Feb/Mar 2010

From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual

Brian Sholis


The title of critic David Levi Strauss's new book, paired with his reputation for engaging political subjects, suggests From Head to Hand: Art and the Manual might be a fruitful addition to the recent spate of books that link craftsmanship to broader questions about economic worth. The best known of these are Richard Sennett's The Craftsman (2008) and Matthew B. Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft (2009), both of which draw on a tradition of moral criticism, inaugurated by John Ruskin and William Morris, that protests capitalism's tendency to undervalue skilled labor. Being aesthetes, Sennett and Crawford pondered the special place of art in such an economy. Yet the opportunity to pick up where they left off isn't profited on, and this collection of twenty essays and conversations, all but two previously published, is narrowly focused on artistic process itself: what Strauss calls "the passage from idea to object in the plastic arts."

Strauss's writing is always smooth and occasionally compelling. He discusses artists known for the material presence of their works, from sculptors Martin Puryear, Donald Lipski, and Ursula von Rydingsvard to painters Terry Winters, Ron Gorchov, and Leon Golub. His insights include identifying von Rydingsvard's "peasant's attitude toward labor" and the ways in which Winters "wants painting to contribute to the next iteration of . . . visual consciousness"; particularly welcome are his examinations of lesser-known figures like Raoul Hague, a sculptor and friend of photographers Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, and of the Haida Project, a 1990 effort to bring the art traditions of one Pacific Northwest Coast native population before the audiences of Bay Area contemporary art organizations. But joining these disparate observations into a coherent thesis about craft is largely left to the reader.

For those most familiar with Strauss's writing on photography, or who know him as the chair of the program in art criticism at New York's School of the Visual Arts, it's worth remembering that in the early 1980s he studied in the Poetics Program at the New College in California. His mentor, Robert Duncan, is the subject of one memorial here; the critic and story writer Guy Davenport, presented by Strauss and his interlocutor, poet Robert Kelly, as someone who "understood information as inherently sexual," is another. "He gathers [information] together and makes it spill out a narrative, with blond Danish boys and lakesides and cool weather." But perhaps Strauss's lodestar is art historian Leo Steinberg, whose admonition "the eye is a part of the mind" crops up throughout. The final essay is a 1997 piece about Steinberg that emphasizes this insistence on really looking at artworks rather than relying on what another scholar has written. What Strauss cherishes about Steinberg is his alertness to the relationship "between sensual apprehension and mental understanding or verbal articulation." Strauss makes a good case for paying heed not only to the objects before us but also to how they came into being.

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