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T may be that existence can be justified only by creating. Existence may be futile - the vanity of vanities - but regardless of whether there be reason in it or not, it seems we are not to question it to any satisfaction. For some inexplicable reason we must create, if only for the day. All forms of life engage in it to the limit of their respective capacities which are, in most cases, restricted to necessarily lavish reproduction of kind. If we are built in the likeness of the Creator, as some people say we are, the power of creation could be considered as one of our common characteristics. Anyone who has organized apparently unrelated items, regardless of whether they were bricks, words, sounds or color, and has forged them into unity, has felt a relation to the force that flows throughout the cosmos. We dip into this stream in the degree in which we create. It gives us a little more understanding and perhaps a quickening of the life-force and, in turn, a greater enthusiasm for life.
To interfere with the creative urge is to invite trouble. The man who tightens bolts all day long in the assembly of a standardized article of commerce is being cheated of his birth-right. If he cannot make something in his spare time away from the factory, he is in a fair way to become a nuisance or a menace to society. Children have the urge to make things until their sensible parents discourage them, and offer as a substitute, as early in life as possible, such a negative activity as knocking a ball into a hole with the least number of strokes.
Badly as jobs are needed and as important as physical exertion is, the greater need of humanity is for creative exercise. For a long time economic forces have tended to curtail it, with more or less disastrous results. Even a subnormal procreation of his own species is being denied mankind, so that the Machine operates both ways to destroy him. It is self-evident that any effort making towards the development of greater opportunities for creation would be welcomed; of the other activity I say nothing - that is a matter for lawyers and the clergy.
This being the machine age, it may be that modern art can be suitably produced only with tools of the age; that the machine and its products are our contribution to that indefinable thing called Art. It may be that the boys and girls making pictures in paints, papers and putties are all barking up the wrong tree, as well as those people who philologize over their efforts. There is a strong probability that future intelligent museum directors will carefully cherish products of the machine shops as being more peculiar to our age and more notable expressions of it. Future critics may hail as great artists the men who now rate as mere mechanical engineers. In other words, it is likely that the form art has taken is so different from earlier concepts as to be unrecognizable as art except to a very few people.
Having somewhat indicated the purpose of life and also the fatuity of persisting in the employment of worn-out forms and media of artistic expression, it does seem rather asinine to suggest for consideration as a modern vehicle the utilization of the oldest graphic technique; the more so when we recall that it was superseded by a process generated by modern machinery and chemistry, and has been commercially obsolete for several decades. Since it would take the public a long, long time to grow accustomed to the idea that earlier media of art may have changed, it would hardly do to suggest that an entirely novel one be employed. The public is overlooking the fact that the economic and social structure has undergone a profound transition - one as great as that when agriculture succeeded hunting as the basis of livelihood for the race. We have changed from an agricultural to a mechanical era; from the worship of a rainmaking and fertilization deity to a faith in the banker as the creator of economic security - and few people seem to realize the change.
The suggestion of the woodblock as a modern medium of artistic expression is not so far-fetched however. Its status has changed. From being a graphic technique for the reproduction of the equivalent of pen and ink drawings, in its earlier period, to become later the reproductive agent of etchings, water-color and oil paintings and even of sculpture, it has finally come into its own as an independent vehicle of the artist. The woodcut has been released from kitchen drudgery, so to speak, and elevated to a seat in the drawing room.
In only a few notable instances until recently, has the woodcut been the product of an artist having a realization of the qualities peculiar to the block, and considering it as an independent medium. That approach constitutes its claim to attention by the modern artist. In the early days, the artist made his drawing on the block and left it to the craftsman - the formschneider - to cut, or only too often, to ruin. Only too often he deserved to have his work ruined, for he seemed not to have concerned himself with the limitations nor the difficulties of the medium. Generally speaking, the men who did the actual cutting bore the same relation to the art that the photoengraving process does today - that is, being merely the mechanism which made graphic reproduction possible. When intelligent craftsmen cut a block or interpreted a work, a flavor was imparted to the drawing that it lacked before, but ordinarily, the cutters added nothing to the work. The property peculiar to wood was not exploited. The exploration of the woodblock for greater possibilities of expression is what makes the medium so fascinating to the modern artist, and no doubt explains the renewed interest of the public in it.
The base of the woodcut is elemental and the process utterly simple. No machinery is needed. A block of wood and the means of printing from it can be had wherever trees grow. It may be argued that having machinery why not utilize it, and why consider its utilization a drawback? It is a personal notion that the machine insinuates itself between the artist and his product to more or less extent, and that without it one can get closer to the source of things. Again, the material of the art being so elemental is more easily come by. The tendency of the machine age is to increase the difficulty in getting both the raw materials of an art and the tools. The very simplicity of the woodcut, both in the cutting and the printing make for a directness both in approach and technique.
A fine thing about the woodcut is that it may be worked on at odd moments. There are no elaborate preparations to be made preliminary to cutting. There aren't any loose threads to pick up after interruptions. A block with a few tools can be carried in one's pocket, and work on it may proceed on any solid support. A rock or a stone wall will serve as work bench. There is not much danger of damage by contact with objects, as is likely to befall an unfinished plate to be etched, where any inadvertent scratch will cause trouble, and a slight accident with acid will ruin it, nor are there any noxious gases to endanger health and goods. A block may lie around for years in an unfinished state without suffering and that without any special care in handling. There is no danger that stray flakes of dandruff will cause unwelcome spots as they will on the lithograph stone or transfer paper. No special lighting arrangement is necessary for working on the block. In short, it is the ideal medium for the person who has only odd moments for art expression.
All the machinery of it is easily portable. The inking slab may be any smooth surface. If a box is made to carry the smaller brayer, or inking roller, the whole outfit can almost be carried in one's pocket - press and all. The printing mechanism is reduced to a small smooth stick. In a pinch, any common wood will suffice as a block (cigar-box wood has been used effectively), and in another pinch, a jack knife will answer for cutting.
The history of woodcutting and wood-engraving is a fairly big subject. I think the practitioner of the art need not concern himself overmuch with it. There is no reason to be forever clutching the apron strings of tradition. The Bachelor of Arts, nor yet the Master of Arts, cannot know too much of an old and dead art, even if he is neither the master of a fine art nor yet the bachelor of one. The importance, quality and relation of good contemporary work are of little moment to him (and to the unlettered too, for that matter), for like the old fashioned Indian, it is rated good too often only when dead. If you are concerned in this matter, a brief bibliography will be found at the end of the book - one section relating to the good and dead, the other dealing primarily with the quick of varying virtues.
This matter is included with the hope that the beginner will not be so intrigued with any of it as to become a disciple. It is much better that he learn what tools to use and how they are used, and to make woodcuts - bad ones if none other. Make mistakes. It is better to make mistakes than to make nothing. The beginner had much better be himself - to toot his own whistle if it be but a penny one, rather than pound the other fellow's big bass drum.