Muck and Bullets
Muck and Bullets, or, Some Notes on Means and Intentions in Fine Art Printmaking.


Fine Art Printmakers, as they raise their heads above the trenches of the contemporary art battlefield, are sometimes targeted by critics who disparage as incompatible the twin requirements of inventive freedom and technical fluency that necessarily vie for the attention of the printmaker. Students, particularly, can find the two competing claims quite confusing. These brief notes are intended to address such uncertainties as well as to support the call for an armistice acceptable to both sides - the zealous adherents of prescribed technical fluency as well as the advocates of untrammelled creative expression.

The printmaker reckless enough (or perhaps simply impatient enough) to set off towards one aspect of this duality without proper regard for the other - off to vacuous bewitchment with extemporisation, or, just as rashly, trusting all to technical sophistry - finds the journey perilous. To one side looms the Scylla of undisciplined self-expression, to the other, the grimly constipated Charybdis of technical pedantry.

Printmakers must - and always in highly individual terms - confront the seeming dichotomy between expressive intentions on the one hand and, to resurrect a neglected term, the craft of printmaking, on the other. Within our remarkably protean specialism, which after all emerges from an industrial background, the requirements of mechanical proficiency clearly overlap with the conundrums of imaginative and intellectual intention.

I would argue that a coherent grasp of practical methodologies necessarily underpins the emerging printmaker's search for a convincing personal language. The practised ability to make an accumulation of interim technical, formal and imaginative decisions remains important in defining the specialism. We have Aristotle to thank for the eminently sensible observation that

'Anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments'.

How irksome then that no less a figure than Picasso should have left us with this Delphic observation

'Technique is important, on condition that one has so much of it that it completely ceases to exist'.

But we need not fall out with either of our distinguished friends. Aristotle is merely being careful to remind us of what may be so self-evident as to be easily overlooked, whilst Picasso is doing no more, perhaps, than pointing out that we would not (for instance) wish to shortlist a novel for the Nobel Prize in Literature simply on the grounds that it contained no errors of syntax or grammar.

Creative work that obeys orthodox technical conventions cannot therefore be said to be distinctive by that yardstick alone - which is far from saying that technical comprehension has no place in successful creative resolution. Still, the distinguished war photographer Robert Capa did claim (through gritted teeth, one imagines) that he would

'... rather have a strong image that is technically bad than vice versa.'

Capa finds a curiously inverted mirror image of his view in the laconic observation of the American Minimalist artist Sol Le Witt,

'Banal ideas cannot be rescued by beautiful execution.'

The discovery of a nimble, animated balance between technical control and creative responsiveness is surely as important to the printmaker speculating with new technologies as it is to those set upon re-inventing mainstream printmaking traditions in unpredictable, contemporary terms. It is not surprising then to learn that the writer and academic Anton Ehrenzweig contributed the thought that

'... really new ideas do not allow a predictable use of the medium.'

The novice printmaker does sometimes confuse the earnestly conscious control of technique with irrefutable creative success (or alternatively, the flouting of all rules, with daring achievement). Both are understandable errors, common precisely because they seem to offer guaranteed shortcuts to accomplishment. The truth is more complex. It seems to me that just as one's creative ideas are inevitably modified through their embodiment in material form, so too will one's concepts tend to impose unforeseen uses on the processes that we employ as printmakers. The medium itself might be envisaged as a personality - one with singular opinions about our treatment of subject-matter. The shrewd printmaker seems to enter into a kind of informed exchange of views with the medium, suggesting that process-orientated methods do not dictate creative decisions in predictable ways, but instead negotiates them responsively.

I think of the printmaking studio as being a kind of theatre, in which the drama between trained ability and reflective invention is rehearsed for the eventual reception of an audience. On the opening night, if one player upstages the other, it is the artist who will receive poor reviews. We might go so far as to venture that it is the special prerogative of artists whose practice embraces the processes of graphic fine art - layered, ordered, sequential language - to recognise that both creative means and imaginative intentions participate in a production that must encompass them both.

The British artist and academic Michael Craig Martin makes the philosophically loaded observation that

'Skill is the ability to do exceptionally well exactly what needs to be done'

In doing so he adroitly privileges both means and intentions, implying their logical inextricability. We may all agree that a good host is always self-effacing. But if studious technical understanding is the host who throws the party for our giddy creative intentions, can we not also agree that there wouldn't have been much of a party without her?