Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
January 20th, 2013
The obvious differences observed in what is foreign for you can reveal and provide even better awareness of what was once thought as natural and normal in your own cultural orientation and practices. There is a wonderful bakery right down the street, next to the newsagent in Bruges. I went there this morning, just after 7:00 o’clock, walking down the dark, wet street from our apartment to the brightly light establishments. Marvelous, freshly baked delights made selection most difficult. Why don’t we have such things in Glendora? The taste and texture of our manufactured bread and bakery goods in our supermarkets back home reflect the preservatives that allow them an extended shelf life. There are two or three butcher shops just on the brief stretch of road where our apartment is located. They too are open early in the morning. Their arranged display of the brightly scarlet cuts of meat might aesthetically please even a vegetarian. That too is missing back home. Here they also offer prepared meals of meat dishes, including inviting trays of various pâtés, ready to take home. Are there some American towns and cities that still have neighborhood bakeries and butcher shops?
American suburbs, at least around southern California, are not made up of real neighborhoods. In Glendora they constitute a patch quilt of housing tracts that developers and construction companies put up forty or fifty years ago. The standardized formula of cookie cutter design is supposedly relieved by faux features that provide variations in appearance of these houses, with design designations such as Oriental, American Ranch or French Provincial, pasted on surface features that can only barely camouflage their commonly shared structures. Our forty or fifty years of history cannot compete with the announced years of medieval origins on the façade of buildings just down the street from our apartment. Cities and towns in Europe also have their pastiche of styles but they reflect the long history of successive waves of various cultural influences and occupations over the centuries. History seems to heal or at least conceal the wounds of the past as it goes along. I know that tiny Belgium went through much destruction in the previous century, in two world wars that did great damage here. Yet I find no modern ruins as evidence, no bullet or cannon holes on the sides of buildings. War is such a common activity for humans and nations that we have managed to hone our ability to eradicate the ravages of war in our built environment. We are getting almost as good at this as our vast appetite and ability for waging war.
Octavio, I belong in the city. I did not mind the blurred images of rural landscape outside the train window a few days ago as we journeyed between the cities of Amsterdam to Bruges. Actually the population density of the Netherlands and Belgium does not leave room for much space between towns. We did see some cows, even a windmill or two. Stuff was being grown in the fields. I did not recognize the plants as they were in a natural state, unprocessed and unpackaged as more commonly observed in the supermarket. I did appreciate the rows of trees that seemed to form boundary lines on the rectangular patches of farmland that sped by the window. The rainy weather provides constant nutrition that allows great, green trees to reach size and height not seen back home. The horizontal line is low and flat, except for the occasional visual interruption of the vertical shafts of the built environment. I do enjoy Flemish landscape paintings of prior centuries and would prefer those interpretations as superior to the real sights. The interference of actual reality disrupts my preferences for the aesthetic manipulation of a created version…. to be continued.
And now a moment with Octavio…the poem found at:
Your hair is lost in the forest,
your feet touching mine.
Asleep you are bigger than the night,
but your dream fits within this room.
How much we are who are so little!
Outside a taxi passes
with its load of ghosts.
The river that runs by
Will tomorrow be another day?
- Octavio Paz
January 9th, 2013
This will be our first full day in Bruges. Given the physical wear and tear and outrageous cost of holidays, most tourists try to get value for money and stuff as much as they can into each day. Holidays become really hard work and leave one totally exhausted. By the end of the holiday, most tourists look forward to restoring themselves by going back to their far less demanding regular jobs. It is not only the limitations of old age, but the wisdom that comes from experience, that helps us organize a more reasonable schedule. Today we plan to visit one or two museums. I do so love Flemish painting and the previous occupant of this rental apartment left 3 day museum passes still good for today. The day will also include getting my morning English language newspaper at a nearby news agent, finding a restaurant for our big meal in the middle of the day that might involve a soup starter for me but definitely will not include beer, maybe a walk around the city centre, finding a bakery for tomorrow’s breakfast and using the microwave in the evening to heat up a smaller, prepared meal. Our coping strategies when in a foreign land involve careful and constant planning, making of lists and reference to a travel guide written by Rick Steves, a popular American travel writer who has a public television show and writes lots of guide books for Americans traveling to Europe. To give you an idea of his positive if breezy style, here is the opening paragraph to his ‘Orientation to Bruges’,
“With pointy gilded architecture, stay-a-while cafes, vivid time-tunnel art, and dreamy canals dotted with swans, Bruges is a heavyweight sightseeing destination, as well as a joy. Where else can you ride a bike along a canal, munch mussels and wash them down with the world’s best beer, savor heavenly chocolate, and see Flemish Primitives and a Michelangelo, all within 300 yards of a bell tower that jingles every 15 minutes? And do it all without worrying about a language barrier?”
I am not sure what he means by ‘vivid time-tunnel art’ and will have to wait until Judy wakes up before I can ask her for her opinion. I have read much of the literature on aesthetics and fine arts and have not come across this expression before. Maybe it just means old stuff but most old stuff is not all that vivid anymore. As with finding out how to use the local password and username to get to my email, I will just have to wait for Judy to decide to start the day. I am so dependent on her on these journeys for any number of things. I am thankful that I am still strong enough to lug our baggage around on and off planes and trains. Steves is a quite friendly person with an engaging smile and makes traveling sound so simple and always lots of fun. To his credit, he does cite the cultural resources of each area as well as opportunities for the munching of mussels and the washing down of the world’s best beer. Judy likes him for his practical advice and insights on the most easy and economical ways of enjoying your stay. I don’t know if Europeans bother to obtain guidebooks when they visit other European countries. Given the close proximity and availability of such travel, I don’t think traveling on the continent is as intimidating or unfamiliar as it can be for the Americans. The rest of Europe for them is just a part of their neighborhood.
Octavio, I must insist that I am not a tourist. All the other foreign visitors to Bruges are tourists. I am a cosmopolitan flaneur, an autodidact intent on close observation and analysis of diverse cultures, an amateur anthropologist making fine distinctions wherever I journey. True, I am all that and more, but cannot deny what I have already confessed in this letter. I carry Rick Steves book on “Amsterdam, Bruges & Brussels” in my baggage and refer to it often for sights to see and where to eat. He also has planned out city walks that tell me where to go and what to look for. But, still, I maintain that I am not a tourist but rather a citizen of the world. I am tolerant of all foreigners in such situations, even those few I might loathe if they were my neighbors in Glendora. I am not just another arrogant American, representing the world’s mightiest empire on holiday in lesser lands. Some American political leaders are now preaching our exceptionalism and the inherent superiority embedded in that claim. I have met some exceptional Americans in my lifetime but they did not gain that distinction as a result of their citizenship. A nation can only nullify those aspects that deserve such credit in the quality of their accomplishments by making such vulgar public boasts. They are most often confusing superiority in weapon’s systems as criteria rather than the quality of life of it’s citizens and the notable achievements of their civilization. An uncritical patriotism is not compatible with any variety of an exceptionalism that could represent a higher quality of character and culture – for an individual as well as for a nation.
And now a moment with Octavio…the poem found at:
Summit And Gravity
There’s a motionless tree
And another one coming forward
A river of trees
Hits my chest
The green surge
Is good fortune
You are dressed in red
The seal of the scorched year
The carnal firebrand
The star fruit
In you like sun
The hour rests
Above an abyss of clarities
The height is clouded by birds
Their beaks construct the night
Their wings carry the day
Planted in the crest of light
Between firmness and vertigo
- Octavio Paz
December 26th, 2012
You would not think that Richard Jacobs would need a break from “Searching for Beauty,” but no matter how interesting or engaging our daily activities are, “sameness” can become a prison gray and “never a dull moment” can morph into an uncomfortably incandescent blur. Even Richard needs a holiday. Fortunately, we have been invited to read along as Richard pens letters about his vacation to Bruges and Amsterdam to his dear departed friend, Neustadt and Nobel prize winning author and poet, Octavio Paz.
I am pleased we can offer a vicarious break from the daily grind, long airport waits, obnoxious relatives, or just too much excitement. This is best approached as an indulgent treat and just as I love to pair star shaped butter cookies with bites of Dove chocolate, I found that reading Octavio’s poems at the end of each page made a sumptuous pairing. Any political views expressed are solely those of the authors. Please enjoy… a vicarious holiday.
By: Julie Brooks, Creative Director at Laguna Clay Co.
Richard Jacobs:Letters to Octavio Paz – Vacationing in Bruges
It is early in the morning. Judy is still asleep. I am in a self-catering apartment in Bruges, Belgium, in the living room, at a table with my laptop trying to cope in a new setting, finding it difficult to locate where to turn on a light or getting the damn WIFI to work on this computer. At least we are here, after a long flight from Los Angeles to London, then on another, shorter flight to Amsterdam, where we stayed a night at a hotel near the airport to recover from that ordeal, on by train to Bruges yesterday morning. We are staying for a week here in the old town, with very old buildings whose facades sometimes proudly announce the dates of their origin, going back to medieval times. Our building is more modest in its history, going back to the 18th or 19th century. Fortunately the plumbing is of a more recent vintage. Old is defined as anything more than 50 years where I come from. I am easily impressed by very old places and this city is designated by UNESCO as a world heritage site. I think that means, unlike most old structures elsewhere, that they will not be soon bulldozed for the construction of trendy new condos nor gutted except for the historic façade after which a posted sign might announce that the interior is now a Wal-Mart or KFC franchise. Not in Bruges, not yet. But I fear progress cannot delayed forever.
We were here before, many years ago, for a very brief stay. I do not remember much, except for the numerous canals and our boat ride on them, the tour guide who spoke excellent English and an etching of the old buildings and the canals that we purchased from a young artist that still hangs framed in our hallway at home many years later. As I recall, Bruges escaped bombing in World War II and thus still has its history evident in its buildings. In this case, as in similar settings elsewhere, the preservation and maintenance of these ancient structures has made good economic sense, with these sites becoming commercially successful enterprises dependent on a tourist industry that draws multitudes of people from many corners of the globe. At best, these sites are far more authentic than what the Disneyland Park offers back home and yet still meet much of the same needs. I am old and I have tremendous respect for old things. I doubt that younger generations have much respect for the chipped and decaying remnants of past histories. After all, old things are obsolete products of an immature industrial process that had not yet acquired the technologies that we have today.
Most people can forgive the past because they are willing to accept it as the inadequate and primitive prelude to today. History as represented in surviving artifacts and the built environment can provide employment for some, also many hobbies, such as collecting antique pottery as I do, and such historic sites can have considerable recreational value when organized properly and you are lucky enough to get a decent tour guide. I have become a hopelessly modern person as I tote my laptop around with me from foreign venue to foreign venue. Others people around me keep their cell phones and other electronic gear permanently attached to their bodies regardless of the changing geography or languages spoken. Thus, we can all somehow endure almost any place on earth…. to be continued.
And now a moment with Octavio…the poem found at:
Where Without Whom
There is not
A single soul among the trees
Don’t know where I’ve gone.
- Octavio Paz
November 24th, 2012
I recently attended a marvelous play with Judy in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Theater. The name of the play was “Red” by John Logan, and the two character play starred that wonderful actor Alfred Molina as the American painter of the last century, Mark Rothko. An actor I had not seen before, Jonathan Groff, played Ken, his young recently hired assistant. I was enthralled with the play; sat on the edge of my seat, with no break in the intense emersion with what was happening on the stage, thankfully without intermission. Rothko, as you might recall, painted those huge canvases, with rectangular, floating shapes of intense color, shimmering in their supposed abstraction, yet real in their ability to convey alternative worlds. Rothko, as portrayed by Logan and acted by Molina, is terse and abrupt with the young man who enters the stage at the very beginning of the play in a suit, wanting to impress his new employer. Rothko invites Ken to join him in front of one his paintings he is working on. These words are the very first words uttered in the play.
“ROTHKO. What do you see? (Ken is about to respond – ) Wait. Stand closer. You’ve got to get close. Let it pulsate. Let it work on you. Closer. Too close. There. Let it spread out. Let it wrap its arms around you; let it embrace you, filling even your peripheral vision so nothing else exists or has ever existed or will ever exist. Let the picture do its work – but work with it. Meet it halfway for God’s sake! Lean forward, lean into it. Engage with it!… Now, what do you see? – Wait, wait, wait! (He hurries and lowers the lighting a bit, then returns to Ken.) So, now, what do you see? – Be specific. No, be exact. Be exact – but sensitive. You understand it? Be kind. Be a human being, that’s all I can say. Be a human being for once in your life! These pictures deserve compassion and they live or die in the eye of the sensitive viewer, they quicken only if the empathetic viewer will let them. That is what they cry out for. That is why they were created. That is what they deserve… Now…What do you see?”
Of course we know what Ken will say in response. He says “Red”. That leads to another spirited exchange with Rothko being somewhat of a bully but the young assistant holding his own. It is simply one of the best plays about the creative process and the endemic issues of the human condition when engaging aesthetic experiences. Let’s look a bit at this exchange in the context of this blog. I can’t help but wonder what instructions a potter would give to someone observing his or her pots. Would it differ in some regards with Rothko’s impassioned plea for sensitivity and compassion on the part of the viewer? Surely you would want someone who you are demanding to provide commentary about your pottery or ceramic art to be kind in doing so? Rothko (or Logan’s version of Rothko) is almost pleading for a kind of empathy, that these paintings deserve that empathy. What do your pots deserve? You labored at the wheel, concentrating with every fiber of your being in that act of creation, somehow it survived the kiln and that person arrives and walks in front of your work. Are you anxious? Do you care, as much as Rothko seems to care, about the reaction of the viewer? Have you ever observed someone strolling by your ceramic stuff without stopping, scanning your marvelous wonders, but moving quickly past to see someone else’s work in the next booth?
On the same type of occasions I always try to provide positive testimony when I engage work I admire and respect. I must be sincere in doing so and will not pay false tribute to work that does not engage me. But even here, I realize that often I cannot or will not do what Rothko implores – to wait, to give it time to work on you – to lean into it, meet it halfway. If I did that to every pot in a gallery or pottery show, I would be there for weeks instead of an afternoon. I cannot be fair to all potters and pots. I must make almost instant decisions based on the first, immediate flash of visual comprehension, to stop in front of that particular pot, to tarry, to focus on it, to blot out any other visual distractions, to be in the moment and try very hard to please Rothko by being a human being for once in my life. It is a terrible responsibility and commitment because my reaction is not just about the pot, it is also about me. Will I continue to make my lifelong effort to be that “sensitive viewer” that makes that pot live or die in my viewing of it? Every verdict about a pot is also a verdict about the quality and effort I have invested in my response to it.
Do you notice something important? Rothko (Logan) did not tell Ken that Ken owed Rothko, the person, the need to be sensitive, kind, and empathic. No (and I think this is really important) he told Ken that he owed the painting itself all that. Isn’t a painting or pot just a thing? It doesn’t have a soul and it doesn’t have feelings, does it? What do I owe my pots? Surely I don’t owe the potter anything? I already paid him/her for the pot. Rothko (Logan) infers that there is something moral, maybe even sacred about the relationship of the artifact and the observer. We know that in some religions in the temple or church there are objects or relics that are sacred objects, and that possess some special kind of blessing and religious power. The objects themselves, be it the bones of long dead saints or the handcrafted objects used in religious ceremonies, take on the very spirit and character of the God they represent as articulated in that faith. Have I somehow mistreated or underestimated the pots in my gallery? They give me the path to ecstasy and glory and all I do for them is to occasionally dust them.
Some philosophers are insisting that animals have inherent rights and have feelings, including that of pain. Environmentalists are arguing that everything alive in nature must be respected and protected. Many religions find the sacred in nature itself. If artifacts, as I assert here, can be the catalyst for some of the most profound joy and jubilation for those humans who engage them, then surely we must find ways to honor them for this supernatural power. Does what Rothko was imploring Ken to do and feel in his engagement with one of his paintings resemble a sacred or spiritual experience? Again all this reinforces my original assertion that aesthetics and the spiritual are close kin in their ability to elevate us to a higher plane.
I have just come across further evidence in reinforcing my claims about the relationship of the sacred and the aesthetic. In Volume 4 of the Oxford “Encyclopedia of Aesthetics”, there is an essay by Nicholas Wolterstorff on the subject of religion and aesthetics in which he say this,
“The views on art and religion that have been articulated in the modern West do not appear to fall into any natural classification. One theme that emerged already in the eighteenth century was that of the sublime. When discussing art, wilderness, contemplation, and imagination (imaging), the eighteenth-century theorists spoke regularly not only of beauty but also of sublimity – by which they meant the grand, the majestic, the awesome, to which correspond feelings of being overpowered and being overwhelmed. Writers reported experiencing such feeling in the presence of mountains and oceans, but also, early in the nineteenth century, when listening to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven or reading the poetry of William Wordsworth. Feelings of sublimity were, as one might expect, also regarded as prominent among the religious affections. Friedrich Schleirmacher located the origin of religion in one’s primordial feeling of dependence: and that feeling, if not exactly the same as the eighteen-century theorists had in mind of feelings of sublimity, certainly incorporate such feelings. Thus, sublimity and its feelings were regularly regarded as connecting art and religion. As to the precise mode of connection, there was little consensus, and often not much clarity. The feelings of sublimity that one sometimes experiences when contemplating wilderness or art – are these merely one species of the genus, feelings of sublimity, with another species being the feeling one has when one senses oneself in the presence of God? Or is the connection closer than that? Are the former feelings themselves somehow religious in character? When one contemplates oceans and mountains, when one listens to Beethoven and reads Wordsworth, are the feelings of sublimity experienced themselves religious affections? Is one somehow in the presence of the divine? Is the feeling of sublimity, regardless of its phenomenal object, a religious emotion – perhaps the primordial religious emotion?”
I do not begrudge any human being his or her own path to such transcendent experiences – be it a formal religious ceremony or listening to Beethoven or reading the poet Wordsworth or watching a sunset. I also think you could find such joy in my pottery gallery and all readers of my blog have a standing invitation to visit. Of course you do not have to choose one exclusive path but explore many paths and enjoy a host of sublime encounters. We can find the grand, the majestic, the awesome in not only speculator sites but in the humble crafts-person making pottery in an indigenous village far away from us or as well in the spacious museum in an urban setting that holds a vast treasure house of fine art. One can find such things in places like Yosemite Park, where one of my sons is principal of an elementary school there. I have no need to dictate or choose these things for others. Finding them on your own is half of the pleasure.
We all try to cope; we all somehow try to make it through the day. We try to do an honest days work, hopefully obtain three meals a day for ourselves and those we are responsible for, and faithfully pay the rent or mortgage. This three-part blog has been about the question – what else do we require beyond that? Maybe ‘require’ is not the right word. We can exist, and millions do, just trying to survive, trapped in poverty over the world. However, whatever your economic or social status, all humans have the capacity to celebrate a sunset, to thrill to Beethoven’s ninth symphony, (that’s the one they played in Berlin after the wall came down), to marvel at the mastery and genius of centuries of ceramic art, to hold and appreciate a hand-woven basket or a hand-carved piece of wood now transformed into an animal or some other amazing form. We know this because all cultures, however distant they are or impoverished materially they may be, have significant cultures they themselves have created and maintained through the centuries. No, I will reinstate the word ‘required’, because we must feed the human soul as well as our stomachs in order to endure the rest. In that sense, we become worthy creatures and our art and crafts become primary evidence of our most noble and creative instincts. Those of us who love beautiful pottery can offer vivid testimony of our transformative elevation into a state of aesthetic grace.
October 22nd, 2012
The complex feelings involved in attaining a transcendent experience could well be a combination of many emotions and not just a single one. But the emotion being discussed here has to do with the elevation of the human soul and consciousness beyond the grounded reality of our ordinary lives. Most people might associate this special state with a spiritual experience and that would be quite appropriate to use in this way. I am going to employ this idea in this blog as the intellectual and emotional canopy for the aesthetic engagement and celebration of art. I intend to assert that we all need to be replenished and enriched by an infusion of those ennobling experiences that transcend anchored reality and liberates us to soar above and beyond our everyday existence. In a materialistic culture that seeks to emphasize our roles as consumers of perishable commodities, there seems to be few opportunities to experience those intense and memorable moments whose sublime and thrilling beauty enrich our lives. This theme reminds us of the injunction that we humans cannot live by bread alone.
There is no competition evident in seeking revelation and exhilaration from either the spiritual or the aesthetic. In fact they have been partners throughout human history. We know that religion has historically utilized aesthetic principles in constructing crafted temples of worship, in the soaring and inspiring music that accompanies religious rituals, in the sponsorship of artists in such periods as the Italian Renaissance where they painted vast murals in churches and other religious sites. In some regions of the world, this collaboration of the spiritual and the aesthetic resulted in the three dimensional and often monumental portrayals of such religious figures as Buddha and other spiritual deities. In more secular and modern societies, where art often is without religious sponsorship or content, the revelatory joys of aesthetic engagement depend on the qualities of the artifact itself.
Who is Worthy?
Can only special people enjoy this very special kind of experience? Do you have to be an expert on ceramic art, an authority on the stocking of the kiln, inside knowledge of ingredients of the clay and the chemistry of the glaze, to be truly enthralled by the engagement of the created pot? Can only an artist appreciate the work of other artists? I can only answer these questions for myself but I would emphatically deny the exclusivity of the transcendent experience to those with expert authority or specialized knowledge. That would be analogous to claiming that a higher spiritual state is available only to the priesthood or clergy of that faith and not devoted believers in that faith. I must maintain that the ability to activate the wisdom and glory of the aesthetic experience to uplift and enrich your life is open to all people. That is not to say such transcendent experiences are easy or accessible without self-discipline and concentrated focus. As with all the finer things of life, there must be a prior investment of devoted attention to achieve those rarefied moments of epiphany that mark the enraptured exaltation of experiencing great art and craft.
There are those who would not limit this ability to various types of people but would limit it by insisting that those qualities that could sponsor such emotions are embedded in only very special varieties of ‘fine art’ and cannot be found in craft or specifically pottery. This is an elitist view that exiles the handcrafted artifact to the lesser level of utilitarian ware. There is an implicit inference here that not only is the ceramic artifacts of a lower status but the maker of that object operates on a lower level of spiritual and aesthetic behavior. In his book, “The Spirit of Ceramic Design: Cultivating Creativity with Clay”, Robert Piepenburg has a chapter titled “Spiritual Principles – Intimate Guidance” in which he talks about those spiritual attributes of the ceramic artist that transcend material expertise and craft technique. Although his remarks in this book are addressed to ceramicists, his comments do not limit the attainment of these qualities to just artists. Nor does his definition of spiritual principles require a special religious membership but are rather universal in nature and can become the rightful property of all that seek it. This is what Piepenburg has to say,
“Where a lot of artists are at right now is a place of personal discovery where they realize that having a spiritual component to their art-making is every bit as important as having it in their lives. This is especially true with ceramists. While this emergence may be due in part to the primal nature of the clay itself, I think it is mostly a reality shift of consciousness. Any alternation of consciousness, like any process of internal transformation that leads to a new state or quality of being, can be likened to an awakening. If such discoveries lead to a deeper dimension of self they are in essence spiritual and add new purpose to being alive. As for what exactly constitutes spirituality it is never easy to say, but we do know that it endows everything from art to politics with humanness. We also know that it is a precondition to our becoming – to the finding of our own authentic path in life – because spirituality gives intimate meaning and guidance to life. It is the sum total of energy that exists within our heart, mind, and body. Without it we are unable to recognize a deeper sacredness in life, let alone understand the creative process. If we acknowledge the importance of our spirit and its reverence for that which is universally true, positive, and wise then the next question becomes: ‘How do we take it into the studio?’”
Feeding Our Souls
In the sense that Piepenburg offers here, the making and engagement of art provides the spiritual stuff that can nourish that internal state or condition that gives purpose and reason to being alive. These spiritual and aesthetic resources are obtained by the life we lead. I often read about the importance of diet, the avoidance of too much processed food or the chronic ingestion of food with excessive amounts of sugar and salt as leading to obesity or even ill health. Here Piepenburg is talking about food for the soul and he is talking about ceramics. First we take it into our hearts, minds and bodies, then some of us who are makers can take it into the studio. I like the use of that word ‘cultivating’ in the title of his book. That is the life long chore or task for all of us – to cultivate those inner qualities and assemble around us those aesthetic resources that lead us to a more refined and sublime level of existence.
Transcendental experiences cannot be obtained by some short cuts or immediate acquisition. Like all good things that really count, they have to be earned. People today are spoiled by cheap and easy access to forms of entertainment that can be manipulated in some hand-held electronic appliance. Transformation and transcendence requires a longer attention span and greater effort than that. The difference – if you will forgive my frank honesty – is the difference between a superficial existence or a profound and meaningful existence based on the very best that human culture could provide us. They might be some among us that do not have sufficient self-esteem to believe that they are capable of such experiences. I spent much of my time as an educator trying to convince students otherwise. There had even been times in our history where discriminating practices and laws forbid women and African-Americans and others full access to the riches of our culture in higher education and elsewhere, because they were judged unworthy and not capable of absorbing it. Some groups have had to struggle and fight for the eventual right to attain access to these cultural opportunities. Far too many of us who had and have the inherent privilege of such access have not sought to obtain it. It is that ‘awakening’ that shakes the very core of the inner self, which arouses all the inner energy and drive of your person, to transcend all the surrounding handicaps and limitations, and finally overpower them by transporting the gifts of human culture into the raw fuel of self-construction.
I do not think it is necessary to be unhappy with your everyday life to want to occasionally transcend it. I have written often about the infusion of art and beauty into our everyday lives and do not believe this represents a contradiction. On the contrary, it is in the familiar grounds of our own neighborhood and home that we can import those aesthetic experiences that can elevate our joy and consciousness. We can temporarily transcend in spirit our domestic premises without having to charge our credit cards for the cost of travel. How do we open up ourselves to be carried away – not by motorized vehicles – not by a cramped seat within the sealed tube of air flight – but by a memorable and remarkable musical composition, by a great novel, by a stunning pot whose glazes run like molten rivers of vivid color down its sides. I am satisfied to be of this world and reside in it, but creative human culture provides me a passport to other worlds anytime I seek that kind of journey.
October 2nd, 2012
I have another problem with this appetite on the part of some modern and post-modern artists whose work can be summarized in its attempted urge to shock and offend. The very traits under discussion here, to mock, to shock, to offend, comprise trivial and superficial behaviors, often identified in adolescents as typical for that immature and difficult stage of life. If you really want to get serious about the trials and tribulations of the human condition, to dig deep in your gut for those haunting fears that can grip you in the dead of night, to sink into a profound and complex state of mind and soul, then you need to explore the long and rich history of literature about melancholy and its place in the arts.
I am currently reading “A Field Guide to Melancholy” by Jacky Bowring. The association of melancholy with talented geniuses in the arts has a long history. I am sure you are aware that poets have often been identified with that particular affliction, both in their persona and in their poems. Bowring gives one example with Emily Dickinson, for ‘her winter within’ a manifestation of her ‘fixed melancholy’, which, according to the author, “is seen as the major generative force in her poetry which is suffused with a poignant and brooding emotional climate.”
Bowring further expands this relationship between the arts and this condition of melancholy. Here she explains,
“The aestheticising of melancholy objects, as in a model who appears nearly dead, a dilapidated cottage, or a ruined post-industrial landscape, involves a process of detachment. Through this, the object is set apart, as Susan Sontag described in Melancholy Objects, and it then becomes like a ‘found object’, and the focus of fascination. This is the species of melancholy beauty that was the foundation of surrealism. In its super-realism, or verisimilitude, surrealism evoked the strange in the terms of the familiar. The uncanny place of the dream-world hovered on the edge of reality, unlikely juxtapositions and hybrids emphasized the feelings of alienation and isolation of the modern human condition. This potent, elusive beauty is a unique quality of melancholy, and one at the polar extreme to the aesthetic delight of that which brings joy. Edgar Allan Poe pronounced sadness and melancholy the sites of Beauty’s ‘highest manifestation’, and as death is the supreme melancholy topic, then its poetical potency is enhanced when aligned with beauty. Poe’s ‘beauty’ was no superficial superlative, but referred to an effect upon the self, ‘that intense and pure elevation of the soul – not of intellect, not of the heart.”
Here you have another poet, Edgar Allan Poe, who understood that sadness and melancholy could involve the ‘highest manifestation’ of the beautiful. As Bowring adds, this is no superficial superlative, as with so much contemporary art, but rather an “intense and pure elevation of the soul – not of intellect, not of the heart.” She also cites the importance of surrealism in bringing about the evocation of the strange in terms of the familiar in portraying dream-worlds that visualized the feelings of alienation and the isolation of the modern human condition. The aura of melancholy infuses the beautiful; it wounds the beautiful, and makes tears and blood prime ingredients of its composition. I demand that contemporary artists make melancholy and all its attributes as complicated and profound as their artist ancestors.
A quotation of Octavio Paz comprises the very last statement in the book, “The Double Flame”. It deals with the themes under discussion in this blog. It is an affirmation of live and love. It involves what I would want artists and human culture to help make possible for us. It connects us into wholeness and reconciles us with the totality of the world. It does not deny death but rather encourages us to face it. I think this statement is positive without being sweet or sentimental. One reason I so admire his work is that he did not pander to what might give us immediate pleasure, nor seek for us an easy way out. In reality Paz encouraged us to face the awful dimensions of life and death, because his work helps us discover ourselves, to become whole with nature and the totality of that whole, to accept our exile from paradise and to reconcile our life with our ever approaching death. Yet at the end of all this, he also gives us hope. It takes great courage to love under the dire circumstances of just being alive. His poetry and thoughts helps us to build that courage. Here it is.
“Love does not defeat death; it is a wager against time and its accidents. Through love we catch a glimpse, in this life, of the other life. Not of eternal life, but, as I have tried to say in several poems, of pure vitality. Speaking of the religious experience, Freud refers to an ‘oceanic feeling,’ that sensation of being enveloped in and rocked by all of existence. It is the Panic dimension of the ancients, the sacred furor, enthusiasm: the recovery of wholeness and the discovery of the self as wholeness with the Great Whole. When we were born, we were torn from wholeness; in love we have all felt ourselves returning to the original wholeness. That is why poetic images transform the beloved into nature – a mountain, water, a cloud, a star, a wood, the sea, a wave – and why in turn nature speaks as though it were a lover. Reconciliation with the totality of the world. With past, present, and future as well. Love is not eternity; nor is it the time of calendars and watches, successive time. The time of love is neither great nor small; it is the perception of all times, of all lives, in a single instant. It does not free us from death but makes us see it face to face. That instant is the reverse and complement of the ‘oceanic feeling.’ It is not the return to the waters of origin but the attainment of a state that reconciles us to our having been driven out of paradise. We are the theater of the embrace of opposites and of their dissolution, resolved in a single note that is not affirmation or negation but acceptance. What does the couple see in the space of an instant, a blink of the eye? The equation of appearance and disappearance, the truth of the body and the nonbody, the vision of the presence that dissolves into splendor: pure vitality, a heartbeat of time.”
If one has love for someone or something exterior to his or her self, one has to have hope. Life without love or hope is a life reduced to terrible despair. Paz is very lyrical and urges here that we can find love with another person or find it represented in nature, in a mountain, water, a cloud, a star, a wood, the sea, a wave. I can claim and assert, because I have experienced it, that we can also find love in the hand crafted ceramic object, in that marvelous pot, in those dazzling glazes that rush down the sides of a vase, in the elegant spout of a perfectly shaped teapot, in the detailed mastery of a work by a master potter. Paz is very inclusive and supportive in this regard. He says that “The time of love is neither great nor small; it is the perception of all times, of all lives, in a single instant.” I have had some of those single instants with my pottery. Art can sponsor that “reconciliation with the totality of the world” that gives purpose and meaning to life. Aesthetic pleasures reside in that “vision of the presence that dissolves into splendor: pure vitality, a heartbeat of time”. If Paz had ever visited my pottery gallery, I am sure he would have confirmed its present there.
As with all emotions, hope is only aroused when the person chooses to evoke its presence. Two individuals can be in exactly the same situation and one can see hope and the other only despair. A third choice, perhaps the most appropriate and insightful, is that some perceptive individuals can see elements of both hope and despair somehow embedded in almost all human circumstances. In this sense perhaps the greatest foe of emotions is a bland and blind indifference. You have to be invested to demonstrate feelings. You have to be concerned, caring and compassionate to expend the energy to arouse the finite emotional resources at hand. I suspect that is why some artists just wind down and finally stop working and walk away from their art or craft. Their inspiration has been dissipated, perhaps because of the inevitable hardships of life, and for some reason they have just stopped caring. One of the great legends of romanticism is that the emotions that emanate from pain and misery are greater signs of genius and the creation of greater art than work coming from someone who is generally happy and contented.
I do not think we should underestimate the essential joys and rewards of creating and engaging art and craft. I think that “A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression” by Howard Risatti, is one of the best books on craft I know. In this book Risatti talks about some of the soul satisfying benefits of creating craft for the craftsperson and those who encounter the results,
“Through the hand in craftsmanship, craft objects capture the efforts of their makers and make these efforts visible and palpable for us to see and comprehend; and in doing so, they reflect back to us our own efforts; they become mirrors of our own aspirations and possibilities. When we compare what our hand can do to that of skilled makers, we develop an awareness and appreciation of other human beings and, in the process, a greater degree of self-understanding and self-awareness. In this, craftsmanship in craft objects fosters a worldview that projects the creative imagination firmly within a humanly define, a humanly scaled, and humanly understandable tangible reality. Albrecht Durer’s appreciation of the incredible skill evident in those Pre-Columbian gold objects that he saw from Mexico is just such an example of human understanding found in the ‘thinking hand’ that is able to transcend time, space, and cultural horizons.”
Risatti is telling us that by engaging the artifact, they not only provide the efforts of the makers, but for people like me, they gave us opportunities to learn about ourselves, to see the object as “mirrors of our own aspirations and possibilities.” Thus, to paraphrase Risatti, the ceramic artifact can give those who make the effort the riches and qualities that are the very basis for hope – for a future, be it tomorrow or next year or the year after, that somehow will bring some relief, some modicum of improvement, some vestige of those modest self-initiated reforms of one’s own life that enhances our existence. In this way, we do not need wisdom and truth to be given to us whole by some kind of superior authority. Self-confidence begins with hope.
We can engage the book, the play, the musical concert, the painting, or the ceramic object and extract our own wisdom and truth. Hope helps us become the makers of our own meaning. This making of meaning for the observer can be as rich and stimulating as is the creative process for the craftsperson or artist. Finally we all stand together. We are all makers, active and alive in the world. The intensity of that life force is articulated and activated by our emotions. The ripe promise of hope must surely be one emotion we would want to nurture and protect in others and ourselves. We find it in ourselves when we look at children; we find it in the springtime flood of blossoms in a garden. We find it in the gentle touch of a loved one and we find it in an early morning sunrise that lights and warms our very being. We find it in the treasures still warm from the heat of the kiln. There are many, many good reasons for all of us to have and harbor hope.
August 28th, 2012
I have great trouble with the attitudes of contemporary artists who feel their chief function as an artist is to shock the lay public. This same public can bite you back when it comes to public art paid for by citizen taxpayer. This desire to shock actually paid off in a big way for those artists who discovered that people who could afford it would pay big bucks for the most outrageous stuff they could come up with. This attitude comprises more than a need to shock strangers, it is inspired by the contempt these artists feel toward the remainder of humanity. On top of that, this contempt shapes the character of the created piece. Great art can initially shock but that is not the central ingredient of its enduring value. I am still listening to Stravinsky “Rite of Spring” and had the pleasure of traveling to Madrid where I observed Picasso’s “Guernica”, both now hailed as lasting masterworks of the last century. I do not think either Stravinsky or Picasso would claim that their chief motivation in doing what they did was to do something as silly and superficial as to reduce their art to a stunt devised to shock strangers. They are also very good examples of those innovative artists who created daring new approaches to their art, yet also possessed great talent and discipline, with a vision of creativity that went beyond making their art into an insult.
Let me provide you a few concrete examples. Michael Kammen, in his book, “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture”, describes the issue of the proper role of art in a political democracy placed next to the ambiguity and diversity of much of modern art. He makes the point that most lay people are not used to figuring out and selecting the possibilities of multiple meanings in artwork. That task is difficult enough for the innocent and naive public, but then to have artists insist that their role is to regard the potential observer as adversary – and the purpose of their art to shock and offend that observer/adversary. Once the function of culture was that the arts and humanities were to ennoble and enrich humanity. When was that central legacy of Western civilization abandoned? What has been the cost and consequences of that abandonment? Doesn’t art that contains as content contempt for intended observers dis-empower those observers?
Kammen provides anecdotes about a few artists who became quite successful in doing what I just described,
“One might even argue that the common denominator – a constant – during the swift shift from one ‘ism’ to the next has been the desire to shock. Looking back to his brazenly tongue-in-cheek painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953), Larry Rivers explained that ‘I was energetic and egomaniacal and what is more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something no one in the New York art world would doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd.’ Roy Lichtenstein remarked in an interview that ‘the problem for a hopeful scene-making artists in the early sixties was how best to be disagreeable. What he needed was to find a body of subject matter sufficiently odious to offend even lovers of art.’ So he opted for the commonplace: comic book images. Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg insisted that ‘if the painting doesn’t upset you, it probably wasn’t a good painting to begin with.’ Abstract sculptor George Sugarman, whose Baltimore Federal raised a ruckus in that city during the later 1970s, asked rhetorically: ‘Isn’t controversy part of what modern art is all about?’ Performance artist Karen Finley asserted in 1990, as the case of the NEA Four unfolded, ‘That’s what art is about – its shock value.”
I do not contend that this is damning testimony about the aesthetic value of these artists. All those mentioned here are serious artists and most have done important and enduring work and contributed much to our culture. I have varying enthusiasm as reactions to their results but that has only to do with my own temperament and tastes. But still I think their comments are revealing of an attitude and approach to art that I maintain cannot be healthy or ultimately good for the culture. I declare my affinity and solidarity for the affirmative benefits of human culture and civilization. To delight in disfiguring the artifacts in such a way that it provides only the “disgusting, dead, and absurd” is to conclude that all human civilization is decadent, diseased and doomed. I can look at the wars, genocides, and mass starvation of my time on earth and agree that we have amassed considerable evidence to support that position. But to surrender to that hopeless perspective is to make human culture a fatal causality of all those calamities. Culture becomes a collection of pathologies and all our behaviors, including our creative ones, becomes symptoms of a terminal sickness endemic to the human species.
I totally disagree with all the statements of the various artists above. Despite my own reservations about the motivation and intent of some of these artists, I do not have patience or sympathy for those offended who seek to suppress the offensive art. I would never be so silly as to seek to ban that which offends me. I do not wish to define what art is really art and seek to force my conclusions on others. I do not support censorship of the arts, either in the visual image, the dramatic performance, or the content of the text in literature. I further support government sponsorship of public art, all of which will offend somebody, maybe even me on occasion.
I have about completed a book, “The Measure of Our Days: New Beginnings at Life’s End” by Jerome Groopman, M.D. Groopman is a physician, involved as both medical clinician and researcher, who specializes in the worst cases brought about by diseases like cancer and aids. He spends much of his time treating terminally ill patients, trying to find some combination of medicine and personal regime that might give them a few more years to live. Each chapter deals with a real patient that he had once treated. In one chapter Dan, a medical colleague, becomes seriously ill. Dan wanted to do everything possible to live. He talked to Groopman about his father, an Auschwitz survivor, and related that his father had told him that when a person in that concentration camp surrendered to despair, he would die. And that if he survived by becoming an angry animal who stole crusts of bread and bowls of soup from others, then he died inside as a human being. His father explained that just as there were these two types of death, there are also two types of life. One was trying to live a moral life as a moral person and the other was to help others do the same. These thoughts lead Groopman to the following ruminations.
“I searched my memory for the connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary, how there was an alchemy that transmuted the mundane into the sacred. It came to mind. Again, it was a story from the Holocaust, the story told by Prima Levi, the Jewish Italian chemist, who used the transmutability of the elements as a metaphor to explain the radical change in the substance of his life when enslaved by the Nazis. He wrote that it was the performing of the ordinary things that had sustained his sanity, his dignity, his humanity in hell’s inferno. The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims, asserting they were subhuman, without freedom or choice, and not deserving of life. Levi recounted how, when he was close to despair and considering giving in to death, he was instructed by a comrade in camp to wash his face every day. This ordinary and simple act restored dignity and structure to his person, because he exercised his will to do it, and it was a conscious choice. Levi also found that sustaining the life of the mind in the senseless world of the concentration camp gave him strength. With another friend, he regularly recited verses from Dante, as he had before his enslavement. He had chosen to introduce beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist. Levi believed the greatest form of resistance was to continue to act in the ordinary, normal ways that had marked one’s life before the deportation. It demonstrated a sense of control, an exercise of will, and signaled the potential to triumph over the forces that sought to destroy you. With restoration of dignity came a renewed capacity to hope.”
There is much to consider here. How can people even try to lead ordinary lives when confronted with extraordinary peril and degradation? The ability to wash one’s own face in such conditions is an act of defiance that also supports one’s dignity and humanity. As long as some modicum of choice exists or is willed to exist, then one is not totally without freedom. Yes, Groopman, I share your agonizing grief, “The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims.” Can art do the same thing? If the purpose of that art is calculated to only offend, to shock, to alienate the engaged observer, to mock everything important to that person, can there not be serious dehumanizing effects on that person? I can fully support critical or contentious art that challenges conventions and the status quo. I cannot support art that deliberately seeks to dehumanize those human beings that unfortunately come in contact with the noxious artifact.
I am sure you must resonate with Groopman’s story about how Levi was able to sustain the life of the mind by reciting the poet Dante, by introducing “beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist.” Should not art play a role in empowering people with the will and potential to triumph over the forces that seeks to destroy them? Does being modern require one not to care about what Groopman and Levi cared about? I fear that too often it is. What have we lost and when did we lose it? I fear that what we have lost in the arts has nothing to do with realism or abstraction, nothing to do with expression or skill, nothing to do with concept or completed artifact. What I fear we have lost in the arts is the determined urge to celebrate our humanity.
August 12th, 2012
Hope might seem a strange emotion to attach to the making and engagement of pottery. Yet I believe that this basic emotion is the very foundation of an affirmative grasp of life and all that it offers, including pottery. For me, it is also an essential outcome of memorable aesthetic experiences. Hope contains the remedy for despair. Much contemporary and post-modern art prefers despair and its more sensational aspects to the softer if not sweeter elements of hope. It is not sophisticated nowadays for artists to offer hope. Hope requires a greater investment and risk than despair. Despair is usually defined as a symptom of bad things that have happened to you or could happen at any time. Despair eventually leads you to an ever more dire condition. In the extreme, it can finally drive you to not caring. The doors and windows of your soul can close and the lights go out. Great art can lead you both places at the same time and in both cases the rewards can be great. This is a very delicate balancing act. To engage the sublime darkness of the human sprit in some metaphorical or aesthetic guise as created by an artist or author, yet find some fragment of hope in the very same place and circumstance is to my mind the highest form of aesthetic engagement.
Hope vs. Despair
Hope is something you have to handcraft and make for yourself and then implement it despite all the dire issues of your own existence. Despair arrives with the concrete evidence of hurt that has been inflicted upon you. Hope is projection of a wished for future that has no real guarantee. Hope is the yet unrealized emotion of a personal belief system that can have little basis in fact. Hope is always unproven. It cannot depend on the facts of the matter for its justification. Despair might entail an honest and realistic assessment of the situation. Hope always begins as an exaggeration, an inventory of the potential of undependable possibilities. Another advantage of despair is that it is far more dependable than hope. How we cope with despair is often far more revealing of our character than the unfulfilled dreams or illusions that hope can depend upon.
Despair becomes clinical depression when it appears to lack a basis for its existence but you cannot avoid its intrusion just the same. The circumstances of your present despair might well be the result of your own past errors. Given the common distribution of our fallibilities, how can we prove to ourselves and others that we even deserve to have hope? Another advantage of despair, when one surrenders hope, the pressure is off and any further injury can be received with a benign if not resigned submission. In that sense, hope requires a resistance of the soul, a determination to surmount difficulties that might seem at the time insurmountable. Courage is an ingredient of hope. Despair is often inflicted on the innocent and that innocence can only intensify the despair. Hope has to be earned if it is to triumph.
Human culture must provide us hope. I will go further than that and personalize this statement. Art has been a central source of hope throughout my entire life. Art contains the reservoir of resources that can give us reasons to live and to get up in the morning. For the potter to approach the wheel, there has to be some element of hope that the outcome will be worth the effort. To create art one has to believe that what comes out of that effort will make a difference in the world. I want to further explore why so much contemporary art concentrates on the dismal and dire aspects of human existence. I want to start with a short essay that got my dander up in regard to my present mood. It is in an anthology edited by David Beech, “Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art”. It really set off my current funk about so much of what is happening in the arts today. It is a brief; one page essay by Robert Smithson titled “An Aesthetics of Disappointment”. Apparently Smithson went to an exhibit in 1966 in New York City and really disliked the show. The essay was a result.
Just a bit of background about Smithson. He was a seminal figure in the Land Art movement through the 1960s and 1970s, best known for ‘Spiral Jetty’, his 1979 “earthwork” in the Great Salt Lake, that was once covered by water but with the long drought in the West, is now visible and frequently visited. Apparently Smithson thought galleries and museum were ‘jails and tombs’, incapable of conveying the messy nature of reality. His ire was directed at an exhibit organized by an engineer that included artists involved in ‘experiments in art and technology’ I went to an website titled “Art Agenda” where April Lamm concluded that “For the most part the result of bringing 30 engineers together with 10 artists yielded performance kitsch at its worst.” Here is Smithson’s statement,
“Many are disappointed at the nullity of art. Many try to pump life or space into the confusion that surrounds art. An incurable optimism like a mad dog rushed into vacuum that the art suggests. A dread of voids and blanks brings on a horrible anticipation. Everybody wonders what art is, because there never seems to be any around. Many feel coldly repulsed by concrete unrealities, and demand some kind of proof or at least a few facts. Facts seem to ease the disappointment. But quickly those facts are exhausted and fall to the bottom of the mind. This mental relapse is incessant and tends to make our aesthetic view stale. Nothing is more faded than aesthetics. As a result, painting, sculpture and architecture are finished, but the art habit continues. The more transparent and vain the aesthetic, the less chance there is for reverting back to purity. Purity is a desperate nostalgia that exfoliates like a hideous need. Purity also suggests a need for the absolute with all its perpetual traps. Yet we are overburdened with countless absolutes and driven to inefficient habits. These futile and stupefying habits are thought to have meaning. Futility, one of the more durable things of this world, is nearer to the artistic experience than excitement. Yet the life-forcer is always around trying to incite a fake madness. The mind is important, but only when it is empty. The greater the emptiness the grander the art. Aesthetics have devolved into rare types of stupidity. Each kind of stupidity may be broken down into categories such as: bovine formalism, tired painting, eccentric concentrics or numb structures. All these categories and many others all petrify into a vast banality called the art world which is no world. A nice negativism seems to be spawning. A sweet nihilism is everywhere. Immobility and inertia are what many of the most gifted artists prefer. Vacant at the centre, dull at the edge, a few artists are on the true path of stultification.”
Thoughts on Smithson
I am not sure I understand exactly what are the specific elements of that exhibit that so offended Smithson. I am not sure it matters. I would extend his critical application to much of what goes for art today, probably including some of those aspects that he valued and would protect. He starts this essay and his collaboration with me within that very first sentence, “Many are disappointed at the nullity of art.” I frankly don’t know from the tone of his essay if he is agreeing or disagreeing with what he is stating. Is he being clever or satirical? Perhaps just furious and contemptuous? I don’t know and I don’t care. I find his next statement quite puzzling. If an incurable optimism is a mad dog, what kind of monster would represent nullity and futility? I also disagree with the face value of the statement. Where is this optimism he is talking about? I can’t find it in the cynical, aesthetic black holes of much of gallery art today. Yes, Smithson, many of us are very, very disappointed at the nullity of art. What a very good place to begin this discussion. I do wonder why his statement seems in style and content to serve that very same goal. Why would anyone, including the artist or poet, deliberately attempt through their art to disarm human beings of hope?
At some point, Smithson does annoy me. Is he being serious when he says that painting, sculpture, and architecture are finished? Maybe for him but not for me. His tone in this essay is part of the problem for me. Why is it so important to be so provocative? He utters absolutist statements like the one just stated, and then he criticizes the “desperate nostalgia” for the absolute in others. The artist as agent provocateur can be quite wearing on people’s nerves and became quite tedious. This can be true for writers who take the same pose too. Is art really now just a habit? He seems to insist that the only alternative to the present nullity is an unsatisfactory return to facts, the grounded absolutes of previous aesthetic dogma. I don’t agree. He makes two silly statements in a row – about the mind being important only when it is empty and the other about the greater the emptiness the grander the art. Is he just pulling my leg?
I think he must have learned this trick from Andy Warhol, a mentor of his at one time. Here again he is doing what he just earlier criticized in others – trying to “incite a fake madness” into a discussion where I would value his transparent honesty and informed point of view. Is he trying to prove by his own performance in this essay that “Aesthetics have devolved into rare types of stupidity?” I agree with his final thoughts about nihilism in the arts but I don’t think it is all that sweet. Yes, vacant at the centre, dull at the edge, but after a careful reading and re-reading, I share his general disappointment with the state of the arts but for very different reasons. I end up suspecting that it really serves his purpose to adopt a jaded, cynical disappointment that offers no hope beyond it. For me, he then becomes a part of the problem.
I have another anxiety in advancing my perspective on these matters. There was a whole range of conforming and conventional know-nothings out there who reject any innovation or experimentation in art beyond their fond memories of the covers of the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ by Norman Rockwell. Now their grandchildren collect the sentimental, mass-produced stuff by Thomas Kincaid. I do not equate great art with an illustrated realism nor limit my ceramic interests to the stark minimalism of the functional ceramic container as domestic appliance. Nor do I require or limit my received aesthetic messages to contain only good news or morale building opportunities. Hope needs rigor and complexity to makes a difference. It also needs the exuberance that comes from the expression of human feeling.
July 25th, 2012
The maker is more public and exposed than my current situation as private collector. I can hide out in the safety of my home and garden. Potters stand in front of their pottery, and the direct responsibility of one for the other is not in doubt. You cannot disinherit or deny your own work. There is a basic courage in affirming your own work after bringing it into existence. If you do not love your own creations, if you do not have loyalty to them after creating them, than you might well be considered a phony and a fake. Yet that love for the offspring of your muddy hands and the wheel is subject to public scrutiny by strangers who do not know you. How do you feel when people walk by your booth at a ceramic fair or exhibit without stopping? How do you protect yourself when your feelings are hurt by sheer indifference? Isn’t that even a more hurtful rejection than any other kind?
Words of Passion
I want to offer you another notion of this ascension of passion from bodily desires to an inclusive love that leads to the contemplation of beauty, truth, and virtue. In his book, “The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism”, Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet of the last century and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, takes us back to Plato and his book, “Symposium” in which his spokesperson, Socrates talks about his encounter with Diotima, a wise foreign priestess. According to Plato, Diotima tells Socrates of the loftiest and the most deeply hidden mysteries of passion, love and beauty.
“In our youth we are attracted by corporeal beauty, and we love only one body, one beautiful form. But if what we love is beauty, why love it only in one body and not in many? And Diotima asks again: If beauty exists in many forms and persons, why not love it in and of itself? And why not go beyond the forms and love the thing that makes them beautiful, the idea? Diotima sees love as a ladder: at the bottom, love of a beautiful body; then the beauty of many bodies; after that, beauty itself; after that, the virtuous soul; and finally, incorporeal beauty. If love of beauty is inseparable from the desire of immortality, why not participate in it through the contemplation of the eternal forms? Beauty, truth, and virtue are three and one; they are facets of the same reality, the only real reality. Diotima concludes: ‘He who has followed the path of love’s initiation in the proper order will on arriving at the end suddenly perceive a marvelous beauty, the source of all our efforts…An eternal beauty, non engendered, incorruptible, that neither increases nor decreases.’ A beauty that is entire, one, identical to itself, that is not made up of parts as the body is or of ratiocinations, as is discourse. Love is the way, the ascent, toward the beauty: it goes from the love of one body to the love of many, then from the love of all beautiful forms to the love of virtuous deeds, then from deeds to ideas and from ideas to absolute beauty, which is the highest life that can be lived, for in it ‘the eyes of the understanding commune with beauty, and man engenders neither images nor simulacra of beauty but beautiful realities.’ And this is the path of immortality.”
If the maker can embed a kind of beauty in the ceramic work, then that object can inspire the passionate search for truth and virtue as attributes of ‘beautiful realities’. I would not go along with Plato’s insistence, as articulated by Socrates, that there is only one absolute beauty, that perfect, ideal single form that is the eternal template for all lesser examples.
Variates of Beauty
I see many varieties of beauty as I look around my pottery gallery, taking in diverse appearances that can be traced to many cultures and styles as expressed in historical context through many generations of potters. I do aspire to attain that ascendant mountaintop where I can gaze at the marvels of past and present ceramic civilizations and celebrate that a small portion of that greatness resides in my pottery gallery. Passion can lead to love – a love that transports us to a profound and virtuous state of awakened contemplation and the embrace of marvelous beauty and sublime expression. When will it be safe in our society to talk about our feelings again? I for one am not ashamed to do so.
Art and craft, basic human culture, cannot flourish where emotions are suppressed. Art, and yes, craft and pottery, has been shifting to just another commercial activity, just another exchange of money for product as a financial transaction typical of how our society works. If there is no inherent nobility of spirit present, if there is nothing uplifting about possessing works of beauty, then maybe I should just transfer my consumer activity to other products that promise a bigger bang for my bucks. I have been going to craft shows for several decades. There is less and less pottery there because potters cannot afford the high fees required to obtain a booth. So they are being squeezed out. Apparently pottery is not a hot market commodity item or a big profit maker. Well, for me, pottery is not merchandize, and we must find others ways to sing the enriching virtues of pottery. Oliver Wendell Holmes, former Supreme Court Justice, once said that taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Well, in the same spirit, when you purchase pottery and other craft, you pay for human culture. I think that is a very good bargain indeed.
How do you sell a quality of life instead of just more stuff to store in your house? Maybe I should buy all my pottery from China in the future. It would be cheap and I could get a better deal than those more expensive America potters. Remind me to check out eBay and find some good buys. Pottery is a part of human culture and ceramics is a part of human civilization. Why can’t we seem to tell better stories of why that is important? Libraries are closing throughout America during these tough economic times. State parks are being closed in California. What kind of a society first closes its libraries and parks? Why don’t we seem to care about these things anymore? Have we forgotten what makes life worth living? Where does pottery and craft in general fit into a more compelling and convincing story about those values that makes everything else bearable? Do we still believe in them or have we also lost faith in what we do and the joyous impact it can have on others?
I want to offer you a portion of a poem that Octavio Paz wrote. Poetry contains the essence of highly refined passion. Emotions are distilled in poetry as metaphors for the universal issues of our brief existence on earth. Pottery uses that very earth to provide its own emotional vocabulary. One poem in particular by Paz speaks of something that all potters dread when they open up a kiln. This title of rather long poem, of which you will receive only a sample, is “The Broken Waterjar”, the last poem in a book of his poetry, “Octavio Paz: Early Poems 1935-1955”. This lyrical song celebrates much of what we have been talking about in these three blogs about passion. This is the last part of the poem,
“Tell me, drouth, stone polished smooth by toothless time,
by toothless hunger,
dust ground to dust by teeth that are centuries, by centuries
that are hunger,
tell me, broken waterjar in the dust, tell me,
is the light born to rub bone against bone, man against man, hunger
till the spark, the cry, the word spurts forth at last,
till the water flows and the tree with wide turquoise leaves arises
We must sleep with open eyes, we must dream with
we must dream the dreams of a river seeking its course, of the
sun dreaming its worlds.
we must dream aloud, we must sing till the song puts forth roots,
Trunk, branches, birds, stars.
We must sing till the dream engenders in the sleeper’s flank the
Red wheat-ear of resurrection.
The womanly water, the spring at which we may drink and
Recognize ourselves and recover,
the spring that tells us we are men, the water that speaks along in
the night and calls us by name,
the spring of words that say I, you, he, we, under the great tree,
the living statue of the rain,
where we pronounce the beautiful pronouns, knowing ourselves
and keeping faith with our names,
we must dream backwards, toward the source, we must row back
up the centuries,
beyond infancy, beyond the beginning, beyond the waters
we must break down the walls between man and man, reunite
what has been sundered,
life and death are not opposite worlds, we are one stem with
we must find the lost word, dream inwardly and
decipher the night’s tattooing and look face to face at the
noonday and tear off its mask,
bathe in the light of the sun and eat the night’s fruit and spell
out the writings of stars and rivers,
and remember what the blood, the tides, the earth, and the body
say, and return to the point of departure,
neither inside nor outside, neither up nor down, at the crossroads
where all roads begin,
for the light is singing with a sound of water, the water with
a sound of leaves,
the dawn is heavy with fruit, the day and the night flow together
in reconciliation like a calm river,
the day and the night caress each other like a man and woman
and the seasons and all mankind are flowing under the arches of
the centuries like one endless river
toward the living center of origin, beyond the end and
I think potters already have taken Paz’s advice and “dream with their hands”. Hopefully your pottery sings for you and the song fills the air with who you are and what you have just made and given to the world. Pottery does break down the walls, speaks a universal language, can aid in the reconciliation of all humans. Pottery is made of earth, fire and water, “flowing under the arches of the centuries like one endless river toward the living center of origin, beyond the end and the beginning.”
To be engaged in the world can only be recorded on your soul and heart if you are open to not only receiving sensations and meanings but also providing your own response in return. Many who read this blog do that very thing with their ceramic artistry. There is no reason to make that effort unless that created artifact contains the compressed summary of your thoughts and feelings. That passionate, expressive content is waiting for the observer, dormant in the ceramics object only when unseen or neglected, activated on contact when viewed and experienced.
We have so far explored sentimentality and passion as emotions inherent in the creative process and embedded in pottery. What are some other emotions contained in pottery? We will see in the next blog.