Thursday, January 15, 2009

Litho Press for Sale - The Death of Printmaking - Art and Craft

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.


printsnat said...

I certainly can see both sides of this issue, and if you look at any exhibit of Contemporary printmaking, you'll see the entire range of traditional techniques to the more modern and experimental and digital technologies. One question I have is where does digital printing belong? Some put it in printmaking, others in photography. I think that each department has to decide where it's focus is too. I teach traditional etching at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, but also include a photo transfer method as part of my method. I think you should respect the methods of the past, but also embrace the new technologies, which will at some point become new traditions.

megan frau said...

It's seems a shame to sell off a litho press. They can be used for wood cuts as well and if aluminum plates were used, you can also incorporate photo litho methods. I came from a school that's fortunately not cut the program down. I'd hate to see it get downgraded to the point where you can even major in that study.

Marc Snyder said...

Hi Tom!
I'm one who is happy to include digital media in the printmaking family - for me, if you've got a matrix created by the artist from which the print is "pulled" (even if pulling the print involves hitting the print button) you have the makings of an original print. The etching press, the potato, the xerox machine, and the laser printer can all produce original prints in the right hands. . . Of course, you can't beat up your printer with a scraper, which takes some of the fun out of it. . .

Hi Megan! I think in this particular instance it's not a matter of cutting the program down so much as changing the emphasis from litho. to another printmaking medium that a new faculty member felt was a better fit for her strengths and interests and the needs of the program. The initial responses to the "for sale" ad were as much a response to what is perceived as a widespread decline in teaching litho (as in "litho's always the first to go, and here it goes again), especially when it's replaced by media that aren't as firmly entrenched in the printmaking canon.

Amie Roman said...

Interesting post and summary of discussion. I agree that printmaking seems to be a "strange mix of craft and art", and although really other artistic techniques can certainly fall under that label, too, it seems that the printmakers that I know really embrace that synthesis in their chosen medium (or media).

I think that there are a lot of instances of more traditional media being displaced by the contemporary, hence the potential loss of "craft" in the other art media. I am not in academia, but wonder when it'll become "hot" to swing the other way, and resurrect the "lost crafts of art"?

Ink said...

It is what it is. I cannot say that I desire that either digitalia or more traditional means of printmaking persist over the other. Fortunate that change is constant - consider that aluminum plate litho is a relatively new development as well as modern litho inks and papers. Regardless, there will be a few printers that you could never dissuade from printing litho regardless. Personally, I am disappointed in what is being taught in terms of tecnical aspects at the university/college level (etching, relief, and litho primarily). MFA does not translate into technical skill. Add to that the inherent complexity of the printmaking process (especially litho) which is frustating to an undergrad. What is the incentive for a student to grind a stone for hours or spend an hour prepping a plate (cutting, deoxidizing or counteretching, smoothing edges, blotting, drawing gum borders, and t an baring reg marks) when they can download an image, load a toner printer with a pronto or smart plate, print the image on the plate, fix the toner in an oven or fume box and be printing (on an etching press no less) in the time it takes to prep the plate? You won't see me lamenting about the long lost days of litho but I enjoy layering an image with 20 runs, or feeling the bite of the plate or the stone as the crayon runs over it. If I have to enjoy it alone then so be it. I won't compromise - in all regards. It is a mistake to label a printmaking medium a craft simply because it takes so much process to create the image. The digital band wagon is here to stay and today's professors may be feeling a pinch to hop on. It may be especially more inviting if they don't have the skills to teach some of the more technical aspects of traditional printmaking, especially litho.