I want to explore the ideas of context and concept. I will start, as I often do, with a question. Does the completed ceramic artifact stand-alone or does its surrounding environment play a role? By surrounding environment I do not mean just the physical environment but also the cultural and intellectual environment. I do not want to stop there. In addition I would venture that the intentions and orientation of the maker, as well as the orientations of persons that encounter the artifact long after the maker has departed, are also vital ingredients in fully appreciating and understanding the aesthetics of the piece. Most people think of context as the background, some contemporary artists and intellectuals think of it as the foreground.
Maybe the assertions above are difficult for the maker to accept. Would it not be an understandable claim, also involving a normal degree of ego and pride for the maker, to insist that the created piece stands alone? And after all, the visible virtues are so obvious and complete in the pot that it does not require external evidence of any kind. Why do observers of the artifact need anything else? OK, the maker might say, if it is a piece of abstract ceramic sculpture, I might give it a title, that should provide a clue to what it is all about, what more do they need? If the work is a functional piece of pottery, it again speaks for itself and everyone has used a teapot or vase before so what more is needed?
But if that is true, why do so many ceramic artists/potters seek to make a statement, some even provide a manifesto of some length and ambition, trying to explain themselves and why they did what they did and what it means? If their work speaks for itself, why do they feel the need to add their own commentary – often posting it on the gallery wall or in the exhibit catalog? Indeed, why don’t ceramic periodicals just publish pictures of the work, why have a text at all?
At this point a few of you might even suspect that the idea of context is just something that academic scholars talk about and use when they want to show off in front of others. One implication of context as theory is that to understand the object you need to know things that seem to have nothing to do with the object. Some go further and say the meaning is not in the object itself but in the cultural, historical and philosophical contexts that nurtured and sponsored the object. Some of this thinking has led to the contemporary dematerialization of the object. In the so-called ‘fine arts’, painting and sculpture are often absent from the galleries today. In their place, you have performances, installations, video images and found objects now presented as art. Some of this art is called ‘conceptual art’ and the artist of this kind of work will often provide a lengthy statement of his/her ideas accompanying what might be found on the floor or hanging from the ceiling of the gallery. The art object becomes a rather unimportant prop that shows you what the artist is thinking. It is the thought that counts.
This approach implies that what is important is not the object itself, but the context and concept of the object as explained by the artist or critic. Are ceramic artists and potters ready to accept the triumph of context and concept over the physical presence of the created object? I do not want to appear hostile to the idea and use of context. In fact that is what I do when I write about ceramics. I do not try to explain the techniques involved in the making of ceramics. Aside from one ceramic course taken several decades ago at the university, I have never made a pot and have no knowledge or experience to provide others in how to do that. I also do not spend a lot of time just describing ceramic art. I think photos do a far better job than I can do with words. No, I try to explore the meaning and significance of ceramic art as a personal interpretation obtained by my experience with it. I try to offer the aesthetic and intellectual context for engaging the ceramic artifact.
The object inspires and stimulates me, and I might wish to obtain it and take it home so I can continue my relationship with it, but I do not carry the pot around with me in my head. What I extract and integrate in my head encourages a deeper understanding of myself, why I value what I value. I place the new experience of engaging a pot into the context of what I already know and have experienced in a lifetime. Although the experience of each pot might happen to me in some sequential order according to the calendar, each experience melts in the greater frame of reference gained from all my previous experiences. The context of my biography merges with the context of the artifact.
All this forms the context of each piece, be it a teapot or a figurative sculpture of some human or animal form. This is a bit like the chicken and egg – what came first? Did I learn about the teapot from the culture that produced it? – Or did I learn about the culture from the teapot? I think it works both ways. If we were talking about Japan, for instance, we can investigate the characteristics of that culture and better understand why they so value the tea ceremony and how they bring that orientation to the teapot. We can also first examine the Japanese teapot and find in its form and aesthetic properties keys to better understanding that culture. They need not be rivals but rather partners.
I talk about these issues of context and concept in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter.” The main idea here is that in order to understand and appreciate one particular thing – be it an idea or work of art – you have to know and understand a lot of other things, some that might not seem to be directly related to that one thing.
“To isolate pottery and potters to matters of technique and glazing formulas, the object themselves, or the eccentricities of potter personalities, without the cultural context or complexity of the motivating aesthetic or the experiential richness of those of us lucky enough to cohabit the same site, reduces the meaning and value of pottery to just more commercial commodities for consumer consideration in the glutted marketplace….To understand the stained glass windows, wallpapers, and tapestries of William Morris, you must understand the aesthetic of John Ruskin. As we know, Ruskin never made stained glass windows, wallpaper or tapestries. Why did Morris bother with Ruskin? To understand William Morris and John Ruskin, two privileged members of the English upper class, you have to understand why they organized seminars and presented lectures to industrial workers, even though these workers could not afford to travel to Italy with Ruskin or to buy the wares of Morris.”
To value context means you want to see the forest, not just one tree at a time; you want to climb to the top of the mountain and view the entire landscape. To value context and concept means you want to engage the connected richness of human culture, the extended scope of envisioning and understanding the patterns and relationships that form the mosaic of human behavior and achievement. You want to see the big picture; the whole rather than just bits and pieces one at a time. We are all capable of an enlarged perspective, an inclusive sweeping vision, rather than a narrow squint, of those glories represented in the handcrafted ceramic artifact.