Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Longest Shadow

He was one of the main reasons I made the drive to MN for last year's St Croix Pottery Tour. I wanted to meet him before he died. He was supposed to be at Jeff Oestreich's place. He wasn't.

His influence was greater than the sum of his pots. His influence was greater than some of his pots. Subtract the name from the work and you'd never guess any of the pots were by a famous potter, much less America's most famous potter. But he inspired others in greater number than any other potter.

I appreciated him for:

1. Back in the late 80s, Ceramics Monthly did an article on the recent recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts grants. In the next issue, MacKenzie wrote a gently scathing rebuke of the grants -- pointing out several griefs, not the least of which was that almost all the recipients: 1. Didn't need the money, and 2. Were already receiving public money as their professorial salaries, effectively double-dipping into a system that they had unfair access to in the first place.

2. The world of potters is divided -- not neatly, but divided none-the-less.

Some potters are carrying on an historical role in society -- providing their communities with work that fills the same niche it has filled for 4,000 years. Pots. Things people use. As such, those potters price their work accordingly -- according to the simplest laws of supply and demand without the psychologically steroidal notions of "preciousness". These potters make and sell more or less unself-consciously.

The other potters are shoe-horning clay work into the world of art with art's artificial and academically propped-up notions of value.

The latter potters deeply resent the former because the former is actually (capable of and willingly) communicating with the community in which it lives, and giving that community what it wants at a reasonable cost that more closely matches perceived value and community norms.

The latter potters are trying to sell work at premium prices that are essentially propped up on a shaky foundation of academic's and critic's skillfully obfuscating language as it describes these emperors and their new clothes. And they resent the former potters because they believe that every pot sold at a reasonable price decreases the probability that the public will buy their pots at exorbitant, inflated, "precious" prices.

And they're probably right, at least to some degree because the potters who make work in that former, historical vein are at least as skilled -- and often more-so -- at creating products that the world wants. In part this is so because those historical potters are more productive. And more production usually leads to better pottery at the functional level at which most end users live.

And as admired as Warren MacKenzie was, there was at least some resentment at the unique niche he filled in the world of pottery, and at where he stood in that pricing/value conflict I described. MacKenzie didn't believe in the "precious" pricing of pottery. He believed in functional pottery.

But as the world so often turns, the backhanded irony of the MacKenzie phenomenon is that few if any other potters achieved (or are capable of achieving) the stratospheric pricing that became the market for MacKenzie's work. MacKenzie had to deal with a unique reality -- sharks were attending his annual sale and buying pots for the expressed purpose of putting them up on ebay. They would buy pots directly from Warren for <$50 and turn around and ebay them for >$500. The MacKenzie name became the value of his work.

It isn't a market that others can create for themselves. 

Like pushing string.

Like stargazing -- the more direct the focus, the fewer the stars.


  1. I was fortunate to attend one of Warren's workshops at the 92nd street Y back in the 90s. He was an amazing person, and potter, and will be missed.