The Historical Imperative

Listen to what two notable art critics have said about our dependence on historical roots:

The only road to authenticity lies through what has already been done. There is no deep art without deep historical awareness.  Robert Hughes

All (craft) disciplines need a complex, multilayer sense of their own history to function properly. Paul Greenhalgh

As soon as I came across these quotes, I knew the writers had captured in memorable words my essential intent with this archive project. My own search, and perhaps yours, has been for authenticity and deep art within the world of polymer. Where better to begin that quest than by understanding and respecting our own roots.

I found Greenhalgh’s quote in the October 2007 issue of American Craft magazine. Consider three key points he makes in his article.

1.  The reverence given by any culture to an individual craft discipline is hugely enhanced by having recorded history and a serious body of discourse.

Greenhalgh teaches us that polymer artists need to begin an elevated discussion about the medium’s development and current application among ourselves before we can expect to garner heightened respect outside of our small community.

2.  Detailed and documented study of founding practices and key practitioners tells the practice what exactly it is, provides it with language, roots it, differentiates it from other discourses and is essential to its core identity.

If our desire as artists is to engage our medium, to create a deep and meaningful work, we begin by mastering the essentials. One of those essentials has to be an understanding of our history providing a context in which to create. Years ago I met a history teacher who had developed his own special niche in the education community. He worked as a consultant for the Metropolitan Opera. Bill told me that in preparing each opera for the coming season, the Met’s desire was to have the cast first assemble in a classroom. There Bill would lecture everyone, from divas and leading tenors to silent spear carriers about the original composition of each opera, its first performances and initial leading stars, even what the critics at the time had to say. Only after they learned their history, the Met directors felt, would the cast members then be fully prepared to engage in the craft of singing and acting.

What works at the Met, might it not work for us?

3.  History is not the same as the past. The past is what happened.  History is our interpretation of what happened.

We polymer artists have often focused on “firsts,” who did what, when and how? To me, those raw facts are not as important as the questions of: How was a new technique interpreted by one artist and then reinterpreteted by another?  How did a single idea inspire the evolution of a technique, giving rise to related body of truly mature and sophisticated art? It’s my hope that members of our artistic community will use this blog to explore those questions and add their commentary to a record that will document our history.

I cannot remember a time in my life that I wasn't interested in looking at art, talking about art and the making of art. In 1990 I earned a Phd in art history at the University of Maryland. My first experiences with polymer clay were in 1992, but I consider my real work with the medium to date from 1999.