search  current discussion  categories  philosophy 

handmade ...and reproduction

updated fri 18 dec 09


Snail Scott on wed 16 dec 09

On Dec 15, 2009, at 12:43 PM, James Freeman wrote:
> I don't think one could honestly argue that the bronze casting WAS
> handmade,
> though you might be able to say that it was hand poured. A bronze
> casting
> is, by definition, a reproduction. Likewise, you could not say that
> the
> giclee prints made from a scan of your oil painting were handmade or
> hand
> painted. They are all, like slip cast objects, reproductions of an
> original...


OK, that was a slight overreaction, but after a solid
day grading Art Appreciation final exams, I can't let
that one slide by. Let's clarify the distinction between
reproductions and 'multiple originals', because it's
fairly important.

A reproduction (aka 'copy') is taken from an original,
but is not itself an original. James' example of a giclee
print is a clear case of this. The print is derived from
an original: an oil painting, a watercolor, a drawing,
even another print, but is NOT the same as the original.
Similar colors, we presume, and possibly the same
scale, but not the same in just about any other regard.
An art print is not a print made from another artwork,
but is an original work of art, made by engraving,
woodcut, etching, monoprint, etc; even output from an
artist-created digital file by any of myriad means. It may
be made in an edition, limited or otherwise, but each
print is a co-equal original, NOT a copy of a pre-existing
artwork; not a reproduction.

An art print is not a print OF a piece of art. It's a print
AS a piece of art. Anyone who says otherwise is lying
for marketing purposes, or just mistaken. And multiple
originals are not reproductions.

Bronze is a similar by analogy to art printmaking. It
does not have an 'original', but a 'pattern' instead,
which bears the same relationship to the final artwork
that a printing plate does to the final print. The pattern
can be made of almost anything - plasticine, wood,
metal, concrete, wax, chewing gum, whatever - and
then a mold is made from which a wax version is
produced. That wax version is then encased in another
mold from which the wax is then removed by melting,
and the resulting cavity is filled with metal. The mold
is then removed and the metal is ground, welded,
chased, and subjected to patina or whatever other
finishing methods are desired. The resulting artwork
can be one of an edition or unique, just as with
printmaking, but it is not a copy or reproduction.
Each is original, within a group of 'multiple originals'.

It is possible, of course, to make a mold from a piece
of existing bronze sculpture and cast from that, and
that would indeed be a reproduction, just as making
a poster print of another print is a reproduction even
if the first print was an original. In casting, this
practice is called 'surmoulage', and is prohibited by
law in France.

This question of what is an original and what is a copy
has nothing to do, however, with handmade-ness.
Bronze casting is possibly one of the most handwork-
intensive processes in art. Most of that process is not
high in what David Pye calls the 'workmanship of risk',
but handwork nonetheless. And remember, the pattern
has all the artist's own effort in it, the same as if the
artist had chosen to make a one-off finished piece of
sculpture by the same methods. Then added to that
is the process of moldmaking, wax-pouring, wax-
dressing, gating, investment, burnout, pouring, knock-
out, gate-cutting, sandblasting, welding, grinding,
chasing, building an armature if needed, plus all
surface treatments. These phases are seldom the
work of the artist, and (though James thinks otherwise)
in my experience the buyer doesn't know that. They
are still handwork, though, with few machines bigger
than a hand tool involved and none as deterministic
as a potter's wheel or lathe. A high level of judgment
and skill is required over and above the artist's
pattern-making work, not in lieu of it. Most foundries
hire artists, not just because we tend to work cheap,
but because visual and spatial perception is required
throughout, as well as manual skill.

When I did foundry work, we often joked that we should
sign our own names to some of the pieces, due to the
huge changes that some artists would ask us to make.
It's a matter of open debate whether the result is truly
the work of the artist, or more collaborative, or just
simply work for hire, but either way, it's a whole lot of
handwork. That's why bronze sculpture is expensive.
Even at the current cost of copper, it's still the cost of
the labor that makes the result pricey. That's what
happens when handcraft gets paid a fair hourly wage
plus benefits.

> ...isn't the invocation of sculpture a bit of a straw man? I don't
> think
> the word or concept "handmade" ever comes up in a sculpture context. I
> think most patrons simply assume that the casting w
> as hired out to a
> foundry, and in any case they do not generally care who actually
> fabricated
> the piece at all, let alone how. Sculpture is a far different animal
> than
> functional pottery, and is not comparable. Sculpture is more akin to
> fields
> such as architecture: Falling Water is a Frank Lloyd Wright house,
> though
> Wright never pounded a nail...

The main reason that I gave up architecture. I just
had to be the one pounding that nail...

James is correct, however, that sculpture is very
different from pottery in the expectations of buyers
as well as many (though not all) practitioners.
Most viewers care only a little, if at all, who did the
physical work on the sculpture. When they do
mention it, it's usually to point out the exceptions:
"Did you know they did all that work themselves?".
(I used to try that as a marketing thing, mentioning
that I did all my own bronze casting from start to
finish, but many people just said "Isn't that what
they all do?" Few of the rest thought it was worth
anything extra.)

I suspect that it has a lot to do with why people
seek out one artform or another. People buying
pottery from a potter or a handcrafts shop are
seeking, specifically, contact with handwork as
a process. They may sometimes be seeking a
unique or superior piece of dinnerware, but it's
the handmade-ness that drives the buyer to that
source instead of a shop full of manufactured
wares whether high-end or low. (Hence the
strident tone of some of the 'what is handmade'
discussion of late.) The fine arts are usually
sought for the sake of the item itself, its
appearance or meaning, or perhaps (with some
artists and potters both) the cult of personality
that they generate, but only occasionally for the
nature of the process.

I'm a sculptor, and incidentally my work is
probably among the most handmade on this
list. I seldom use a wheel, or extruder, or even a
rolling pin. Fingers do 90% of the work, with a
few ribs and small pointy wood tools accounting
for most of the remainder. Sometimes I use a
welder, a high-tech item that still governs the
outcome less than a wheel does; likewise my
grinders and saws. And it just doesn't matter.
No one will judge my work based on those facts.
It only matters to the extent that it governs the
outcome. Skill can be hired, and hired for very
little in China and elsewhere. (So can judgment,
for that matter.)

Like Vince, I advocate accurate, honest, factual
descriptions from every maker. If your livelihood
relies on it, though, there's an uphill battle ahead.
Best to make work that has merit regardless of
method. Let method be a bonus for those who care.
Especially us - we the makers, who (rightfully)
care more than anyone else does.