Investing in the Object
Artist Malia Jensen Talks on Art V. Craft
One of the perennial conversations in the world of visual art is the one about the difference between "art" and "craft." "What is art?" every generation asks. "What is craft?" "Is one better than the other?"
Over the past century this ancient debate has been taken up by everyone from the Bauhaus to Los Angeles' "abject" artists and arguably continues to inform the decisions of almost anyone practicing art on the West Coast today.
This summer, Organ contributor Jon Raymond sat down with artist Malia Jensen to discuss this timeworn topic in preparation for Crafty, a group show curated by Raymond for the upcoming Core Sample extravaganza. Crafty will feature work by Jensen, Storm Tharp, Cynthia Lahti and Erin Long.
Raymond: I'm curious, in realistic terms, about what you see as the problem of being described as a craft-influenced artist? Why might an artist want to avoid that label? Why is the word "craft" considered pejorative in a fine arts context?
Jensen: Well, the word "craft" has a lot of meanings. Craft and fine art come from different places. The craft tradition is based in work that's functional, maybe socially driven or economically driven. But there are other meanings of "craft," too. When you say of an artwork that it's "well-crafted," for instance. I have never considered any of the things that I make to be crafts, but I certainly consider the craft of it. So the difference is partly just intention.
So, one definition of craft – as a cultural thing – is pejorative, and the other – as a technical facility – isn't.
Actually, they can both be pejorative. In either case you are limiting the work in a way. When you put something in the camp of "well-craftedness" you could be saying it's anti-intellectual, it's merely well-made. "Well-made" by this definition is antithetical to work that is more conceptually based. I think the issue involves a historical prejudice that values the labor of ideas over the labor of handcraftsmanship.
Where does that bias come from, do you think?
Besides class? I think it goes back to a critical tradition that flourishes more on the East Coast, to be simple about it. Because of the cultural and academic institutions there, a certain conversation occurs that's much more developed than in other places. There's a publishing industry there that needs stuff to talk about and write about. Critics love work that needs a lot of explaining. Not that they're really going to explain it. People on the East Coast also have a different relationship to space. Space is more limited and so is time. Resources are more limited. The relationship to materials is more abstract. Why make it when you can buy it?
So to call something "well-crafted" is in a sense to place it outside a certain critical discourse. To make it unrecognizable as intellectual work.
You can look at something that's well-made and you can think that's just the point of it, and then you're done and you don't need to dig another layer. To look at something that way cuts off the dialogue.
The labor becomes the only kind of meaning.
But that's even an intellectualizing of the process, to say the labor is the meaning. That makes it almost seem conceptual. It just sort of . . .is. There's lots of work being done where the labor is the meaning in a self-conscious kind of way. Like the guy who writes the number down for every day on the canvas.
Someone like On Kawara. Or like Tom Friedman.
Friedman's work does foreground the labor. You look at all those spaghettis end to end or the car crash made out of paper and the first thing you see is the novelty factor.
The amount of work.
Yes, the amount of work and the "Oh, wow, how many sugar cubes is that?" There's a punishing aspect to that. It's a commentary on labor in a very self-conscious, stylistic way.
That seems even more evident in an earlier generation of artists. They made labor such an explicit subject that they practically stopped making objects altogether.
Right, like the "process artists" or like Vito Acconci. There's a futility to those sorts of efforts which is obviously part of the point. Not producing a product.
It's interesting, though, because with a highly crafted thing there's also a kind of punishing, repetitive labor involved. But one that does result in a beautiful object.
The object is the key because you're talking about the consumerism of the art market. The gallery system needs objects to sell. So in a way, what's pejorative about being "well-made" is that you're not bucking the commercial system. You're being complicit in a consumer culture by producing an object.
That's ironic, because the formative craft moment in the '60s and '70s – the craft revival's rediscovery of woodworking and glass blowing and weaving – on some level came out of an anticonsumerist impulse itself. It was a political repudiation of industrialism and consumer society. It was an intellectual movement.
It was an anti-academic effort that came out of an intellectual position. The whole '70s moment in Oregon and Northern California, there was an intellectualism to it, it was a political position. I grew up in it. My friends' place up the hill in Willamina was called the "Rock Creek Experimental Station." That was etched into a piece of cedar and gold-leafed on a big sign by the road. Even the woodworkers of the area held onto this idea of a self-conscious rejection of industrial production. They made amazing but practical things like doors. They turned wooden bowls. But then there can be a generational atrophy of an idea. The work that follows degrades. You see only one side of the issue and you just begin to turn wooden bowls. It's the establishment of a tradition. You forget why you started. Just like with feminism. The people coming after those who chose to reject something don't have to make the same choices, so it ends up lacking the same depth.
It can become mannerist in a way, like Dale Chihuly. Just virtuosic technique. But what about someone like Jeff Koons? He never gets called crafty, even though the work is so finely wrought. Why is that?
He doesn't make it, for one thing. He's not interested in that. Koons is about valuation and commodity in a completely different way. It would actually be totally embarrassing to find that he'd made his own work. Don't you think?
So you have different purposes regardless of a certain resemblance.
I have a different kind of spiritual relationship to the work. Less a cynical populist. Don't get me wrong. I like Jeff Koons and he is sort of saying, "Hey, why hate yourself? This stuff's great!" Maybe he's found his god, but it's an ironic god. There's something more adamantly unironic in my work. Maybe this is the West Coast part. I'm searching for something. I think of myself as a godless spiritualist and in a way the labor of art making is like . . .
. . . questing?
I have high expectations and to make something really well is to literally invest in it. I'm pro-audience. I want to give them something. I hope they ask, "Why would somebody make this?" I'm trying to find some kind of meaning and I think that should be hard work. I have a commitment to the ideas that I'm going to back up with effort, with labor. There's a lot of purely conceptual work that has terrific ideas, but can you see it? Can you back it up? I think some conceptual art has an open disdain for its audience. I think of my own work as conceptual but not inaccessible. It's intuitive. There's an entry point, which is often the craft of it. That's my trick.