Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Archive for July, 2011
Saturday, July 30th, 2011
It is apparent I do not privilege the new over the old. It is also apparent that I do not uncritically celebrate technological triumphalism posing as our salvation. Technology serves the reality that invents and owns it. Since it fortunately cannot exercise its own judgment, the disposal of its use is left to those who control the economy and can thus manipulate the technology. If that authority cannot be seriously questioned or challenged, than technology becomes the accomplices of arbitrary authority and can be used to exploit those workers that end up in the workplace as the accessories of some kind of machinery. The modern office building too often consist of floors of workers trapped in tiny cubicles in constant contact with computers that program their daily work chores. Has modern technology liberated us or has it simply replaced previous machinery with more efficient machinery? Are we really the masters of this new technology or are we in reality the servants of it?
By now you must realize that I am not neutral in this discussion. It is not only artists and craftspeople who must choose between these two ways of living, but all of us have a disposition that favors one or the other. As a pottery collector, I would like to think that you could observe a wide array of pottery in my home that does not favor just one aesthetic but is diverse and eclectic in the full range of possibilities. But in my heart of hearts I do so enjoy the eccentric if not excessive display of a highly refined but exuberant form of creative expression.
Is there an inherent rivalry and hostility between subjective and objective approaches to life and art? Would one try to find the poetic soul of a poet by taking an X-ray in order to find the location of their expression? I don’t think so. One could locate Kansas on a map but surely not the world of Oz. Was one more real for Dorothy than the other? All art requires some portion of imagination. The realist must subtract extraneous elements to reach the essence of the observed reality while romantics must add their own elaboration to reality, or even escape that reality and create a new world of their own. Both approaches require interpretations. No two realists, however devoted to depicting the actual reality, are going to come up with exactly the same reality in their work. Romantics do not have to worry about fidelity to reality but insist upon an individuality that encourages them to develop unique expressions and results.
How do we find out if the ‘common sense’ of the culture or the dominant definitions supplied by those in power really comprises reality? If reality is just the way things are done because that is the way things have always seemed to have been done, why should we trust those conventions as representations of an invariant reality? If the way most people think and make sense of things reflects the common intellectual habits of the general population, why should we mistake these customs of thought as though it constituted the only possibilities of an immutable reality? It is the sober, solid façade of how things just seem to be that provides inspiration for original and creative thinkers and artists to overthrow them. While physical reality and even mechanical reality might indeed be fixed in certain prearranged patterns of physical stability, cultural and social reality is created and revised by those people who do not defer to it but act upon it. Artists cannot be such cultural conformists that they create only the most banal and mediocre results.
One of the most influential art institutions in the early 20th century makes an interesting case study of the competing poles of realism and romanticism as the basis for curricula and instruction. I am referring to the Bauhaus; the German art school started in 1919 and closed in 1933 as Hitler seized total power in Germany. The very nature and definition of modernism in the 20th century was highly influenced by this institution, however brief its duration. In the first volume of the Oxford “Encyclopedia of Aesthetics”, in an essay by Detlef Mertins, the historical context of the founding of the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius was provided,
“Responding to the Enlightenment imperative to rethink art and architecture in relation to the authority of reason and sensation, modern aesthetics harbored a reformist agenda that required the simultaneous de-education and retraining of artists and audiences alike. By 1900, the powerful desire for a new and broadly generalizable art and architecture – nonmimetic, organic, and objective – had aligned itself with several aspects of modernization that has taken up aspects of the aesthetic project. The founding of the German Werkbund in 1907 gave momentum to Germany’s acceptance of industrialization for manufacturing in the decorative and applied arts, under way since the early 1890’s. It served to link the applied arts and architecture and redefined culture and society in relation to mechanical production. At the same time, scientist-aestheticians, offered scientific explanations of human perception and aesthetic experience that became a new foundation for the arts, reinforcing emerging preoccupations with abstraction, elementary form, color, contrast, rhythm, and geometric mediation. Assuming the authority of science for the project of aesthetic retraining would be the counterpart to the reform of subjectivity and everyday life made necessary by the psychological, physiological, and nervous trauma engendered by modernization and metropolitanization.”
As Mertin explains this pedagogical development, it included elements that belonged both to the German romantic legacy and to the ongoing modernization brought by the industrial revolution and continued technological advances. The constant counterpart of this uneasy relationship was reflected in the organization and conduct of the Bauhaus. A part of this emerging approach was influenced by such pedagogical pioneers as Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Frobel, and Maria Montessori, who placed great importance on bringing out children’s inherent gifts through a guided process of active learning through varies of student activities. Art education became a significant element of promoting inner discipline by providing greater outward freedom. Looking back now, it might seem improbable to us that this combination of emphasis on scientific objectivity and student creativity could ever be reconciled and integrated into a single educational program. It was indeed a merger of opposites that came together at the Bauhaus and one was destined to triumph over the other.
The conflict between the appointed pedagogue Johannes Itten and the director Walter Gropius demonstrated the split and conflict between realism and romanticism at the Bauhaus. Mertin describes this as follows,
“A split between Gropius and Itten emerged at the end of 1921 over differences in philosophy brought to the fore by Itten’s increasing influence. The quasi-religious aura around him had attracted a strong following among students, and the centrality of his teaching and workshop responsibilities began to rival that of the director. Itten focused exclusively on the self-discovery and empowerment of the students and eschewed the notion of art as a preliminary to the design of commodities. He had no commitment to craft training for the artist and took Gropius’s desire to bring actual projects into the workshops as damaging of the quietude and harmony necessary for creative expression. For Gropius, on the other hand, this was essential for re-grounding art and architecture, integrating theory and practice, and maintaining support from government sponsors. Itten’s teaching also lacked any systematic theory of structure, pictorial space, or composition. His mystic privileging of subjective expression led to criticism by influential outsiders who introduced the discourse of objectivity and collective societal expression then emerging among the European avant-garde, which became important to post-Expressionist art and architecture during the mid-1920s.”
How do we rescue the poetic metaphor and the creative impulses from association with those reactionary forces who would manipulate subjective feelings to destroy instead of create? Can the same emotional force that provides our love of beauty and art also lead to the glorification of the warrior and war, the hatred of the foreigner and alien? We know that art has been employed and still is employed to further totalitarian and violent regimes of suppression. What are the inherent virtues of objectivity when employed with intelligence and integrity? What are the inherent virtues of subjectivity when employed with intelligence and integrity? What are the dangers of both when employed by people without virtue and intelligence? I cannot continue this division of the two much longer. I am convinced that significant intellectual and artistic achievements contain integrated elements of both kinds of knowing and feeling. Likewise I am sure that scientists would also claim that their work consists of imaginative and intuitive leaps and insights as well as empirical methods and objective evidence.
The same site can sponsor realistic and romantic responses. Nature has been both the bountiful site of scientific discoveries and the stuff of romanticist images and soulful poems of wonder. God has been found in the glory of nature and yet biology and other scientific disciplines also lay claim to the same place. The emerging science of environmentalism exists side by side with literary hymns to the beauties of nature. We have the legacy of the creation myths and stores of origin that mark so many indigenous cultures coexisting with scientific research that has unearthed the empirical evidence of how that natural world works and have evolved. Do we have to disprove one in order to believe the other? Are poets simply unreliable and given to hyperbole and exaggeration in their depiction of nature or do scientists lack the grace and imagination to make lyric what they instead state in their dry, often turgid prose? Can you give me one example where the objective and subjective ways of making meaning work together in friendly partnership? Would you offer your own ceramic work as an example?
I do try to maintain the pretense that I can bridge most things, portable in my ability to move past boundaries, divisions and taxonomies in my cosmic interests in all things. I think I have unwittingly shrunk the parameters of that pretense a bit in this letter. I do have preferences and pick and choose on the basis of those preferences. I do have prejudices and resist those things that do not bring me pleasure. Just another example, I prefer the cello or violin to the human voice. Think what that means in terms of my musical taste. I know, I know, I don’t know what I am missing. I would like to think that what I don’t like is a result of my sophisticated taste in those things I do like; after all you can’t like everything. But I fear what I don’t like has more to do with my inherent limitations. It isn’t so much I don’t like mathematics or science; the truth is I can’t really comprehend the specialized complexity of science or mathematics. Is everything people don’t like really because they can’t comprehend it or do it? How can I be a romantic hero to myself if I am a romantic only because I can’t do realism? It is indeed fortunate for me that melancholy remains a perfectly acceptable state for the romantic.
I invite you to join me in my garden and walk with me to view my assembled pottery in the rooms of my cottage. My house and garden form the romance of my life. Its eccentric existence in an inherently unfriendly world requires a realistic assessment of those cultural forces that provide implicit support and those that threaten it. I am fully capable of providing that critique. Finally I know by now what makes me happy. I cannot dismiss the possibility that all I value might be as perishable as I am and could meet their decline and demise about the same time I do. I am resolved not to let that spoil things for me right now. At my age I am grateful for the hopeful prospect of reaching tomorrow.
Friday, July 22nd, 2011
One of my favorite American intellectuals and writers is Lewis Mumford, a person who was able in a long life to explore and examine a wide spectrum of ideas and issues, and in particular wrote an important book about technology. Although written in the 1960’s, and thus before the major impact of the electronic revolution, “Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine” still provides a profound discussion of the relationship of technology to human culture. In his opening statement in the ‘Prologue’, which also serves as Chapter One, Mumford states his basic position,
“The last century, we all realize, has witnessed a radical transformation in the entire human environment, largely as a result of the impact of the mathematical and physical science upon technology. This shift from an empirical, tradition-bound technics to an experimental mode has opened up such new realms as those of nuclear energy, supersonic transportation, cybernetic intelligence and instantaneous distant communication. Never since the Pyramid Age have such vast physical changes been consummated in so short a time. All these changes have, in turn, produced alterations in the human personality, while still more radical transformations; if this process continues unabated and uncorrected, loom ahead. In terms of the currently accepted picture of the relation of man to technics, our age is passing from the primeval state of man, marked by his invention of tools and weapons for the purpose of achieving mastery over the forces of nature, to a radically different condition, in which he will have not only conquered nature, but detached himself as far as possible from the organic habitat. With this new ‘megatechnics’ the dominant minority will create a uniform, all-enveloping, super-planetary structure, designed for automatic operation. Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal whose proper functions, as technicians now interpret man’s role, will either be fed into the machine or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of de-personalized, collective organizations.”
Mumford is obviously not a technological triumphalist in his dire warnings about the impact of technic development on human civilization. Looking back over forty years since he wrote this book, I think our smug assumptions back then that the technology of the 19th century had allowed us to conquer nature in the 20th century has been shown to be a gross miscalculation with grave implications for the future of the earth. Nature has retaliated in unforeseen ways and we cannot maintain the current employment to wage war against the natural environment.
Have we become the passive and purposeless creatures that Mumford charged was happening as “machine-conditioned animals? Are we being fed into our computers now, as we increasingly inhabit a virtual reality? Has technology given us more choices or less? More autonomy or less? What have we gained in the last two hundred years and what have we lost. How have we changed and how has human culture changed because of technology? Why do I so resist these changes? Will I have to just accept I am a traditional person, (whatever that means) and not a modern one? Why do I want to keep the machine, in function as well as image, out of our cultural achievements? Should I find the clean machinery of the computer age more acceptable than the grimy and gritty machinery of the industrial age? If Mumford is right about things, then are our contemporary artists and craftspeople more passive in what they do and is their work more de-personalized than before? Isn’t abstraction in art the depersonalization of art? Are artists becoming more machine-conditioned too?
Speaking of machine-conditioned aesthetics, I had another experience lately that informed me that we were entering a brave new world of a kind of technology employed in art and craft that is profoundly different from past technologies. It is an exhibit currently at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California, called “Ceramics: Post-Digital Design.” The exhibit displays those contemporary ceramic artists and designers who have used post-digital technology and others, such as Eva Zeisel, now over 100 years old, who have pioneered highly designed, mass manufactured ceramic objects. The wall text for this exhibit is very optimistic and positive about this approach. The following excerpts from a exhibit wall statement written by Karen Crews, the curator of the exhibit, introduces the theme and intentions of this show,
“The emphasis of producing limited edition multiples through the use of molds, yields an expression that relates to the mid-century modern design movement and pays tribute to the Scandinavian architectural model influenced by the Bauhaus style. In Ceramics: Post-digital Design, each artist presents a unique perspective with their own ceramic processes and designs that continue a dialogue examining the future concepts in ceramic art. Because technology is continually advancing, we question, how far we can go? What will the future of industry, commerce and even art be like? New Technology brings new advancements with a multitude of opportunities and ideas, but we question if there will be a point where the human footprint will be lost, or if we will return to traditional methods for creating and communicating due to our communal nature. Ostensibly, the future holds a hybridization of all the above; as technology grows, humans evolve, and societal networks change, art is expressed in new powerful ways. The idea of a ‘Post-Digital Age’ is upon us, and many art historians believe therein lies the future of art. Artist and educator Mel Alexenberg, author of The Future of Art in a Post-Digital Age, writes about new emerging art forms that ‘address the humanization of digital technologies’ and explores post-digital perspectives that are ‘rising from creative encounters among art, science, technology, and human consciousness.’ Among the fundamentals of ceramics rooted in traditional use, concepts and designs have evolved to keep with a continually advancing aesthetic. Technology has not only transcended the process in which ceramics can be made and modified, but it has also transcended the way artists conceptualize their artwork. AMOCA’s exhibition, ‘Ceramics: Post-Digital Design’ exhibits the very principals of Alexenberg’s thesis, that artists, no matter what medium, are making ‘interactive and collaborative forms, resulting in a fusion of spiritual and technological realms.”
I found many of the objects in the exhibit at AMOCA to have beautiful forms that achieved that delicate balance between form and function with an understated elegance. A designed form that fits in with other designed forms in rather astounding and imaginative ways can be a visual delight and aesthetically successful. The creative expression of the designer is strained by a ruthless discipline and clear linear objectives. The results are the triumph of a highly rational objectivism that makes the protocols of problem solving the essential aesthetic experience for the designer. It is one way of being in the world and one way of making sense of the world. It does not represent, however, any kind of advance or superiority over the cultural legacies that have preceded it. All these past achievements of human civilization in this statement are placed under the apparently invidious term of “tradition”. I cannot help but wonder what they were called when they were originally introduced with novel deviations not seen before that time. How many years does it take for something to be called traditional? What does that mean anyway? In the conventional discussion of technology, I am afraid tradition is another word for obsolete. We must be most careful not to transfer that attitude to cultural and aesthetic contributions as seen in their historical sequence and perspective.
We must also acknowledge that the very idea of design is the intrusion of a rational problem solving process into the creative process. Design is the domestication of the creative process, the self-imposed discipline to organize yourself according to preconceived plans, the taming of emotions in order to achieve an orderly process of making. Maybe that doesn’t worry you, maybe that is the way you do things anyway. Somehow I don’t think that is the way Van Gogh worked or that was the way that Peter Voulkas worked either. Design is also very much involved in the commercializing of the artifact into a manufactured commodity. To design something is not only to make it functional but also to make it attractive for the marketplace. Is design the death of the human imagination or the rational need to control the creative process in order to make it productive? What do you think? I think your answer to this question will reveal if you are a realist or a romanticist.
Realists who disagree with each other tend to have the greatest and most passionate feuds, given their joint presuppositions that there is only one reality to fight over. Their versions could never agree exactly and thus must compete for favored preference. The advantage of the Romantics is that they can never be proven to be mistaken. Their images and dramatized concoction of thoughts and feelings do not depend on empirical evidence but conjured worlds unique in their visionary projection. These worlds thus do not compete and they do not have to bear the scrutiny or rigor of duplicating a documented and common world that could be agreed upon by all.
Why is it that some of most popular and profitable hits in books and films have to do with stories like Harry Potter and his student days at Hogwarts? I have been to England several times and lectured at several British universities but I don’t recall visiting that institution. What is the appeal, not limited just for children, but for all of us, of those magical worlds where there are only very good heroes and very evil villains, all capable of thrilling adventures, with danger and evil lurking in every corner? Given the bland everyday existence we are all mired in and given our ordinary habits of daily repetition, who would reject an escape to a magical kingdom? Walt Disney well understood this need. Doesn’t all art, including ceramics, offer some kind of escape from an ordinary world in providing an object or experience that is somehow unexpected and delightful?
Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
Realism vs. Romanticism
Who do you trust and depend upon the most in your own ceramic work – your head or your heart? Can you separate these two things and choose one over the other as the dominant force in your ceramic work? What exactly do they mean in terms of your life and your ceramic art? These ideas are embedded in the essence and history of Western art. We can trace the dual legacies of romanticism and realism in that history and find many of the competing strands of their perspectives. We would, of course, associate the head with realism and the heart with romanticism. Let me make it clear that this has more significance and meaning then just as an art technique or attitude toward creating art. These ideas impact the very way you live in the world and make sense of it. Observers of your ceramic art might place your work within one or the other of these categories. Where would you put your work? Maybe some of us would like to think that we bridge those differences and are capable of both kinds of behavior and both ways of being in the world. You might claim that you can access both head and heart in your crafting of the ceramic object.
Others of you might be far more partisan and claim that one of these approaches is vastly superior to the other. Romantics might claim that it is the lyrical expression of feeling, the vivid personal passion that inspires their creative process and achieves great art. Passionate love, including erotic and sensuous love, is the very engine of the human personality. Much of 19th century literature and art in Western Europe would claim that view. Isn’t it evident in the differences between the delights of poetry and the flat prose of a newspaper? The poet can celebrate the beauty and joys of life and nature. But on the other hand I would prefer journalists who write for newspapers or TV news to get their facts straight and not go off in fanciful fiction. For journalists, their integrity is dependent upon their rigorous presentation of what they know to be objectively true. For most poets, that approach would completely stifle their creative process. Maybe romantics belong in certain creative arenas and realists belong in fields that depend upon accuracy and precision in their fidelity to reporting what they see and experience. I think I would prefer a brain surgeon to be a realist instead of a romanticist if I was about to undergo brain surgery.
The HeArt of Technology
Romanticism was a hostile reaction first to the growing secularism that came out of the Enlightenment that so highly valued objective rationality, later it reacted to the growth of science and its application in various technologies that sponsored the industrial revolution. Technology has been the traditional enemy of the romantic. The machine for the romantic has been perceived as the adversary of the artist. In what ways has technology served your creative work? Could you explain and convince others that the human hand can do things with clay that a machine could never do? The industrial potteries of the 19th century were organized on the factory model and made multiple copies of the same artifact based on assembly line procedures. Today ceramic designers, many who never actually touch the clay themselves, work for corporate entities that mass produce and manufacture ceramic domestic ware. Isn’t the individual studio potter by nature and circumstances a romantic? Some people would say that romanticism is obsolete and out of place in our modern world? What do you think?
Of course my own lifestyle is completely dependent upon a variety of technologies to provide creature comforts and ease my way in the world. I would not surrender any of them for the alternative that existed before their invention. I suppose I could get along without the microwave, although I did warm up leftover Chinese food for lunch today and often use it for that purpose. I certainly could not do without this computer and its word-processing ability. I do have a hybrid car that runs jointly on a battery and gas with resulting low mileage. I would probably surrender it to a totally electric car if there were adequate facilities to recharge them. At this very moment the air conditioning is off but summer is coming and I cannot bear the onslaught of a natural environment if it would cause me to sweat. I do use a mop and broom, both having long and honorable ancestors going back centuries. But I also highly value my vacuum cleaner, cord plugged into the wall, sucking up leaves and dog hairs on the tile and carpet. We have several wall plugs in every room, allowing me to view television, watch my foreign films, listen to the stereo, enjoy my huge classical music CD collection. I do try to limit the electric lights at night just to the rooms of the house we are occupying but I do require considerable illumination in the room when I read at night.
In my 8th letter to Christa Assad, in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter, I said the following about the relationship of technology to culture and quoted from a book by Nicols Fox,
“Both the American and English intellectual traditions question the devastating development of technology that represented the industrial revolution. Here Thoreau and Emerson join Ruskin and Morris in deploring the impact of industrial technology on the lives of artisans, workers and the environment. In a wonderful new book, ‘Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives’, Nicols Fox explores the broad dimensions of this thinking,
‘As a theme, resistance to technology appears in Romantic and Victorian literature, in transcendentalism, in the Arts and Crafts movement, the agrarian movement, the environmental movement. It is present today in the writers who cling to their typewriters, the fine cabinetmakers who cherish their old tools; the hand-weavers and basket-makers, and potters and needlework enthusiasts, who keep to their craft against all logic; the herbalists and organic growers who are convinced that what they do is important and brook no argument – all those who cling consciously in whatever manner or degree to the old ways.’
What is the state of this issue among potters today? I can’t remember if the wheels in your studio are plugged in or get their power from your feet. Does it make a difference? Is there some organic integrity with feet powered wheels or are they obsolete now? I do remember that you have electric kilns. Is your arrangement a compromise out of expediency or can you justify the use of power appliances in your craft? Does it matter in the kind of pottery you create? The wood turner uses a lathe and it is still considered a craft. Has some accepted authority determined and defined what represents a hand crafted object? At some point, does the extensive use of electric appliances disqualify a craft product and turn it into a manufactured product?
Is it simply the inevitable conservatism of old age that motivates tentative and uncertain reservations about technology? John Ruskin and William Morris failed in attempts to find a utopian paradise based on medieval practices. The sound of the train invading the countryside appalled Henry Thoreau. I hide in my secret garden, seeking to escape the hum of the nearby freeway. As in politics, where my vote usually guarantees the candidates defeat, I must be careful not to be a sore loser in the cultural battles of my time.
I am not sure what to label myself without offending friends, becoming foolish, or revealing my lack of sophistication. How can one confess affinity with nineteenth century romanticism without suffering ridicule? In a chapter entitled ‘Romantic Inclinations’, Nicols Fox describes this impulse,
‘Romantic was a way of seeing, a certain cast of light that could transform anything. In this new illumination, the imagination could play with the unfamiliarity of familiar things, accentuating the strangeness of the half-visible. This sensation of newness, of possibility, of transformation defined the word. This was the mind at playful work, allowed to range and create and interact with the ever-changing nature of reality. The Romantic’s priorities were with the exercise of imagination, with excess, with the mystical and, at times, the irrational. The natural world was a powerful and important place where God dwelt; human emotion, intuitions and yearnings were not simply valid, but vital, and could be trusted.’ ”
What part of what Fox is talking about would you be willing to give up? There is a puritan tradition in the American Arts & Crafts movement that showed up again in the streamlined designs of Art Deco and today in the highly designed forms of mass produced ceramic domestic ware. It is severely simple, devoid of decoration, shorn of any graphic or illustrated pictorial surface, pure in its subtraction of extraneous elements. Minimalism in painting and other arts strongly display this influence. This approach sends shivers into the heart of the romanticist. This approach is simply not enough, it is not nearly enough to satisfy the robust aesthetic appetites of the romantic. Take another look at your ceramic artifacts. How would they fit here?