10 September 2009
The Labor of Art
Progress as of yesterday
What a ridiculous amount of work to carve all these letters just to make a few prints that look like John Eliot's Bible. Why not use a photographic process like screen print or solarplate and get on with it? I guess it's because I want to "own" the work, I want to make it mine. I want to experience in some small way the hardship that John Eliot endured to make this translation of the Bible into the native language.
Philosopher John Locke talked about this transformative power of work in the late 17th century when he put forward his labor theory of property. Simply stated the theory says that when a person works, their labor enters into the object and so the object becomes their property. I'm not sure about the property part of the argument, but I do have the experience that when I work on a woodblock print my labor enters into the artwork.
This is a sensation I've always enjoyed and valued. When I was a child, I used to love to copy artwork or photographs that pleased me. As I became a young adult, I vowed to purchase only items whose origin I could identify, a vow I of course couldn't keep, but that I hold as a kind of touchstone still when I evaluate the value of an object.
Work by Molly Springfield
There are other artists who seem to feel this same way about deeply laboring. I recently became aware (via curator Elizabeth Schlatter) of an artist named Molly Springfield whose project Drawings of Photocopies of Books seems to embody this same spirit of obsessively recreating texts. In her project, completed over three years, Springfield meticulously recreates xeroxed texts in graphite, including all of the strange shadows and lines and artifacts of the xerox process itself. A woman after my own heart.
The question is, does that labor -- the hundreds of hours, the thoughts and feelings experienced while working, the music the artist listened to -- does any of that actually get communicated by the work? Can a viewer perceive it?
The rational answer is no. But my heart says yes. My heart says that it matters what I'm doing when I'm making art, what I'm thinking, what I'm feeling, and that that "investment" in the work is perceivable.