Even the word is somehow unattractive. To decorate appears to be an inherently superficial act: to add some last minute fluff on top of the really serious stuff beneath. American culture is not overly kind to the very name. To call ceramics one of the ‘decorative arts’ is in itself a putdown, placing ceramics with the lesser arts. It has something to do with our Puritan heritage
in America, our austere disdain for elaboration, for what would be considered excessive and unnecessary demonstration of exuberant overkill. This preference for the most economical display of added detail fits right in with the later development of something called design, where mass produced commodities were supposed to follow the iron law of design – that forms follows function. You only have to examine the American Arts & Crafts movement, with its favor of natural materials over applied decoration and the flat, matte, single color glazes on its modest shapes of simple form. Compare that with the British Arts & Crafts movement and the far richer and romantic display of dense illustration and patterns that owe much to William Morris and his affection for the heritage of the Medieval Ages. The romance of ancient myths and the lush patterns of nature also inspired the Brits.
Potters and ceramic artists are always faced with an essential decision. When is enough enough? When do you stop and say, that’s enough – any more would be over the top? I have trouble with this idea, I fear largely accepted by most others, that anything that is not absolutely necessary for the sheer function and the most minimal design of an object is a needless addition. I simply love excess in almost everything, including myself. It is only because of advanced age that I no longer have the energy to be excessive in my own behavior. But I do have some lovely memories. I will be discreet and keep them to myself, at least for now, and go back to the subject under discussion. I am writing this from my desk in my pottery gallery, with hundreds of ceramic artifacts arranged on shelves in front of me. Many are indeed obvious examples of the rigorous simplicity and minimalism so endemic in much of American culture and art. I embrace these artifacts and celebrate their virtues. But I can also gaze at the rich, juicy, vivid forms and colors of a variety of antique and contemporary pottery and truly celebrate them too.
In my 10th letter to Christa Assad, in my book, “Searching for Beauty”, I discuss this topic. Here is an except from that chapter,
“How do contemporary potters make up their minds about this challenge? To decorate or not to decorate is the question. I suppose it is not possible there will be any consensus or agreement from potters about this. Which potters could be singled out as employing iconic vocabularies that provide symbolic shorthand of our age and time? Do you choose abstract patterns or do you tell a story? Is one better than the other? For the purist, doesn’t the concealment of the clay itself with a glaze constitute a severe compromise? Can you transfer the continuum of perspectives in two dimensional painting regarding abstraction and realism to three-dimensional pottery? With the same argument on each side? When does the exactitude of literalism become sentimental in a visual vocabulary? Surely the attainment of a precise decoration requires its own high standards. Do you judge the quality of decoration simply by judging the difficulty of arriving at that decoration? Is the very definition of craft defined by the amount of work or difficulty in achieving the result? Can ease of execution, available to everyone, bring about great art or great pottery? I am so pleased with the speculative possibilities of these questions that I am not sure a single answer would satisfy me.”
The very division between art and crafts has something to do with this idea of decoration. To be an artist, a la Jackson Pollack, is to be able to swing buckets of paint over a canvas in a spontaneous choreography of movement. A craftsperson is supposed to be a serious, hardworking individual who spends a lifetime honing skills to achieve the disciplined mastery of the material. The modern notion of the artist seems to encourage expression and excess, the traditional notion of craft seems to encourage a somber approach to a functional object. Does ceramics have a unique capacity to fuse the two; to have elements of disciplined mastery of the materials while also allowing vivid exhibitions of creativity? Is that what you are trying to do? My own viewpoint is that generally art today needs more craft (discipline and skill) and maybe craft needs more art (creative and expressive deviations).
For me, I do not want to reduce the creative spirit of ceramic artists to some kind of suppressed and constipated propriety that does not allow them to fully celebrate life and themselves in their work. Is the very idea of a reduced and stringent visual vocabulary a sign of inhibition or is it a sign of disciplined rigor? Is good craft and art a process of subtraction or addition? For those who favor unadorned simplicity I would imagine the creative process involved a final subtraction of all features that are judged unnecessary before calling the work complete. For the more expressive and passionate maker I would assume the creative process involves the further addition of elements that increase its ability to make a vivid impact. Finally I leave it to the ceramic artists to determine the fate of their work. I have no theory or iron law to impose. I do think that the outcome has to be in accord with the intentions and aesthetic values of the maker. Can you give me the reasons you do what you do regarding decoration? Could there be a more passionate you unduly concealed in overly tight and controlled procedures? Why don’t you just let it all hang out? Why don’t you just chill out? (I do so wish to be contemporary in my own vocabulary.) As always, I look forward to your response.