on Mis-Expertise:
Writing about Making

Jennifer Roberts

This is the text of a fifteen-minute paper given at the College Art Association conference in Los Angeles in February 2018. The panel was chaired by S. Hollis Clayson and was titled “A Second Talent: Art Historians Making Art.”

To my mind, the gap between making art and writing about art remains one of the most stubborn blind spots in our discipline, one that we have barely begun to negotiate.

I have been circling around this gap for the past few years. At Harvard, I co-teach a graduate seminar with Ethan Lasser called “Minding Making,” in which we trace western attitudes toward making from Aristotle to Trump, make things, and reflect on the impact of making on writing. We open the first day of the Minding Making class with questions that motivate our work as a group over the semester:


  1. POWER: What are the social and political dimensions of an attention or inattention to making? Who is empowered to talk (or not) about making? Whose making is worth talking about?
  2. TRANSLATION: What kind of knowledge do art historians produce about objects? Is it categorically different from the kind of knowledge that goes into the making of those objects? Can that knowledge be translated or cross-fertilized, or are they inherently contradictory?
  3. PEDAGOGY: Why isn’t the act of making understood to be central to art-historical training? (Why don’t art historians have to take studio classes?) What would be gained or lost in curricular reform in this area?
  4. AUTHORSHIP: How have art-historical models of authorship responded to industrial and information economies? Who is the artist of a work that draws upon the distributed intelligence of multiple extraction, refinement and fabrication processes? Should art historians be responsible for examining every strand of these making networks?
  5. SKILL AND AUTOMATION: What are the continuities and discontinuities in making by hand, by machine, and by computer? How should these be reflected in critical writing?

That these are still wide-open questions attests to the fact that our discipline has a deep-seated ambivalence about the studio as a site of art-historical knowledge. Art history established itself as a humanistic discipline by separating itself from the technical and vocational contamination of the studio and its crafts. Today, after decades of critical theory have radically changed art history, we tend to remain deeply skeptical about any appeal to the knowledge lodged in artistic technique. This has been the age of the death of the author and an allergy to all forms of technical determinism or positivism.

A turn to the studio now might look like a reactionary throwback to earlier models of artistic genius and genesis. Any attempt to learn about art by manipulating materials or following the gestures of artists risks appearing at best naïve and at worst insidiously foundational.

And yet, here we all are, having chosen for one reason or another to disregard these objections. For me, it has been fifteen years of teaching thing theory and new materialism that has made it seem imperative to address head-on the question of making as research.

What material studies have meant for me is that a turn to the studio cannot now be construed as a return.

The studio may look the same as it did, say, 50 years ago. But methodologically, everything in it is different now. The materials are different. They’re not inert lumps of matter awaiting elevation into meaning but hives of interactive agency stretching into global ecological flows and networks.

The tools are different. They’re not instruments of sheer artistic will but conduits that allow an exchange of properties between makers and materials. And inevitably the artist is different – but it is here that much work remains to be done. For all their intricate theories of material agency, the new materialisms have not yet performed the redefinition of artistic agency that must follow. With the possible exception of the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold, the new materialisms have not yet built a new model of the human on the scene of making.

Thoughts like these were percolating in my mind when, three years ago, I was invited to write the Catalogue Raisonné of the monotypes of Jasper Johns. I knew a good bit about Johns but almost nothing about monotypes -- I had no idea how to approach a print like this one. So (taking advantage of a sabbatical) I decided to enroll in a monotype class that met at a five-hour stretch every Tuesday for six months.

I should be clear at the outset that although I know what it means to have a manual skill – I am bizarrely trained as a dental lab technician (long story), I have no artistic training beyond a few stray extracurricular endeavors. I collected a Ph.D. in art history without ever having been required or even encouraged to take a studio art course. This monotype class was the first time that I had taken to the studio in relation to an art-historical project.

For Johns, monotype is a medium of intense technical experimentation. I found myself particularly interested in his use of thin frosted mylar as a matrix for printing. In this example, Johns did a drawing in watercolor and india ink on a single sheet of mylar. He allowed the sheet to dry and then printed it onto damp paper, reactivating and transferring the pigment.

He used the same matrix for a chain of six prints, letting the press blot up the ink with each pass and partially refreshing it before printing it again.

In the studio, I didn’t attempt to recreate Johns’s work -- instead I explored inks, mylar, and seriality at an angle to his practice. I developed a project where I attempted to make long chains of monotypes without adding any ink between impressions. First I cut mylar into strips and rolled the strips with ink. I positioned them on a plate, some ink side up, some ink side down, in multiple overlapping layers. After loading the plate I would print it. Then I’d go back to the plate, flip some of the strips over to expose previously protected ink. Repeat, until the last areas of fresh ink were removed and the strips printed earlier had faded into broad tonal ranges.

These are the six prints that resulted from that sequential manipulation of the matrix. Looking at these, I am hesitant to claim that my time in the studio produced anything that we might call art. But it definitely produced some art history. I tried to write every Tuesday night about what had happened in the studio (this tight interpolation of writing and making was, I think, essential). Almost everything in that word document ended up in the essay that was recently published in the Catalogue Raisonné. And it didn’t just become technical window-dressing but it determined the very structure of the argument. Indeed the process of making was so productive for me, so transformative for my writing, that I was almost embarrassed by it. What exactly did I learn?

The short answer is that as I made these prints I was becoming aware that the press, normally considered an agent of replication, was instead individuating my prints. The uniqueness of monotypes is usually attributed to the unique gestural presence of the artist. It’s the form of printmaking that seems to evade the alienating force of the mechanical apparatus. But in the studio I was gradually, and ever more confidently, coming to the opposite conclusion: that monotype is the form of printing in which the press has the most rather than the least agency. Monotypes do not draw their singularity solely from the freedom of the artist’s gestures, they also draw it from a machine that is freed to work as a metamorphic agent. That is the thesis of my essay, and I simply would never have arrived at it without having spent some 100 hours in the studio, passing ink and plastic back and forth with the press.

Still, 100 hours is not a lot of time. Isn’t there something a little audacious about trying to access deep knowledge about printmaking by cranking out a few slippery monotypes with water-based ink at a community art center? Doesn’t my novice status automatically disqualify me from drawing upon my own experience in analyzing the work of one of the greatest living printmakers? These questions have continued to haunt me. I still struggle to reconcile the relative superficiality of my studio experience with the immense transformation that it caused in my art-historical approach.

Others on this panel will be able to speak to the value of more sustained and rigorous levels of artistic practice, and I truly envy them for that. But meanwhile I want to explore the possibility that being not particularly good at the skill you are studying can itself be a hermeneutic asset. Rather than inhibiting insight, it might actively generate insight, at least certain forms of it. There is something uniquely valuable to be captured or extracted from the friction or displacement between written and material forms of knowledge.

It seems to me that misalignments between the expertise of the art historian and the expertise of the artist are inevitable. First, to my own genuine and everlasting chagrin, there are simply not enough hours in the day to become fully embedded in an artistic practice while also working as a full-time art historian. Second, a traditionally trained art historian can only experience studio work as a kind of reskilling or cross-skilling in which the primary skill – let’s say writing – remains as the frame through or against which the new skills are interpreted.

And third, even intensive and rigorous practice can never produce a perfect resonance with the historical artist’s experience. The goal of studio research should never be one of adequation between scholar and artist. It should never be about bypassing cultural and historical difference in a kind of mystical embodied union with the artist’s gestures or intentions. Instead, by acknowledging the posture of inevitable mis-expertise, one might practice a kind of studio research that draws its energy from the many kinds of distance between the body of the artist and the body of the interpreter.

One could ask at this point – if distance is the goal why go into the studio at all? Keep your distance from the artist by staying at your computer like always. But this is outright disconnection. Mis-expertise requires, I think, a more palpable kind of distance. In his essay “The Technology of Enchantment and the Enchantment of Technology,” Alfred Gell tells of his visit to Salisbury Cathedral as an eleven-year-old boy. Having no personal experience of masonry, stonecarving, or structural engineering, he barely noticed the cathedral itself. But when he stumbled across a matchstick model of the cathedral in a dingy side chapel, he was riveted. Because he had built models with matchsticks himself, he marveled at the intricacy of this construction. Gell describes this attitude as “enchantment,” and for him it arose precisely in the gap between two makers: novice and master. As an art historian, I am looking for more of this kind of wonder. Not so much in Gell’s semi-spiritual sense of enchantment but rather simply wonder in the literal sense of the capacity to formulate questions – I wonder how they did that. Making allows us to form questions about processes that might otherwise have seemed invisible, inevitable, or self-evident. And if we don’t think to wonder about making we won’t think to perform art history upon it.

Michael Polanyi has also theorized something like mis-expertise – for him, it lies in the space between explicit and tacit knowledge. For Polanyi, when learning a new skill, one must remain hyperconscious of everything that is happening: this he calls “focal attention.” As skill levels increase, focal attention is gradually converted into what he calls “subsidiary attention” – a mode of habitual, embodied knowledge that is essentially nonverbal, unspeakable. I have several reservations about the way the concept of tacit intelligence has been deployed in material studies (I am particularly skeptical of the notion that skill is fundamentally inaccessible to language) but focal attention is a useful descriptor for the attitude of the earnest but bumbling art historian in the studio or workshop, painfully aware of the difficulties attending every procedure. That art historian is in some ways best positioned to attend to what is happening there.

I want to end by laying out a few preliminary claims for exactly what this focal or explicit wondering might accomplish for art-historical method. I’m going to do this in the vulgar format of the powerpoint bullet slide. I understand that this is risky, because it appears to reduce artmaking to mere instrumentalization. But given the deeply entrenched assumptions about making as mystical, ludic, or supplementary that permeate our culture and our discipline, it seems urgent that we can clearly and forcefully articulate an alternative set of values. Unless we can do so, making will remain outside of academic thought, and retain its nostalgic, anti-intellectual status, where it is vaguely associated with humanistic pieties like freedom, creativity, and, worst of all, “enrichment.” So what does making, even or especially introductory making, do for art history?