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THE RETURN OF THE CRAFTSMAN
by alfredo sigolo

Hyper-professionalization of processes (and products)? Relocation of tasks? Segmentation of tasks in the artistic industry in order to produce artwork incessantly? All true, yes, with certain exceptions though, pointing to the artist’s rapprochement in a somewhat manual manner...
<B>THE RETURN OF THE CRAFTSMAN</B>Published Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Maurizio Cattelan’s exhibition in Milan is an excellent opportunity to reflect on the craftsmanship of artists at the turn of the century. Since the 1990s the great fortune assembled by contemporary art has produced undoubtedly profound changes that are not only structural, but also visible in its protagonists and heroes, comparable to the globalized scenarios, already prophesied by Jean-François Lyotard in the late 1970s, which were characterized by a crisis of "great narratives" and the retreat of nation-states in order to benefit from a new transversal balance completely controlled by the economy.
We have definitively moved beyond the classical practice and idea of the artist as the divine craftsman, instead, leaning towards a new individualism placing the artist as the direct protagonist of new dynamics in an art market, dominated by securely entrepreneurial logics. Today, the artist’s development is far removed from the "bottega" of classical memory, which was based on apprenticeship and the transmission of skills by masters towards students and has become more like a company that finds all competences necessary for achieving strategically defined objectives.In 2008 The Guardian published an interesting article on the industry revolving around the artist's profession. Some examples? In Brighton, Millimetre is an actual factory available for implementing the widest range of art projects. Behind Damien Hirst's stuffed animals lies the office in Gloucestershire, managed by inseparable assistant Emily Mayer, while Tristan Simmonds is the engineer and designer that made possible the ideas of Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor. Word has it if someone were to bomb the workshop of a dark character named Michael Smith, British contemporary art's façade would face a major upset. Those depending on his work are artists of the calibre of Rachel Whiteread, Gary Hume, Gavin Turk, Keith Tyson, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Max Wallinger..
Maurizio Cattelan - L.O.V.E. - 2010
Between the agents, dealers, craftsmen, designers and assistants who perform their works, the image of an artist who combines the genius with the skill and technical virtuosity is a common misconception that is far from true, and the explanation is even trivial: for a middle-sized artist with an international market, the number of opportunities to exhibit his work exceeds his capacity to produce them. Of course the idea that art that is planned and scheduled on the basis of strategic choices seems to have more affinity with marketing than with some non-glamorous form of weltanschauung; nevertheless it was perfectly fit to define the "new Renaissance," an era where art sees itself mirrored in its own market. Probably the most interesting work by Damien Hirst is not so much his stabbing of animals but rather his masterminding the organisation of the auction of his work at Sotheby’s in 2008, where he managed to make his art the most expensive in the world. We could cite numerous instances from Cattelan’s Wrong Gallery to the suicide of Elmgreen & Dragset’s collector, just to highlight some self-referencing examples that appear to introduce, on other fronts, serial productions aimed at a kind of perpetual self-referencing. 
The recent crisis from which the global cultural industry is painstakingly trying to extricate itself has dangerously undermined not only the economic sector, but also (and one could say especially) those structures such as museums and public collections, that should somehow serve as guarantors and shock absorbers thus revealing the limits of the art system certainly not sparing even the the artist. Perhaps never before, even after the sterile polemics which preceded Maurizio Cattelan’s exhibition of the disenchanted and cynical figure of the 1990s in Milan, has authoritativeness appeared so blurred, and almost lost.
Chris Gonzenbach - Safari - 2007 - ceramica - cm 20x15x15 - Galerie SO, Solothurn - courtesy Crafts Council
Meanwhile, in other contexts, a new sensibility seems to be growing, trying to react to the rigid models required by the economy, and claiming the ransom of applied creativity, a sort of neo Arts & Crafts movement but, unlike the group at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries which was opposed to industrialisation, this one comes not from an intellectual circle such as that which included John Ruskin and William Morris, but instead arises from young and ordinary people.
Recently Italy saw the release of the translation of American sociologist Richard Sennett’s work The Craftsman, which analyzes the gradual wane of the craftsman in the contemporary post-industrial world, at least in historical forms, and celebrates his revival in new areas such as technology. The model is the experience by Matthew Crawford: having terminated his activity as a white collar worker in Washington, he opened a repair shop for bicycles and motorbikes, and rediscovered the value and ethics of manual labour. His successful book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, proclaimed the social function and ethics of craftsmanship. A few years earlier the British Theosophical author and advisor to Tony Blair, Charles Leadbeater penned the phrase amateur professionalism an oxymoron, that defines complex recreational activities, predominantly practiced in spare time which, if properly cultivated, directed and organized, can provide alternative models of economic development and produce crucial cultural capitals.
His Pro-Am Revolution is the redemption of amateur creativity after a century of obscurantism determined by the myth of extreme specialisation and hierarchisation of knowledge. Simply put, new technologies provide the necessary infrastructure that serve and promote the spread of this phenomenon: social networks, peers to peers, and open sources. These and other channels generate communities that share and exchange both old and new knowledge, in the most varied fields of creativity.
Henry Darger - Untitled (recto). 112 At Jennie Richee meet him during lull in storm beyond improvised shelter after frustrating enemy second time - 1940-60 ca. - collage, inchiostro, acquerello, matita su carta - cm 59x281
Confirming those cues, Federico Rampini, on the pages of La Repubblica daily paper some months ago celebrated the success of Etsy, a portal that, with 724 million visitors per month, has since 2005 set as its goal the trade and distribution of everything that can be defined as handmade. Contemporary artists in recent decades seemed to have abdicated manual practices in their work, a process made possible by the personal deprivation (and depriving the public accordingly) of a set of values constituting important elements of distinction such as: the research of techniques, direct testing on materials, operation and development of skills, craftsmanship and virtuosity. These elements have not simply disappeared but have been delegated, delayed or outsourced. However, there are those who also see signals of change taking place within the arts, for example, recently, at the Civic Gallery in Monfalcone: A Basic Human Impulse, by Andrea Bruciati suggests, on the heels of Sennett, a return to traditional practices and a closer dialogue with design. Earlier, in Milan’s Brown space, reflections on the concept of "doing" have featured projects such as Let's Forget about Today Until Tomorrow by Marco Tagliafierro or L’Uomo Ridotto – The Reduced Man. Is it possible to be at the eve of a manual ability’s return in art? As a positive response to this issue, an ongoing project in Padua, edited by Guido Bartorelli and entitled Art/Tube-creativity at Low-resolution, in which some young contemporary artists are anonymously and creatively compared with the anonymous creative overcrowding YouTube: the challenge becomes exceedingly difficult.

by alfredo sigolo

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*article featured on Exibart.onpaper n. 69. 

[exibart]

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