There are some interesting articles related to printmaking out there right now which I have some thoughts on.

The first, published in the New York Times and written by Ken Johnson, is an overview of the Philagrafika print festival.  The article is basically a weak survey of some of the festival events, and it also purportedly addresses the nature of printmaking today.  [For good coverage of the Philagraphika 2010 print festival, I recommend over the NYT, or even the actual Philagrafika website and blog.]

I find the author to be skeptical of  (and somewhat clueless about) printmaking in general.  In the first paragraph, Johnson posits that “anyone with the right software and a good color printer can make infinitely reproducible images that are hard to distinguish from professionally made drawings, paintings, montages, commercial illustrations and other sorts of pictures”, which indicates to me that he himself has not actually had the pleasure of attempting color correction or monitor/printer calibration, among other things, and that he has never actually compared an inkjet print of a painting to the actual painting itself.  I’m sure that he also forgot to add, or perhaps his editors removed the caveat “anyone with a good color printer which prints larger than 13″ x 19″“, because we all realize that many paintings, drawings, montages, commercial illustrations and other sorts of pictures are a good deal larger than that.   But there I go, letting sticky issues such as scale and the realities of digital printing get in the way of argument!

Back to that, by the way.  In the third paragraph, Johnson quotes José Roca, an organizer of the festival, from an essay in the festival guide: “Fixated on defining the realm of printmaking based on technique, some printmakers have printed themselves into a corner, away from the center of contemporary artistic trends.”  Did you see that?  Slam!  Up yours, “some printmakers”!  Ha, ha–what a burn.

Of course, I know what he means–in printmaking, we call those “some” printmaker’s printmakers, and they do tend to not be seen as contemporary artists so much as they are seen exclusively as “printmakers”.  I doubt, honestly, (and by “doubt, honestly” I mean that I haven’t had the opportunity to actually read the essay) that Roca intended to bash such printmakers, but coming so early in Johnson’s article, after the absurd assertion that “anyone” can rival the quality of “professionally” made images, it reads quite harshly, and seems to call into question the need for such types of printmaking and printmakers.

Lest you think I am simply a contrary sort, know that I am one of those who personally prefers an expansive definition of printmaking–I usually tie the definition to repeatability, the idea of the multiple and the intent to distribute information (visual or textual).  I think that my sort of definition hearkens back to the historical outset of printmaking, and is not so revolutionary as many folks tend to think it is.

Anyway, here’s where it gets interesting.  There seems to be an arbitrary line drawn somewhere, separating an interest in or dedication to technique from the practice of contemporary art.  As evidence, you can simply take a look at the many types of printmaking used to show contemporary print possibilities, many of which involve digital and commercial processes.  The suggestion becomes: 1) that digital processes involve little technique and 2) commercially printed media also involve little technique, whereas 3) “traditional” printmaking does involve technique.  Clearly, anyone who has any awareness of digital and commercial applications will realize that numbers one and two not so.  The less aware among you may in fact be shocked when I reveal that the paper edition of the New York Times itself is not printed by magical elves using desktop printers in the basement, nor is its website maintained simply by uploading crap to iWeb.

What begins to become apparent then, is that it is allowable for a craftsperson (read: digital technician or commercial printer) to possess and be interested in technique, but that it is not allowable for an artist to also possess and be interested in technique (see “some printmakers”).

Now, I am not presuming that such a perspective comes from either the craftspeople or the artists themselves–I am in fact presuming that it comes from a lack of familiarity with the methods and history of printmaking overall.  [At this point, I will remind the reader that I have given Roca the benefit of the doubt/have not actually read his essay, and do assume that he is familiar with both–it is Johnson whom I suspect of being ill-informed on the topic.]

Worse, actually, I am presuming that this arbitrary distinction arises in the face of and contrary to a familiarity with and historical understanding of printmaking.  As evidence of this, the next bit of internet text I mentioned in the intro to this post becomes relevant.

Via Tyler Green’s facebook status update, I was led to a post on the machinations of the Warhol Foundation’s attempt to actively discredit all copies of a legitimate Warhol print/work, so that they cannot be considered authentic.  In the post, there was a link to a fascinating letter of response to these actions from a man named Rainer Crone who had worked on a catalogue raisonné of Andy Warhol’s (perhaps you have heard of this famous printmaker?) work as part of his PhD project back in the day.  Crone had numerous interesting points, beginning with this: “The artist had chosen at that time the unique and more modern production technique of silk screen over the traditional hand-painted ones; this new technique was a result of Warhol’s new concept of art-making and his rejection of the centuries-old theory of the artist as auteur, the unique artistic originator.”

Yes, the “modern” technique of silkscreen being perhaps better understood as “the commercially viable modern application of the stencil process which evolved from the centuries-old Japanese technique of stabilizing cut-stencils in a fabric-like web of human hair, which nobody but “some printmakers” were willing to do until they figured out how to do that shit photographically”.  Looks like “some printmakers” sure printed themselves into a corner, so much so that they eventually invented photo-silkscreen–CHUMPS!

And so: the centuries-old concept of artist as auteur, debunked so long ago, eh (at least in the 1960’s)?  Since Warhol ceded much actual production to other people, he surely subverted the notion of the sole creator in a way which since has altered the landscape of contemporary art.  Except, of course, that we still say it was Warhol’s contribution.   Except, of course, that the majority of artists today working in the multiple also outsource the technical production and nobody seems to be confused as to who made the work.

If you extend the relationship of technique/authorship to that bizarre arbitrary technique/no-technique contstruct mentioned above, you will see that as long as a technician (printmaker’s printmaker or commercial printer, equally) does not have the gall to claim image authorship, then they are a-okay.  So the printmaker’s printmaker becomes somewhat of an outcast from the contemporary art world, while those who outsource production still maintain authorship.  What went wrong with Warhol’s revolution?

At this moment, I have to interject that I cannot fathom how people can so clearly overlook the atelier system in traditional painting.  Honestly!  It is a well-known art-historical fact that painters such as the Renaissance gang (seriously, do I need to list them?) used apprentices to do a majority of the icky work for them and yet they maintained authorship.

Similarly, and this is probably a lesser known art-historical fact, printmakers of the same era (as well as previous ones) also used apprentices along with specialized technicians to make prints, while also retaining authorship–the difference, however, is that the printmakers had to fight to be attributed authorship in the first place.  Before the virtuoso engravers such as Hendrick Goltzius and Albrecht Dürer, printmakers were given about as much authorship as the magical printing elves of the New York Times, and further, printmaking before named printmakers served similar purposes as the New York Times, the National Enquirer, Random House, or your garden variety high-school underground newspaper.

[Important aside: Goltzius and Dürer (to name but two examples) were also massively skilled technicians, who became so partly because of the apprenticeship system–they trained under the Master Printers–and goldsmiths–of the generation before them.]

So, authorship was something a printmaker had to fight (read: market) to get in the 15th and 16th centuries, coming as they did out of the realm of commerce (and goldsmithing), and it seems that nowadays, if a printmaker is interested in maintaining a sense of authorship and also in being a keen technician, they get sidelined while everyone else, or to put in Johnson’s words “anyone”, who is not allied with technique may happily keep their authorship, the Warholian revolution notwithstanding.

Well, that’s just peachy.  Plus ça change, yadda yadda.

[The reason I have described myself in various places as “artist, printmaker, writer, teacher”, jointly using artist and printmaker, is an act of solidarity with that exact historical invisibility keyed to technique; I may not be a printmaker’s printmaker or a commercial printer, but I aspire to the technical prowess of one!]

The Johnson article culminates dismally with several unanswered questions after a somewhat cynical lead sentence to the final paragraph:

The upshot of all this is intellectually stimulating but inconclusive. Is printmaking dead, or is it reborn? Is it a meaningful category at all anymore for contemporary artists who revel in mechanically produced imagery of all kinds and fearlessly use and misuse whatever tools are at hand?  If you think these questions matter — and there are good reasons to think they do — you need to plan a trip to Philadelphia.

I’d wager that the upshot is inconclusive because the premises are incorrect.  Printmaking, even in the extended contemporary definition (with which I concur), requires technique, though the technique can be on the part of the artist-printer, the commercial printer, the digital technician, or “anybody”.  However, the art market won’t allow Warhol’s revolution (“…No one would know whether my picture was mine or somebody else’s”) to come to pass, because it is highly invested in authorship (see the actions of the Warhol Foundation itself as evidence).  As long as we ascribe to a 16th century authorship model in art (which we certainly still do), those who are primarily considered to be technically skilled will be payed a fee (or wage) while those who are primarily considered to be artists will be encouraged to cast their fate to the art market, and I think there are some serious questions as to whom among the two is better paid.

Also, you need to plan a trip to Philadelphia because the Philagraphika festival has a lot of kick-ass printmaking, not because you need to ruminate upon bogus questions we already know the answers to.