Over the past few days there has been an interesting exchange of emails that has arrived in my inbox by way of the listserv of one of the larger printmaking associations. In greatly simplified form, the discussion went something like this. A university was selling its litho press, as lithography was being dropped from their printmaking curriculum. A flurry of emails followed, with people expressing their regrets that lithography was no longer going to be taught at this university. These were followed by folks saying that the university should teach printmaking any way they see fit, and if litho isn't a part of it, what's the big deal?
As the rhetoric escalated a bit, the "hate to see litho go" side put forth the argument that those who were expanding definitions of printmaking to include, well, just about anything (digital processes being one of the main culprits here) were responsible for the deterioration of printmaking, the death of a discipline. Removing lithography from a university's printmaking program was a hostile act towards printmaking in general.
The "where's the tragedy, get over it" crowd argued that printmakers should teach those methods that excite them and their students, building a program based on their strengths.
So this "for sale" sign had turned into a pretty interesting debate. My feeling was that it revealed a pretty basic dividing line in teaching philosophy concerning printmaking. Do you teach printmaking primarily as a craft or as an art? I say this as someone with great respect for both, and who feels that both are a necessary component of successful teaching.
Craft concerns itself with preserving and maintaining culture. If you see your role in teaching printmaking as someone who is providing students with access to a body of knowledge, you're probably very interested in the craft of printmaking. Successful teaching of relief, intaglio, lithography, and serigraphy should produce students who have mastered the various techniques associated with those four pillars of print. The university may be the only place where the next generation of artists can be exposed to these techniques, and teaching them will keep them alive.
Art is less concerned about preservation and more interested in engagement with contemporary culture, being a part of the cultural dialogue of the moment. If your goals as a teacher focus on your students' engagement with contemporary art, printmaking may be more about the use of process to convey meaning, the meaning of multiples, indirect versus direct methods of making images, the combination of digital and traditional methods, and similar "conceptual" aspects of printmaking. The "meaning" of the image, including the meaning of the medium used to make it, might be more important than the mastery of a defined set of skills.
Now, I'm guessing that most people would argue for a healthy mix of both. But the passions stirred by the "for sale" sign hint at some strong leanings in one direction or the other, with assumptions being made about the "correct" way to approach this strange mix of craft and art. Those assumptions might benefit from a thorough examination before next semester's syllabi are written.