Koen Brams

Art and Craft

In 1969 the American artist Sol LeWitt published the following celebrated statement: “Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of the paradigm shift signaled by this “sentence on Conceptual Art.”1 The claim that an idea can in itself be art and that that idea doesn’t even need to be enacted to be considered art, must be regarded as revolutionary—as groundbreaking as the discovery of perspective. After LeWitt launched this sentence upon the world, art changed fundamentally.

The innovative ideas of Sol LeWitt and his colleagues—among them Lawrence Weiner, who had published his celebrated Declaration of Intent the year before—have had far-reaching consequences for the production, the exhibition, the reception, and the teaching of visual art. The notion that all an artist needs is an idea—and that anyone can materialize that idea—became the guiding principle in the organization of the art world. This idea informs the way artists work and exhibitions are curated in art galleries, museums, and exhibition spaces. The same premise dominates the gaze of people who look at art, write about art, and purchase artworks. Lastly, this idea also dictates the way art education is organized. Our academies and postgraduate institutions have become places where technical specialists (help to) execute the ideas conceived by artists. The division between concept and execution is the all-decisive factor in our approach to visual art.

1. Thinker and Maker

The division of labor between thinker and maker may have been generally accepted, but that does not mean that it is always or everywhere greeted with enthusiasm. How often have I heard a maker complain that the thinker is a technical nincompoop or even a charlatan. “The artist has no idea what he wants to make,” is the gist. “He wants to screen-print that image, but if I were to do that, the colors would all run.” “She marches in here, thrusts a sketch into my hand and expects me to solve everything.” “Just who does she think she is, a great artist? Let her start by rolling up her sleeves. Unless she lends a hand, I’m damned if I’m going to work myself into a sweat.” “I spent hours sanding that piece and he takes all the credit, when all he did was drop by with an idea.” “He waltzed in here and do you know what he said when he saw the finished artwork? Can’t you make it bigger? That’s what he said.” “Sir knocks on my door, hands me a piece of paper and asks if it can be ready tomorrow. Why not yesterday?” “I spent weeks turning out lithos. Not a word of thanks. Yesterday I saw them hanging in a gallery for 1,000 euros apiece. For work that I did, he’s pocketing a fabulous sum of money.” That’s just a random selection of comments I overheard in the technical workshops of the Jan van Eyck Academy, a postgraduate institute for research and production, of which I was director from 2000 to 2011. In other institutes where I was a guest, I heard similar remarks.

The thinkers were just as ready to vent their frustration. For example, I heard one artist say that the maker was being completely uncooperative. “He knows perfectly well how that machine works but he won’t share his know-how.” “She’s a failed artist and her frustration gets in the way of the technical guidance.” “The workshop is always deserted. What does the technical supervisor actually do?” “Why is there never a hint of a smile when I ask for technical information?” “Why couldn’t she have said that what I had in mind is technically unfeasible?”

Clearly, both the thinker and the maker sometimes loathe one another. However clichéd some of the remarks may sound, below the surface of that routine grumbling lurks a genuine power struggle that is unquestionably connected with the hierarchical nature of the division of roles between artist and technician. It is the artist who provides the ideas. Without him or her the technical specialist would be out of a job. But if the artist behaves in a haughty or disrespectful way, the technician may decide to keep their knowledge and expertise to themselves. If that happens the artwork remains stuck in the design phase. So the technician also has power, power that can be used or abused. In fact, artist and technician are condemned to cooperate, even if they don’t always recognize the truth of that, witness the snide remarks that are sometimes traded back and forth.

Does that mean that we should abolish the distinction between artist and technician, between thinker and maker? Should we take the complaints seriously and return to the situation before any such distinction existed? Some reactionary forces no doubt dream of such a reversion. I do not belong to that category. We can no more plead for a return to the days before the discovery of perspective!

Instead of erasing the distinction between artist and technician, between thinker and maker, we can ascertain more precisely what both actors actually do, where their strengths lie, and what qualities their work entails. I shall attempt to do that here and now, beginning with the technician, the maker, the craftsperson.

2. The Craftsperson

Scarcely has the intention to examine what the work of the maker precisely entails been formulated, than the first big stumbling block appears, namely, how to talk about the actions performed by the craftsperson. How can the work of the maker be expressed in words or rendered comprehensible? Here you have the first and not the least of the problems that I also encountered repeatedly as director of the Jan van Eyck Academy. On my visits to the workshops, whenever I tried to delve more deeply into the division of roles between thinker and maker and attempted to gain a better insight into the role of the maker, of their contribution, their expertise, their labor, the conversation not infrequently stalled after a few minutes. The discussions with workshop supervisors stranded almost immediately whenever they touched on the nature of the work they did. We had long discussions about the artists they were supervising; they spoke with great warmth and pleasure about the end results, the artworks, or designs; but when it came to the process that had taken place between being given the assignment by the artist and delivering the finished product, silence was the usual response. If anything was said, it was about the machines used in the production, about interesting technical details, and about marvelous craft-based solutions. These remarks were intimately connected with the work of the workshop supervisor, yet not a word was said about the work itself. At most they mentioned that a lot of time and energy had gone into their contribution. Occasionally a technical supervisor would come up with a suggestion to set up experiments in the workshop. But how can you do that if such a test is not based on any artistic concept?

In most instances, the appreciation of the thinkers for the work of the workshop supervisor was all one might hope for: the craftsperson had delivered first-rate work. And should there be any lingering doubt, the end result removed any suggestion of mistrust. The artwork was a showpiece; the artist was pleased, the maker proud—although without being able to describe the precise nature of their work. The contrast with the artist was huge: they had no difficulty waxing eloquent about their brainchild. This usually concerned the idea or concept behind the artwork. The artist could speak long and passionately about the way of thinking that had informed the artwork.

Why was the workshop supervisor unable to do the same with respect to their part in the production? What was the reason for their silence when the subject of their own work was broached? If that expertise could not be put into words, did it in fact exist? A completely ridiculous idea, because I only had to look at the finished artwork to satisfy myself that the workshop supervisor had made something that without their intervention would never have seen the light of day. Another explanation I briefly entertained concerned the workshop supervisor’s articulacy. Dexterous when operating a screen printing press, ill-equipped when it came to speaking—I confess to having been guilty of that dual judgment on occasions. But how then to explain their verbal fluency on other matters? No, a lack of articulacy certainly didn’t explain their silence on the substance of their craft. During my darkest reflections on that question, I sometimes even wondered whether it was a form of professional protectionism. If the craftsperson were to explain minutely the substance of their work, anyone could take their place. A detailed explanation of all aspects of their work would render the workshop supervisor redundant. Any initiation into their job would immediately result in the abolition of that job. But that would mean assuming that in the wake of that detailed explanation—and solely on the basis of that explanation—anyone could step into the shoes of the craftsperson. A wholly absurd notion!

My gloomiest reflections on the expertise, the knowledge, and the craft of the workshop supervisor rarely lasted very long because I was soon forced to realize that they were ridiculous. I was forced to conclude that it was simply impossible to find a replacement for the workshop supervisor. I was painfully confronted with this issue whenever one of the workshop supervisors was due to retire. In not a single instance was I able to find a successor with precisely the same abilities as the person who was on the point of leaving the institute. Such moments delivered incontrovertible proof that with the departure of the workshop supervisor concerned, a wealth of expertise, skills, and contacts would be lost—however efficiently and promptly the succession was handled. No, protectionism did not explain the absence of an in-depth discussion about the substance of the workshop supervisor’s craft.

So how to explain it then? At a certain point I started to think that there was a political agenda behind the silence. If the workshop supervisor were to clarify their knowledge, skills, and contacts, that knowledge and those skills and contacts could be exploited in a way they regarded as unacceptable. This was indeed a form of self-protection, motivated not by fear that someone else might take their place, but by the desire to be able to exercise the function of workshop supervisor at their own discretion—without the irksome interference of others who might make use of the knowledge, skills, and contacts that had been explained to them. I never quite shook off this theory about a fear of unwanted interference as an explanation for the unsatisfactory dialogue about the substance of the technical supervisor’s craft.

I didn’t realize that this view was only partially or perhaps not at all correct, until after reading The Craftsman, a 2008 publication by the American sociologist Richard Sennett. In The Craftsman Sennett describes in an inimitable fashion the history of craftsmanship. One of the fascinating cases he discusses concerns the workshop of the most famous of all violin makers, Antonio Stradivari. As was customary at that time, work was divided between the master—Antonio Stradivari—and a small army of male apprentices and journeymen, among them Stradivari’s two sons. When Stradivari died in Cremona in 1737, those sons, Omobono and Franceso, took over the running of the business. Sennett has this to say: “They were able to trade on his name for several years, but the business eventually foundered. He had not taught […] either of them how to be a genius.”1 None of the explanations I have given so far for the silence of the workshop supervisor is a valid explanation for Antonio’s failure to transfer his knowledge, skills, and contacts to his two sons. Stradivari had not left his business to his sons in the expectation that they would run it into the ground. Nevertheless, he had been unable to share his knowledge, skills, and contacts sufficiently with them, with the result that the business went to the wall. Stradivari had failed to convey the essence of his craft to his sons.

3. Thinker and maker, revisited

The problem of the relationship between thinker and maker is not addressed by Richard Sennett. His great love is music, in particular the cello, so it is hardly surprising that he should have devoted so much attention to the story of Antonio Stradivari and his sons. The visual arts do not get much of an airing in The Craftsman. Sennett may have been aware of “Conceptual Art,” but the paradigm shift heralded by “Conceptual Art” is not referred to in his book.

While Sennett does not dwell specifically on the division between thinker and maker—a division that has become an obligatory principle in the world of visual art—it is nonetheless possible to use the book as a guide on that subject. The Craftsman is a rewarding book not just because it deals with a subject that is seldom spoken about by the practitioners themselves, but also, and above all, because of its social agenda—its author, Richard Sennett, wanted to engage in a debate about human beings and society. (For that reason, you might argue, it is puzzling that “Conceptual Art” does not feature. Sennett, like Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, is a “left-leaning” thinker.)

The main focus of Sennett’s project on craft and the craftsperson is what lessons we can learn from craftsmanship and craftspeople with respect to the social sphere. His intention is to apply everything he learns in the course of his investigation of craftsmanship to society as a whole. So what does that entail? What has he learnt? I will give only a few indications, because The Craftsman is crammed with stimulating and exciting ideas. As well as talking about the intensive repetition of actions—to which I have already referred—Sennett also talks about experimentation: “Technique develops, then, by a dialectic between the correct way to do something and the willingness to experiment through error.”1 He also argues that a craftsperson can exercise self-criticism by repeating actions over and over again.2 A craftsperson can solve problems and in so doing detect other problems. In addition, Sennett stresses the importance of repair: “Repair is a neglected, poorly understood, but all-important aspect of technical craftsmanship.”3 Sennett refers to “the frequently noted patience of good craftsmen,” that in his view “signals a capacity to stay with frustrating work” because “patience in the form of sustained concentration, […] is a learned skill that can expand in time.” 4 He praises the importance of the sketch: “that is, not knowing quite what you are about when you begin. […] The informal sketch is a working procedure for preventing premature closure.” 5 He points to the positive value that “the good craftsman places […] on contingency and constraint.” And again: “Three basic abilities are the foundation of craftsmanship. These are the ability to localize, to question, and to open up. The first involves making a matter concrete, the second reflecting on its qualities, the third expanding its sense. […] The capacity to localize names the power to specify where something important is happening.” 6 And so on.

The social translation of those skills is present from the earliest pages of Sennett’s book: “How,” Sennett wonders, “can quality of knowledge coexist with free and equal exchange in a community?” 7 This, it turns out, is the real agenda behind The Craftsman. In Sennett’s own words: “Modern society tends to emphasize differences in ability; the ‘skills economy’ constantly seeks to separate smart from stupid people. […] We share in common and in roughly equal measure the raw abilities that allow us to become good craftsmen; it is the motivation and aspiration for quality that takes people along different paths in their lives.” 8

With these words Sennett also contributes to the debate about the relationship between thinker and maker. He not only suggests that they have equal standing, he also argues explicitly that expertise builds bridges between people: “the craft of making physical things provides insight into the techniques of experience that can shape our dealings with others. Both the difficulties and the possibilities of making things well apply to making human relationships.” 9 The patience that makers are able to summon up when using materials and machines to fashion an object, can also be applied in their relations with others. Thus, it is the maker rather than the thinker who has the skills to work on his or her relations with others, including the thinker. The maker can draw on “techniques of experience” in order to shape their dealings with others, including the thinker. The maker has the curiosity, imagination, patience, and external focus required to build enduring relationships with others, including the thinker. It is an utterly fascinating idea that could form the beginning of a totally different approach to (the work of) the craftsperson as well as to the relationship between thinker and maker.

Richard Sennett writes at length about the craftsperson’s inadequate, defective or non-existing communication on the subject of their craft—in fact, Sennett’s book can be read as one of the rare attempts to lift the veil on craftsmanship, something that craftspeople themselves have insufficiently or never undertaken. What is Sennett’s explanation for the inadequate, ineffectual, or non-existent communication on the part of the craftsperson? I quote: “Embedding stands for a process essential to all skills, the conversion of information and practices into tacit knowledge. […] When we speak of doing something ‘instinctively,’ we are often referring to behavior we have so routinized that we don’t have to think about it. In learning a skill, we develop a complicated repertoire of such procedures. In the higher stages of skill there is a constant interplay between tacit knowledge and self-conscious awareness, the tacit knowledge serving as an anchor, the explicit awareness serving as critique and correction.”1 We—everyone who practices a craft—have difficulty expressing what it is we do when practicing our skill. In the process of repeating an action over and over again and acquiring a skill, that hard-won expertise has become unconscious, and thus very difficult to describe.

It is to Sennett’s credit that he began by very carefully arriving at this diagnosis and only then attempted to get to a grip on the substance of what the professional or craftsperson does. Sennett tried—in my view successfully—to discover and elucidate the mass of information contained in the individual of the craftsperson. The Craftsman is required reading for anyone who works in or has anything to do with the workshop. To the best of my knowledge, no one has studied the activities of a large silent majority with so much knowledge, curiosity, and passion.

  1. Sol LeWitt and Peter Osborne. “Sol LeWitt’s sentences on Conceptual Art: Manuscript and Draft materials 1968–1969” (Verksted no. 11. Oslo: Office for Contemporary Art Norway,2009), 55.

  2. Richard Sennet. The Craftsman (London, Penguin, 2009), 77.

  3. Ibid. 160

  4. Ibid. 37-8

  5. Ibid. 199

  6. Ibid. 220

  7. Ibid. 262

  8. Ibid. 277-78

  9. Ibid. 26

  10. Ibid. 241

  11. Ibid. 289

  12. Ibid. 50.

About the author

Koen Brams (BE) is an independent researcher, curator, and publicist. He is the former editor-in-chief of the magazine De Witte Raaf (1991-2000), the former director of the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht (2000-2011), and the initiator of The Mobile and Temporary Studio for Research and Production (2014 ongoing). He compiled the Encyclopedia of Fictional Artists (Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 2000; Eichborn Verlag, 2003; JRP/Ringier, 2011). Recent publications: Opus 1. The Artist’s Beginnings (together with Ulrike Lindmayr and Dirk Pültau), Roma Publications, Amsterdam, 2015; Confusion of Tongues (together with buren [Melissa Mabesoone & Oshin Albrecht]), Posture Editions, Ghent, 2017; Écran/Scherm (together with Charlotte Beaudry), Éditions du caïd, Brussel, 2017. Most recent exhibition: Jef Cornelis – TV works /Cornelis – Obras de Televisão (1964-1997), Galeria da Culturgest, Porto, 2015; ‘Have Faith in Your Times’ – Karel J. Geirlandt and the Society for the Museum of Contemporary Art (1957-1960) (together with The Mobile and Temporary Studio for Research and Production), S.M.A.K., Ghent, 2018-19.