Saturday, April 24, 2010

The New Ceramic Absence

The current issue of Ceramics Monthly contains an article -- one of CM's regular "Comment" features at the back of the magazine. The article is titled "The New Ceramic Absence" and is written by Glen R. Brown. The article discusses the current state of ceramics in art.

I don't pretend to understand everything Dr Brown is talking about, but the article spurred the following thoughts. My apologies for my inablity to link to the article. No doubt, if you could read the article, my response might hold greater meaning. But a number of you are CM subscribers. So in the name of continuing the discussion, here are my thoughts.

Seems to me that the American ceramic artist could have chosen to set themselves a better table than the one they built atop the three legs of:

1. Solipsism
2. Novelty
3. Rage against Ward and June Cleaver.

I’d absent that table too. Did, in fact. Not much fun to sit at such a table full of the privileged expressing their angst, and then audaciously accusing as “ignorant” those unwilling to sit at the table with them to indulge their ceramic rants.

Probably not ignorant, though. Most “got it”. No, really. They did. They just decided that it wasn’t inherently engaging. And if there were those who didn’t “get it”, it’s probably because once the work required the accompaniment of words to convey the message, in the long run, the work and the words still didn’t match up. The tortured explanations didn’t clarify the expressions.

Further, though it is human nature to rubberneck at a tragic accident, few wish to stare at carnage for long.

So a small, self-supporting clique with clan-like tendencies, appreciating their own esoterica by employing a vocabulary of their own invention, spun their wheels or thrived within big city galleries and academia.

Meanwhile the American ceramist thrived in a continuation of pottery stretching back through time, quite unselfconsciously putting their own stamp on that history.

Look up into the clear night sky. Your eye will catch stars and clusters at the edges of your vision. But as soon as you try to look directly at those points of light, they disappear (technically, your rods – denser in the periphery of your retina – can see light, while the cones – concentrated toward the center – see color, but confuse the eye’s search for fainter light).

Trying to create “art” with ceramics seems to often be like that night sky. Try too hard and fail. But engage in the process, and soon all the peripheral elements can come together to create a whole greater than the sum of those now in-focus parts.

Too much freedom, paradoxically, seldom leads to creativity. Give me no direction other than “new” and I’ll come up with nothing and meaninglessness. But give me a direction, and in very short order, I’m likely to achieve new AND meaningful.

I remember reading of an interesting study. It was observed that, given a playground full of children with no fence to define that playground, the children are inclined to stay clumped together in the middle of the playground. But as soon as the playground area is defined with a perimeter fence, the children suddenly play with abandon – utilizing that entire fenced-in area.

Seems to me that American art ceramic has spent the past fifty years clumped in the middle of the schoolyard – intimidated by academia and some gallery-induced aesthetic to believe that only certain ideas and concepts (ironically, in the name of TOTAL freedom of expression) were worthy of consideration. So they glommed onto an acceptance of new-is-inherently-superior as a goal. And they also acquired some warped sense that there must be something inherently inferior (either intellectually or aesthetically) to what struck them as commonly attractive.

But all the while there have been American ceramists -- unintimidated by academia and the galleries – quietly going about the business of creating great, distinctively American work and letting the future and the public -- if they wish to do so -- categorize it.


  1. Very insightful... thanks for that.

  2. I'm going to be chewing on that one all day.
    Thanks for the food for thought.

  3. Your post was thought provoking even before I read the CM article. Now that I have wasted 10 minutes of my life wading through that arcane drivel I might as well chime in. I thought your poke at this esoteric elitism was on target and deserved. Art historians are such a specialized branch of knowledge that you have to wonder if any of them know actual artists. Certainly this guy was not talking about anything potters are interested in, but I have to say that there are only a handful of artists I went to school with that would even care about this issue, much less buy into it. The ivory tower is becoming suspiciously similar to an opium den these days.... Why this article was published in a ceramics magazine baffles me. Maybe someone out there will feel more self impressed and empowered that an 'authority' is describing their field in such impressively obscure sounding terms. I tend to doubt it, though.

    I would agree that most potters are unmoved by postmodern art concerns, and that this in some ways sets us apart from the interests and practices of other clay working artists. However, I doubt that solipsism, novelty, and a rage against the Cleavers of this world tells the whole story. Academic art does have this straining toward an elite audience, and seems appreciated more for its cleverness, obscurity and incomprehensibility than its accessibility. Even in academic pottery the mantra of Beauty and Utility has been replaced by pots that make 'statements'. Decoration is no longer decorative but an artist's expression of things like the universal unconscious, personal symbolism, philosophical dialectic, and cultural and political institutions and experience. Art as commentary.

    If this is the only contribution art has to make then I will happily call what I am doing something else. It is just such a shame that most Universities have bought into this dogma and the opportunity to expose students to honest and straightforward pottery is being squandered. How many potters do we know and admire who got their start with clay in a University or were exposed to it there? Maybe the field of pottery is better off standing apart from these trends and doesn't need Universities to train its young aspirants. Maybe high schools and community arts centers can provide all the necessary education. Maybe apprenticeships and being self taught is the way to go.

    When the day comes when Universities no longer have potter's wheels will we feel regret? By allowing the academic discussion of ceramics to revolve around such hopelessly over-intellectualized topics are we abandoning the fight to keep pottery as a subject taught in schools? Do we care? If I can make my living now is it just tough luck to future potters? Didn't they used to teach basket weaving in college back in the 70's? Is pottery just the new macrame? Is this a discussion worth having? Any thoughts?

  4. "Any thoughts?"


    You continued the discussion in a very interesting direction. And I agree with you even to the point of having proudly referred to myself as a "craftsman" for quite some time now (as you hinted at when you said, "If this is the only contribution art has to make then I will happily call what I am doing something else.).

    On my morning run I thought to myself (and tossed the idea out to my running partner, Breeze, who agreed with me) that I needed to further clarify my notions of "novel" -- the pursuit of "new" as an end to itself.

    I think I should have said something along the lines of understanding that new is quite often a good thing. That even when we as craftsmen develop a style, we do so by bringing something new to the game -- even if it is just a new interpretation of an old idea...

    ....y'know, just to bang my same old tired drum of musical analogy....the best musicians in jazz do exactly this; They're not necessarily known for composition as much as they are known for reinterpretation.

    Anyway, we do want to encourage new. But new is not the same thing as successful. It's one of those "All collies are dogs, but not all dogs are collies" things. Being influential in the world of ceramics will probably require something new, but not everything that is new is good simply on the basis of being new.

    As to where the next generation of great potters will come from?

    I am pleased to see so many of my contemporaries turning to educating the next group of potters -- either by having apprentices, or by teaching out of their studios. Fry, Peterson, Turner are but a few of my friends who have taken this direction in the past five years. And I've been trying to figure out a way to do it too (my studio is very small, cramped, and not conducive to apprentices or teaching -- but I've been in discussions with the two local colleges (curiously, at their prompting) to see if something could be worked out.

    Now I'm just rambling. But I sure do enjoy the extended discussion -- whatever the direction it may take.

  5. I too enjoy good discussions. Thanks for being so welcoming and for providing a forum to have them. I hope we can get others to chime in with their thoughts.

    First off, let me say that I hope you take them up on that offer to teach at the local schools. One of my major gripes is that too many of the permanent teaching positions are going to non-potters and therefor to artists who have no vested interest in promoting the ideals of pottery or who simply don't have the skills to teach them. So who ends up guiding those otherwise eager budding potters? If they are lucky there might be a grad student with some background in pots (but how many of those are there these days?), but too often it is a sculpture student who is barely staying one step ahead of the students. Having a qualified pottery instructor is just not seen as a need in a lot of schools, and all those wheels are languishing for want of more dedicated attention.

    Perhaps apprenticeships and studio lessons can pick up the slack, but is this an adequate substitution for the opportunity lost in Universities, or is it just one good alternative? How many young people go to college and have the option, with merely the click of a button, of taking an art class? There are easily a million undergrads in school in the US each year who mostly spend four years figuring out what they want to do with their lives. Many of the potters I know just got lucky and wandered into a clay classroom by mistake or because all the painting classes were full. Some of them actually knew they wanted to be pottery majors in advance. What happens when pottery no longer is an option in a University setting? Are there enough potters out there willing to make time for apprentices or who have enough studio space and extra wheels to fill the void? Will it hurt that there was never an opportunity to stumble into the pottery classroom even by mistake or that none of your classmates are potters or that the free food at that art opening was never a part of a pottery exhibition?

    My feeling is that this will be a tremendous loss, and that the number of new potters who are driven to excellence will drop off dramatically. Maybe not if enough of us teach out of our studios or offer apprenticeships, but the difference in standards that students are held to in community arts settings is clearly not sufficient. When I first taught at the arts center in Athens I tried to push students as if they were there to actually learn how to make pots. What became clear is that most of them were only casually involved in learning, but more likely were there for social reasons, to get a break from a tough work week, just for fun, in short anything but actually aiming at a serious level of competence or as a possible vocation. These are people who are not trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives. At most they are looking for a diversion or a distraction from the serious part of who they are. It is mostly enough that they enjoy it.

    I am so lucky these days that I DO have some few students who actually care about learning, and I spend much extra time encouraging them. But most classes are not designed to exploit this dedication. Without the threat of a grade it is not often that even these students are willing to do homework assignments or spend endless hours in the studio outside of class. Most already have full lives that makes it a real conflict. So what will the future of pottery look like? Not to disparage amateurs feeling good about selling their work (Who am I to judge when obviously other people are willing to buy their things), but do we want the level of expertise demonstrated by many sellers on etsy to be the standard of our professionalism?

    So, do we truly want to give up the teaching of pottery in universities?

    I should stop here. Hope you had a good laugh reading this! Would love to hear your further thoughts and I hope others will chime in as well.

  6. That was only the first half of the comment I wrote. Here is the last half:

    So, do we truly want to give up the teaching of pottery in Universities? Part of the problem, maybe the root cause of pottery being slighted in academia, is that we have gotten sucked into talking about our field in exclusionary terms instead of focusing on being inclusive. Ivory tower esoterrorists (A new word!) make their living by parsing up the world into smaller and smaller pieces. It is in their interest to focus on themes like abstract expressionism, avant garde impulses, postmodern theory, narrower and narrower definitions, and the 'high points' that get exhibited in museums, galleries and are purchased by people who have way more money than you or I. By pretending that these are the things that matter they confuse the object created with what counts as art. And if certain objects fail to live up to the prevailing definition they are disqualified. Hence, pottery as 'craft' and not 'art'.

    In my opinion pottery and other crafts are not things outside of art but are subcategories of it. And art is not simply that object so conveniently fitting a particular description, but an activity that humans do. And sometimes it results in objects and sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes those objects live in museums and galleries and sometimes they don't. And sometimes the processes used in creating them are taught in schools and sometimes they are not. I like to think that art is the expression of human creativity, and is therefor importantly something without specific boundaries. What stands outside of art is not something wonderful and expressive like a piece of pottery, but the ABSENCE of creativity. A negation of the drive toward self determination. What stands outside of art, for me, is the expression of human culture that is merely an unthinking regurgitation, or manifests what others have told us to think and do. Art is profoundly a dream for the way things should be, not a reflection of how they actually are, inspiration that engages us, opens new doors on ways of thinking about things and participating in the world, and certainly not enforced obedience to something that others have provided for us.

    Your references to the musician's perspective are always great insight, and I agree that the forefront of creativity is not always a clean break from the ideas of others but an artists' conversation on the themes and examples that are provided in the field and in the world at large. Even the greatest geniuses of humankind stand on the shoulders of history and culture. Would it even make sense to say that something "new" had to be made entirely without precedent, ex nihilo? At some level every painter uses pigments, every potter uses clay. These activities are centered about a specific type of medium and can only be new in terms of expression, not what they are. Postmodern appropriationism is just an attempt to bend these rules, almost what you say as being new for the sake of being new. But no one died, so perhaps we can indulge them (while the art critics applaud them).

    I don't see the "table" being set atop anything other than the human capacity for creative expression. It is merely that we are at a big table and that most of us only get along with a small number of those others seated with us. Some of us don't even speak the same language, or have invented new uses of familiar words that makes conversation confusing and frustrating. There is no separate 'kids' table where all the potters are sent off to. It only seems like we are all alone because we have been kicked out of all the other cool clubs like Art galleries and University Art departments.

    Are you buying this? Am I off the deep end on this one? (I hope you at least had a good laugh!)

  7. For all of my observations of the awkward place ceramics seems to hold in the art world -- and my intention to give a shout out to those interested that, in contrast to the world of art, the world of pottery is exceedingly welcoming...

    ... I will admit that there's an interesting symbiosis that goes on between the academic and practical worlds.

    Maybe it's in large part because there are still at least a few very influential and talented people who straddle both worlds quite well. (Pinnell springs immediately to mind).

    And because of that academic world's bent toward the experimental, the practical world gets some pretty cool benefits -- like glazes that, though we potters still end up modifying for practical purposes, we wouldn't have as much time to develop (what with production schedules and all) as student/profs do.

    It will just be interesting to see if in the next few years, the universities will become more open to craft, or continue to drift away from it.

    I spent nearly two hours on the phone today with the local college. They're trying to come up with a program that will show where in the world -- the real world -- the pursuit of ceramics might take them.

    I might be part of that by next year.

  8. I think you are absolutely right about the symbiosis. In fact, this experimental opportunity is probably the only real reason a committed potter would still go to grad school. With the benefit of financial aid the two or three years spent in a University's facilities becomes the possibility for exploring every tangent with free firings, free materials, and sometimes with informed advice and the insights of people with similar interests. If you had to pay $20,000 a year for this access you probably would need to work some other job to pay it off afterwards.

    I would love to hear what this local college is contemplating as its new direction. I think they are being well served by getting your advice in this. My growing pessimism is somewhat less knowing that there is at least one more institution that is prepared to take pot making seriously as an academic endeavor. I hope they offer you something worth your while and that you are in a position to take them up on it. It is obvious how much you have to share, and students will look back with gratitude that they had the great fortune to learn from you and be inspired by your example. Good luck!