The Aesthetic of Process - and Beyond

James Trilling

Eighth Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Schein International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University

November 03, 2005

James Trilling, was trained at Harvard University, specializing in Byzantine art. After completing his Ph.D. in Fine Arts in 1980, he served as Curator of Old World Textiles at The Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., where he catalogued the Museum’s holdings in Late Roman textiles and 17th and 18th century Greek Island embroideries. Since then, he has continued his studies in Byzantine art and culture, while at the same time pioneering the rediscovery of ornament after its long exile under modernism.

image of James Trilling
James Trilling

His book The Language of Ornament (2001), presents ornament as a human universal, from the Paleolithic era of naturalism, through the Neolithic fascination with abstract form, to the proliferation of styles and techniques during the last 4000 years. Ornament: a Modern Perspective (2003) explores the vexed relation of ornament and modernism, showing how the conflict is rooted not only in the mechanization of ornament during and after the Industrial Revolution, but also in the scientific and social thought of the 18th century. Trilling has been a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study and Brown University, and has taught at the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Vienna. In the spring of 2006 he will be a Visiting Professor of Art History at Amherst College. He has lectured at Princeton University, the Institute for Advanced Study, the Villa Spelman in Florence, Dumbarton Oaks, Brown University, the Japan Society, the Institute for the Study of Classical Architecture, the Bard Graduate Center for the Study of Decorative Art, the Worcester Museum of Art, and the Newport Museum of Art.

When I say that I am honored and delighted to be here today, it is much more than formulaic courtesy. For as long as I can remember, I have felt an admiration, amounting in many cases to awe, for people who knew how to make things. Unlike the arts that we call art, the arts we call craft have a built-in standard, a test of practicality to pass. A knife must cut the substances it was designed to cut, without bending or breaking in normal use. A ceramic vessel must hold the substances it was designed to hold, without cracking or leaking in normal use. Everything else is extra. Let there be no misunderstanding: I am a great believer in extra. There will always be some cases in which the functional form in its simplest, most austere embodiment is also the beautiful form, and any elaboration for purely aesthetic purposes would be a mistake, but by and large the functional form is neither more nor less than a foundation, a necessary component of a larger whole. Makers, if they wish, may concentrate on the basic form, refining it in the subtlest ways, or adding just enough ornament to emphasize the intrinsic elegance of the design. However, they are also free to regard the basic form as a license to experiment and elaborate as the fancy takes them, until function is long gone, and form survives only as a vestige, to remind us of how far beyond it the imagination can range.
There are the extremes; between them almost any variation is possible. This freedom, in principle almost infinite, though limited in practice by artistic and social convention, is intrinsic to the history of craft from its beginnings, and gives the contemporary craft movement its richness. For me, however, the real glamour of craft is its irreducible core of practical skill, the reassurance that despite the ascendancy of machine production, modernized humankind retains the physical dexterity and the mental discipline to create functional forms that meet the test of reality.

I am here to talk about the aesthetic of process; more accurately if more ponderously the aesthetic of materials and process. However, to talk about it in what I hope will be a useful way, I must first talk about its opposite: the aesthetic of the finished work. This means talking about formalism, which happens to come easily to me. At Harvard in the 1960s and 70s, whatever field of art we studied (mine was Byzantine), it was the finished work that mattered, not the way it came into being. Or rather, the way it came into being – the creative process – was conceived purely in visual and intellectual terms. We saw art emerging from previous art by the alchemy of influence, not from materials by the alchemy of skill.

There was a time, not so long ago, when parents concealed the messy reality of sex from inquisitive children by saying that babies were found under cabbages. In formalist art history the messy reality was craft. It had not always been so. Harvard once required graduate students in art history to take a course that introduced them, however briefly, to the crafts of art. They learned how it felt to carve stone, draw in silver point, prepare a wood panel and paint on it with tempera, and so forth for most of the media they were likely to encounter. Obviously they did not know how it felt to do these things well, or even with a sense of growing competence, but any hands-on experience is better than none, and it is hard to believe that there is not a palpable and lasting difference between an art historian who knows what it is like to hold a brush or a chisel, and one who does not. In any case, by the time I entered the program the course had been discontinued; I never learned exactly when, but people ten or twenty years older remembered it vividly and loved to reminisce about it.

Strange to say, this radically formalist milieu, in which the very idea of technical problems and solutions was somehow an embarrassment to the finished work, contributed enormously to my appreciation of craft. In fact – and I say it with a sense of poetic justice – this milieu inculcated in me, without my even knowing it, a formalist theory of craft. In essence it is this: in every visual art, from representational painting to ornamental blacksmithing, form is independent of material and technique. The goal of craft training, and of craft itself, is to enable the maker to do whatever he or she wishes to do. The more skill the maker brings to a given project, the less need there is to take conscious account of material and process in planning how the finished work will look. Obviously this does not mean ignoring material and process, it means understanding them so completely that there is no need for compromise later on.

The formalist aesthetic of craft is an aesthetic of the product, of the finished work; nothing else matters. Such an approach has many implications, some of them rich in irony. Total disregard for craft, and intense respect for it, suddenly look like two sides of the same coin. A change in the angle of view makes all the difference: are we ignoring craft because we disdain it, or because its centrality is so much a given that we can afford to take it for granted – temporarily of course – for the sake of a particular way of looking? And this leads to an even more fundamental question, which I will not even try to answer: how did craft as understood by the viewer, and as practiced by the maker, become essentially two different things?

In a further irony, the aesthetic of the finished work lets us see the industrialization of craft, which came within inches of being the death of craft, in a new and challenging light. If all that matters is the finished product, then anything that smoothes the way from conception to completion is desirable. This applies not just to technical strategies, which fall under the heading of skill, but to tools and technologies. On the most basic level this is so obvious as to discourage comment: why struggle to draw a circle freehand when you can use a compass? The same holds true for more sophisticated but still traditional technologies: do even the most radical technophobes condemn wheel-thrown pottery as intrinsically dishonest, or the multi-harness handloom as a betrayal of the weaver’s craft? Most technical innovations are not strictly speaking necessary, but they allow the maker to do certain things more efficiently and in some cases more precisely. When different methods come into conflict, economics usually favors the most efficient, though there are exceptions. In England at the end of the 16th century, the newly invented knitting frame met with such resistance from professional hand-knitters that it did not enter the economy in a serious way for another sixty years. However, the first knitting frames were only marginally faster than hand-knitting as done by professionals; the result might have been different if the frame had been introduced in a more advanced form.

The idea of an essential conflict between craft and efficiency postdates the Industrial Revolution. Before that, it would have been literally meaningless. Craft in pre-industrial times had nothing like the emotional, even mystical significance that many people now attach to it; it was simply the way things were made. Craft in the modern sense is the creation of 19th century anti-industrialists like John Ruskin and William Morris, for whom the revival and preservation of handwork, on however limited a scale, offered a kind of sanctuary from the relentless pressure of machinery on our aesthetic lives. The distinction between a tool, which facilitates the work of the hand, and a machine, which usurps it, is another expression of the same mindset. As such it is enormously important: not just a functional distinction but a moral one. The fact remains, however, that so long as the idea of craft is focussed on the finished product, the distinction between a tool and a machine is easier to make and more morally compelling in hindsight than at the moment when a new technology is introduced. In other words, the aesthetic of the finished work goes far toward explaining why the forces of craft mounted such a poor initial defense against modernization. Modernization did not take shape outside and against the realm of craft, but within it, as the sum of a long series of innovations intended to ease the translation of mental image into physical object.

The formalist theory of craft is our most direct access to an essential element of craftwork throughout history, now sadly neglected and misunderstood, namely ornament. By ornament I mean any elaboration of a made thing for purely aesthetic purposes. Most traditional ornament (by which I mean ornament devised before, or in isolation from, the artistic crisis of the early 20th century) is precisely planned and meticulously executed, in accordance with the principle of imposing predetermined form on material by means of skill. A characteristic feature of traditional ornament is the existence of pattern types: categories of ornament that remain recognizable despite changes in medium, local style, or both. Whatever the differences between an 11th century Norwegian woodcarving and a late 20th century Danish tattoo, for example, there is no doubt that both employ the same pattern-type, known as interlace. What changes from one medium to another, as from one historical period to another, is the emphasis. Again, a floor mosaic from an 8th century Muslim Palace near Jericho, and a plate by contemporary ceramic artist Erik Bright, do not have the same ornament, but they have the same type of ornament, crisscrossing logarithmic spirals. Once accustomed to the idea of pattern-types, we have no trouble recognizing them despite far greater differences of medium, scale and context. A new decorative art form – so new that it is not widely recognized as such – is the crop circle. These are large-scale geometric shapes produced clandestinely, like enormously sophisticated graffiti, in fields of wheat, barley and other agricultural crops, mainly in England. Although crop circles are tens or even hundreds of meters across, and can only be properly appreciated from the air, they often conform to established pattern-types, including logarithmic spirals.

Inevitably the medium affects the look of the finished work, and makers take advantage of this. Seventeenth century embroiderers on the Greek island of Naxos transformed the simple black and white of a published pattern into a tour de force of theme and variations by changing the direction of the stitches, bringing different elements of the pattern to prominence as the gleaming silk threads caught the light from different angles. The whole phenomenon of published patterns, which played a central role in the spread of decorative styles since the renaissance, depended on this creative flexibility. There was no requirement that the maker slavishly copy the whole pattern, or work in a single “proper” medium. The history of premodern decorative art is like an elaborate courtly dance, where the partners are pure form and the visual properties of material and technique. Sometimes they move together, sometimes apart; sometime one stands still and lets the other show off; but whatever happens, happens within the framework’s fundamental unity. When the connection is not explicit, it is implicit. What holds the dance together is the emphasis on control, on the finished work, on skill and materials as means to an end.

The idea that whatever the mind conceives, the hand can make, leads straight to modernism – and to one of the most paradoxical near-misses in the history of art. In 1913 the British critic Clive Bell published a book entitled simply Art. In it he introduced what was to become one of the central concepts of 20th century aesthetics, significant form:

There must be some one quality without which a work of art cannot exist; possessing which, in the least degree, no work is altogether worthless. What is this quality? What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? What quality is common to Sta. Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne? Only one answer seems possible – significant form. In each, lines and colours combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these aesthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art.

Art, 17-18

This raises many interesting questions, of which perhaps the most obvious is: where does it leave representational content? To this, Bell provides an immediate and unambiguous answer: nowhere, with a vengeance!

The recognition of a correspondence between the forms of a work of art and the familiar forms of life cannot possibly evoke aesthetic emotion. Only significant form can do that. Of course realistic forms may be aesthetically significant, and out of them an artist may create a superb work of art, but it is with their aesthetic and not with their cognitive value that we shall then be concerned. We shall treat them as though they were not representative of anything. The cognitive or the representative element in a work of art can be useful as a means to the perception of formal relations and in no other way.

Art, 150

(Let me add a personal footnote. My mother studied art history at Radcliffe College in the early 1920s. More than 60 years later, she described a lecture by Bell’s friend and colleague Roger Fry. Fry and Bell were the co-founders of modernist art theory in England. They inspired one another, and their ideas are sometimes virtually indistinguishable. Although the key phrase “significant form” was of Bell’s coining, Fry was the more influential thinker. Whatever the substance of the lecture as a whole, one part of it was literally unforgettable. Fry showed a slide of Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving of 1514, Melencolia I [sic], but upside down, effectively severing the link between form and content. He then proceeded to analyze the composition in terms of the balance and rhythm of its forms, demonstrating that this canonical technique for entering into the spirit of a picture worked just as well without representational content as with it. The conservatively trained students, to whom non-representational art must still have seemed hopelessly alien, were enthralled. Fry’s choice of an example, by the way, was anything but random; for some reason Melencolia I lends itself extraordinarily well to this kind of analysis.)

A mysterious quality common to painting, sculpture, architecture and the shape and decoration of objects, conveyed from maker to viewer by means of form alone, totally independent of the power of content to convey information or stir the memory; wide acceptance of this idea – and it was widely accepted – should by all rights have signaled the beginning of a golden age of traditional craft and ornament. Hadn’t the making of objects by hand – meaning both their design and their decoration – always been primarily about form? Didn’t the theory of significant form put craft and art on an explicitly equal footing at last? -- remember that Bell speaks of bowls and carpets in the same breath as paintings by Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne. If content is beside the point, and the masterpieces of representational art convey profound human emotions through form alone, surely the masterpieces of craft, in which form is primary, must do the same. And when, around the time Bell’s book was published, painters actually began to reject even the most subjective forms of representation, viewers began to realize that they did not need representation either. Not only could complex statements about the human condition be made without recognizable imagery, they could be understood without imagery. It was not easy, but it could be done, and if it could be done in painting, why not in the craft-arts as well? The radically formalist agenda, for which Bell was a leading spokesman, not only paved the way for resurgence of traditional ornament, it demolished the hierarchical distinction between art and craft.

The paradox is that it did not happen that way at all. Modernism repudiated traditional ornament with astounding ruthlessness, and the distinction between art and craft remained as strong and invidious as ever. Why did 20th century art simply ignore some of the strongest implications of its founding ideology? The most probable explanation is fear: fear of modernization, industrialization, mechanization, machine production – different words for different aspects of the same thing. This fear was the starting point for the aesthetic of process, which was the antithesis, and in many ways the nemesis, of the formalist approach to craft. From the middle of the 19th century, not only the majority of influential makers, but critics and theorists of the decorative arts, who also tended to be vocal critics of the industrial society growing unchecked around them, felt an overwhelming need to put as much distance as possible between handwork and machine production. Whereas handwork – true craft – was life-affirming, machinery was life-denying. Since the essence of machine production, its reason for being, was the efficient creation of identical forms, and since machinery was increasingly involved in the production not just of utilitarian objects but of decorative ones, it followed that even handwork was tainted by the kind of calculated precision that might lend itself to machine production.

Makers found all kinds of ways of escaping the taint of industry, from the arts and crafts movement, with its confidence in the aesthetic potential of minimally worked materials, to the sensual intricacies of art nouveau. These, however, were short-term expedients. By far the most successful in the long run was the willingness to derive one’s primary aesthetic effects from the materials and processes of whatever craft was being practiced. Those of you who are ceramicists will understand this better than I do. Every time you judge the success or failure of a piece by effects not completely under your control – drips, crackle, unpredictable color change – every time you deliberately invite these effects, you are participating in the aesthetic of process. Even if you choose not to participate in it, but to fight it at every stage, you are still acknowledging it; it is woven into the history of 20th century ceramics on an absolutely fundamental level.

In no other modern craft, with the possible exception of glass, do material and process play so prominent an aesthetic role as in ceramics. Yet the aesthetic of process is pervasive, perhaps because it is overdetermined – that is, because it has more than one sufficient cause. In the context of the late 19th century protest against the industrialization of art (we must not forget that this was the context in which modernism first took shape), process-based effects were desirable because they were unpredictable and un-calculated, absolving the maker of the charge of thinking or working like a machine. By the same token, they could not be effectively duplicated by machine: so much the better! And they were honest, in accordance with the doctrine of truth to materials, which had sprung into existence in reaction to the technological explosion of the 19th century and the disorienting realization that it was suddenly possible to make anything out of anything.

But the most important factor was purely aesthetic. Material- and process-based effects tend to be diffuse and inchoate. Although they are physically as permanent as any other effects, they look transitory, as though they were not just the consequence but the image of process. For reasons still imperfectly understood, western society around the turn of the 20th century was fascinated by these effects, by the threatened collapse of form into formlessness, by the potential coalescence of the formless into form. This is the path, above all, that painting took, and where painting led, ornament and craft followed: away from calculation and precision, away from the triumph of skill, away from the formalist aesthetic of craft. And this despite the fact that modernist aesthetics in its earliest phase was almost inseparable from formalism!

In his revolutionary building of 1909-1911 on the Michaelerplatz in Vienna – the first large-scale public building built in traditional materials for a traditional purpose, but deliberately without traditional ornament – the Austrian architect Adolf Loos relied on the decorative effect of carefully chosen marble, an effect that closely approximated both process-based ornament (Louis Comfort Tiffany’s exactly contemporary Favrile glass, for example), and the latest developments in painting. This approach to decoration became one of the staples of 20th century architecture, but the repertory of material-based effects, like that of process-based ones, is limited. It is not surprising, therefore, that a closely related but not identical approach to ornament proved more fertile in the long run. Some of the best ornament since the beginning of modernism has acknowledged the aesthetic of material and process obliquely, in forms that are calculated to appear spontaneous and inchoate. Henri Matisse pioneered this approach in his paper cutouts of the 1940s and 50s; its practitioners today include the sculptor-metalsmith Albert Paley and the knife- and world-maker Virgil England. Their styles differ as much from one another as from that of Matisse, which is precisely the point: modernist ornament is a stylistic unity in only the broadest sense, not a set of decorative forms but a way of conceiving decorative form.

Now that modernist ornament has taken its place as a style in its own right, not just a way of exploiting the decorative properties of certain materials and processes, we are in a position to see how much it differs from all previous styles. An ornamental style operating under cover of the claim to have abolished ornament; a movement to embrace process that ends up harnessing and transcending process: the paradoxes are real, but seductively abstract. They do not help us understand the look of actual things. For that, the cultural fascination with inchoateness for its own sake is a better starting point. But whatever else it is, the aesthetic of process is a self-assertion. To participate in it is to assert publicly that one understands process. The results may look incomplete or even sloppy by premodern standards, but in a modern context, where the ability to succeed with ancient skills despite all the discouragements of modernization is an achievement to be proud of, the process aesthetic, in all but its most elementary forms, is a claim to membership in an elite, a way of excluding dabblers even as it continues, at the other end of the spectrum, to exclude the predictability of machines and those who rely on them.

Yet for all its achievements, all its complexity, modernist ornament is haunted by diffidence. It is as if, no matter how much skill the maker brought to the project, he or she didn’t dare assert an absolute mastery; as if the truly confident form that could be tested against thousands of years of tradition were still taboo; as if conceiving process as both vehicle and massage allowed the maker to keep one foot out the door – I didn’t plan it, it just happened; as if, pointing to the “image” of process, of the inchoate, the maker could say: Nothing fixed in time: less than a form, barely a thought. Cloud-pictures, gone the moment we recognize them.

Albert Paley’s work is assertively virile: huge bars of steel, twisted, hammered and welded as though in a giant’s smithy; that it is also personal and graceful is the measure of his brilliance. Virgil England brings together steel, precious metals, ivory, leather and gems to make the weapons of an imagined world. A look of inevitability underpins their alienness: they are “real” the way Tolkien’s invented languages, grounded in meticulous scholarship, are “real.” It is not just a visual effect, but the perfection of design and workmanship: handle one of his weapons and it will tell you in a moment how it was meant to be used. How ironic, that the work of even these masters should have, visually, the sense of something unresolved, a systematic way of trailing off. Their skill is not in question; it is the spirit of our time, setting a price for the right to make ornament, or rather for the right to combine it with the subjectivity and sense of process that are the legacy of modernism. Other styles do not share that legacy, or pay that price. Although few people know or care about it, traditional ornament and the formalist aesthetic of craft survived the last century and a half with skill and confidence intact. One example is the engraving on the most expensive sporting guns. Looking at it, you would think the modernist revolution had never happened, for better and for worse. Such traditional styles have paid their own price: in imagination, the power to transform convention from within.

Is this the fate of our pluralistic society, to nourish incompatible extremes? Or might a synthesis be possible, a style that combines the strengths of both? It would take more than simple calculation: the mindsets are too different to fuse together by an act of will, as though we were breeding dogs or fruit trees. Instead, we must imagine someone fully adept in one style, yet appreciating the other, feeling incomplete without it, and struggling not so much to assimilate as to achieve it; and in that struggle the awareness of difference blurs, then vanishes, opening the way to something greater than the sum of its parts. That is the beyond of my title.