Nineteenth century Romanticism encouraged the expression of the emotions as integral to the creative act and to the resulting object or performance. Here the advocacy and activation of the emotions was at least partially a reaction to the technological mechanization resulting from the Industrial Revolution. This took place not only in music, drama, literature and the fine arts and other media but was expected to be demonstrated in the larger than life persona of the artist or performer. Here the artist as an eccentric and flamboyant character often took darker directions and there emerged the profile of the artist as a self-destructive agent of excessive consumption of drugs and drink and other assorted vices. The glorious culmination of the romantic life was the agonizing propensity for a final tragic fate. Off hand I don’t think craftspeople were usually included in this motley crowd and thus avoided both the notoriety and dangers of Bohemian life. I don’t recall stories of struggling potters, sunken in poverty and near starvation, throwing clay in dingy garrets on the left bank of Paris. Poets seemed to be far better in enjoying that fate.
There is a passage in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter”, that discusses aspects of Romanticism. The quote cites comments in a book by Nicols Fox titled, “Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives”, where I briefly introduce Fox after confessing my own romantic nature.
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’, Nichols 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 Romantics’ 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.’ ”
The pattern of commentary about emotions, including sentimentality, is beginning to form around patterns of definitions that reinforce each other. One is this question of the irrational. I have always assumed that to be irrational was to be out of control. Irrational behavior might lead to violence and other frightening things. What should be included under the umbrella of irrational behavior? Is the creative process a rational or irrational activity? Some artists and potters talk about the carefully controlled design of the ceramic form, the calculations of the chemicals in the glaze, the appropriate composition of the clay, the temperature in the kiln, the mastery of the wheel through disciplined procedures. Yet I have read and heard other potters talk about the excitement of the process, the surge of that creative spirit that can bring about unexpected results that deviate from past practices and seem to make no immediate sense. Well, how is it for you? Can you train a future potter through rational how-to-do-it lessons or is there something more that comes from the gut or the heart that no one can explain and no one can give to you?
Are the romantics right – can human emotions be trusted? I thought the sign of maturity was supposed to be the successful suppression of emotions. Are emotions only appropriate under certain conditions and at special sites? I would prefer that other drivers on the freeway restrain their emotions; certainly I would include the brain surgeon, especially if one is operating on me, and also the reader of this blog, particularly when disagreeing with me on some point I have just made. Do both anger and love involve a loss of control? Are some emotions good and other emotions bad? Is it difficult for emotional people to allow the full expression of some of the more benign emotions but suppress others who might do harm? I will now petition the Renaissance writer and sage, Montaigne, for his advice by way of a writer, Sarah Bakewell, who recently wrote a book about him. I have long depended on him as my mentor and guide through life. I know that he will not disappoint me.
Both sentimentality and vulgarity can be extreme emotions. Some have concluded that art requires one or both elements. Some others seek moderation far less exuberant. I want to refer to my good friend and mentor Montaigne in this regard. Sarah Bakewell, in her book, “How to Live” describes his essential moderation in this way,
“By singing the praises of moderation and equanimity, and doubting the value of poetic excess, Montaigne was bucking the trend of his own time as much as that of the Romantics. Renaissance readers fetishized extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love. In all three pursuits, Montaigne seems to have had an inner thermostat which switched him off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. This was why he so admired Espaminondas, the one classical warrior who kept his head when the sound of clashing swords rang out, and why he valued friendship more than passion. ‘Transcendental humors frighten me,’ he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘good-will’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.”
Montaigne does identify some admirable emotions but emphasizes moderation in the expression of them. Notice that he advised all to avoid “the fiery furnace of inspiration”. To be sentimental one has to be inspired by optimism. The sense of well being derived from sentimental experiences justifies and reinforces that emotion. Despite the tantalizing pleasures of vulgarity, its great danger is when it is realized that vulgarity, like addictive drugs, often requires a greater and greater dosage to produce the resulting thrill. The inability of being shocked ruins vulgarity. Do you have a creative thermostat which switches off when you need to make a crucial decision in the creative process? Would you argue with Montaigne when he advised us to avoid “poetic excess?” Somehow, however much I admire Montaigne and am influenced by him, I don’t think he understood much about the creative process and those who practiced it.
There is one legendary American potter who never avoided ‘poetic excess’ in the display of his emotions. That potter was of course George Ohr. We all know the essential story here: an eccentric genius thought mad by some, a master at the wheel, long forgotten after death, boxes and boxes of his pottery stacked for years, his rediscovery decades later and his belated recognition as one of our greatest potters. Eugene Hecht, in his book, “After the Fire: George Ohr: An American Genius”, tells us about this strange fellow in the following two passages I have selected from his book.
“Surely, George was already being singularly idiosyncratic – when a vase inadvertently got chipped, he chipped it all around, turning the accident into a disquieting decorative motif. That gesture says a lot about his relationship to both the concept of accident and to the traditional notion of perfection so valued by the craftsman – but of course Geroge E. Ohr was an artist with a very different agenda. The craftsman seeks a kind of utilitarian perfection, the artist struggles to capture some essence of humanity, however imperfect. Constrained chance and spontaneity, driven by passionate intuition and an unfailing sense of the sensual, formed the basis of the dynamic process of creation Ohr was already evolving.”
Before I offer you the second quote from this book, I need to question you about what this statement means to you. Hecht established the differences between the craftsman who seeks a utilitarian perfection and the genius of George Ohr who was able to take advantage of the imperfections of human existence to capture some essence of humanity. Where are you? Where do you stand? Do you seek a utilitarian notion of perfection or the employment of that “constrained chance and spontaneity, driven by passionate intuition and an unfailing sense of the sensual” that Ohr demonstrated? Can devotion to both approaches result in great pottery? Ohr proves that mastery of the medium and creative genius in highly unique and expressive pottery can be partners and not rivals. Can you be rational on one hand and yet somehow irrational at the same time? Can you be emotional in the expressive power to create unique work and yet employ reason necessary in the sound construction of the object at the same time? Does your own pottery enjoy the integration of human creativity and the making of things? Ohr proves that emotion and reason were his allies in the creative process. How does your pottery prove this?
Now for the second offering from this book about Ohr. I do want you to know, without going into details, that Ohr was a vulgar man, an obscene man. Do you know about his brothel tokens? I won’t go into further details but in talking about Ohr and his genius, you are also talking about sensuality and lust as chosen elements in his life and work. American culture, given our religious traditions, has been historically very, very nervous about sexual aspects of passion and its unseemly association with aesthetics and art. Ohr breaks rules, conventions and supposed tenets of good taste along with creating great pottery. I really admire George Ohr but I am not sure I would want him as my next-door neighbor. My fire insurance rates might go up considerably, as a devastating fire once destroyed his studio and neighboring structures, along with badly scorching his pots. Here is more from Hecht about Ohr’s powerful emotions.
“Along the way he began turning the vaseforms thinner than he ever had before, and that made possible a whole new range of manipulative gestures that carried the work to a still higher level of expressiveness. The potter was there whirling each vessel into existence. And the sculptor was there, swiftly, spontaneously, taking each beyond itself; imbuing each with the wordless voice of humanity. Those were sure hands, confident in a mature, powerful intuition; an existential intuition that was all passion, grace, and wit, sensuality, and lust, and angst; an intuition that was the man. Liberated from the contemporary tenets of good-taste and energized by the self-assumed imperative to produce no-two-alike, Ohr was forever risking it all at the boundaries of his own wonderful imagination.”
Wow, that is a potent emotional cocktail that Hecht is attributing to Ohr. We have passion, grace, wit, sensuality, lust, and angst, all involved in “an existential intuition” that combined with “sure hands” that created pottery that articulated, again according to Hecht, the “wordless voice of humanity”. Listen up, my potter friends; we are talking about pottery that contains the wordless voice of humanity. Wow, I think we should pause here to really reflect on this. What potters would you place alongside Ohr in their capacity to provide some of the qualities that I think Hecht rightly accords to Ohr’s pottery? We are not talking about technique here or practical function. We are talking about the most profound and sublime feelings of human beings expressed with clay and taking the shape of pottery.
I am sure you could help me make this case with examples from many ceramic legacies and cultures. We could also select and honor those contemporary potters who have attained an expressive level with clay that communicates essential human emotions in a unique visual voice. We must assert with greater confidence the central placement of ceramic achievements in the arts with other supreme expressions of human culture from various media. I am going to continue this discussion of the emotional components active in the creative process in ceramics. Without this creative capacity and its proper recognition, pottery is restricted to domestic accessories that serve as household appliances. We need not be embarrassed by the utility that pottery offers in this capacity, but I think we have been habitually modest if not defensive in not fully celebrating the aesthetic and artistic elements that indeed have contributed grace, meaning and beauty to our world over centuries of human civilization.