|Tim Mara Artist's Alphabet|
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For many years of its history the Royal College of Art had its newly appointed Professors of individual courses present inaugural lectures as a way of introducing themselves, their ideas and philosophy of their chosen subject. These lectures were always the focus of great interest and generated much debate and discussion.
Somewhere during its development the College either abandoned or decided not to continue this tradition of inaugural lectures but the idea was again revived in 1990, the year Tim became Professor of Printmaking (several other Departmental Professors had also recently been appointed under the Rectorship of Jocelyn Stevens).
When the idea of re-starting the inaugural lectures was suggested at the College Senate meeting Tim volunteered to present the first lecture in this new series. In it he outlined his philosophy and thoughts concerning the medium and his approach and ambition for the discipline at the College.
He then went on to outline his own personal history and research practice and creative interests. The lecture was presented in Tim's second term as Professor of Printmaking in spring 1991 to a packed full lecture theatre at The Royal College of Art. It was accompanied by an edited retrospective exhibition of selected prints and a brief question and answer session afterwards.
Printed below is the first half of this inaugural lecture in which the Artist presents his thoughts on printmaking and its role and usage at the College.
"When the revival of The Royal College inaugural lecture was first mooted at last term's Fine Art Faculty meeting and as I immediately leapt forward to volunteer, it was suggested that I should give my view on printmaking and talk about my own work - which I intended to do. Since then a paper has been published in the College which sets out the purpose and content of the ideal inaugural lecture. The suggested format is actually the same but is couched in much more formal terms. These are that one should outline one's regime or policy and give an insight into one's research or creative interests.
Well…… my policy is not to have a regime. To me a regime would suggest a Course dominated by a single individual with definitive views on the subject of printmaking. I see printmaking as a means of expression of ideas or feelings by Artists, and I see my role at The Royal College as one of enabling the Student Artists to use printmaking as their own means of expression.
I am not interested in dominating the situation nor do I have any interest in fostering a particular ideology or in creating acolytes. I don't think that there is a right way to make prints or a wrong way. There are as many ways of making prints as there are Artists making them.
Printmaking is an extraordinarily broad and flexible medium, which is constantly renewing itself - (endlessly inventive).
I am forever surprised - (just on a technical level) at the number of new and imaginative ways in which processes that are up to 500 years old can be used. New processes and old technologies infinitely capable of responding to whatever is going on out there or in here (tapping the cranium).
There are thirty-seven students currently in Printmaking at The Royal College of Art, and as far as I am concerned I have thirty-seven views on how printmaking can be used to create art on the Course - and I suspect the students have another thirty-seven. Each Artist finds their own way through the techniques. In Printmaking at The Royal College, we don't dwell on teaching the students how to print, but rather help them to develop their work as Artists through their chosen specialism - Printmaking.
We encourage the students to take the broadest view of printmaking from inking up a piece of wood found in a skip to pushing an idea through a drawing on the computer screen. A great deal of teaching is about allowing students to uncover what they already know. Young Artists need the intellectual space to be able to make their own work whilst taking part in the spirit of their own time.
Printmaking also forms a great bridging area in art and design. In the College the interests and the processes within printmaking reach into photography, painting, computing, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, illustration, graphic design and many more besides. We have students coming in to printmaking from all areas of the College and as far as I am concerned they are all welcome, in fact so far one hundred and sixteen students have signed up to do our evening courses. In return I find that our students are welcome in all other areas of the College.
This I think is an important part of the potential that the College has to offer as a whole. The potential for innovation in students working across facilities is endless.
Inward looking institutions don't replenish knowledge. The existing knowledge degenerates and the institution begins to gradually wind down. I also believe that fundamental to this access to the whole College is the importance and understanding the philosophical core of each discipline, whilst extending its potential. Art is at the core of printmaking. The art is made by the integration of the printmaking techniques with the expression of the ideas, thoughts, observations and feelings of the Artists. Without this expression printmaking is just activity - as any art form would be. In printmaking, as in all subjects that have some form of craft at their centre (and I include painting and sculpture in this), Artists need to be vigilant that the activity knows its proper relationship to the content. Although, I will certainly concede that activity without content is extremely relaxing.
Another important part for me to play at The Royal College is to ensure that students are armed with as much knowledge as is possible in order for them to continue their practice after College.
There is no point in enabling students to become Artists of some consequence if they have no ideas as to how to continue after College. It's cold out there - especially at the moment, and having the practical edge (gained through an informed knowledge of the workings of the profession), coupled with a belief in continuing to progress as an Artist, will make the difference. The Printmaking Course at the College is a beginning for our students - not an end in itself, and as such includes a very focused and informative seminar series on the professional practice of printmaking.
I think it is appropriate in an inaugural lecture to speak about issues in one's subject. At the beginning of this month the Printmaking Course organised a major Printmaking Conference at the College to coincide with the British International Print Biennale and with the aim of addressing the current issues in Printmaking. The conference was completely full and included delegates from the far reaches of these Isles - from galleries, from education, from workshops and from studios.
So as a consequence of this recent event I am fairly up to date with the issues that currently trouble the printmaking world.
There are three main issues: - Firstly 'Originality', secondly 'the place of printmaking in the art hierarchy and finally 'The relationship of printmaking to the new technologies'.
The first one 'originality' is an old chestnut that will just not go away. Originality is an extraordinarily overworked word in printmaking and only continues to be an issue because a print is generally a multiple. The notion of originality affects printmaking in three distinct ways. Firstly there is the perennial issue of defining just what is an original print.
Secondly, having defined an original print there is a problem with the perceived prestige of a medium that does not create unique objects; and thirdly and most importantly is the issue of original thought in the work. The problem of originality does not tax my own brain very much but there are several vested interest groups within printmaking that get very vexed about this. For decades definitions as to what an original print is, have regularly surfaced. This always seems to be actually more about saying what is not an original print in order to enhance the kudos and value of one's own prints. Roughly speaking an original print turns out to be a print in which the image does not exist prior to the making of the print and an unoriginal print is one in which the print is an attempt to produce a piece of art work that already exists - all of which seems fine as a working definition until the 'yes buts' start - and thank God for the 'yes buts'.
The second originality issue in printmaking is more interesting. A great deal of unease surrounds printmaking because generally a print is not a unique object. This troubles many pundits because their conditioning prevents them from recognising that the lack of uniqueness of the object has nothing to do with the originality or individuality or thought in the work.
What often is not recognised is that Artists who are serious about making prints do so because they recognise that the medium has much to offer to their expression. The fact that a print can be a multiple is entirely incidental - a bonus in fact.
When I first made prints I found it so difficult that I thought that the reason for making a few was in order to get one right.
What I do find interesting here is our obsession, as a species, with the whole notion of originality or uniqueness in art (regardless of just within printmaking). I think there is a great deal of misplaced sanctification in our Western culture that distorts the real meaning of art. A great deal of mystification and mythology is built up around the uniqueness of art works. Art is shown in the Temples. High Priests determine its meaning and its value.
In most production and manufacture two is better than one. Why aren't two Mona Lisas better than one?
For a great many opinion formers the appreciation of the work seems to be directly related to its market value.
Are we enjoying art less during this current recession?
The second major issue is the place of printmaking in the fine art hierarchy. It appears that on a good day printmaking comes in third or fourth. Again it is not the issue that interests me here, but the fact that such an issue should exist.
I have no interest at all in arguing for moving printmaking up the ladder, but I am very interested in the fact that there is a ladder at all. This, I think leads on from the issues bedded in uniqueness and originality. I have trouble with a value system that divides art media into primary, secondary etc.
My earliest and very simplistic view of the working of art (and it is a view that hasn't changed much) is that there are people who have something that they must say and those people choose to become Artists. (In the broadest sense). The means by which they say what they have to say is different in every case and at best is determined by natural orientation towards one medium or another due to inherited or environmental factors.
What Artists have to say is important and the means chosen are purely circumstantial. The statement they wish to make is amplified by a well-chosen medium. Therefore, one medium is not better than another - only different - more or less appropriate. The notion of primary or secondary media is a complete anathema to me.
I am always astonished when people who work at high levels of artistic involvement hold such banal concepts as uniqueness and media hierarchy so very dear.
The third major issue that I would highlight from the conference is the relationship of printmaking to the New Technologies. Printmaking is a flexible medium. Its roots are in printing - which has always been at the forefront of new technology as it is an information dissemination process. New technology and information technology go hand in hand. Printmaking is an accumulation of the various technologies in printing. From Caxton's hot new technology of woodblock printing, through wood engraving, copper engraving, etching, stone and plate Lithography, offset, photo-litho and screen printing with its myriad applications. Artists using printmaking have been quick to spot the potential in new products and techniques in the allied trades. Many Artists are keen to stress that the new technologies are nothing in themselves - just tools that the Artist can use and that what matters is not the novelty or superficial qualities given by the technology but the quality of expression in the Artist's work made in these new media. I agree with this - but you do have to pick the tool up. Printmaking at The Royal College of Art is very well placed to pick up this tool. The bridges that printmaking has into the design areas that I have already spoken about and the access to computing is already enabling students to express themselves through these new media and their relationships to printmaking.
Printmaking can often be defensive even apologetic for its roots being in process. Printmaking at The Royal College is not nervous or diffident about the role of technique in art. I will put in as much technical expertise as possible in order to increase the student's artistic vocabulary and to stimulate innovatory development. We know here how techniques integrate with art; we know the potential and we know how to use it".