Letterpress: Art or Craft?

Anyone who has spent much time in the world of visual and material culture will be familiar with the so-called “art vs. craft debate”.  Rooted in early modern and modern western European distinctions between (fine) “art”, e.g., Michelangelo’s David, and (not so fine) “craft”, e.g., a Toby jug, this perceived duality continues to echo through the contemporary art world despite repeated attempts to destabilise it, recalibrate it, or simply ignore it altogether [1].

As a printer, I only began to think about where letterpress might fit into all of this last year when a glass maker of my acquaintance asked me, did I think of myself as an artist or a craftsman?  At the time I off-handedly said “craftsman”, but in reality I don’t think the answer can be quite so simple.

The problem is that both “art” and “craft” come with their own cultural baggage.  When we think of the “artist” (or, perhaps, the artiste) we imagine a very different figure from the “craftsperson”.  One connotes genius, high culture, and the creation of prestige objects; the other, skill, low culture, and the creation of well-made but essentially ordinary objects.  If we think in terms of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories, the artist possesses cultural capital in a way the craftsperson does not.

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Art or Craft?

But it doesn’t take much effort to begin poking holes in this dichotomy.  Indeed, this seems to be yet another case where humans’ inherent love of binaries gets in the way of understanding what is actually happening.  Yet we cannot ignore the binary either, because – like it or not – it defines how much of our culture perceives the skilled production of material objects.

So where does letterpress fit into this?  The traditional letterpress printing of a pre-1970s print shop would seem to fit solidly within the remit of “craft”: its skills replicated through apprenticeship, its function as a relatively low social status paid job, and its mass-production of what were, from the eighteenth-century if not earlier, incredibly widely consumed material goods (i.e., books).  But it’s also easy to recall cases where such a definition seems questionable, if not absurd.  How many people would pigeon-hole the Doves Press Bible as “craft” rather than “art”?  How many more would object to either term as insufficient to describe what they see on the page?

Doves Bible

Craft or Art?  The Doves Press Bible (1902-1904).

Whether we define the letterpress productions of a jobbing print shop as either “craft” or “art” is less relevant to the present day, however.  Printing with lead type is no longer a mainstream profession or an essential means for the dissemination of knowledge.  Instead we are all collectively reinventing ourselves as something different, something possibly more like “artists” than “craftspeople”.  Certainly the small print runs, careful attention to aesthetic appearance, and high brow subjects of much modern letterpress seem to place it squarely in the art world even as the proliferation of small businesses selling personalised letterpress wedding stationery or party invitations would seem to suggest a revival of letterpress as “craft”.

For me, I increasingly define what I do as “art” for pragmatic reasons.  Most people, when they see a sheet coming off the press, exclaim, “oh!  That’s easier than I thought!” and most academics and other professionals tend to treat a letterpress workshop as a fancy version of a photocopier (“could you run off a hundred of these tomorrow?  They’ll look so good for the conference”).  Defining letterpress as “art” pushes against these assumptions and returns the very real mental and physical labour of producing handprinted objects to centre stage.

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The artist at work?

And that seems to me to be the most important thing.  If, as the entire art vs. craft debate seems to suggest, both terms are now so baggy and almost meaningless that most creators could happily define their work as one or the other, I choose “art” as a way of emphasising the challenges of creation and the value of the object created.  Whether the larger world will agree with that remains to be seen.

 

Copyright © 2018 Kelsey Jackson Williams

 

[1] Some examples of manifestations of the debate from recent years can be read here, here, and here.

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