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Better for the Making: Art, Therapy, Process

Suzanne Hudson, University of Southern California
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, June 29 – August 15, 2015

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Dorothy Lacey, Caswell Carpet, c. 1936. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Index of American Design

When and under what circumstances did people in America come to believe that making art was good for them? “Better for the Making” is a book-length study that will offer an expansive historical treatment of the social importance of art that attempts to answer this straightforward yet elusive inquiry. I begin with the period following the Civil War, when William James’s psychology and pragmatist philosophy offered a means of coping with the radical contingencies of modern life. I argue that an appeal to process — here defined as making a work of art without anticipating or requiring that it will serve as the apotheosis of one’s engagement with materials and creation — is foundational to central tenets of American visual modernism and to the eventual turning of process into “process art” in the 1960s. I then ask how these ideas of process as something that came to be privileged through a self-conscious exploration of materials and techniques for their own sake inflected the making, viewing, and teaching of art in a range of settings.

“Better for the Making” has grown out of my long-standing interest in process art — and the inadequacy of existing frameworks for explaining its emergence. These narratives begin with the April 1968 issue of Artforum. There, the sculptor Robert Morris published a brief tract entitled “Anti-Form,” wherein he established a space between his own efforts and those initiated by his minimalist peers. Canonized today as the foundational statement for process art, this text augured an exhibition (also organized by Morris) at Leo Castelli’s New York warehouse in December of that year. Nine at Castelli consolidated discrete practices into a group identity defined by neither style nor medium but by the artists’ ambitions. Like Morris, the other participants emphasized procedure based on the physical properties of the substances with which they were working as opposed to executing preordained aesthetic ends. By 1969 this trend had found an international audience, most prominently with the epoch-defining show Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, curated by Harald Szeemann for the Berne Kunsthalle. Szeemann, too, brought together artists who eschewed premeditated composition, delighted in the impermanence of the things that they made, and, most broadly, valued creative activity above whatever form it generated.

In the years since 1968, process has become a vital paradigm for
visual art, one that allows scholars of contemporary art to understand a great deal about its formal and technical directions. Recognizing the centrality of the paradigm while resisting a presentism that would understand it relative to our time alone, “Better for the Making” offers the first historical account of process including, but also apart from, process art. In this way, it exemplifies my abiding desire to put the historical and the contemporary into relation. Moreover, I suggest that we understand the “process” of process art as a symptom or aspect of something much larger. Thus, although process art impelled the project, I aim to undo the lockstep disciplinary characterization of the 1960s in favor of a wide-reaching historical analysis of the American intellectual, institutional, and political factors that oriented people toward making art to make themselves better, without the necessary achievement of an art object — an object of traditional value — as the conclusion of such activities.

To tell this story, “Better for the Making” ignores typical pre- and
postwar art-historical divisions to offer a historical and theoretical account of the therapeutic uses of visual art in America from the late nineteenth century to the present. The book includes a broad chronological gathering of protagonists, institutions, and disciplines, ranging across and synthesizing developments within fine arts, craft traditions, occupational and art therapy, and art pedagogy. I was grateful to spend my time at CASVA researching the Index of American Design, the focal case study in a chapter in which I consider the discourse around the artist-citizen. In addition, by examining, among other topics, the hobbyist movement as a means of fostering mental health, the construction of painting as pastime, and the rise of the analyst and of diagnostic mechanisms of a visual nature, I reveal how modernist art-critical discourse on process was, in fact, forged through exogenous and surprisingly eclectic channels.

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