Does Craftsmanship Matter Anymore?

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More than 500 hand-carved and painted polyurethane replicas of everyday objects are featured in The Objects for Glenstone by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, installed at the Glenstone Museum
in Potomac, Maryland, in 2011.

I was a judge for a juried art exhibition last week. I was shocked by the level of quality of some of the work that was entered into the show. I mean … shocked. Some of it was so poorly executed I could hardly believe it was done by adults (all of it was). “Loose” abstract paintings, installations that were hardly anything at all.  What’s up with this? I’m an older artist, and maybe I’m out of touch in thinking that an artwork should be well crafted. Maybe that’s “old school.” All I know is that I came out really disappointed and negative at the end of it all, and now I’m having trouble accepting the fact that this type of “sloppy” work is where the art world may be headed.
Get Off My Lawn


Dear Get Off My Lawn,
Ooh-wee, you touched a nerve with that question. Like you and droves of other art professionals, I too have been roped into various judging roles–from fundraising proposals to senior student shows to, yes, the Tennessee State Fair Art Competition (Give me a break, I was 26 and didn’t have anything better to do).
It can be a really horrifying and taxing experience, it really can. Some of the “artworks”  people submit can be bizarre, confusing, laughable and even heartbreaking. And some things are just terrible, plain and simple. So terrible in fact that it frightens one to think that such an object came from the hands of person who is also probably licensed to operate a vehicle at high speeds near other persons.
I recall one “sculpture” in particular of which I might have been willing to bet a small fortune the artist used the Fletcher Reede method of construction. Unfortunately, the artist was absent from the judging portion of the exhibition so I was unable to inquire directly, otherwise, believe me, I would have.
Because here’s the thing, craftsmanship isn’t an outmoded idea. Execution is still, in the end, the most important thing about a work of art. The “idea” is only the very-nascent-early-little-baby-bud of a work of art, whether we’re talking visual art, music, novels, architecture, whatever. If a sculptor spends too much time patting herself on the back for her brilliant monumental idea, and then fails to put in the unsexy yet paramount effort needed to sort out the actual logistics of the thing―at some point, it’s probably going to fall apart. And when that happens, the art collector who bought the piece at a very premium price will likely lose their damn mind. Just like this.
When it’s all said and done, a well-carved wooden duck is more impressive than a six-story ice sculpture that collapses before it’s done. That wooden duck will live to see the light of a new decade, and that counts for something, historically speaking.

Urs fischer collage
Urs Fischer’s monumental candle sculptures slowly burned over the course of the 2011 Venice Biennale.

Of course, some works are intended to be impermanent, which brings me to my next point. A work can be made to fall apart, like Urs Fischer’s monumental candle sculptures at the 2011 Venice Biennale, Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo’s Melting Men (2009), a work about global warming, or Andy Goldworthy’s ephemeral land art; or it can be made to last forever, like Greek marble sculptures or, oil paintings. However, it’s really lame to see work that is supposed to be one way but looks another. And it doesn’t cut it to say that “it’s supposed to look a little shitty.” Sorry, but nope.
Art that tries to walk some questionable line of being “unprecious” and “unmonumental” typically ends up looking like the result of boring excuses and shortcuts later on. Unless, as an artist, you’ve got some great concepts backing up its shoddiness―meaning, it’s a long-considered, conscious decision that’s vital to the piece―you’ve got to pull it off in a way that can endure over time, and survive being handled by other people.
So while your art can look like whatever you want it to, pay attention to the details of final presentation, for the love of God. Clean up the parts that are supposed be cleaned up. Frame your stuff well, hang your stuff well, document your stuff well. Be a freakin’ professional. If you cut corners, it will show. It always does. And if you think I’m just addressing students, I am not. Here’s looking at you, grown-ass adults.
Brendan Carroll, Ripped Cracked and Smeared (Single Pane), 2013; oil, tinted latex rubber and rubber cement on canvas, 54 by 43 inches.
Brendan Carroll, Ripped Cracked and Smeared (Single Pane), 2013; oil, tinted latex rubber and rubber cement on canvas, 54 by 43 inches.

A poorly stretched canvas with threads hanging down doesn’t “add” anything to a painting, regardless of how you try to spin it. I mean, if you’re hoping the nonchalance of your work will speak to the nonchalance of your artistic practice―okay, it most certainly will. Otherwise, unless you’re Gabriel Pionkowski or Brendan Carroll and deconstructed canvases are your whole MO, pay attention to details and look like you mean it.
That said, don’t let me give you the wrong impression here; novel ideas, bucking trends, starting aesthetic revolutions―I’m all for those. Rage on, young tastemakers! But there’s still the notion that a poorly built house will fall; it won’t be around long enough to make history. If you really want to make an impact, you’ve got to execute your irreverent and rebellious ideas well, or they simply won’t have a chance to make a difference.
Do you have a question for Sara? Email her at [email protected] 

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space Threesquared. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow. 

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