Printmaking and capitalism: a marriage made in heaven yet a double-edged sword for many artists, emerging or seasoned.
On one hand, printmakers gain the psychological and physical benefits of manual labor and the accompanying endorphins, emphasizing collaboration and community building with peers IRL (hopefully) while (hopefully, but not limited to) disengaging from their digital screen(s). By committing their attention to a print matrix, printmakers are rewarded with a beautiful series of multiples on the surface of their choosing.
On the other hand, this kind of practice easily surrenders itself to colonial values of production that emphasize maximizing material goods in as little time as possible for the greatest financial return possible. This mindset can very easily place the printmaker in a position to have their creative labor stunted, their spirit consumed by a capitalist chilling effect that has them attempting to prioritize the precarious demands of the art market over their own creative expression. Even if one finds a kind of print production that is satisfying to the creative soul, one still has to commit oneself to exhibiting the fruits of their labor with the hope of gaining recognition from an art world of endless social comparison anxiety. If they have not fully developed an understanding of their role in society, this leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, or in an otherwise easily commodifiable position at the hands of powerful predatory capitalists, of which there are plenty in elite art circles.
As printmakers, it’s imperative to acknowledge these sometimes-dueling aspects of our growing practice.
Like any other industry dealing in multiples, printmakers have to confront the following questions: Do you prioritize quantity over quality? Quality over quantity? Or perhaps you subscribe to an ethos of a higher calling, making art for art’s sake. In any case, every printmaker will have to answer the dreaded question: What’s the point of producing multiples using ancient print technology?
This analysis begs the question: If printmaking is so closely tied to capitalist modes of production, can’t we use printmaking to redefine capitalist modes of consumption?
Printmaking is in dire need of rebranding. It’s an activity that need not be relegated to ancient world techniques that materialize onto rectangular objects that hang inside frames and inside the loftiest of buildings. Printmakers, print collectors, and print curators, I urge you to think more liberally about the definition of a print and of printmaking in general.
Remember movie theatres? When we used to stare, hours at a time at an impression of light onto the surface of a large screen? Guess what? That was printmaking. In action. Let’s redefine our collective understanding of what printmaking is and what it can be. We are living through an industrial revolution that has brought with it innovative possibilities for printmakers of all kinds and from all generations to express themselves through digital matrices. We’re an earshot away from Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) print collections at our aging art institutions if we can only agree that these technologies have print potential written all over them.
Let’s go back to a basic definition of print. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines print as a transitive verb: “to impress (a pattern or design) on something.” Take your pick. There are countless ways to make impressions these days, particularly with a concentrated light or shadow show. And with consumer holographic technology on the rise, we would be remiss to discredit the validity of a holographic print as anything but a kind of print technology deserving of a spot in the art market.
Let’s talk print editioning. In order to quantify more abstract printed editions, one would have to include more contextual information, possibly in the way of metadata, as boundaries for printed information are redefined.
Printmakers, we live in a capitalist society, yes. And I urge you to take notice of what capitalism asks from artists, and from printmaking in particular. Are you feeling the pressure to constantly produce material objects that can be converted into commodities that enter into the art market? Do you ever question where this pressure comes from? What happens if you abandon the print studio? Does this signal the end of your career as an artist?
If you are like me, you’ve invested a lot of capital into your career path as an artist, and maybe paid tuition to gain access to institutional resources such as a printmaking studio. You’ve convinced yourself that a return in your investment in your education must materialize into a body of work, a suite of prints, or an NFT that can be exchanged for some kind of real world profit you can then share on any number of commercial platforms you may currently be tethered to and have committed your life to monitoring. I digress.
The institutionalization of printmaking needs to evolve as does our understanding of what a print matrix is. The way we value art needs to be reinvented. Let’s complicate this rich practice we call printmaking. Take the red pill. Challenge how we classify prints. You already know what you have to do.