Rachel’s Thoughts inspired by Jed Perl’s Essay on the Artisanal Urge

In Jed Perl’s article, “The Artisanal Urge” American Craft (June/July 2008), he defends the “human desire to make something with one’s own hands” against the current stylistic trend of a more detached approach to creating art. Perl, an author of several books on art and the art critic for The New Republic, argues that the point of creating art is to allow the hand of the maker to be expressive whatever the chosen medium- be it paint, clay, ink or metal. Comparing obviously hand made works of art with contrasting examples of contemporary art that reflect the concept or look of mass market goods, he notes that while such works have been conceived by the artist they were not constructed by their hand. In an acknowledgment of the often discussed conflict between craft and fine art, Perl chooses to highlight the similarities of their respective “hands on” creative experiences rather than dwell on their differences.

Historically this union of art and craft and the dislike for more industrialized effects recalls William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century, all of which Perl does indeed cite. Morris and his followers championed the integrity of the artistic process and the value of the individual hand. This was a reaction to the rise of industrial production which they feared reduced human imprint on the making of an object to that of an impersonalized station on a production line. Yet it was not the collective effort of fabrication that bothered Morris. Artists and artisans often have been part of a collaborative effort to create a single work. Illuminated medieval manuscripts were almost always produced by many individual artists each of whom specialized in a particular element of the process, such as the decoration of a capital letter or the borders that surrounded text. With the rise of industrialization, Morris believed that the mechanized production of goods brought a new level of dehumanization to both the worker and the product. The worker no longer needed to be an artist, and more significantly, the human touch had been removed from the process. Much of Morris and group’s argument gave rise to the very simply stated idea that the process was more important than the product.

The lingering arguments for “process over product” continue to this day as evidenced by Perl’s essay. He writes directly about the renewed importance of supporting the artisanal approach in this time of increasingly conceptual “hands off” generated art. Perl is sympathetic to that which is handmade, even if it is of a less accomplished level of workmanship or design, because it manifests the “artisanal urge” and demands a unique response. However, in discussing the more traditional values of artisanal work, Perl also acknowledges the artistic desire to “push for perfection” as well as the choice at times to use artistry and skill in order to remove an immediate awareness of the maker’s hand.

By entertaining both ideas – that of the value of the hand and the value of seeking to remove evidence of the hand- Perl brings together two notions that may have relevance to polymer clay artists. Of late, there seems to be concern that any advocacy towards the ideals of perfection and expert finishing somehow discredits those who feel that the process, not refined construction or finish, is what is important to the totality of the experience. In fact, neither finely nuanced finishing nor a less exacting approach to solving artistic problems are the real issues. Rather, such details function as visual indicators of the artist’s intention.

Beyond the idea of what one means to do with any given piece, intention is crucial relative to the style of work. For example, if someone is working in a direct, expressive or maybe “primitive” style, there is unlikely to be any expectation of an unblemished surface finish. If such a finish was presented, it seemingly would confuse the original stylistic intention of the piece. Conversely, if someone is seeking to create a sleek, ultra modern look in a hand crafted item, then attention to finish is paramount. This kind of object is not only competing with other well crafted items but with commercially produced products in which details of construction and finishing are predetermined to be nearly flawless. Of course, there are many intermediate stages between these two examples. It is up to the artist to determine their intention and how to maintain stylistic consistency.

Another part of intention has to do with the reason for creating something at all. Within any artistic medium, it seems that one might distinguish four categories of intention. First, if one’s intention in making something is just to try a new concept or technique, and the results are not likely to go anywhere beyond a work space, then obviously how one finishes or builds any given piece is irrelevant. If one’s intention is to make and complete something, but only to please oneself then the level of workmanship is up to the maker’s discretion and standards. Or, if one’s intention is to make something and perhaps look to sell it at openly available venues, then the quality and stylistic integrity of the work has to be good enough to satisfy the maker’s pride, as well as justify a buyer’s willingness to spend money. However, if one’s intention is to make hand crafted work and present it at the highest levels of exhibition, then one’s style, design and workmanship need to be adjusted to suit the standards of quality apropos to that situation.

There is no right or wrong on these issues. A clarification of one’s intention will help to define what one wants to do and how to get there. The act of making something by hand is inherently an expression of self. If a maker of art can know his or her intention, it becomes that much easier to connect with those who will encounter the results of their artisanal urge.

Read more by Jed Perl:
Jed Perl: New Art City: Manhattan in Mid Century

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.