced with context, a context that is broad, inclusive and open, sometimes founded outside a discipline so as to test and reflect ones ideas and conceits to other modes of understanding and exploration. These might be the ‘rational’ or empirical modes of inquiry and analysis of the sciences and engineering or the irrational tenets of religion and politics, the phenomena of nature and the universe or that of the world of commerce, trade and work, what ever the external reflection and subject matter of a practice it helps it stop becoming incestuous. This reflection should be deeper than the usual superficial appropriation of imagery and ideas that occurs in so much in the visual arts today, to fully understand a subject and develop a concept we need to have an empathy with other things besides oneself and an individual specialism.

Some may say that the ‘traditional’ visual arts today no-longer needs to have a social responsibility and by extension the need to communicate to a wide and broad audience, that maybe true and maybe this type of art is just happy to be consumed as a fancy decoration on the white walls of the gallery or face inwards upon itself and become some kind of distant arcane visual niche within academia. Fine but it does not mean that one has to agree or abide by this fatalism and I see new media like photography and film challenging that assumption when they are not assimilated by the new wave of art theorists. Even in these new forms of visual making one might say a single image cannot change the world but sometimes it does make you pause and think about it and sometimes act.

Artists do rebel against the prevalent conceptual fashions, governance and dogmas and seek a common language, a subject other than themselves, a concept that is not self referential, to make something, to undertake a slow and complicated process. You can see it sometimes in the traditional art forms but in the new democratic mediums like photography, digital media and film to name a few there is more chance of independent thought and method as new media is not fixed and I can be developed, nor can it become controlled and assimilated in the same way by the art market, public arts organisations and in art schools in a way that has become of traditional art forms.