Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Working at the very edge

You don't have to be an artist to envy the recipient of a half-million dollar MacArthur Foundation "genius award." Or to marvel that one just went to Tara Donovan, whose 2003 installation, "Haze," is composed of over two million clear plastic drinking straws stacked against a 42-foot-long wall.

The NYTimes quotes the foundation's president, Jonathan Fanton, as saying that this year's winners are "people working on the very edge of discovery and people at the edge of a new synthesis."

Edgy. How American can you get? And indeed, it has been true for some time, and not just in America, that artists are valued who "make it new," Ezra Pound's famous dictum. New for the sake of newness. I felt that way when I was a kid. Wow, new shoes! Patent leather, with a strap and buckle and a grosgrain bow, how they sparkled, what a marvelous noise you could make when you walked. New!

I don't think this is about that kind of pleasure. This is about a cultural value I think of as the Frontier Ethic, about what is over the horizon, the fountain of youth, the territories. At its worst it has given us the Warhol phenomenon, in which the artist merely conceives the work, and the apprentices actually bring it off. I happened to pick up a novel in the library recently that was turned out like this. The name in big letters on the cover turned out not to be the author at all, but a sort of franchise. You could tell.

Japan has plenty of very cool, contemporary art, but it also has something else I find admirable, a tradition called "Living National Treasures." These are artists/craftspeople who have learned a specific traditional art and then added their own artistic vision. The photo is of a vase made by one such artist, Ito Sekisui V, using a valued type of clay found in old gold and silver mines.

Craft, what we used to call craftsmanship, is arrived at very differently than the new and transgressive. It is a matter of practicing scales; of apprenticing; of learning to play the instrument first. I know there are awards for this, but I don't hear about them on the front page.

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