We want it both ways. When we travel we want to see and experience a culture foreign to our own, or why spend all that money and time to find things just like at home? Yet most of us entertain a notion that all cultures have much in common, that all of humanity, whatever their culture, language or customs, are one big family in sharing universal attributes. The creation of handcrafted artifacts is one activity that seems to reach across the differences and demonstrates a common pattern. The making and using of objects serve as both tool and container to meet the daily needs of cultures across the globe. All people seem to have the need to embellish these objects with form and decoration that goes beyond their utilitarian function. All cultures are capable of art. All peoples have creative instincts that transform and transcend the world as they find it. We are gratified that there is not a universal sameness in these created objects. Rather they reveal the infinite varieties of human imagination and the vast differences in cultural orientation and worldview. In that sense, we do have it both ways. We find that all humans require community, family, and a sense of place and belonging. All use language, however different than ours, to give names to things and to shape how they perceive the world and give it meaning.
We regard strangers encountered in foreign lands as foreigners. But it appears far more difficult for us to understand how others can consider us foreigners when they visit our land. How could we be foreigners? We are just normal folks, doing and living as normal people do, there is nothing foreign about us! But of course that is not the way things are. When foreigners visit our land, they can be puzzled, surprised and even amused by our behavior, by the way we do things and make sense of things. Although it is difficult for us to be self-conscious and examine those qualities that make us foreign to others, foreigners know when visiting us what makes us American by contrast with their own cultural behavior and ways of doing things. As when we visit another country, such engagement is always a mixed bag, visitors being quite impressed and thrilled with some aspects of that foreign culture, but also perplexed and unsettled at not being able to operate and cope in this foreign place as one does at home.
Just to make things more complicated, there are of course many cultures in America that co-exist and co-mingle in the same land. In a sense, our diverse cultural groups provide those qualities that make us both unique and foreign to those outside the culture. But even those cultures in this multicultural country that arrived here long ago in our history have taken on some of the cultural qualities of those who were here before them. Thus, for example, Asian or Hispanic communities in the United States have evolved into a rich hybrid of cultural qualities that after a time do not exactly duplicate their foreign origins. In truth, most cultures are integrated combinations of peoples from different origins who through centuries have immigrated or occupied the same land with others and have either intermarried or co-existed at one time or another. The idea of pure culture is as absurd as the idea of pure race.
The first generation of immigrants might be able to maintain and preserve their culture and language in its original form, aided by attempts to maintain their own communities at least partly insulated from the greater culture around them. But the second generation usually begin to integrate with those around them in the greater culture and further generations after that might attempt to retain some essential elements of a distant past such as family food recipes, traditional religious identity and beliefs, and their native language maintained as spoken in the home. At some point in this inevitable process of at least partial integration, the grandchildren might not be able to communicate in the language of the grandparents. The interaction of dominant and minority cultures has often been a mutually beneficial exchange, although discrimination and even violence toward some groups has also historically occurred throughout our history.
Every cultural group that has arrived on our shores, and the indigenous Indian cultures found here, have contributed to and enriched the general culture. Public education was historically the vehicle through which children were given the skills and orientation thought necessary to enter the larger culture. There is a perennial issue and discussion in our country about the merits of assimilation into the greater culture; in order to open opportunities for economic success and fitting in with the surrounding society; or the very different choice of attempting to maintain a separate group identity with as much of the original culture intact and preserved as possible. This kind of coexistence has been called multiculturalism. The interaction of diverse peoples is always dynamic and formative in how they influence each other. The ability of a stronger economic power to impose its will on a minority culture requires a world in which the rule of law and sense of social justice operates to mediate such matters.
I think I might have already told you in a previous blog, but I have been writing letters the past 6 or 7 years to various mentors and authors I have long admired. I wrote 35 letters to William Morris, the British 19th century Arts & Crafts leader a few years ago, then 50 letters to Walter Benjamin, the 20th century German/Jewish cultural critic. Now I am writing letters to Octavio Paz, the 20th century Mexican poet and essayist. All these people have one thing in common, they are all deceased and thus unable to respond to my letters to them. Perhaps you might think me eccentric in writing letters to dead people and that might very well be true. Judy has indicated that if one day I report to her that one of them has answered me, she would consider my institutionalization at Happy Farms. I am not sure exactly where Happy Farms is located or if other residents also write letters to dead people there. I do love my home in Glendora and even if William, Walter, or Octavio did respond to one of my letters, I do not think I would tell her.
I do want to share some of Octavio’s ideas with you now because he can contribute to our currant discussion. Aside from being a very prominent poet and writer, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, he was also Mexico’s ambassador to France and India at one time or another. He taught at various American universities and has provided commentary of the differences between our culture with that of Mexico. Here is a brief excerpt from my book, “Searching for Beauty” Letters to a Collector to a Studio Potter” in which I describe how I discovered a book in which he wrote a great essay,
“One great book store is in Ojai, a small town in the hills of Ventura in central California. Bart’s Books occupies open air stalls and shelves, old houses and structures, books piled everywhere. When the store is closed, you can walk by on the sidewalk, browse through stacked boxes of books, make your selection and leave the money. I do not buy used clothing but I do love to browse used book stores. One great book I discover at Bart’s was “’In Praise of Hands: Contemporary Crafts of the World’. This book was published in association with the World Crafts Council to commemorate an international exhibition of contemporary crafts at the Ontario Science Centre in 1974. It contains one of the most profound statements I have ever encountered regarding the handcrafted object.”
The book was sponsored by the World Crafts Council, a group affiliated with UNESCO, founded in 1964 whose purpose is to “strengthen the status of crafts as a vital part of cultural and economic life, to promote fellowship among the craftsperson’s of the world, to offer them encouragement, help, advice and foster economic development through income generating activities.” If you want to know more about this important organization, look at their website at: www.worldcraftscouncil.org. WCC also stresses the need to give dignity, respect and self-esteem to craftspersons, and believes that these “people carry in their hands the living treasure of our cultural heritage.” They hold all kinds of seminars, workshops, exhibitions, and exchanges programs and conference and represent craftspeople all over the world.
In an introduction to the book, James S. Plaut, who was Secretary General of the World Crafts Council at the time of the publication (1974), identified the possibilities for the world’s crafts people to be members of the same family,
“Whatever the differences of origin, race, tradition, geography, or social order, the world’s craftsmen have one thing – one great gift – in common. They work, create, and achieve with their hands. This common bond, this way of work, transcends all barriers of language and custom, making it possible for the craftsmen of the world to invent and perfect their own language and to communicate with each other happily and fruitfully.”
Have you found this to be true in your travels? When you travel abroad, maybe to attend ceramic conferences or to explore potters and pottery in other lands, do you find some ‘common bond’ with other potters or ceramic artists, no matter how different the culture or how difficult it is to communicate in a language foreign to the other party? Is there some overreaching union and understanding among craftspeople? I would like to think so, just as I would like to think that collectors of crafts have a common bond in their devotion to preserving and celebrating craft wherever they find it.
The essay by Octavio Paz, “Use and Contemplation” starts with a touching and beautiful passage about his direct experience with pottery. It takes a poet to truly articulate the poetics of engagement that we who love pottery can only attempt to express in our own modest way,
“Firmly planted. Not fallen from high: sprung up from below. Ocher, the color of burnt honey. The color of a sun buried a thousand years ago and dug up only yesterday. Fresh green and orange stripes running across it still-warm body. Circles, Greek frets: scattered traces of a lost alphabet? The belly of a woman heavy with child, the neck of a bird. If you cover and uncover its mouth with the palm of your hand, it answers you with a deep murmur, the sound of bubbling water welling up from its depths; if you tap its sides with your knuckles, it gives a tinkling laugh of little silver coins falling on stones. It has many tongues: it speaks the language of clay and minerals, of air currents flowing between canyon walls, of washer women as they scrub, of angry skies, of rain. A vessel of baked clay: do not put it in a glass case alongside rare precious objects. It must be filled; if it is full, it must be emptied. I take it by the shaped handle as I would take a woman by the arm. I lift it up, I tip it over a pitcher into which I pour milk or pulque – lunar liquids that open and close the doors of dawn and dark, waking and sleeping. Not an object to contemplate: an object to use.”
Well, you can see why I am now writing letters to this man. He is a great poet and diplomat, cultural critic and intellectual; he knows how to behold the clay pot in his hands, ways to use it, and how to sing it’s lyrical messages of place, material and use. He might celebrate it many uses but no matter what he says, he does indeed contemplate its character and nature as well.
I think it is important to consider our attitude toward crafted artifacts as ambassadors of foreign cultures. Do we learn about other cultures from their pottery? Can we accept their pottery without accepting the people and culture that created it? How can there be prejudice and discrimination in the world after others do what Octavio Paz just did, pick up a pot and marvel at its character and friendly uses. Could a prejudiced person, narrow in view and naturally suspicious of foreigners and foreign cultures, learn about the creative genius and humanity of another culture if they would only pick up a pot from that culture and see what Octavio Paz saw? If not, why would a world organization devoted to world peace set up an agency such as the World Craft Council anyway?
Now that I have established Octavio Paz solid credentials with potters, I would like to discuss some of his thoughts regarding the theme of this blog, the relationship between cultures and the behavior of people representing diverse cultures when they interact, either on their own home turf or when they visit another culture. I just noticed that I am on page 4 of this blog and will end this part right now. I will continue with this same theme in Part 2.