Wednesday, September 8, 2010

What purpose does woodworking still serve in modern art and craft?

What purpose does fine woodworking, whether you insist it "art" or "craft", still serve in the modern, after-Warhol, post-internet world?
From a strictly engineering/manufacturing point of view, objects of cut and assembled wood serve a niche function. For many applications -home building, cabinets, etc.- woo is inexpensive, durable, and light enough to be the best material. Sure there are more space age materials which could be used to make far more durable cabinets and better insulated walls, but wood (and the labor required to shape it) are often far cheaper. But this niche no longer covers products that are far easier to construct in newer materials. At one time toolboxes were universally made of hardwood, but today almost anyone can buy a cheep toolbox to fit their specific needs, built of plastic, aluminum, or steel and as a result being much lighter and stronger than any wood duplicate. Indeed, as materials technology continues to make lighter/stronger materials more cheaply, the engineering niche wherein wood is the best material will keep shrinking.
Related to this is also the psychology wooden objects bring to bear. Wood, in its texture and appearance, appeals to a great many people. For thousands of years, the heft, feel (and smell) of carved hardwoods have been associated with wealth. And interiors constructed of polished wood often have a calming effect on their inhabitants. Products made of wood appeal to people in a way that increases their value (even when using another material might be more logical).
And of course the act of working with wood or owning it, connects one to all those who have come before him who have done the same. Woodworking appeals in its ability to place each of us (lone individual forms of protoplasm) within a greater sense of history and culture.
But in a world where all art is going to be instantly given copious connections and references the moment it is shown (try placing an image of a sculpture on the internet that will not evoke dozens of comparisons and links to remotely related work), is it now ever necessary to use a material to relate to the past again? And in an era in which sarcasm or irony in a work seems an essential, is making an object out of honest, undisguised wood inappropriate. Today it seems far more apt to make something out of steel that carefully counterfeits wood-grain, or make wood that is smoothed and painted to resemble clean enamel.
Can one still create a modern art-piece out of wood?

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