Print on the margins
Fear of marginalization runs deep in the printmaking psyche. Ironically, however, it is perhaps printmakers who are shooting themselves in the foot by adhering too tenaciously to formal ideas about their discipline, according to experts at the 3rd Impact Printmaking Conference held in Cape Town last month.
Critics said the tenacious fixation of printmakers to shoehorn their work into the technical category of "a print" did not help their cause. Speaking at the plenary session concluding the four-day conference, senior UCT lecturer Fritha Langerman criticized the definition of a print based purely on formal, technical value as a limiting and restrictive reading. She suggested the conceptual content of a print should be weighted as heavily.
UCT lecturer and theorist Andrew Lamprecht took the debate one step further by questioning the relevance of holding onto printmaking as a category - considering the impact of new technology and the creation of prints by artists specializing in various disciplines. He said: "What struck me [at this conference] is that there seems to be an increased desire to preserve a very precious notion of a print or print-making. As a result, artists are constructing elaborate conceits to make what they produce fit into the category of a print."
Lamprecht cited the hypothetical example of an artist producing a sculpture and then constructing a theoretical argument to label it a print. He added: "It seems very spurious. I think it's counter-productive to be holding onto this title where it's not appropriate."
Ruth Pelzer-Montada, a lecturer at Edinburgh's Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies, acknowledged printmaking had been marginalized in fine art discourse over the past 100 years and, more recently, by sculpture, video and installation. But she suggested that printmaking's strong preoccupation with technique could have something to do with that marginal status. She added: "Printmaking is seen to have a lack of self-reflexivity."
But all the hand-wringing about being left out in the cold seemed somewhat misplaced given the hearty endorsements from every quarter - although perhaps unsurprisingly so.
Dominic Thorburn, professor of Fine Art at Rhodes University, said printmaking was in this new millennium more thoroughly integrated into Fine Arts than ever before. His panel - on new directions in print - found that prints had the unique ability to exist in relation to both high culture and popular culture. He added: "Prints can communicate directly beyond elite institutions of contemporary art to mediate in entirely new ways."
William Kentridge, in his keynote speech, also remarked about the perceived marginalization of printmaking and how it was often seen as a footnote to the primary activity of an artist. On the contrary, however, he regarded printmaking as a fundamental way of thinking about the world. Acting like a membrane or a skin, he said printmaking provided a way to meet the world and literally test out hypotheses.