Crafting a Revolution
Can it be that craft art has no need of a ‘revolution’ or of a shift that a new paradigm per definition results in? Or are we now facing a new paradigm shift? These are among the questions posed in this article, previously published in the catalogue for the travelling exhibition Paradigm.
Paradigm; (Gk. παράδειγμα, paradeigma) is a pattern or example to be followed.
The term paradigm denotes the solution of a problem that is accepted as a model for solving similar problems in the same scientific field, and which thereby forms the basis for a scientific tradition. Newton’s physics, Darwin’s theory of evolution and Mendel’s laws of inheritance are all examples of paradigms. The transfer from one paradigm to another takes place when the scientific discipline is thrown into a state of crisis. As a result, a new paradigm gains ground and supplants the old one. This constitutes a scientific revolution. A new paradigm can never be logically derived from the one that preceded it. (National Encyclopedia of Norway, 2011)
The exhibition Paradigm consists of works by 18 Norwegian artists working in glass, ceramics and metals. They are Ulla-Mari Brantenberg, Vidar Koksvik, Karen Klim, David Calder, Linnea Calder, Pål Vigeland, Heidi Sand, Leif Stangebye-Nielsen, Liv Midbøe, Marit Tingleff, Svein Thingnes, Sidsel Hanum, Tove Lise Røkke Olsen, Tulla Elieson, Jens Erland, Ruta Pakarklyte, Gunnar Thorsen and Irene Nordli. The curator of the exhibition is Lars Sture. In the following, the art historian Synnøve Vik invites Mr. Sture to discuss the theme of the exhibition with two major figures in the Norwegian arts community, Nina Malterud, artist and former rector of the Bergen National Academy of the Arts and Jorunn Veiteberg, art historian and head of the research project Creating Artistic Value.
Synnøve Vik (SV): What is the background for the title and theme of the exhibition?
Lars Sture (LS): The title Paradigm calls attention to a central value in studio craft, whereby the artist, through his exploration of techniques, materials, content and meaning, plays a part in the further development of the entire field. This work takes place in the artist’s studio, and/or in the artist’s dialogue with her artistic community, but usually out of public sight. By means of a selection of works, Paradigm investigates the result of this conscious ‘abstraction’ by the artist, where the genesis of the work remains inaccessible to the public, as opposed, for example, to the relational work, which comes into being in the encounter with or in association with a public.
The Swedish curator and writer Maria Lind has touched upon this in one of her essays. She writes about the fine artist’s withdrawal as one of a number of strategies. In my view, this abstraction that she describes of the relationship between the artist and the public and between the artist and the market is not unlike the role and the practice that has occupied a central place in the crafts or decorative art since the 1970s. In such case, while this may be a paradigm shift in fine art, it is perhaps already a well-founded paradigm in studio craft?
The exhibition Paradigm consists of artists who apply knowledge of materials and techniques as well as of content and meaning. In other words, they maintain a tradition of technical development that emphasises progression and experimentation. Thus I departed from an ambition to demonstrate an emerging paradigm shift, and ended up actually confirming an existing paradigm. That said, it is my belief that the advance of the field of studio craft is mainly due to a willingness within the community to experiment. Moreover, the community has looked beyond its own confines, and has assimilated parts of something that, at one time, might possibly have developed into a full-fledged paradigm shift. Can it be that craft art has no need of a ‘revolution’ or of a shift that a new paradigm per definition results in?
It is my view that we have had a prevailing paradigm within studio craft since the 1970s. By this, I do not mean that things have stood still since then; on the contrary, several changes have taken place, and new trends have been created throughout this period. At the same time, craft as a discipline has, both for good and ill, been left more or less undisturbed compared to other visual art disciplines. Craft art has not to the same extent as fine art become part of, nor influenced by, a private or public art market. Craft art has not been subjected to the same roles as fine art.
Although the crafts have not met with the same acceptance as fine art during the 1990s and 2000s, I believe that craft has ultimately gained by being assigned the role as the art world’s eternal ‘other’. This has yielded time and opportunity for studio craft, and a small but confident community, including a few theoreticians and writers. This in its turn has perhaps helped the paradigm to endure, although with so much room for experimentation and research that new approaches and trends are usually welcomed long before they have been able to develop into independent paradigms.
From applied art to post industry
SV: My first thought is that it is a somewhat bold move to give an exhibition the title Paradigm . It is surely the nature of most exhibitions, at any rate the dream of most curators, to attempt precisely to describe a paradigm shift at the moment it happens. The honest declaration that this is an exhibition describing a mature paradigm is thus an excellent starting point for a discussion of whether a prevailing paradigm currently exists at all within the field and whether this exhibition is descriptive of such a paradigm. Of course, it is also possible to question whether it is at all possible to say that different artistic practices such as those represented in this exhibition can be viewed collectively since each individual artist is also guided by his own set of rules within his own material tradition, craft tradition and aesthetic tradition.
Jorunn Veiteberg, you have closely followed developments within the crafts for many years. Do you consider there to be a prevailing paradigm and, if so, how is this manifested? How do you view Lars Sture’s thesis purporting a lack of paradigm shift within studio craft? Can we see the contours of a paradigm shift among younger makers? Does this correspond to the shift discerned by Lars in fine art, or must it necessarily be radically different, since the field of craft has its own history and development as a basis for a paradigm shift? And, if one can speak of a ‘crisis’ in this field since the 1980s, does this mean that a paradigm shift has been ongoing since that time?
Jorunn Veiteberg (JV): These are major issues you are raising. Historically speaking, we can perhaps speak of three major paradigm shifts in studio craft. Circa 1900, the term was associated with luxury objects representing the best of craftsmanship and employing the most exclusive materials. Then, around World War I, a more social way of thinking came to the fore. One would cooperate with the industry on developing more attractive everyday products while also continuing to produce objects in one’s own workshop. There was a call for simple, honest and functional products, and the Applied Arts movement was both an aesthetic and an ethical programme. This was the prevailing paradigm until the 1960s and 70s. In Norway, the next paradigm shift was very clear, since it involved replacing the term brukskunst (applied art) with the term kunsthåndverk (craft art). Questions of usefulness and utility were replaced by an insistence on purely artistic objectives. Contact with designers was discontinued and alliance with fine artists was sought instead. The vigorous impact of postmodernism on studio craft from the 1980s can probably also be called a paradigm shift since it completely changed the basis of how we think of decoration, reuse traditional patterns and motifs, relate to materials and, not least, combine materials.
LS: This is an important point and although at the time it may have constituted a clear paradigm shift, I think that craft was particularly receptive to what was new about postmodernism. It is quite possible that this was a paradigm shift; it was at any rate immensely important, and had major consequences for my own production too. I perceive studio craft as having sufficient room to accommodate new trends such as these and to allow them to become new but nonetheless natural components of a practice. New currents both within crafts and in society at large are otherwise assimilated by decorative art through experimentation.
JV: There is certainly a lot of experimentation going on in the craft makers’ workshops. I think that we are now facing a new paradigm shift, and the discussion concerning this lies at the heart of the research project I am currently leading. The shift or breach that I envisage is associated with the fact that we in the western world live in a post-industrial society; and this alters the whole basis of the studio crafts, which arose as a reaction to industrialisation. I see many signs of dissolution of the opposition between craft and industry on which craft artists’ self-conception is based. This is probably such a fundamental change that it may come to constitute a new paradigm.
Professional boundaries in a state of flux
LS: In Paradigm, I think Ruta Pakarklyte mirrors post-industrial society rather well with the work Brown Garbage. So does Liv Midbøe with objects that illustrate the contrast between history, tradition and the present.
JV: Yes, Liv Midbøe’s use of photographs is a technique derived from industrial production, which was previously completely alien to studio ceramics. But, whereas the industrial material was porcelain, her originality lies in printing on earthenware. And the photographs tell of making things by hand, and thus bring the pottery tradition to the fore.
Nina Malterud (NM): Midbøe is an example of a young newly trained artist who connects references to the history of ceramic materials and production with the object in work that is both beautiful and open to many interpretations.
Contemporary craft art as a field and an occupational group dates back to 1974, when the Norwegian Association of Arts and Crafts was founded and defined themselves as part of the visual arts. The paradigm from the 1970s was founded on values derived from closeness to materials, craft traditions and utility functions as well as a perception of aesthetics as something timeless. This platform was more typical of the period than we were aware of at the time, and the concept was vigorously challenged during the 1980s.
The exhibitors selected for this exhibition represent a mature section of the studio craft community; there are not many younger participants here, and this raises the question of whether the exhibition’s paradigm is viable and will endure. Craft art has in reality for many years been associated with visual art, at worst as sluggish and outdated stragglers, but at best adopting original approaches and unexpected moves. Today there is a large overlap between craft art and pictorial art, and a greater number of paradigms are active simultaneously, as Vik has already has pointed out. If there were no interaction between the various discourses, it would all surely have stagnated?
LS: I agree with what you are saying. This was incidentally my statement as curator of the exhibition Tendencies in 2004, and I therefore constantly referred to a continuous axis of art rather than demarcated fields within an area.
NM: For me, it is neither important nor natural today to be able to read clearly demarcated practices each with its own paradigms – but I am preoccupied with preserving the manifold character of the art, and ensuring that works of art are created from different standpoints and motives, and I consider that the works you have selected for the exhibition Paradigm represent a way of working that still has considerable potential.
SV: If you look back at your years at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts, what would you focus on as the most important academic development among the students and staff and in the field as such?
NM: The most important development has been the strengthening of the active dialogue among both academic staff and students. The strengths and weaknesses of the various discourses have thus been exposed to each other in a collegial and constructive atmosphere – at any rate, that is the intention. I found it positive that both professional generosity and the capacity for critical articulation have increased. The keen focus on theory in academic environments during the 1990s has now entered into a better dialogue with practice, and this has strengthened the interest in materials and physical working processes in pictorial art as well. Not unexpectedly, many people grow tired of sitting in front of a computer screen! Environments founded on traditional craft materials and techniques have been strengthened theoretically and given a sounder critical basis. Systematic training within the materials and techniques of each field has been reduced in favour of a more general artistic orientation. But I am by no means sure that, on completing their training, students are any less skilled as craftsmen than was the case 20–30 years ago.
The introduction in 2004 of a joint master’s programme for the pictorial and craft art departments at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts was a radical move. So also was the introduction of the interdisciplinary scholarship programme in 2003. The focus on artistic development work also signals demystification of the role of the artist and the value placed on systematic research and dialogue as an artistic method.
SV: Veiteberg, in an article in 2008 you posed the question ‘Are we approaching a paradigm shift in studio ceramics?’, and you quoted the ceramist artist and designer Marek Cecula: ‘The most domestic material we know – ceramics – functions as a barometer of the changes that are accumulating within the global culture.’
What was the point of departure for your question then? What changes in global culture is ceramics a barometer for? And have your views concerning the paradigm shift changed during the last three years?
LS: Let me underline that it is not the romantic notion of the artist working alone in his workshop that I am preoccupied with, but rather the idea of the artist in dialogue with a professional community. I choose to include the production model you refer to here, exemplified by the work of artists such as Irene Nordli and, to a certain extent, Tulla Elieson and Jens Erland. I completely agree with Veiteberg, but globalisation is something that the studio craft has so far assimilated without explosive or implosive effects, and whether or not this constitutes a paradigm shift is therefore perhaps a matter of interpretation
JV: I have so far preferred to regard these new working methods and the incorporation of found objects and images as an extension of craft, but, as I said, I believe that these things may express a more fundamental change.
SV: What, in your view, characterises in general the artists selected to take part in the Paradigm exhibition?
NM: Despite differences in materials, format and aesthetic expression, the work is an object; and clearly demonstrates a sound knowledge of the material’s potential and a willingness to use time to evoke this.
JV: I will subscribe to that characteristic.
LS: For me, it has been important, through the art object, to refer to a kind of knowledge bank invested in by the artist in particular and by the artistic community in general.
SV: Which artists and individual works in the Paradigm exhibition would you focus on as particularly interesting, and why?
NM: I would like to mention Svein Thingnes – a ceramic artist who has stood for original and vital exploration of materials coupled with striking concepts right from the beginning of the 1960s. Something similar can be said of Jens Erland: sharp visual precision, where the material carries several layers of meaning.
JV: The refinement of the raw material represented by Pål Vigeland’s transformation of honey tins into a sculptural object is in line with the processes of change that I have described. The political interpretation of his choice of material is apparent in the way he has eschewed precious metals and extraction of new raw materials in favour of recycling. The result is exceptionally attractive. From a distance, one sees only an abstract form, but, when viewing it closely, one can recognise the pattern and lettering on the metal, thus establishing the connection with the everyday reality.
SV: It is difficult to predict what aesthetic trends, theoretical principles and visual constraints will manifest themselves in the future, particularly for art. The term paradigm shift also implies that the new paradigm cannot be characterised before it has arisen (‘A new paradigm can never be logically derived from the one that preceded it’, to quote the definition). However, I would like to ask you, on the basis of your long and broad experience of various areas of the field: What do you see as the future of studio craft, both in terms of materials and content and as an academic discipline?
JV: All the DIY activities that are currently emerging in the form of guerilla embroidery and knitting cafés are for me enormously interesting cultural movements. But whether the objects that are being made will in the future be regarded as examples of craft art is an open question. It will at any rate depend on the educational institutions maintaining ceramics, glass or metal as separate disciplines. In my view, the most interesting studio craft is that which mediates between art and popular culture, such as pottery, handicrafts and the production of utility articles. It can happily show a radical choice of materials and methods, but should at the same time have one foot (or at least a toe) in the tradition or in the field that it springs out of. If this connection disappears completely, we are no longer talking about craft as a separate field.
NM: The history of decorative arts clearly demonstrates that content and concepts are not necessarily decided beforehand, but are developed through work with materials and processes – and we now see this more strongly articulated by pictorial artists too. It is worth harnessing the expressive potential of the materials and processes, which can provide more than the artist is able to plan in advance. At the same time, a form of conceptual work (in the broadest possible sense) radiates through the work. There is an extension of the understanding of what a material is. Can, for example, virtual objects be just as real as physical ones? Digital tools provide new aesthetic potential that must be included. Whether decorative art would or should endure as a separate discipline is an open question. What will this imply for discourse and identity? Should video, for example, be a separate discipline?
SV: During a period when craftsmanship and technical skills in art and crafts have either been devalued or the production outsourced to low-cost countries, and when pictorial artists have made use of craft techniques as an attribute rather than as a starting point for their artistic practice, what is the position of decorative arts within a larger perspective of aesthetic practice?
NM: The presence of a core of highly qualified specialists may well result in the ability of practitioners unschooled in these things to provide bold contributions, such as those of Cobra*. I strongly believe that there will still be persons able and willing to explore the depths of material processes. However, artistic intentions and reflections must be tightly integrated with knowledge of materials if the field is to be viable. The production of interesting contemporary work is dependent on a complex interaction between materials, conceptions and traditions.
JV: According to my colleagues at the art academies, the devaluation of craft is on the decline. The mission of the material based artist may be to insist on its values regardless of the way the winds blow. These values involve questioning cultural and artistic hierarchies. They involve refusing to accept that utility is incompatible with art and that content and concept are superior to sensory qualities. Not least, they involve insisting that thinking can also occur through working with a material; that material matters.
* Cobra was a European group of avant-garde artists with a pronounced political and social dimension. The group was active from 1949 to 1951.
Nina Malterud. Rector of the Bergen National Academy of the Arts from 2002 to August 2010. Prior to this, she was Prorector from 1998 while also Professor of Ceramics in the Department for Specialised Art. As Prorector and subsequently Rector, Malterud had the main responsibility for artistic development work and research at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts. She graduated from the National College of Art and Design in Oslo in 1974 and was active for many years as an artist in Oslo before beginning to teach at the former National College of Art and Design in Bergen in 1994. She is still a practising artist, and lives in Bergen.
Jorunn Veiteberg. Dr.philos in Art History from the University of Bergen. Formerly Director of Exhibitions at Hordaland Art Centre, Curator of Galleri F15, Executive Editor at NRK TV and freelance writer and curator. Editor of the magazine Kunsthåndverk 1998–2007. She is now a Professor at the Bergen National Academy of the Arts and is head of the research project Creating Artistic Value: a project on trash and readymades, art and ceramics, supported by the Research Council of Norway. She lives in Copenhagen.
Lars Sture. Diploma from the National College of Art and Design in Oslo from 1989 and Master`s degree from 1992. As an artist and curator, he has had numerous solo and collective exhibitions at home and abroad, has carried out public commissions and is represented at a number of museums and collections. He was Option Leader at Central St Martins School of Art and Design in London.. He lives in London and Solund, where he is responsible for the project/exhibition room Skule.
Synnøve Vik. PhD research fellow in visual culture, within the project Nomadikon at the University of Bergen. Curator, critic and freelance writer. She has worked as an exhibition coordinator at the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts. She lives in Bergen.