The supposed difference between what is called fine arts and what is called craft, including pottery, is that the former can contain profound expressions of human thoughts and emotions while the latter, at best, can become efficient in their function as objects made with great skill and mastery of the medium. The corollary to that is that one can engage and experience human emotions while engaging painting or sculpture but cannot extract that while engaging crafted objects, and this would include pottery in particular. Do we want to challenge that idea? I don’t know about you, but I have a house full of pottery and I think one or more human emotions are embedded in some form or another in them. I can certainly locate these emotions in me as I engage and experience them. Is that because I am obviously abnormal in my obsessive love of pottery and should seek immediate therapy? Or is it because the containers themselves house one or more aesthetic elements that represent these basic emotions? Would potters, usually a modest and humble lot, claim one or more of these emotional properties present in their own pottery?
The answer to these questions is of course more obvious in ceramic sculpture, where clay is used in a figurative or even abstract construct. Here ceramic artists can claim to be a part of that long and prestigious history of sculpture as a fine art medium. I collect antique and contemporary tiles and here again a long history of visual portrayals of human activities and natural landscapes places them within a tradition of narrative that can contain visual images and symbols more easily interpreted and translated into metaphorical aspects of essential human emotions. What can a teapot tell you? How can a vase or bowl convey or arouse strong feelings? Should I even try to prove my point with a teacup and saucer of all things? Maybe I should stop this discussion right now and just give up.
The very idea of emotions has never enjoyed a good reputation in the Western World. Emotions were associated with irrational behavior while the triumph of reason in the Age of Enlightenment was considered the true emergence of mature civilization. This idea that emotions are more primitive, less intelligent, less dependent, and more dangerous and had to be controlled and governed by reason is embedded in our history and culture. Art was once considered by some to be an unstable activity that threatened the order by stimulating the emotions. Plato condemned flute music as conducive to licentiousness. I am not sure how he regarded potters back then but surely potters are at least as dangerous as flute players. I can verify that every time I walk into my pottery gallery something really intense happens with my emotions that might fully justify Plato’s concerns.
In an essay by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins about “Emotions: An Overview” in the 2nd volume of the Oxford ‘Encyclopedia of Aesthetics’, they concluded this about the role of emotions in aesthetics,
“In contemporary aesthetics in the English-speaking world, the role of emotion is still a matter of considerable debate. Much of this debate turns on the nature of emotion, which, as this brief history suggests, is no simple matter. How we conceive of emotion depends not only on science but also on ethics, one’s conception of human nature and the good life. And to this short list we can add one’s conception of the arts and their role in the good life. Insofar as emotions are conceived as primitive, unintelligent reactions or forces, straining for release, then aesthetics will reflect the satisfications and dangers of such catharsis. On the other hand, insofar as one’s conceptions of the emotions become more complex and sophisticated, aesthetics will become more complex and sophisticated as well.”
Can craft have a sense of humor? Can there be a tragic element in pottery? Ever met a sensuous vase? Does something made of clay have to be called ‘ceramic art’ in order to possess these qualities? As with all questions I have asked you, I do not have a single or final answer. What do you think? I have always identified myself as a pottery collector. Pottery historically/traditionally has provided dependable service in the kitchen or dining room table. The function of pottery was to hold liquids and food in some essential form. Much of it continues in that noble role. I am very proud of that history and do not need to defend it here. But some people that work with clay, maybe even some who call themselves potters, do try to go beyond function, do try to integrate sentimental, tragic, sensuous or humorous elements in both the form and decoration of their work. Are some of you pottery purists who can’t accept that? I want to explore this with you, might even take a few blogs to try to sort this out. Are you with me?
Let’s approach the sentimental first. Of all these qualities, isn’t sentimentality the most often and common element present through the centuries in ceramics? Lots of pottery, from previous centuries especially, had hand-painted portrayals of sweet children or adorable animals or beautiful landscapes in ripe colors on porcelain pottery, surely enough to melt your heart. Does that give this kind of pottery a bad reputation today? In those industrial potteries in the 19th century women were restricted to painting or decorating pottery and not allowed to throw the pots themselves. Did this imply that not only was sentimentality inherent in the aesthetic taste of that time but also assumed that it was also an integral aspect of women’s nature and far easier for them to replicate on pottery?
It was of course other women in the domestic kitchens of that day that were using the pottery that their sisters in ceramic factories had decorated. Do we still think that sentimentality is thought more natural or normal for women than men? As a man, I resent the implication that a man can’t be as tender and sensitive as a woman. As an amateur gardener, I object to the fact that I have great trouble when I go shopping and find only gardening gloves and hats designed and sized for women. We now recognize that women can be and are great potters. We have made some progress in the last hundred years. Well, it works both ways. Men can be great gardeners too and why is that considered a women thing in our culture?
It is not fashionable for either men or women to be sentimental these days. For women, seeking full scope and definition of their human hood, sentimentality is a part of the old stereotype of them that held them back for so long. Some want to prove that they can be as tough and strong as any man. It is particularly important to display these qualities in the work world where they must compete with men. Many women, particularly if they are executives or elected to office, try very hard to avoid crying in public. Many men are insecure in demonstrating their feelings and emotions in public, assuming that this violation of traditional definitions of masculinity would result in damage to their manly image. Artistic activities of any kind were not always considered appropriate for ‘real men’ in the history of Anglo-Saxon societies. Perhaps men potters are considered more ‘macho’ because they can throw huge piles of clay on the wheel and are in better shape than those ‘sissy’ men artists that dab a canvas with a paintbrush. I felt this gender prejudice as a boy when I loved to paint and later as an art major in high school and as a young art major in college. Please tell me that it is long gone and buried.
I am looking around my pottery gallery right now as I sit at my desk and computer in the front of that big room and I do notice some blue vases, although offhand I can’t seem to find any pink ones. Should I assume that the blue ones were made by men or for them? Should I assume women made them if some vases have soft, pastel glazes? It gets kind of silly, doesn’t it? Yet we are talking about centuries of gender discrimination based on such ridiculous premises. Why should we assume that pottery was not impacted too? Do men and women potters escape from these limiting culture stereotypes today? Do women who purchase and collect pottery generally look for different things those men? I know many husband and wife teams of potters that work side by side in the same studio and display their work together in the same gallery. This was true in Seagrove, North Carolina where I visited late last year and was the subject of my previous three blogs here. What would they have to say about this issue of sentimentality?
I am really going to explore several rather provocative positions here. One is that the potter is no more innocent than any other maker or citizen of the republic. We are all products of a particular time and place and the orientation of the culture at that time and place is embedded in us too. If some influences are toxic or invidious, then they have to be consciously eradicated by a self-conscious purging of that cultural prejudice from our very being. Another is that the general culture impacts all of us and can contaminate, pollute, even corrupt the creative process (as well as inspire and inform it) at the potter’s wheel as well as any other site in the culture. In saying that, I would also balance that charge with full credit to the positive aesthetic and cultural influences that inspire great work and outstanding ceramics effects that are hopefully more dominant in our ceramic legacy and in your own work. As I have alluded to earlier, the chief accusation against sentimentality resides in the historic gender prejudice that it is a women’s trait and lacks the rigor and discipline of a masculine characteristic. I do not accept this idea, it is offensive to me, but it is an essential part of our history.
I am just getting warmed about the role of sentimentality and other emotions in aesthetics, craft and art. I will continue to explore the subject in the next blog.