He who has most sympathy with his subject will obtain the best results. Henry Ossawa Tanner

Bruce Herman: Ut pictura poesis?

Ut pictura poesis?

by Bruce Herman

There was a prolonged period recently when the words "traditional" and "craftsy" were the kiss of death for an artist's career. One result is that in the past several decades artists of every discipline have been trained with the primary expectation that they shall produce new and sometimes shocking objects; choreograph daring dance movements; compose provocative musical pieces or poems—and in many cases, skill has been moved to the margins or completely off-stage. But in recent decades the centrality of novelty and the demand for an art centered primarily on ideas and issues has lessened a bit—a pendulum swing away from experimentalism.

During the late Renaissance, a Latin phrase from Horace was often bandied about as a means of pulling the artist up and out of the servant role in society and placing him among nobles: ut pictura poesis ("as is painting, so is poetry"). The upshot was that art had more in common with poetry and philosophy than with carpentry. Since then, and in particular for the last couple hundred years, the arts have largely been in "experimentation mode"—moving away from the humble business of craft and service and much more strongly toward ideas, issues, and theory.

Since the Renaissance, the servant role of the artist—with craftsmanship as its central value—has been gradually waning and the intellectual-poetic aspects of art have steadily risen. Historians and critics during this period have hailed the "breakthrough" mentality, and some have even equated art with the cutting edge and the avant-garde—as though traditional approaches to art-making are simply disqualified as art altogether because they are focused upon the well-made thing and not primarily on ideas. There was even a prolonged period recently (from around 1960 until the 1990s) when the words "traditional" and "craftsy" were the kiss of death for an artist's career. One result is that in the past several decades, artists of every discipline have been trained with the primary expectation that they shall produce new and sometimes shocking objects; choreograph daring dance movements; compose provocative musical pieces or poems—and in many cases, skill has been moved to the margins or completely off-stage.

While everyone enjoys the refreshment new things bring, a relief from the hackneyed and clichéd or from the ostentatious display of skill as an end in itself, it's worth pausing at this marginalization of craft. A negative side effect of normative avant-gardism is that relatively little emphasis has been placed upon the craft of artistic disciplines. In the visual arts in particular, the value of skill has steadily sunk, even as the urgency of novelty has risen. In some quarters craft has been scorned or written off as irrelevant or part of an oppressive régime. The chief aim, now, is an exploration of ideas, political postures, theoretical concerns, or novel visual effects and transgression of traditional social boundaries.

Top-name artists continue to push the proverbial envelope and demand of themselves ever newer, stranger, and even transgressive art objects, poems, and music. In fact, strangeness or alterity is often an implicit aim of contemporary art. Perhaps a prime exemplar of this is celebrity artist Matthew Barney. His Cremaster Cycle(s) are a series of five films accompanied by an array of conceptual drawings, objects, photographs, installations, and performances that explore in graphically disturbing imagery issues associated with gender differentiation and genital obsession. The films are elaborately choreographed and have very high production values—often as visually striking as they are perverse, even horrific. The value here in late modernist art is a certain sort of brutal honesty, frankness, and questioning of boundaries.

The artist in this case may value a high level of skill in his craft, but traditional emphases upon verisimilitude or skill at rendering the world the way it looks and feels is de-emphasized, sometimes to the point of complete elimination. "De-skilling"—an actual term in many art schools—is often the norm. To shed or downplay one's facility or talent was de rigueur for a generation or more, because the virtuosic is often associated with showy, empty displays of skill for its own sake. Yet many younger artists are finding the opposite (the penchant for deliberate clumsiness and weirdness for its own sake) to be disingenuous and, frankly, boring.

In recent decades the centrality of novelty and the demand for an art centered primarily on ideas and issues has lessened a bit. I believe that this is the natural pendulum swing from the experimentalism that has dominated for almost two centuries.

As bracing and refreshing as an experimentation can be, deeper meaning almost always comes through a conscious relationship with tradition in which the "dead poets" are invoked or channeled or at least engaged. Many younger artists crave the cultivation of craft with a view to making things that last; things that are beautiful; things that are excellent and which give evidence of careful construction; things that are meaningful, not simply strange or different.

One thoroughly modern artist whose craft is undeniable and whose work is steeped in observation and the slow, deliberate way of looking at things is Richard Diebenkorn. Though his mature paintings (the Ocean Park series) are completely abstract, Diebenkorn's work was deeply derived from the real world of space, light, colour, and form. Influenced as much by Henri Matisse's celebratory decoration as by Piet Mondrian's abstemious geometry, his figurative and landscape works have the same intensity of formal exploration as his geometric abstractions. More to the point, his paintings all have the evidence of the human hand as a marker of the passage of time, the happy imperfections of the hand-wrought object, and the memory of Creation's beauty that is so inviting to the human eye.

Though he lived into the 1990s, one might argue that Diebenkorn belongs to a former era, that he has little relevance to a younger generation reared on the Internet and computer graphics. But the "new media" category of art—digital art, video, and hybrid visual technology—is actually no different. Those employing newer art mediums still require expert training of hand and eye—and can benefit from studying the visible world and from looking at the work of mature artists of the 20th century like Dienbenkorn.

What is the place of craft in a "de-skilled" art world? What is the value of craftsmanship in an era of computers and robotic production? Do people still need to make things by hand? Does a work of art need to be beautifully crafted?

I believe that humans, fleeting and frail, will always desire a thing-well-made, something that bears the evidence of the human hand and of lovingly wrought structure and surface. And so, no matter how distant its swing, the pendulum must return.

The well-crafted thing is pleasurable and meaningful for the client to look at and to handle—to touch. The artist must slow down, exercise care—even skill—and observe closely, to move beyond mere intellectualizing and to engage the Ding an sich—the thing itself. The client and the artist both benefit from this care and slowness.

Poesis is not the automatic outcome of a skill-less artistic process. Sometimes the poetic quality of a work of art is in and through its carefully wrought surface and substance. The poetic aspect can sometimes actually be the craftsmanly quality of the thing. Poetry is, after all, the result of close observation and reflection, and loving craft forces the maker to come into closer contact and connection with materials, subject matter, and the form itself.

There is really no surprise here. The creation that surrounds us—both the natural environment and the inner landscape of our bodies and minds—is irreducibly complex and elegant in its function and in its forms. From the Krebs-cycle of the human cell at a molecular level to the Eagle Nebula in a far precinct of the universe, the beauty and intricacy of things astonishes and satisfies the careful observer. Craft has been at the core of everything the Creator has made, and the image of God in us is only truly satisfied when we likewise make something beautiful. However, in this we would need "beautiful" to include both the category of the sublime and the reality of moral and intellectual beauty.

Of course, this last statement raises the underlying question that drives the discussion of craft: what is the beautiful? (Beauty was largely exiled from art for nearly a century, being held suspect since Kantian philosophy equated it with superficial pleasure. In the late 19th century French poet Rimbaud once famously quipped, "One evening I sat beauty on my knee, and I found her bitter, and so I abused her.") Much ink has been spilt in recent years in the debate and discussion surrounding beauty, but seldom has that discussion asked how we know something is beautiful.

This is a complex question, and one far beyond the scope of this brief meditation, but one clear aspect of beauty is its reflection of the mind of the Maker—"who has made all things beautiful in their time." A central quality of the creation that surrounds us is its beauty, its "craftsmanship," its elegant form and function. Artists who train themselves in close observation and careful construction will consciously or unconsciously align their sensibility with the Creator's ways—which though mysterious and majestic, are also accessible to our eyes, our minds, and our imaginations.

Though we value the new and surprising in art, we can never wholeheartedly let go of craft for the simple reason that it is seated in the deep human desire to reflect glory to God in and through the arts of the beautiful. We were made by a Maker of beauty, and are restless until we too manage to make something beautiful, something purposeful and elegant and lasting. It is not enough to make something "striking" or "interesting"—certainly not something merely shocking. The ultimate result of placing lesser qualities like these at the centre is often a movement toward the extreme novelty of the perverse, in which case "interesting" crosses over into the peculiar and finally into the taboo. Images are no more neutral than words, and yet there is great resistance to legislating imagery or placing prohibitions on art the way we do on speech.

One of the earliest prohibitions given in the Bible surrounds the making of "graven images": images of God aimed at encompassing God by human craft—literally, worshipping the work of our own hands. But like every other prohibition, this rule presupposes a good, wholesome, "legal" use. Adultery is forbidden because sex is good (within the bounds of lifelong fidelity and trust). Covetousness is forbidden because having nice things is good (but not having or lusting after others' things). Making images of God is forbidden because making images is good, when they reflect the image of God within us—the image of a Maker, not the presumption of delimiting and defining or encompassing God.

We ourselves are by nature homo faber—man the maker—and craft is the hand's way of thinking, of contemplating what is good in form, in materiality, in "thing-ness." In a sense, making things well is a means of making ourselves conform to God's image within us, so the well-made thing amounts to a form of soul-crafting, to character building and maturation of the image of God in us. Making shoddy or useless or meaningless things is a diminution of that Image, and thus learning a craft can be a means of godliness, of spiritual formation. Shaker furniture and handicrafts are universally admired and loved—and their very disciplines of woodworking and basketry and architectural design are understood as soul craft, a kind of material spirituality.

The younger generation of artists, poets, composers, and choreographers are drawn to some of the older traditions for this very reason: they sense the gravitas and authenticity of material spirituality in a thing well crafted. Some have even begun to pursue craft as an end in itself, witnessed by the recent proliferation of atelier style art schools that claim to train young artists in the craft and style of a bygone era. This phenomenon may in fact indicate a form of nostalgia—but an understandable one, given the extreme aspects of much contemporary art and its nihilistic abandonment of shared meaning in favor of idiosyncratic pursuit of the bizarre and forbidden.

As an older artist, I feel hope in this. Even if I cannot endorse nostalgia, I am heartened at the return to tradition by a cadre of art students trying to restore something of the feel and reality of authentic beauty and meaning in art. Traditionalism is not any more likely than avant-gardism to achieve the needed balance, and the return to traditional skills should never necessitate foregoing experimentation or returning to an antiquated style or stale ideology of art. What is needed is not a "return to tradition," but a deepening understanding of just what that tradition demands. Hans Georg Gadamer once said that tradition is not so much a matter of conservation as it is one of transmission—and every act of transmission is necessarily also an act of translation.

Perhaps if this movement of reclaiming craft continues and matures, we will have another renaissance of sorts—a "translation" of the tradition that is both traditional and contemporary, one that honours professio (craft) as well as poesis. We might also see a return of the artist-as-servant instead of the tacit expectation that she become a superstar or transgressive agent provocateur. Restoring the servant posture to art and artist would be altogether a good thing.


Bruce Herman is a painter, and Professor of Art at Gordon College, near Boston, where he is currently Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in the Fine Arts. Herman's artwork has been exhibited in over one hundred and fifty exhibitions in major cities in the United States (Boston, New York, Chicago, L.A.) and internationally (England, Italy, Israel, and Japan). His work is housed in many private and public collections including the Vatican Museums in Rome; Grunwald Center at Armand Hammer Collection; L.A. County Museum; Cincinnatti Museum of Art; and the deCordova Museum in Massachusetts.

This article was first published on Cardus,


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