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This week’s texts have been on the subject of making. Robert Morris’ minimalist/modernist view from Notes on the Phenomenology of Making; a contemporary sculptor and craft maker, Malcolm Martin’s paper/lecture Take a Look at These Hands; William Morris’ essay Useful Work versus Useless Toil; and Richard Sennets lecture The Good Craftsman.

Rather than talking about the forms in the content or product of a work of art, Robert Morris presents an argument that forms are within the act of making and that these forms can involve interaction with and manipulation of materials that is both physical and temporal:

“I believe there are forms to be found within the activity of making as much as within the end products. These are forms of behavior aimed at testing the limits and possibilities involved in that particular interaction between one’s actions and the materials of the environment.”

He goes on to state that this has not been considered previously:

“Art making has not been discussed as a distinct structural mode of behavior organized and separate enough to be recognised as a form in itself.”

He argues that there has be a move to “systematize” the means of production so the forms of the art making are implicit in the content and that what may have appeared as arbitrary is actually the result of a systematic approach. He cites John Cage and Jackson Pollock as two artists applying this in their work. On Pollock he states, “Of any artist working in two dimensions it could be said that he, more than any others, acknowledged the conditions of both accident and necessity open to that interaction of body and materials as the exist in a three-dimensional world.”

One of my earliest memories of being exposed to, what for me at the time was, modern art was being shown some film of Jackson Pollock working in the open air with canvas on the ground and I can still remember how he was entirely physically, bodily engaged in getting paint from pot to surface.

Morris goes on to talk about “patterning” as a metal activity leading to the habitual which it is new (or innovative) art’s role to disrupt by providing a disorientating experience which I think, based on what Richard Sennet has to say about modernists in his lecture on The Good Craftsman, is what gives the work originality and therefore value.

On how such work should be interpreted, Morris is pointing us away from semiotics, except perhaps that if the art is in some way motivated, and that motivation is visible through the process of the making being present in the end result - information about the making is increasingly part of the content of the work.

Having presented two modes of systematizing: that employed by Cage, “deliberate chance”, and the materials/process approach employed by Pollock and others, he then digs more deeply into the materials/process approach, enlisting automation within this, and quite frankly losing me, but ultimately getting to a point of how much of the art making process, be it constructing, arranging or in some other way acting upon materials becomes part of the work rather than being just the means.

There is nothing here about what the artist gets out of the making process just what the making process imbues in the work. And as Richard Sennet explains in his lecture on The Good Craftsman, there is also nothing here about craft. The value of the made object (content/product) is in its perceived originality (which may be ascribed to it through the making process), not in its quality which would have come from it being well crafted.

Malcolm Martin on the other hand discusses making as an activity that brings joy to the maker and the importance of using our hands as it’s what we are meant to do. “We are all makers. Some of us develop some aspect of this as a professional practice, some become committed amateurs. It seems to me important to acknowledge this interconnectedness and to foster intimate making at all levels. Which makes me very worried when the general drift of our culture, both practically and intellectually, seems to be ignore and dismiss its importance.”

William Morris also saw making as something that should be pleasurable, “Yet I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body.”

There’s perhaps another link to William Morris, other than just the importance of craft and expressing delight in the pleasure of making, when Martin talks about the times when making is not a pleasure. Here he says, “...this too could be a priority in developing craft: how to create the best conditions for experiencing making as the meaningful pleasure it potentially is.” Morris’ essay Useful Work versus Useless toil is almost entirely concerned with the setting the right conditions under which making can occur.

There appear to be two (at least) positions here on making (and I mean making rather than craft which to me implies something more about the skill of the maker and the quality of the product than the activity) and they are not necessarily contradictory, but neither must both, or either, exist in the making of art:

  1. Making as an activity which has within it motivation (as opposed to arbitrary) that can be considered as much a form as any product (object/content) and so brings meaning(?) (conveyed a information rather than the aesthetic of the work)

  2. Making as an activity that brings pleasure and purpose to the maker.

When I think about how making manifests in artists of whom I am aware, I tend to think first of Edmund de Waal. His need to make, the way his interaction with material and process is present in the completed work (both as individual ceramic objects having been, thrown, shaped and touched, and as a sculpture constructed from these, essentially showing all its workings) seems to encompass both positions above.

I’ve not really mentioned craft, primarily as it alluded to in passing by Robert Morris in his notes, “But art making cannot be equated with craft time.” However, it is important to the “intimate making” of Malcolm Martin, for William Morris something that is of no lesser importance than other arts and is what gives value to an object according to Richard Sennet. While it may not be apparent from the aesthetics of what I make, craft is also important to me in my practice and it was good to hear Richard Sennet extend his lecture on craftsmanship to include digital and programming, on which my practice depends, as a sphere to which good craftmanship should be applied.

Philip making

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