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"What the Hand Knows"

2002.10.12 11:41

The following are the first two paragraphs, etc. of "What the Hand Knows" by Calvin Tompkins. This articled first appeared in The New Yorker, 2 May 1983, and very much spurred my attitude toward CAD and its relationship to draftsmanship and manual dexterity in general. It also very much stimulated the initiation of my 'career' as an artist. For the record, I received CAD training February 1983, and CAD equipment was delivered to Cooper and Pratt Architects (my employers then) April 1983.

What the Hand Knows

One of our era's significant feats has been the separation of art from skill. In most English dictionaries, the two words are closely linked. "Art" spreads a wider net, of course; it is so variable in meaning that, according to Webster, it can be used as a synonym for "skill," "cunning," "artifice," and "craft"--"which, on the other hand, are not always synonymous among themselves." When it comes to the creation of works of art, most people would agree that something more than skill, cunning, artifice, and craft is required. Only in this century, however, has it been found possible and desirable to produce works of art whose making requires little skill or none whatsoever.

Marcel Duchamp is generally thought to be the hero (or the villain, if you prefer) of this remarkable achievement. Duchamp's famous "ready-mades"--common manufactured objects, such as an iron bottle-drying rack and a snow shovel, selected and signed by the artist--undermined the whole tradition of the artist as a skillful maker while poking fun at the belief that artists were superior beings whose mere signature conferred value. Duchamp's ambition, as he explained it, was "to put painting once again at the service of the mind." European painting since Courbet had been primarily "retinal," he said--a matter of manual skill in applying paint to canvas. By choosing a factory made object of no aesthetic interest, which he might alter slightly or else leave untouched, Duchamp was calling attention, in his ironic way, to the fact that a work of art was also an intellectual act--a choice, a sum of decisions. (Years later, when an art historian taxed him with the fact that several of his ready-mades had in the course of time become highly prized works of sculpture--icons reproduced in all the art-history books--Duchamp smiled and said, "Nobody's perfect, hm?"

[Five paragraphs later:]

Anyone who goes around to the galleries these days, however, is bound to see a great deal of deliberately unskillful, clumsy-looking work. Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and the other "graffiti artists" who have shifted their efforts from subways to shows in New York galleries and international "trend" exhibitions are much talked about this season, and the European and American neo-expressionists are still the hot ticket in SoHo. This slapdash, loosely figurative painting is usually viewed as a triumphant reaction to the austerities of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Perhaps it is; perhaps that is all it is. David Hockney, the English artist, has been saying recently that representational art was bound to make a comeback sooner or later; the reason its return took the form it has taken in neo-expressionist, "new image," and graffiti art, he said, is that these artists were never trained to draw. Some of our young geniuses gain an appearance of free hand drawing by projecting photographic images on their canvases and tracing them; the photograph is, among other things, an invaluable substitute for skill. [Note: almost 20 years later Hockney makes well researched claims that even some older masters used projections to draw!]

When the CAD computer equipment finally arrived and was up and running at Cooper and Pratt Architects, we had one of those not-too-serious office competitions for naming the computer. I suggest we call it 'Duchamp' while Bernie (my CAD partner then) suggested 'Godot' (as in "Waiting for Godot"). As it happened, both Bernie's and my suggestion turned out to be fitting.

What I personally experienced when CAD became my daily occupation was the sudden obsolescence of my (quite talented) drafting skills. I still used my hands to "draw," but my dexterity now amounted to making sure I pushed the right buttons--my mother very presciently at the time made the analogy to playing the piano. I started seeing the final drawings produced by either pen-plotter or electrostatic printer as sort of "ready-mades" or at least abundantly reproducible "originals" that I could merely add a signature to in order to confer them as "my" drawings.

Luckily (and thanks to the words of Calvin Tomkins, I guess), I found an outlet for my quondam drafting skills in producing "art." I decided, however, that I no longer needed to exhibit skill because I had (access to) a machine that did that, thus I produced art that was (and sometimes still is) deliberately unskillful, intending to prove through such imperfect manifestations themselves that a hand indeed created the work.

If nothing else, all of the above explains why a few years ago here at design-l I wrote that "perhaps it is more the case that the way we think influences the way we use tools."



Stephen Lauf © 2017.02.09