Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Archive for the ‘Really old friends/philosophers/authors/poets’ Category
Sunday, January 20th, 2013
The obvious differences observed in what is foreign for you can reveal and provide even better awareness of what was once thought as natural and normal in your own cultural orientation and practices. There is a wonderful bakery right down the street, next to the newsagent in Bruges. I went there this morning, just after 7:00 o’clock, walking down the dark, wet street from our apartment to the brightly light establishments. Marvelous, freshly baked delights made selection most difficult. Why don’t we have such things in Glendora? The taste and texture of our manufactured bread and bakery goods in our supermarkets back home reflect the preservatives that allow them an extended shelf life. There are two or three butcher shops just on the brief stretch of road where our apartment is located. They too are open early in the morning. Their arranged display of the brightly scarlet cuts of meat might aesthetically please even a vegetarian. That too is missing back home. Here they also offer prepared meals of meat dishes, including inviting trays of various pâtés, ready to take home. Are there some American towns and cities that still have neighborhood bakeries and butcher shops?
American suburbs, at least around southern California, are not made up of real neighborhoods. In Glendora they constitute a patch quilt of housing tracts that developers and construction companies put up forty or fifty years ago. The standardized formula of cookie cutter design is supposedly relieved by faux features that provide variations in appearance of these houses, with design designations such as Oriental, American Ranch or French Provincial, pasted on surface features that can only barely camouflage their commonly shared structures. Our forty or fifty years of history cannot compete with the announced years of medieval origins on the façade of buildings just down the street from our apartment. Cities and towns in Europe also have their pastiche of styles but they reflect the long history of successive waves of various cultural influences and occupations over the centuries. History seems to heal or at least conceal the wounds of the past as it goes along. I know that tiny Belgium went through much destruction in the previous century, in two world wars that did great damage here. Yet I find no modern ruins as evidence, no bullet or cannon holes on the sides of buildings. War is such a common activity for humans and nations that we have managed to hone our ability to eradicate the ravages of war in our built environment. We are getting almost as good at this as our vast appetite and ability for waging war.
Octavio, I belong in the city. I did not mind the blurred images of rural landscape outside the train window a few days ago as we journeyed between the cities of Amsterdam to Bruges. Actually the population density of the Netherlands and Belgium does not leave room for much space between towns. We did see some cows, even a windmill or two. Stuff was being grown in the fields. I did not recognize the plants as they were in a natural state, unprocessed and unpackaged as more commonly observed in the supermarket. I did appreciate the rows of trees that seemed to form boundary lines on the rectangular patches of farmland that sped by the window. The rainy weather provides constant nutrition that allows great, green trees to reach size and height not seen back home. The horizontal line is low and flat, except for the occasional visual interruption of the vertical shafts of the built environment. I do enjoy Flemish landscape paintings of prior centuries and would prefer those interpretations as superior to the real sights. The interference of actual reality disrupts my preferences for the aesthetic manipulation of a created version…. to be continued.
And now a moment with Octavio…the poem found at:
Your hair is lost in the forest,
your feet touching mine.
Asleep you are bigger than the night,
but your dream fits within this room.
How much we are who are so little!
Outside a taxi passes
with its load of ghosts.
The river that runs by
Will tomorrow be another day?
- Octavio Paz
Wednesday, January 9th, 2013
This will be our first full day in Bruges. Given the physical wear and tear and outrageous cost of holidays, most tourists try to get value for money and stuff as much as they can into each day. Holidays become really hard work and leave one totally exhausted. By the end of the holiday, most tourists look forward to restoring themselves by going back to their far less demanding regular jobs. It is not only the limitations of old age, but the wisdom that comes from experience, that helps us organize a more reasonable schedule. Today we plan to visit one or two museums. I do so love Flemish painting and the previous occupant of this rental apartment left 3 day museum passes still good for today. The day will also include getting my morning English language newspaper at a nearby news agent, finding a restaurant for our big meal in the middle of the day that might involve a soup starter for me but definitely will not include beer, maybe a walk around the city centre, finding a bakery for tomorrow’s breakfast and using the microwave in the evening to heat up a smaller, prepared meal. Our coping strategies when in a foreign land involve careful and constant planning, making of lists and reference to a travel guide written by Rick Steves, a popular American travel writer who has a public television show and writes lots of guide books for Americans traveling to Europe. To give you an idea of his positive if breezy style, here is the opening paragraph to his ‘Orientation to Bruges’,
“With pointy gilded architecture, stay-a-while cafes, vivid time-tunnel art, and dreamy canals dotted with swans, Bruges is a heavyweight sightseeing destination, as well as a joy. Where else can you ride a bike along a canal, munch mussels and wash them down with the world’s best beer, savor heavenly chocolate, and see Flemish Primitives and a Michelangelo, all within 300 yards of a bell tower that jingles every 15 minutes? And do it all without worrying about a language barrier?”
I am not sure what he means by ‘vivid time-tunnel art’ and will have to wait until Judy wakes up before I can ask her for her opinion. I have read much of the literature on aesthetics and fine arts and have not come across this expression before. Maybe it just means old stuff but most old stuff is not all that vivid anymore. As with finding out how to use the local password and username to get to my email, I will just have to wait for Judy to decide to start the day. I am so dependent on her on these journeys for any number of things. I am thankful that I am still strong enough to lug our baggage around on and off planes and trains. Steves is a quite friendly person with an engaging smile and makes traveling sound so simple and always lots of fun. To his credit, he does cite the cultural resources of each area as well as opportunities for the munching of mussels and the washing down of the world’s best beer. Judy likes him for his practical advice and insights on the most easy and economical ways of enjoying your stay. I don’t know if Europeans bother to obtain guidebooks when they visit other European countries. Given the close proximity and availability of such travel, I don’t think traveling on the continent is as intimidating or unfamiliar as it can be for the Americans. The rest of Europe for them is just a part of their neighborhood.
Octavio, I must insist that I am not a tourist. All the other foreign visitors to Bruges are tourists. I am a cosmopolitan flaneur, an autodidact intent on close observation and analysis of diverse cultures, an amateur anthropologist making fine distinctions wherever I journey. True, I am all that and more, but cannot deny what I have already confessed in this letter. I carry Rick Steves book on “Amsterdam, Bruges & Brussels” in my baggage and refer to it often for sights to see and where to eat. He also has planned out city walks that tell me where to go and what to look for. But, still, I maintain that I am not a tourist but rather a citizen of the world. I am tolerant of all foreigners in such situations, even those few I might loathe if they were my neighbors in Glendora. I am not just another arrogant American, representing the world’s mightiest empire on holiday in lesser lands. Some American political leaders are now preaching our exceptionalism and the inherent superiority embedded in that claim. I have met some exceptional Americans in my lifetime but they did not gain that distinction as a result of their citizenship. A nation can only nullify those aspects that deserve such credit in the quality of their accomplishments by making such vulgar public boasts. They are most often confusing superiority in weapon’s systems as criteria rather than the quality of life of it’s citizens and the notable achievements of their civilization. An uncritical patriotism is not compatible with any variety of an exceptionalism that could represent a higher quality of character and culture – for an individual as well as for a nation.
And now a moment with Octavio…the poem found at:
Summit And Gravity
There’s a motionless tree
And another one coming forward
A river of trees
Hits my chest
The green surge
Is good fortune
You are dressed in red
The seal of the scorched year
The carnal firebrand
The star fruit
In you like sun
The hour rests
Above an abyss of clarities
The height is clouded by birds
Their beaks construct the night
Their wings carry the day
Planted in the crest of light
Between firmness and vertigo
- Octavio Paz
Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012
In a previous blog, regarding the emotion of sentimentality in relationship to pottery and the creative process, I offered George Ohr as a model of a male who displayed a variety of emotional elements in his personality and pottery. He was a true eccentric, bawdy and lustful in his ceramic brothel tokens and other aesthetic and personal vulgarities. Now, I would like to counter some of the stereotypes just discussed about women by offering you one of the great American woman potters, every bit as eccentric and notorious in her way as George Ohr. Of course I am talking about Beatrice Woods. I have been to her former home in Ojai, California, several times, now a museum and workshop for visiting potters. It is situated in a lovely landscape, up in the rolling hills just outside Ojai. There is also an exhibit there with plenty of photographs, text and of course her luster pottery, that tells the legendary exploits of this woman who lived to be over 100 years old, took many of the great artists of the 20thcentury as her lovers and friends, and had an independent and passionate spirit that lasted until the very last day of her very long life.
In his book, “Shards: Garth Clark on Ceramic Art”, Clark has a very touching essay on Woods, titled “A True and Romantic Pragmatist”. He featured her several times in his gallery over the years. I want to provide you two segments of that essay here,
“We were friends for twenty years, and I know why her lovers clung to her friendship even after the passion had passed. Wood has a way of bringing light and optimism into one’s life. Witty, positive and a fascinating raconteur, she was able to communicate her enthusiasm for life and for the present. While she may have enjoyed telling stories from her long life, she never lived in the past. She was an extraordinary friend. Almost every momentous event of my life during our friendship is punctuated with a letter from Beatrice, congratulating, encouraging, commiserating. I never knew where she found the time to write these elegant, warm, poetic notes. Many times I did not even know how she had found out about those moments.”
In the last passage in this essay, Clark mourns the recent passing of this vibrant and unique person,
“To say that I will miss her is strangely incorrect. There are some people whose passing cannot lessen their presence in one’s daily life. Certainly, I mourn that I cannot drop in at her studio and home in Ojai and enjoy her laughter, and lively discussions about art, sex and politics. I will miss the aromatic meals off her glittering plates. I will miss walking after her as she shuffled barefoot to her studio to show me the latest ‘horrors,’ as she jokingly referred to her newly fired work in the kiln. But death alone cannot take away a spirit as vital and contagious as that of Beatrice Wood. She lives on in the life of her many friends, and one must compliment God for the wisdom of allowing her to stay somewhat longer than the average mortal. Certainly she used that time wisely and played out a life that shimmered, glittered, sparkled and seduced every bit as much as the luster pots she made for the last sixty-five years.”
Clark has provided us not only a sensitive tribute to a dear friend recently deceased, but something about this woman and the way she choose to live her life. Her life was a work of art as well as her luster pottery. She dared to create herself and insist that others make room for her. She was born to wealth and privilege but shunned the life it offered and went her own way. She gave up the superficial respectability that her privileged origins provided, but she gained a greater and truer respect in developing her unique person-hood and pottery.
Our Way in the World
You might respond to my portrayals of both George Ohr and Beatrice Wood by saying they were rare characters, larger than life, and we can’t all be that spectacular in our behavior and character. I would agree with you. Each of us must find our own way of being in the world. But I hope we would both agree, however we are able to demonstrate it, that passion for life and passion for work are essential components for a rich and meaningful quality of life. I am a quiet, shy man in many respects; a short, bald-headed, bookish man that in retirement spends much of my time in the solitude of my home with my books and pottery. Yet a flame still burns and flickers in my soul and I greet each day and the morning sun with an increased tempo of anticipation, marshaling all the energy still at my command at this late time in my life, engaging the day and all the potential splendors and wonders that each day brings to me. I think what I have just said constitutes a summary and definition of a passionate life. How would you describe your life passions?
Searching for Beauty
I wrote a book about searching for beauty and many of the readers of this blog have devoted their lives to creating beauty with clay. This commitment to beauty, however one might define the qualities that make up beauty, also contains, according to some, the elements of the erotic and the quality that we call love. The study of the beautiful is contained in that field of scholarship called ‘Aesthetics”. However academics might wish to shape this discussion into formal theory and reduce it to analytical thought, this study of beauty is essentially a study of feelings. The following quote reinforces the commentary by Garth Clark in his tribute to Beatrice Woods. Here is the quote, in the book, “Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art”, an anthology edited by Dave Beech, in an essay by Kathleen Marie Higgins titled “Whatever Happened to Beauty?” Higgins talks about the relationship of beauty to our emotions.
“When beauty transforms raw emotion in times of loss, does it necessarily make us more ‘philosophical’, in the colloquial sense of more stoical, more distanced from the wound we have suffered? Loss, besides provoking pangs of anger, regret, and sadness, has a deadening influence on the person engulfed by it. Loss is depressing. The bereaved often doubt that they can continue in a world devoid of a loved one. Enter beauty. Beauty makes the world seem worthwhile again. Plato described our stance towards beauty as erotic. We are drawn to beauty. Beauty incites ardor. It is the bridge to sense that reality is lovable. Plato, as much as Kant, would say that beauty makes us philosophical. But for Plato this means that beauty makes us fall in love with what is perfect. I want to suggest that beauty typically, perhaps especially in times of loss, urges not stillness but renewed love of life. Beautiful elegies reflect our sense that the only fitting remembrance for one who lives is to renew life, and that our own march forward into dying is itself an affirmation that life, in its basic character, is good.”
We are moving from discussion of that utilitarian passion that accompanies physical sexuality to a generic or cosmic sense of passion as the very stuff that allows an affirmation of life, that makes life good, that celebrates beauty; all this can be accomplished by a special intensity and rush of feelings that brings excitement and joy in our ordinary and daily attempts to cope and survive. Ceramic artists provide those concrete objects that can set off these celebrations of the spirit. I think we have now established beyond any shadow of a doubt that pottery are indeed containers of passion. It is the transfer of that passion to someone like me, who tries to bring his entire self to that engagement that sparks my own transformation to a heightened state of aesthetic arousal. I can only conclude, and perhaps you were not aware of this before, but for those of you that are represented in my pottery collection, we do indeed have a very intimate and passionate relationship. We need not alarm others by disclosing it. I will deny all rumors.
The Comforts of Home
I am in my pottery gallery right now, just finishing some iced tea. The air-conditioned interior resists the intrusion of a very warm afternoon. I am surrounded by pottery, surrounded by beauty. I would like to feel that I am not only a docent of the pottery in my home, but also the custodian of the passionate efforts that the makers invested in the creation of that pottery. I try to honor the potter in attempting to provide protection for the pottery. We are both invested, maker and collector, we both care very much. I am not embarrassed by proclaiming my feelings, by caring; by feeling both the joy of my close proximity to those things I love, but also, as indicated in the quotes by Clark and Higgins, the pain of possible loss, the fragile and often dangerous connection between passionate love and the universal status of our tenuous mortality and those uncontrollable disasters that can claim what is precious to us. We should not avoid loving in order to evade the pain and loss later on. If you should sometime in the future read in the newspapers that a violent earthquake hit Glendora, think of my destroyed pottery collection, and remind me of what I have just said.
We can hone the ability to express our feelings as we can further develop our skills in expressing our thoughts and creating the artifacts that reflect them. In writing this text, I am trying to express my feelings about my feelings. I think that is also an interesting idea. When caught in the moment of intense feeling, we are one with that sensation and situation. We are on intimate terms with that thing or person that stimulated our response. But later, after our removal from that intense moment, how do we make sense and learn from our passions? Can we develop the capacity to meditate on those moments that others might say we temporarily lost critical control of ourselves? Can we gain wisdom from our emotional experiences as well as from our thoughts?
We tend to know when we are trying to think something out and then make a mistake. It might be a mistake of fact or a conclusion unsupported by available evidence. I read and evaluated thousands of student papers through the years in which I would point out such errors. But how do we know when we have made a mistake of passion? We can’t check out the facts or google some information that might rectify and correct our thinking. Affairs of the heart are much more difficult to correct. And they might very well require a time for healing not necessary for more intellectual matters. Our emotions are much more tender than our thoughts. There is a safer distance involved in our opinions about things. We could disagree on what our foreign policy should be right now on what to do about Syria. I would not find that upsetting. But if someone thought my intense feelings about my pottery collection were silly and told me so I would be really upset. You do not display disrespect for another person when you happen to disagree with that person’s opinion about something, but you cannot be said to respect another person if you do not respect that person’s feelings. It is so much easier to ridicule a person’s emotions than a person’s thoughts.
I will continue this discussion in Part three regarding the role of passion in the creative process and pottery as a container of that quality.
Tuesday, June 19th, 2012
I am assuming that all readers of this blog are fully consenting adults. I would require some kind of identification and confirmation of your adult status before allowing you to read further but my meager knowledge of computers and the way they work forbid such regulation. We have the generic question – what is the role of passion in the creative process, in the arts, and in pottery in particular? I will try to restrain myself and maintain my decorum and not embarrass myself or any reader of this blog in leading this particular discussion. Passion in the widest definition of that term would mean any behavior or state of being that demonstrated great intensity of feeling, an exuberant emotional state that can take on physical and emotional dimensions in terms of aroused or celebratory behavior.
The Art of Passion
I am trying very hard to think of any passionate potters I know, but perhaps that emotion was thought best displayed elsewhere and not in my presence. Can the pot show passion if the potter cannot? What form does passion take both in the making of the object and in the final artifact that comes out of it? Can passion be an innocent emotion devoid of sensuality or is passion displayed outside sexuality a very poor substitute or sublimation for the real thing? I do hope you are prepared for this discussion. Please put away anything that might distract you and really concentrate on helping me through this blog. I might be mistaken but I do believe I have some very passionate pots in my pottery gallery. It would be rude of you to inquire if this very old man responds in kind. A lot of people think passion is an unseemly emotion for old people to display in any form or kind.
Is passion an ordinary emotion that all of us display in doing what we love to do? I am a passionate gardener though I doubt that this emotion is visible when I garden. Surely someone can see me every morning in the front garden, look at the spectacular, blooming results of my devotion, and realize my emotional investment. First if all, there is a level of caring in passion, then joy in performing that function or performance, and finally results external to you that you are responsible for and fully justify your efforts. I think all of us can locate in our lives such attitudes and activities. Can such a demanding emotion in terms of energy and focus deteriorate into automatic habit? Can you really spend years of your life with that soggy clay getting your hands dirty on the wheel and yet declare your continuing passion with that experience? Sadly, we know that passion can dissipate and die when associated with other human beings, that has often been the stuff of great poetry. Can it also fade and decline in those things you do that once brought you the greatest joy? How do you protect and preserve passion – with both people and pottery?
Can’t any burst of passion directed toward those objects and subjects of desire become a potential source of great pain and loss if that source of desire is not accessible or obtainable? Isn’t it safer to play it cool, not get too invested, not to take a chance? Doesn’t passion have to be in some sense reciprocal in order to bring personal satisfaction? My garden, in late Spring, is now giving me, in return for my loving attention, the most beautiful and glorious flowers. You have to take a risk when committing to your passions, and the outcome is always in doubt. The bedrock of all passions is the fundamental passion for life itself. I still have it though it has been severely tested at times during my life.
Creativity and Control
When applied to the creative process, does passion lead to innovation and vivid expression or does it distort the artifact by its excess? Don’t most potters believe that they have to control the entire process, plan and design the result, ensure that everything remains predictable and reliable? Doesn’t passion mean at least a partial loss of control; letting go and allowing previously unknown and unruly feelings play a role in the creative process? Isn’t the very idea of mastery in craft defined by the conscious management of a supreme skill, which allows no irrational deviation? How can you combine skill and passion? Aren’t they very unlikely partners at the potter’s wheel?
Passion in the Past
Let us first examine the relationship of passion to sexuality and relate that to pottery. If we go back to classical Greece, we can see vivid portrayals of nude men and boys on some of their pottery. I remember taking a group of high schools students to the Getty Museum in Malibu, CA many years ago and walking them through the galleries that contained nude sculptures and pottery. Sure enough, it didn’t take a few of the adolescent boys very long to locate that pottery that illustrated the aroused affection of those ancient Greeks of long ago. As for Classical sculpture and contemporary pottery in regard to eroticism, this was what I said in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, about this matter, ending with a quote from a book by Paul Mathieu,
“The nose and the penis are always the first to go. Fortunately contemporary ceramics are replenishing the latter. A quick perusal of the classical collection of Greek and Roman sculpture confirms my observation. I have just finished “Sex Pots: Eroticism in Ceramics” by Paul Mathieu. I hide the book from my grandchildren and guests, bringing back warm memories of the surreptitious concealment of certain magazines and illustrations in my adolescence. I have obviously underestimated up to now just how exciting ceramics really can be. I browse the book, with ceramic evidence of projected penis and dented vulva on countless objects across history and cultures. I do continue to be concerned about the future durability of contemporary works with potentially vulnerable appendages. I fully appreciate the importance of pottery and clay objects in human ritual and the analogous references to the human body in the form and function of ceramic vessels that connect ceramics to human sexuality. Mathieu further explains this idea:
‘…ceramic objects and human bodies remain basically interchangeable as the metaphorical level, but also through somatic analogies within forms and parts. Pottery forms are presentations, abstractly, of human bodies. Through touch and direct contact, they are experienced intimately by bodies, and their inherent functions mimic as well as support bodily functions. This emphasis on tactile aspects, on physical touch, differentiates objects from images, which operate solely at the visual level.’”
Admittedly, this is a major departure from the serving of tea in fashionable 18th and 19th century drawing rooms with an elegant porcelain teapot and delicate cups and saucers, all hand painted with bright periwinkles or other such pretty flowers. We have established, both in classical culture and in contemporary ceramics, that pottery has been employed to portray human sexuality as inspired by the primal emotion of passion. We simply cannot label these historical references of thousands of years of human civilization as obscene or vulgar. Many are sublime homage’s to the regenerative capacity of humans to reproduce and others are in themselves ritual objects of that same fertility capacity as symbol and metaphor.
Passion – Gender Specific?
At one time in Western culture it was thought that the very existence, much less the expression, of passion was strictly a man’s prerogative. In the same sense, it was once thought that women were reluctant participants in sexual activity, the price they had to pay for domestic stability and the attainment of motherhood and family. Women who did demonstrate passion were thought limited to those who had become fallen women, devoid of respectability and not the type who married but were kept in another capacity. We have largely forsaken these sexist notions in our society but the residue of these attitudes still haunts us today. It is particularly ironic that women were once thought inherently emotional and thus inherently unstable. Yet the one emotion they supposedly lacked by their very nature was the emotion of passion. In contrast, men were allowed to be emotional in their display of passion as an integral part of their manhood but socialized to suppress all the other emotions as unmanly. When you think about it, this cultural construction of the emotional makeup of humans by gender didn’t make any sense for either men or women.
In the next blog I will continue this discussion.
Friday, May 25th, 2012
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.
Sunday, December 18th, 2011
I have recently returned from a three-week holiday visit with my wife to the east coast. We stayed in Boston the first week and ended in Charleston, South Carolina the last week. During the second week, we stayed in North Carolina, in the Asheville and Seagrove areas. Judy and I have been there 2 or 3 times in the past. We love to travel to the Seagrove where over 100 potteries exist in a small village and environs. Often the making of pottery is a family affair, involving not only spouses but also their offspring in generation after generation of potters. It is a sort of ceramic paradise on earth. We know several potters there from previous visits. Fall is a special time on the east coast. It was warm and mostly blue skies, windy at times. The thick groves of tall trees were in full fall glory with intense outbursts of red, orange and gold leaves along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Falling cascades of whirling, dancing leaves had made some trees bare while others still proudly displayed flashing leaves of brilliant sun soaked color. There was little traffic on the roads and I could drive our rented car as well as view the lovely landscape. I did have to venture off the paved roads onto dirt roads to reach many of the potteries. City born and bred, to actually drive on a dirt road appeared to me a most dangerous and unwelcome adventure. I blissfully ignored the perils and drove down the rutted rustic lanes to the potential treasures awaiting me.
I can hear the hum of the freeway from my own garden in Glendora but here it is quiet and quite peaceful. I need the cultural resources of a nearby big city, having been born and raised in Los Angeles and living in one of its suburbs for over thirty years. I do value my occasional escapes to the countryside of Britain or rural regions of the United States. In the US, a suburb is often just an appendage to a large urban community; a bedroom community that empties out each workday for the commute to work in the big city. In contrast, a village in the rural countryside is an autonomous and unique community that is historically rooted in the local life of that place. Seagrove is that kind of village. When I went to a local restaurant, it was not like going to a franchised fast food place where I live, where you order food to take home or sit among strangers and eat the food in isolation. Here in Seagrove I noticed neighbors greeted each other when entering the locally owned restaurants, people who have lived their lives in close proximity and have known each other’s families and shared their common experiences from church socials to school assemblies. Does it take a village to raise a child? Am I romanticizing rural life, as I perhaps tend to romanticize potters and their glorious pottery? Or did I miss out on something important and precious in never experiencing rural or village life? What would rural folks say was missing with my urban attitudes and suburban lifestyle?
In “Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine”, Lewis Mumford talks about the very beginning of village life during the Neolithic period. He paints a very positive image of this life. Today of course, all over the world, there has been a profound and significant shift in rural populations moving to the bigger and bigger urban areas of millions and millions of people. What is the world losing here? Do villages today still possess some of the virtues as described by Mumford? He thinks so.
“Wherever the seasons are marked by holiday festivals and ceremonies: where the stages of life are punctuated by family and communal rituals: where eating and drinking constitute the central core of life: where work, even hard work, is rarely divorced from rhythm, song, human companionship, and esthetic delight: where vital activity is counted as great a reward of labor as the product: where neither power nor profit takes precedence of life: where the family and the neighbor and the friend are all part of a visible, tangible, face-to-face community: where everyone can perform as a man or woman any task that anyone else is qualified to do – there the Neolithic culture, in its essentials, is still in existence, even though iron tools are used or a stuttering motor truck takes the goods to market.”
I do wonder and speculate about the vast differences between rural and urban worlds today. What are the differences between rural and urban potters? Can you tell the differences in the pots themselves? Are rural potters inherently more sensitive to nature and the natural environment than urban potters? Aren’t all crafts, in their origins and character, essentially rural activities the world over? Maybe, because of modern technology, everyone is now exposed to what is happening everywhere else and the differences between rural and urban life are not all that different anymore. How do potters explain their choices between living in the peace and beauty of rural life and the contrasting tempting cultural riches of an urban life? Is it possible to have the best of both worlds?
Seagrove does not have a total monopoly on potters and potteries in North Carolina. We drove out to Pittsboro to see Mark Hewitt, an absolutely great potter of huge, magnificent jugs as well as a multitude of containers and vessels. I enjoyed his good company and of course left his lovely rural home, studio and gallery with several wondrous ceramic objects. Mark was able to talk to me while at the same time working at the wheel, spinning balls of clay into highly refined bowls one after the other. In his book, co-authored with Nancy Sweezy, “The Potters Eye”, he defines tradition as a dynamic process, not a static and rigid freeze of something from the past.
Does change, in art as well as life, have to bring disorder? By creating disorder in the artifact, does one gain control over unwanted change elsewhere and thus restrict its impact to manageable proportions? Is any kind of stability and order, in life, in art, in theory, just a fairy tale spun by a most insecure species? Does conformity to tradition promise an illusionary order that exists only in the artifact, not in reality? Do those of us who talk about pottery in particular make a choice of craft over art? Doesn’t everything complex, including people and pots, contain inherent contradictions that enrich the complexity and thus demand forgiveness of the contradictions? For anyone who has ever viewed one of Mark’s jugs or vases, there is no possible distinction between the designations of potter and ceramic artist, craft and art. They are one and the same thing in this person and his pots. He provides proof in his work of my more general assertion that one does not have to abandon or destroy the vessel to become a ceramic artist.
As a potter, is it a false pride to insist that what you are doing has never been done before? In confessing those potters and that pottery that has influenced your own work, are you thereby reducing the claims of your own originality? Why is novelty so prized today in the arts? Why does tradition seem like a dirty word? I cannot go on without offering you a brief quotation from this very thoughtful potter and articulate writer from his book about tradition as an active agent. In his introductory essay, “Tradition and the Individual Potter”, Hewitt makes the case for the value of tradition in art.
“Tradition is good, tradition is beautiful, tradition is valuable. To say so is unconventional and a little dangerous, for as T.S. Eliot wrote in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, ‘Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure.’ Indeed, tradition is often perceived as a hindrance to individualism and artistic originality. But I agree with Eliot that the opposite is true. In his words, ‘No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists’. Thus we must look to the past to the very roots of our art, to guide us toward new forms of self-expression. Potters and ceramic artists use ceramic history and particular traditions to inform their work, and those traditions inspire rather than discourage innovation.”
I will continue this discussion and my visit to Mark Hewitt and other potters in North Carolina and the village of Seagrove in the next blog.
Sunday, September 25th, 2011
I am quite aware that many potters are also collectors. Some potters also write in addition to creating ceramic art and collecting. British ceramic artist Edmund de Waal is one of the most distinguished of the potters/writers/collectors today. He has written several important books regarding ceramics, including “Bernard Leach” and “Twentieth Century Ceramics”. He has had many important exhibits and installations of his ceramic work, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Britain. In the last few years he has assembled multiple ceramic vases of his in compositions that occupy large spaces in galleries and museums. As I continue this discussion about collecting, I would like to share with you a book of his that I am currently reading. The title of his latest book is “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss”.
Here de Waal tells the story of his descendents, a fabulously wealthy Jewish family in the 19th century, with huge mansions in several major cities of Europe, great masterpiece paintings on the walls of these vast palaces, villas in the most plush mountain and sea resorts, and scores of servants to attend to their every need. Among the treasures collected by members of the family was a group of antique wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. These objects were Japanese netsuke and they form the central spine of this book. Despite the devastation and chaos of World War I, Hitler and World II, this collection was handed down from generation to generation and finally to Edmund de Waal. While their world was being destroyed and many family members were tragically eliminated in the holocaust along with millions of other Jews in Europe, those 264 objects somehow survived intact.
In an article de Waal wrote in the Saturday Guardian 29.05.10, he explains more about his collection,
“I have 264 netsuke: street vendors, beggars and monks, rat catchers, dogs, lovers, a woman and an octopus, an elderly lady on an elderly horse, a witch trapped in a temple bell, a persimmon about to split, a hare with amber eyes. It is a very big collection of very small objects. I pick one up and turn it round in my fingers, weigh it in the palm of my hand. If it is wood, chestnut or elm, it is even lighter than the ivory. You see the patina more easily on these wooden ones; there is a faint shine on the spine of the brindled wolf and on the tumbling acrobats locked in their embrace. The ivory ones come in shades of cream, every colour, in fact but white. A few have inlaid eyes of amber or horn. Some of the older ones are slightly worn away: the haunch of the faun resting on leaves has lost its markings. There is a slight split, an almost imperceptible fault line on the cicada. Who dropped it? Where and when?”
This is truly a fine book by a great ceramic artist about his legendary family and that special collection whose responsibility for preservation and care he now assumes. Unlike de Waal, I do not come from a family of collectors. There was little or nothing of value to pass down. My grandfather on my father’s side was a shoe salesman, on my mother’s side her father was a bartender who became rather wealthy and owned several valuable properties in downtown Los Angeles that his sons lost during the Great Depression. I have two brothers and they do not collect anything but the usual household goods and appliances. So my obsession with collecting ceramics must be a unique trait that cannot be traced by genes or attitude back through my family ancestors. Indeed I may well be the first and last collector in my family. I know that someday this will be very bad news for all the potters now dependent upon me for their lavish lifestyle but that’s the way it is.
I want to offer you another quote about collecting from my book. This comes from my 22nd letter, November 24, 2003,
“Is there some relationship between my love of trees and pots? Both face the same challenge. In this very practical and pragmatic society, trees and pottery need to justify their existence and value to survive. Both are endangered species. I once tried to save a grove of Oak trees in my community by justifying their value; the lower temperatures by providing shade, the filtering and cleaning of air, reduced need for air conditioning, etc. I lost that struggle. The oak grove was destroyed. Pottery can pour beverages, hold food, receive liquids and hold flowers. So can plastic cups and plates from Wal-Mart. We must try to provide more convincing arguments. I love trees and pots for other reasons. I experience them. The sheer sensual beauty of a tree; the Jacaranda in my front garden where I sit on a bench in its soft shade, see and hear the movement of wind through the moving leaves, sway of branches, sunlight filtered through the tall trunk and branches. The creative form of the pot, elegant in its length and shape, cascades of colored glazes in subtle patterns, striking designs that represent natural or geometric origins. Why is that value not more convincing or conclusive in this society? What will happen to my trees and pottery after I am gone? Their destiny should not depend on my partisan or personal support, but their intrinsic significance to any worthy quality of existence.”
Like de Waal’s netsuke, some of my pottery has a very long and unknown history before I acquired them. How did that German Mettlach antique Griffin vase, quite beautiful with such detailed precision and vivid colors in the shape of the mythical animal, get that severe break at the base that was so clumsily repaired? I am sure that this visible repair was the only reason I won the rather low bid on ebay and obtained it. I had to pay a considerable shipping expense because I had purchased it from someone in Australia. How did that antique German vase get to Australia? Every object has a story to tell but most of them we will never know. I can see it right now from my desk in the pottery gallery, the neck of the vase also the neck of the griffin, his head at the very top with an open mouth and his wings in back, his paws clutching the side of the rounded belly in the front of the vase.
Or how about that British Royal Doulton biscuit jar with the silver plated lid and handle that dates from 1881-1892? I don’t think we use biscuit jars in Glendora anymore, if we ever did. I am not sure we eat that many biscuits anymore either, having several donut shops in the area. Times changes but these objects stand still – just like that Jacaranda tree I was talking about above. I am sure you don’t want this old man to lament the cruel changes that have occurred in his lifetime without his permission. Maybe that’s why I go into my pottery gallery so often and stay so long. Nothing changes except when I want it to – and then only the movement of a vase from one shelf to make room for yet another pot just purchased. That’s enough change for me right now. My pots and I are frozen in an unbreakable embrace, locked within my home and gallery, safe and secure in our timeless pursuit of a durable beauty. Surely, unlike de Waal’s family, no foreign army will invade me, no adversaries will seek to take my collection away from me. You see, we collectors have so much to worry about and such heavy responsibilities to protect and preserve those things we love and collect.
I want to provide you now with another excerpt from my book about collecting. This is from my 28th letter, dated June 7, 2004,
“What is not prerequisite for me is the technical knowledge involved in the construction of the piece. I do not need to know the firing temperature of the kiln or the chemical mixture of the glaze, nor have the skill to throw a pot to engage the finished artifact with great benefit. It is the aesthetic engagement that is new and unique on each occasion. Even approaching the same pot daily, it is never quite the same. I am never exactly in the same condition, what has happened to me just before and since the last time I encountered the pot. The pot changes with the light, reveals portions once shaded; seems to shine with greater intensity, modesty abandoned and brazen in its beauty; then, depending on the time of day, withdraws, once again sublime in its continuing mystery. Still the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself. This community of intent and appearance remains general, you still need to stop and look at the individual pot for an experience that cannot be predicted by known class, category, or type.”
How can I justify the acquisition of all that pottery over years without becoming an expert on how pottery is made? I wonder if potters really understand that I have an aesthetic interest in their pots, not a technical one? When I indicate I wish to purchase a pot, many potters in the past have tried to explain to me how they made it. I do attempt to remain polite, even nod my head, but these are things I simply do not wish to know. Does that ignorance of the essential knowledge of how a ceramic artifact is created limit me to a superficial level of understanding and appreciation? Do gourmets who love great cuisine have to know how it was prepared (or even able to prepare it themselves)? Does a connoisseur of really fine wines have to understand the complex procedures necessary for it to arrive in the wine goblet shortly before sipping? I want my experience with pottery to be a cultural event, not a lesson in the chemistry of the glaze or the process of hand and tool manipulation of clay on the potter’s wheel. Would my attitude annoy some potters? I hope not.
What do I mean in the quote above by “the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself?” This has to do with the complex issues that I have discussed in this blog and in my other writings over the years. They bring forth such issues as attempting to maintain a craft whose functional capacities as vessels have modern alternatives in materials such as plastic that threaten to replace them; a postmodern art market that seems to privilege the remnants of manufactured debris as assembled art rather than a hand-crafted artifact as object; and the onslaught of electronic means to design artifacts that do not require the direct manipulation of the human hand. All this takes place within dynamic cultures that are currently being shaped by the fluctuation in a globalized economy that values quantity over quality; in economies that prize the disposable product as the most dependable source of continued profit. All these contemporary issues are only the current manifestations of the long history of ceramics as a primary activity and legacy going back to the origins of human civilizations.
I assume that what I contribute to the discussion as formulated above is of value to potters. I have reason to be confident of that because over the years many potters have communicated their support and appreciation for my efforts. The placement and integration of ceramics as a significant contribution in the wider patterns of cultural and aesthetic meaning provide my chief interest and essential motivation. In a sense that is what collectors do in their actual behavior. I literally take ceramic objects and place and integrate them in my home in original compositions of forms and color. The arrangement of multiple objects within interior space requires a pattern of intention and design. I create and organize the rooms of my house with ceramic objects as the central resource. That is what a collector does.
I have more to say about these themes and will continue to explore them in the next blog…
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?
Friday, May 20th, 2011
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.