Imagining Printmaking’s Future: Projecting from a Glass Half-Full Perspective

Clockwise from top: Michael Kempson proofing Panda and Bamboo, 2016, a laser cut woodblock made in collaboration with Joseph Scheer from Alfred University, USA; One of four exhibition temples for the thirty-country exhibition International Academic Printmaking Alliance, 2016, Taimiao Art Gallery – Imperial Ancestral Temple, Working People’s Culture Palace, Tiananmen, Beijing, China; part of the Australian contribution to International Academic Printmaking Alliance, 2016, Taimiao Art Gallery – Imperial Ancestral Temple, Working People’s Culture Palace, Tiananmen, Beijing, China.

The following inspired address was delivered by master printer, artist and lecturer Michael Kempson at Australian Printmaking: Past and Present, a forum held at the National Gallery of Victoria on 8 October in celebration of the Print Council of Australia‘s fiftieth anniversary.

When I mentioned to a colleague, the Sydney-based etcher Bruce Latimer, that I was to offer some observations about printmaking’s future at this forum, his response was, ‘well it’s going to be a short talk then’. This droll glass half-empty reaction has developed in part from the irony inherent in the ongoing fascination for printmaking, which continues regardless of how depressing the outlook for it is in the world.

Some of the attitudes espoused by leading figures in the curatorial realm haven’t helped. Riva Castleman, a former Chief Curator of Prints at New York’s Museum of Modern Art wrote, ‘I don’t see printmaking – and never have – as a way of working out the basic problems of art. It’s too fraught with other technical problems.’[1] While her remarks reference the challenges that painters encounter in the interaction between print and painting modes of working, it did result in a horde of printmakers feeling considerably miffed.

Over its long history, printmaking has enjoyed periods of public and institutional acclaim, that compensate for the times when it falls out of favour. So, when printmakers gather rigorous debate will ensue: are we actually enjoying one of those phases of enthusiastic support, or suffering a period of neglect?

Trying to foresee printmaking’s positive cycles is as impossible as the folly of seeking to predict the future. I’m reminded of Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 dystopian fantasy Metropolis. As a vision of life in times to come it was bleakly entertaining, but in the course of even a few decades it proved to be fairly wide of the mark.

This is true of most futuristic depictions in literature and film. While it shouldn’t stop people trying, the limitation implicit is that every attempt to imagine the future is at heart an examination of the present. It’s as true for artists, in their conceptual prognostications, as it is for actuaries or technocrats who trade in forecasts and projections. Furthermore one just can’t foresee the subsequent ramifications of the unexpected shocks that change the world, a conceit embodied in the somewhat convoluted wisdom of Donald Rumsfeld, and his now infamous reference to ‘unknown unknowns’.[2]

The perennial promise of a Federal budget surplus means economists aren’t the great predictors they profess to be either, but they do understand statistics with great clarity. I approached one, Mark Cully, the Chief Economist in the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science in Canberra, to get some authoritative information. Coincidentally, he and I shared a common experience spending our developing years in Elizabeth during the 1960s and early 1970s. Elizabeth, situated in the industrial north of Adelaide, was a purpose built housing commission city for the future, and the first experiment in urban decentralisation in Australia. During this time, it was so mired with planning shortcomings that, with the subsequent social problems, it actually was a dystopian reality.

Imagine Australia when I was a child back in 1971. This was a period in our history when all but one in twenty people described their nationality as British and close to two in three women spent most of their time attending home duties. Among those who were formally employed, there were more priests and ministers of religion than lawyers, more metal trades workers than retail workers, more farmers than teachers. For those not continuing with school, the most common level completed was Year 8. Today, almost all secondary students complete Year 12 and there are around 4 million people with a degree, against 180,000 back in 1971. [3] One pertinent statistic in that year’s census was that 30,600 people identified themselves in the artist/entertainer/writer category; in 2011 the number was 75,800. In a population increase of 70% between 1971 and 2011, the growth in declared artists is 148%.[4]

Could anyone have predicted in the passage of those years such changed circumstances in the labour market or social and educational demographics? What then regarding the core challenges will we face in the future: from the diminishing supply of natural resources, food and water; the decline in the world’s natural habitats; the shifts in the world economy from west to east; an ageing population; and the connectivity immersing individuals, communities, governments and businesses at an ever increasing rate.[5]

The twentieth century ushered in the concept of human capital and the nuanced interplay between demand and supply, characterised in recent economic theory as a race between education and technology.[6] For technology to function a substantial skill-base is required for its development and application, which can only be met through the delivery of appropriate education. While a fiscal race, as an idea garnered in human experience, it can influence other contexts, as is the case in the world of cinema with the all too regular dire imaginings of dystopian scenarios if technology wins. But one can also argue that variants of these ideas have been used in shaping the development of art since the 1960s.

Canadian print artist and academic Walter Jule contributes thoughtfully on art education, particularly on its transformation over the middle and latter stages of the twentieth century. Changes, he says, that came in part as a response to the introduction of photo-mechanical means of reproduction and the subsequent range of influential theories that espouse such esoteric notions as the phenomenological critique and deconstructive post-modernism. He chronicles its effect, a realigning of the focus away from art grounded in a personal or privileged vision and by extension from craft-centred practice and technical virtuosity. Over time art schools began to restructure their programs to serve the paramount notion of the ‘idea’ that drives knowledge-based practice, the core focus of most contemporary visual art institutions in the world today. The resulting effects threatened resource intensive technologies with traditional associations, like printmaking departments, and proved to be detrimental to many of the students who inhabited them, particularly in the early 1980s when I went to art school.

Jule said, ‘The focus on critical theory at the expense of first-hand experience left students with a wealth of received ideas, but often short of the craft, technical skills and visual literacy to express these ideas convincingly in material form.’[7]

Think about the American painter Eric Fischl who peevishly recounts, ‘artists of my generation were not educated, we were not given the equipment for it was generally believed to be irrelevant. Drawing, hand eye co-ordination, art history – really relevant stuff – was considered unnecessary. We were made to feel from day one that we were, fully sprung from the womb, an artist. In fact, it’s incredibly disrespectful of the importance of history that we train people to be amateurs. I deeply resent the kind of flattery that replaced discipline. What experience has shown me is that it takes your life to become an artist.’[8]

Despite this, it is affirming that printmaking over the last fifty years has demonstrated a remarkable resilience. To quote Walter Jule, ‘it has resolutely refused to abandon its traditions and maintained the ability to reflect shifts in critical thought without resorting to extreme or reactionary positions.’[9] This is certainly debatable, for there are printmaking fundamentalists who deny progress by applying strict definitions, initially excluding offset prints and monotypes, and more recently digitally derived work from print exhibitions. While on the other hand there are those in academe and business who are so all encompassing in their definition of a print, or have exploited its nomenclature to such a degree, that it undermines the activity of making them.

While many hope this debate has well and truly moved on, in our changing educational market place – when a student begins to understand their ideas and working method, to explore options in what technology to deploy – their visual vocabulary will be reliant upon the experience and philosophy of their teachers and the resources of their host institution. Rather than just teaching what you know, an educator should be as equally passionate about the printmaking technology of seventh century China, or fifteenth century Europe, to complement the astounding potential to be discovered in the digital realm.

As we observe in the commercial world, Darwinian theory rules. Pressing deadlines mean it’s out with the old and in with the new for those required to maintain a competitive edge. But thankfully a more fluid sense of time reflects the contrary dynamic of the creative impulses found in artistic practice. In preparing students for the best way to communicate visually, individual choice dictates that for many state-of-the-art technology is the perfect vehicle for their ideas. So, with one eye on the future, why then should we bother with the hard physical graft of an arcane technology, when results are achieved with the click of a mouse?

One reason can be in the unique tactility recorded in traditional prints. The haptic manipulation of layering, scraping, cutting and polishing provides an experience of history, offered at an ideal mulling pace, so to best deal with the ‘basic problems of art’. When you work regularly, as I often do, with artists who have never made prints, there are preconceived ideas about what a print should be, but those assumptions change as they focus on the considerable challenge presented in this engagement. During this process, in each and every instance, artists end up inventing the medium anew, relative to their own inner predilections and in response to printmaking’s unique expressive range.[10]

Some however still question the place for traditional disciplines in research based institutions. Academic administrators, often captives to a balance sheet, have asked hard questions following successive cuts in federal funding. Their solutions have trickled down the chain of command, resulting in sporadic pruning of specific print mediums, or the complete removal of printmaking courses altogether from Australian universities. Even more stark is the axing of fine art faculties, as was the case in NSW with Western Sydney University nearly a decade ago, or the BFA program at the University of Newcastle at the beginning of the year, and as recently as a few months ago in the attempt to dismantle Sydney College of the Arts at the University of Sydney.

Despite this, there are structural adjustments slowly taking place in the print world where novel ways are being applied to re-balance the equilibrium and amplify a renewed interest. One benefit of cyberspace is the print networks established for the exchange of ideas and information that often lead to a transition from virtual to actual engagement in forums such as this. Allowing for the sharing of positive stories, such as those I have experienced in Australia and overseas, of people bringing to their teaching optimistic agendas, providing novice printmakers with the enthusiasm to unite material and concept, and sustain a practice into the future – thereby ensuring a future for our practice.

My own story at UNSW Art and Design started grimly in 2004 with a challenging meeting in the Dean’s office giving me a provisional year to prevent the closure of the printmaking department. Cicada Press was born as one way of rethinking the dynamic of personal and creative interaction, within and beyond the classroom. As a custom printing workshop it functions via an elective course, embedding crucial skills-based training in an open interaction with a diverse range of creative approaches offered by our invited artists. The collaborative relationship, inherent between an artist and custom printer, welcomes students into this art making process, who in turn contribute as an integral component in our creative partnership. Cicada Press coalesces dialogue, community, informal interactions and lived experience in learning and hopefully, through personal connection, a foundation for respect and mutual understanding is developed.

From a simple pedagogical experiment that sought to challenge ossified norms found in traditional printmaking instruction, Cicada Press has morphed into a research group at UNSW where the shared desire of its stakeholders is to pursue broader social and ethical goals. These have included: Annual Aboriginal Print Workshops that bring together a diverse range of early- and mid-career Indigenous artists to share and experiment in the dialogue of a new medium; projects aligning printmaking with environmental activism; international engagement that facilitates cross-cultural communication through print practice; and educational opportunities for artists with intellectual and physical disabilities that affirm the value of meaningful educational experiences, often out of reach for many in our society.

After a somewhat perilous beginning, Cicada Press is now a thriving, altruistic printmaking community, using a set of scenarios through the example of making to establish the foundations of a professional network. Combining diverse personalities and intergenerational experiences that nurture, and ultimately test, leadership potential, our students have a framework for life-long learning, so they ‘can deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world’.[11]

One significant prediction for the future, aligned with the race between technology and education, is manifest in the idea of the looming ‘post-work’ society.[12] An outcome, hinted at by futurists, that will see established industries decimated and hard-working, skilled people made unemployable, with the millions of manufacturing jobs that will be shed by technologies such as 3D printing. An antidote to this world requires a trait that is distinctly human – creativity. With secure jobs no longer assured, as more and more physical and mental tasks are commandeered by machines and software, why not actively encourage our future generations to go to art school, with the promise of a life of self-discovery? To create a world where we foster ideas to keep pace with technological advancements, by exercising the muscles of our imagination, ‘honing the skill that best ensures adaptability and resourcefulness during times of constant change’.[13]

We will always be heading into an unpredictable future so printmakers, like economists, should appreciate that there are valuable lessons to be learnt from history. To understand the phenomenal achievement of engineering found in the transition from traditional then photomechanical and now digital technologies, and in the science of how we combine pigment, oil, and water with paper, under pressure, to package and broadly circulate innovative ideas.

The incessant reminder of progress, apparent in a print studio, prepares us for the inevitability that things will and must change. However, in the same way that photography didn’t kill painting, despite the prediction of prophets as far back as the nineteenth century, many superseded print technologies continue to beguile; because the value isn’t in our ability to efficiently render images, but in the artist’s capacity, using all our six senses, to convey a unique viewpoint.

‘Most of us don’t actually see dead people but we do enjoy long enduring conversations with them through the products of culture. While it is true that artists learn as much from objects and the making of them as we do from people, we still need teachers in the studio because we must experience knowledge embodied in action.’[14] We all benefit from cherished mentors who have offered guidance and example at just the right time in our lives, but we should always remember that we are all both teachers and students depending upon the circumstances.

The best way to prepare the next generation to be informed and articulate contributors in this conversation is to teach them how to: understand history; find a mentor; build supportive networks; question current orthodoxy; be suspicious of prophets; believe in themselves; and be open to all the mediums of printmaking’s lexicon, within an expanded collegial structure for print education.

This includes all organisations dedicated to the exacting demands of nurturing an ongoing culture of connoisseurship for the print: from community studios and editioning workshops; museums and commercial galleries; the forums and symposia that set the agenda; the remaining print programs of our tertiary institutions; and most importantly, in its fiftieth year, our peak body, the Print Council of Australia.

To paraphrase that champion of rear-guard actions, the amateur painter Winston Churchill, ‘we shape our future, thereafter our future shapes us’. So instead of waiting dolefully for the next great print renaissance, let’s set aside fantasy. The time for action is now, and it is up to us to make it happen.

NOTES

[1] Riva Castleman, ‘New Prints of Worth: A Question of Taste’, The Print Collector’s Newsletter, Vol. 10, no. 4, 1979, p. 110.

[2] ‘Defense.gov News Transcript: DoD News Briefing – Secretary Rumsfeld and Gen. Myers, United States Department of Defense (defense.gov)‘.

[3] Mark Cully, ‘Industry and Workforce Futures’, CEDA – State of the Nation Conference address, 2015.

[4] 2011 Census Community Profiles, censusdata.abs.gov.au

[5] Stefan A Hajkowicz;Hannah Cook; Anna Littleboy, Our Future World: Global megatrends that will change the way we live, 2012, CSIRO, Australia.

[6] Claudia Goldin and Laurence Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology, 2008, Belknap Press.

[7] Walter Jule, ‘Survival tips for young artists in changing times’, 2015, keynote address for the Southern Graphics Council International, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA.

[8] Eric Fischl in ‘Fischl’s Italian Hours’, Frederic Tuten, Art in America, November 1996, p. 79.

[9] Walter Jule, ‘Survival tips for young artists in changing times’, 2015, keynote address for the Southern Graphics Council International, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA.

[10] From ideas linked to Walter Jule, ‘Survival tips for young artists in changing times’, 2015, keynote address for the Southern Graphics Council International, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA.

[11] Richard Shaull, foreword to Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition, 2005, Continuum, New York.

[12] Dustin Timbook, ‘If you want your children to survive the future, send them to art school’, Huffington Post, Feb 2, 2016.

[13] Dustin Timbook, ‘If you want your children to survive the future, send them to art school’, Huffington Post, Feb 2, 2016.

[14] Walter Jule, ‘Survival tips for young artists in changing times’, 2015, keynote address for the Southern Graphics Council International, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA.

Michael Kempson is an artist and senior lecturer at UNSW Art and Design in Sydney. Since 2003, Kempson has initiated print-based research projects with over 200 artists at Cicada Press and curated over fifty exhibitions in the Asia-Pacific region. His upcoming solo exhibition Play Time will open at Flinders Street Gallery, Surry Hills, on 20 October, 6 pm.