Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Posts Tagged ‘about Richard’
Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
I have another problem with this appetite on the part of some modern and post-modern artists whose work can be summarized in its attempted urge to shock and offend. The very traits under discussion here, to mock, to shock, to offend, comprise trivial and superficial behaviors, often identified in adolescents as typical for that immature and difficult stage of life. If you really want to get serious about the trials and tribulations of the human condition, to dig deep in your gut for those haunting fears that can grip you in the dead of night, to sink into a profound and complex state of mind and soul, then you need to explore the long and rich history of literature about melancholy and its place in the arts.
I am currently reading “A Field Guide to Melancholy” by Jacky Bowring. The association of melancholy with talented geniuses in the arts has a long history. I am sure you are aware that poets have often been identified with that particular affliction, both in their persona and in their poems. Bowring gives one example with Emily Dickinson, for ‘her winter within’ a manifestation of her ‘fixed melancholy’, which, according to the author, “is seen as the major generative force in her poetry which is suffused with a poignant and brooding emotional climate.”
Bowring further expands this relationship between the arts and this condition of melancholy. Here she explains,
“The aestheticising of melancholy objects, as in a model who appears nearly dead, a dilapidated cottage, or a ruined post-industrial landscape, involves a process of detachment. Through this, the object is set apart, as Susan Sontag described in Melancholy Objects, and it then becomes like a ‘found object’, and the focus of fascination. This is the species of melancholy beauty that was the foundation of surrealism. In its super-realism, or verisimilitude, surrealism evoked the strange in the terms of the familiar. The uncanny place of the dream-world hovered on the edge of reality, unlikely juxtapositions and hybrids emphasized the feelings of alienation and isolation of the modern human condition. This potent, elusive beauty is a unique quality of melancholy, and one at the polar extreme to the aesthetic delight of that which brings joy. Edgar Allan Poe pronounced sadness and melancholy the sites of Beauty’s ‘highest manifestation’, and as death is the supreme melancholy topic, then its poetical potency is enhanced when aligned with beauty. Poe’s ‘beauty’ was no superficial superlative, but referred to an effect upon the self, ‘that intense and pure elevation of the soul – not of intellect, not of the heart.”
Here you have another poet, Edgar Allan Poe, who understood that sadness and melancholy could involve the ‘highest manifestation’ of the beautiful. As Bowring adds, this is no superficial superlative, as with so much contemporary art, but rather an “intense and pure elevation of the soul – not of intellect, not of the heart.” She also cites the importance of surrealism in bringing about the evocation of the strange in terms of the familiar in portraying dream-worlds that visualized the feelings of alienation and the isolation of the modern human condition. The aura of melancholy infuses the beautiful; it wounds the beautiful, and makes tears and blood prime ingredients of its composition. I demand that contemporary artists make melancholy and all its attributes as complicated and profound as their artist ancestors.
A quotation of Octavio Paz comprises the very last statement in the book, “The Double Flame”. It deals with the themes under discussion in this blog. It is an affirmation of live and love. It involves what I would want artists and human culture to help make possible for us. It connects us into wholeness and reconciles us with the totality of the world. It does not deny death but rather encourages us to face it. I think this statement is positive without being sweet or sentimental. One reason I so admire his work is that he did not pander to what might give us immediate pleasure, nor seek for us an easy way out. In reality Paz encouraged us to face the awful dimensions of life and death, because his work helps us discover ourselves, to become whole with nature and the totality of that whole, to accept our exile from paradise and to reconcile our life with our ever approaching death. Yet at the end of all this, he also gives us hope. It takes great courage to love under the dire circumstances of just being alive. His poetry and thoughts helps us to build that courage. Here it is.
“Love does not defeat death; it is a wager against time and its accidents. Through love we catch a glimpse, in this life, of the other life. Not of eternal life, but, as I have tried to say in several poems, of pure vitality. Speaking of the religious experience, Freud refers to an ‘oceanic feeling,’ that sensation of being enveloped in and rocked by all of existence. It is the Panic dimension of the ancients, the sacred furor, enthusiasm: the recovery of wholeness and the discovery of the self as wholeness with the Great Whole. When we were born, we were torn from wholeness; in love we have all felt ourselves returning to the original wholeness. That is why poetic images transform the beloved into nature – a mountain, water, a cloud, a star, a wood, the sea, a wave – and why in turn nature speaks as though it were a lover. Reconciliation with the totality of the world. With past, present, and future as well. Love is not eternity; nor is it the time of calendars and watches, successive time. The time of love is neither great nor small; it is the perception of all times, of all lives, in a single instant. It does not free us from death but makes us see it face to face. That instant is the reverse and complement of the ‘oceanic feeling.’ It is not the return to the waters of origin but the attainment of a state that reconciles us to our having been driven out of paradise. We are the theater of the embrace of opposites and of their dissolution, resolved in a single note that is not affirmation or negation but acceptance. What does the couple see in the space of an instant, a blink of the eye? The equation of appearance and disappearance, the truth of the body and the nonbody, the vision of the presence that dissolves into splendor: pure vitality, a heartbeat of time.”
If one has love for someone or something exterior to his or her self, one has to have hope. Life without love or hope is a life reduced to terrible despair. Paz is very lyrical and urges here that we can find love with another person or find it represented in nature, in a mountain, water, a cloud, a star, a wood, the sea, a wave. I can claim and assert, because I have experienced it, that we can also find love in the hand crafted ceramic object, in that marvelous pot, in those dazzling glazes that rush down the sides of a vase, in the elegant spout of a perfectly shaped teapot, in the detailed mastery of a work by a master potter. Paz is very inclusive and supportive in this regard. He says that “The time of love is neither great nor small; it is the perception of all times, of all lives, in a single instant.” I have had some of those single instants with my pottery. Art can sponsor that “reconciliation with the totality of the world” that gives purpose and meaning to life. Aesthetic pleasures reside in that “vision of the presence that dissolves into splendor: pure vitality, a heartbeat of time”. If Paz had ever visited my pottery gallery, I am sure he would have confirmed its present there.
As with all emotions, hope is only aroused when the person chooses to evoke its presence. Two individuals can be in exactly the same situation and one can see hope and the other only despair. A third choice, perhaps the most appropriate and insightful, is that some perceptive individuals can see elements of both hope and despair somehow embedded in almost all human circumstances. In this sense perhaps the greatest foe of emotions is a bland and blind indifference. You have to be invested to demonstrate feelings. You have to be concerned, caring and compassionate to expend the energy to arouse the finite emotional resources at hand. I suspect that is why some artists just wind down and finally stop working and walk away from their art or craft. Their inspiration has been dissipated, perhaps because of the inevitable hardships of life, and for some reason they have just stopped caring. One of the great legends of romanticism is that the emotions that emanate from pain and misery are greater signs of genius and the creation of greater art than work coming from someone who is generally happy and contented.
I do not think we should underestimate the essential joys and rewards of creating and engaging art and craft. I think that “A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression” by Howard Risatti, is one of the best books on craft I know. In this book Risatti talks about some of the soul satisfying benefits of creating craft for the craftsperson and those who encounter the results,
“Through the hand in craftsmanship, craft objects capture the efforts of their makers and make these efforts visible and palpable for us to see and comprehend; and in doing so, they reflect back to us our own efforts; they become mirrors of our own aspirations and possibilities. When we compare what our hand can do to that of skilled makers, we develop an awareness and appreciation of other human beings and, in the process, a greater degree of self-understanding and self-awareness. In this, craftsmanship in craft objects fosters a worldview that projects the creative imagination firmly within a humanly define, a humanly scaled, and humanly understandable tangible reality. Albrecht Durer’s appreciation of the incredible skill evident in those Pre-Columbian gold objects that he saw from Mexico is just such an example of human understanding found in the ‘thinking hand’ that is able to transcend time, space, and cultural horizons.”
Risatti is telling us that by engaging the artifact, they not only provide the efforts of the makers, but for people like me, they gave us opportunities to learn about ourselves, to see the object as “mirrors of our own aspirations and possibilities.” Thus, to paraphrase Risatti, the ceramic artifact can give those who make the effort the riches and qualities that are the very basis for hope – for a future, be it tomorrow or next year or the year after, that somehow will bring some relief, some modicum of improvement, some vestige of those modest self-initiated reforms of one’s own life that enhances our existence. In this way, we do not need wisdom and truth to be given to us whole by some kind of superior authority. Self-confidence begins with hope.
We can engage the book, the play, the musical concert, the painting, or the ceramic object and extract our own wisdom and truth. Hope helps us become the makers of our own meaning. This making of meaning for the observer can be as rich and stimulating as is the creative process for the craftsperson or artist. Finally we all stand together. We are all makers, active and alive in the world. The intensity of that life force is articulated and activated by our emotions. The ripe promise of hope must surely be one emotion we would want to nurture and protect in others and ourselves. We find it in ourselves when we look at children; we find it in the springtime flood of blossoms in a garden. We find it in the gentle touch of a loved one and we find it in an early morning sunrise that lights and warms our very being. We find it in the treasures still warm from the heat of the kiln. There are many, many good reasons for all of us to have and harbor hope.
Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
I have great trouble with the attitudes of contemporary artists who feel their chief function as an artist is to shock the lay public. This same public can bite you back when it comes to public art paid for by citizen taxpayer. This desire to shock actually paid off in a big way for those artists who discovered that people who could afford it would pay big bucks for the most outrageous stuff they could come up with. This attitude comprises more than a need to shock strangers, it is inspired by the contempt these artists feel toward the remainder of humanity. On top of that, this contempt shapes the character of the created piece. Great art can initially shock but that is not the central ingredient of its enduring value. I am still listening to Stravinsky “Rite of Spring” and had the pleasure of traveling to Madrid where I observed Picasso’s “Guernica”, both now hailed as lasting masterworks of the last century. I do not think either Stravinsky or Picasso would claim that their chief motivation in doing what they did was to do something as silly and superficial as to reduce their art to a stunt devised to shock strangers. They are also very good examples of those innovative artists who created daring new approaches to their art, yet also possessed great talent and discipline, with a vision of creativity that went beyond making their art into an insult.
Let me provide you a few concrete examples. Michael Kammen, in his book, “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture”, describes the issue of the proper role of art in a political democracy placed next to the ambiguity and diversity of much of modern art. He makes the point that most lay people are not used to figuring out and selecting the possibilities of multiple meanings in artwork. That task is difficult enough for the innocent and naive public, but then to have artists insist that their role is to regard the potential observer as adversary – and the purpose of their art to shock and offend that observer/adversary. Once the function of culture was that the arts and humanities were to ennoble and enrich humanity. When was that central legacy of Western civilization abandoned? What has been the cost and consequences of that abandonment? Doesn’t art that contains as content contempt for intended observers dis-empower those observers?
Kammen provides anecdotes about a few artists who became quite successful in doing what I just described,
“One might even argue that the common denominator – a constant – during the swift shift from one ‘ism’ to the next has been the desire to shock. Looking back to his brazenly tongue-in-cheek painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953), Larry Rivers explained that ‘I was energetic and egomaniacal and what is more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something no one in the New York art world would doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd.’ Roy Lichtenstein remarked in an interview that ‘the problem for a hopeful scene-making artists in the early sixties was how best to be disagreeable. What he needed was to find a body of subject matter sufficiently odious to offend even lovers of art.’ So he opted for the commonplace: comic book images. Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg insisted that ‘if the painting doesn’t upset you, it probably wasn’t a good painting to begin with.’ Abstract sculptor George Sugarman, whose Baltimore Federal raised a ruckus in that city during the later 1970s, asked rhetorically: ‘Isn’t controversy part of what modern art is all about?’ Performance artist Karen Finley asserted in 1990, as the case of the NEA Four unfolded, ‘That’s what art is about – its shock value.”
I do not contend that this is damning testimony about the aesthetic value of these artists. All those mentioned here are serious artists and most have done important and enduring work and contributed much to our culture. I have varying enthusiasm as reactions to their results but that has only to do with my own temperament and tastes. But still I think their comments are revealing of an attitude and approach to art that I maintain cannot be healthy or ultimately good for the culture. I declare my affinity and solidarity for the affirmative benefits of human culture and civilization. To delight in disfiguring the artifacts in such a way that it provides only the “disgusting, dead, and absurd” is to conclude that all human civilization is decadent, diseased and doomed. I can look at the wars, genocides, and mass starvation of my time on earth and agree that we have amassed considerable evidence to support that position. But to surrender to that hopeless perspective is to make human culture a fatal causality of all those calamities. Culture becomes a collection of pathologies and all our behaviors, including our creative ones, becomes symptoms of a terminal sickness endemic to the human species.
I totally disagree with all the statements of the various artists above. Despite my own reservations about the motivation and intent of some of these artists, I do not have patience or sympathy for those offended who seek to suppress the offensive art. I would never be so silly as to seek to ban that which offends me. I do not wish to define what art is really art and seek to force my conclusions on others. I do not support censorship of the arts, either in the visual image, the dramatic performance, or the content of the text in literature. I further support government sponsorship of public art, all of which will offend somebody, maybe even me on occasion.
I have about completed a book, “The Measure of Our Days: New Beginnings at Life’s End” by Jerome Groopman, M.D. Groopman is a physician, involved as both medical clinician and researcher, who specializes in the worst cases brought about by diseases like cancer and aids. He spends much of his time treating terminally ill patients, trying to find some combination of medicine and personal regime that might give them a few more years to live. Each chapter deals with a real patient that he had once treated. In one chapter Dan, a medical colleague, becomes seriously ill. Dan wanted to do everything possible to live. He talked to Groopman about his father, an Auschwitz survivor, and related that his father had told him that when a person in that concentration camp surrendered to despair, he would die. And that if he survived by becoming an angry animal who stole crusts of bread and bowls of soup from others, then he died inside as a human being. His father explained that just as there were these two types of death, there are also two types of life. One was trying to live a moral life as a moral person and the other was to help others do the same. These thoughts lead Groopman to the following ruminations.
“I searched my memory for the connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary, how there was an alchemy that transmuted the mundane into the sacred. It came to mind. Again, it was a story from the Holocaust, the story told by Prima Levi, the Jewish Italian chemist, who used the transmutability of the elements as a metaphor to explain the radical change in the substance of his life when enslaved by the Nazis. He wrote that it was the performing of the ordinary things that had sustained his sanity, his dignity, his humanity in hell’s inferno. The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims, asserting they were subhuman, without freedom or choice, and not deserving of life. Levi recounted how, when he was close to despair and considering giving in to death, he was instructed by a comrade in camp to wash his face every day. This ordinary and simple act restored dignity and structure to his person, because he exercised his will to do it, and it was a conscious choice. Levi also found that sustaining the life of the mind in the senseless world of the concentration camp gave him strength. With another friend, he regularly recited verses from Dante, as he had before his enslavement. He had chosen to introduce beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist. Levi believed the greatest form of resistance was to continue to act in the ordinary, normal ways that had marked one’s life before the deportation. It demonstrated a sense of control, an exercise of will, and signaled the potential to triumph over the forces that sought to destroy you. With restoration of dignity came a renewed capacity to hope.”
There is much to consider here. How can people even try to lead ordinary lives when confronted with extraordinary peril and degradation? The ability to wash one’s own face in such conditions is an act of defiance that also supports one’s dignity and humanity. As long as some modicum of choice exists or is willed to exist, then one is not totally without freedom. Yes, Groopman, I share your agonizing grief, “The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims.” Can art do the same thing? If the purpose of that art is calculated to only offend, to shock, to alienate the engaged observer, to mock everything important to that person, can there not be serious dehumanizing effects on that person? I can fully support critical or contentious art that challenges conventions and the status quo. I cannot support art that deliberately seeks to dehumanize those human beings that unfortunately come in contact with the noxious artifact.
I am sure you must resonate with Groopman’s story about how Levi was able to sustain the life of the mind by reciting the poet Dante, by introducing “beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist.” Should not art play a role in empowering people with the will and potential to triumph over the forces that seeks to destroy them? Does being modern require one not to care about what Groopman and Levi cared about? I fear that too often it is. What have we lost and when did we lose it? I fear that what we have lost in the arts has nothing to do with realism or abstraction, nothing to do with expression or skill, nothing to do with concept or completed artifact. What I fear we have lost in the arts is the determined urge to celebrate our humanity.
Sunday, August 12th, 2012
Hope might seem a strange emotion to attach to the making and engagement of pottery. Yet I believe that this basic emotion is the very foundation of an affirmative grasp of life and all that it offers, including pottery. For me, it is also an essential outcome of memorable aesthetic experiences. Hope contains the remedy for despair. Much contemporary and post-modern art prefers despair and its more sensational aspects to the softer if not sweeter elements of hope. It is not sophisticated nowadays for artists to offer hope. Hope requires a greater investment and risk than despair. Despair is usually defined as a symptom of bad things that have happened to you or could happen at any time. Despair eventually leads you to an ever more dire condition. In the extreme, it can finally drive you to not caring. The doors and windows of your soul can close and the lights go out. Great art can lead you both places at the same time and in both cases the rewards can be great. This is a very delicate balancing act. To engage the sublime darkness of the human sprit in some metaphorical or aesthetic guise as created by an artist or author, yet find some fragment of hope in the very same place and circumstance is to my mind the highest form of aesthetic engagement.
Hope vs. Despair
Hope is something you have to handcraft and make for yourself and then implement it despite all the dire issues of your own existence. Despair arrives with the concrete evidence of hurt that has been inflicted upon you. Hope is projection of a wished for future that has no real guarantee. Hope is the yet unrealized emotion of a personal belief system that can have little basis in fact. Hope is always unproven. It cannot depend on the facts of the matter for its justification. Despair might entail an honest and realistic assessment of the situation. Hope always begins as an exaggeration, an inventory of the potential of undependable possibilities. Another advantage of despair is that it is far more dependable than hope. How we cope with despair is often far more revealing of our character than the unfulfilled dreams or illusions that hope can depend upon.
Despair becomes clinical depression when it appears to lack a basis for its existence but you cannot avoid its intrusion just the same. The circumstances of your present despair might well be the result of your own past errors. Given the common distribution of our fallibilities, how can we prove to ourselves and others that we even deserve to have hope? Another advantage of despair, when one surrenders hope, the pressure is off and any further injury can be received with a benign if not resigned submission. In that sense, hope requires a resistance of the soul, a determination to surmount difficulties that might seem at the time insurmountable. Courage is an ingredient of hope. Despair is often inflicted on the innocent and that innocence can only intensify the despair. Hope has to be earned if it is to triumph.
Human culture must provide us hope. I will go further than that and personalize this statement. Art has been a central source of hope throughout my entire life. Art contains the reservoir of resources that can give us reasons to live and to get up in the morning. For the potter to approach the wheel, there has to be some element of hope that the outcome will be worth the effort. To create art one has to believe that what comes out of that effort will make a difference in the world. I want to further explore why so much contemporary art concentrates on the dismal and dire aspects of human existence. I want to start with a short essay that got my dander up in regard to my present mood. It is in an anthology edited by David Beech, “Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art”. It really set off my current funk about so much of what is happening in the arts today. It is a brief; one page essay by Robert Smithson titled “An Aesthetics of Disappointment”. Apparently Smithson went to an exhibit in 1966 in New York City and really disliked the show. The essay was a result.
Just a bit of background about Smithson. He was a seminal figure in the Land Art movement through the 1960s and 1970s, best known for ‘Spiral Jetty’, his 1979 “earthwork” in the Great Salt Lake, that was once covered by water but with the long drought in the West, is now visible and frequently visited. Apparently Smithson thought galleries and museum were ‘jails and tombs’, incapable of conveying the messy nature of reality. His ire was directed at an exhibit organized by an engineer that included artists involved in ‘experiments in art and technology’ I went to an website titled “Art Agenda” where April Lamm concluded that “For the most part the result of bringing 30 engineers together with 10 artists yielded performance kitsch at its worst.” Here is Smithson’s statement,
“Many are disappointed at the nullity of art. Many try to pump life or space into the confusion that surrounds art. An incurable optimism like a mad dog rushed into vacuum that the art suggests. A dread of voids and blanks brings on a horrible anticipation. Everybody wonders what art is, because there never seems to be any around. Many feel coldly repulsed by concrete unrealities, and demand some kind of proof or at least a few facts. Facts seem to ease the disappointment. But quickly those facts are exhausted and fall to the bottom of the mind. This mental relapse is incessant and tends to make our aesthetic view stale. Nothing is more faded than aesthetics. As a result, painting, sculpture and architecture are finished, but the art habit continues. The more transparent and vain the aesthetic, the less chance there is for reverting back to purity. Purity is a desperate nostalgia that exfoliates like a hideous need. Purity also suggests a need for the absolute with all its perpetual traps. Yet we are overburdened with countless absolutes and driven to inefficient habits. These futile and stupefying habits are thought to have meaning. Futility, one of the more durable things of this world, is nearer to the artistic experience than excitement. Yet the life-forcer is always around trying to incite a fake madness. The mind is important, but only when it is empty. The greater the emptiness the grander the art. Aesthetics have devolved into rare types of stupidity. Each kind of stupidity may be broken down into categories such as: bovine formalism, tired painting, eccentric concentrics or numb structures. All these categories and many others all petrify into a vast banality called the art world which is no world. A nice negativism seems to be spawning. A sweet nihilism is everywhere. Immobility and inertia are what many of the most gifted artists prefer. Vacant at the centre, dull at the edge, a few artists are on the true path of stultification.”
Thoughts on Smithson
I am not sure I understand exactly what are the specific elements of that exhibit that so offended Smithson. I am not sure it matters. I would extend his critical application to much of what goes for art today, probably including some of those aspects that he valued and would protect. He starts this essay and his collaboration with me within that very first sentence, “Many are disappointed at the nullity of art.” I frankly don’t know from the tone of his essay if he is agreeing or disagreeing with what he is stating. Is he being clever or satirical? Perhaps just furious and contemptuous? I don’t know and I don’t care. I find his next statement quite puzzling. If an incurable optimism is a mad dog, what kind of monster would represent nullity and futility? I also disagree with the face value of the statement. Where is this optimism he is talking about? I can’t find it in the cynical, aesthetic black holes of much of gallery art today. Yes, Smithson, many of us are very, very disappointed at the nullity of art. What a very good place to begin this discussion. I do wonder why his statement seems in style and content to serve that very same goal. Why would anyone, including the artist or poet, deliberately attempt through their art to disarm human beings of hope?
At some point, Smithson does annoy me. Is he being serious when he says that painting, sculpture, and architecture are finished? Maybe for him but not for me. His tone in this essay is part of the problem for me. Why is it so important to be so provocative? He utters absolutist statements like the one just stated, and then he criticizes the “desperate nostalgia” for the absolute in others. The artist as agent provocateur can be quite wearing on people’s nerves and became quite tedious. This can be true for writers who take the same pose too. Is art really now just a habit? He seems to insist that the only alternative to the present nullity is an unsatisfactory return to facts, the grounded absolutes of previous aesthetic dogma. I don’t agree. He makes two silly statements in a row – about the mind being important only when it is empty and the other about the greater the emptiness the grander the art. Is he just pulling my leg?
I think he must have learned this trick from Andy Warhol, a mentor of his at one time. Here again he is doing what he just earlier criticized in others – trying to “incite a fake madness” into a discussion where I would value his transparent honesty and informed point of view. Is he trying to prove by his own performance in this essay that “Aesthetics have devolved into rare types of stupidity?” I agree with his final thoughts about nihilism in the arts but I don’t think it is all that sweet. Yes, vacant at the centre, dull at the edge, but after a careful reading and re-reading, I share his general disappointment with the state of the arts but for very different reasons. I end up suspecting that it really serves his purpose to adopt a jaded, cynical disappointment that offers no hope beyond it. For me, he then becomes a part of the problem.
I have another anxiety in advancing my perspective on these matters. There was a whole range of conforming and conventional know-nothings out there who reject any innovation or experimentation in art beyond their fond memories of the covers of the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ by Norman Rockwell. Now their grandchildren collect the sentimental, mass-produced stuff by Thomas Kincaid. I do not equate great art with an illustrated realism nor limit my ceramic interests to the stark minimalism of the functional ceramic container as domestic appliance. Nor do I require or limit my received aesthetic messages to contain only good news or morale building opportunities. Hope needs rigor and complexity to makes a difference. It also needs the exuberance that comes from the expression of human feeling.
Wednesday, July 25th, 2012
The maker is more public and exposed than my current situation as private collector. I can hide out in the safety of my home and garden. Potters stand in front of their pottery, and the direct responsibility of one for the other is not in doubt. You cannot disinherit or deny your own work. There is a basic courage in affirming your own work after bringing it into existence. If you do not love your own creations, if you do not have loyalty to them after creating them, than you might well be considered a phony and a fake. Yet that love for the offspring of your muddy hands and the wheel is subject to public scrutiny by strangers who do not know you. How do you feel when people walk by your booth at a ceramic fair or exhibit without stopping? How do you protect yourself when your feelings are hurt by sheer indifference? Isn’t that even a more hurtful rejection than any other kind?
Words of Passion
I want to offer you another notion of this ascension of passion from bodily desires to an inclusive love that leads to the contemplation of beauty, truth, and virtue. In his book, “The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism”, Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet of the last century and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, takes us back to Plato and his book, “Symposium” in which his spokesperson, Socrates talks about his encounter with Diotima, a wise foreign priestess. According to Plato, Diotima tells Socrates of the loftiest and the most deeply hidden mysteries of passion, love and beauty.
“In our youth we are attracted by corporeal beauty, and we love only one body, one beautiful form. But if what we love is beauty, why love it only in one body and not in many? And Diotima asks again: If beauty exists in many forms and persons, why not love it in and of itself? And why not go beyond the forms and love the thing that makes them beautiful, the idea? Diotima sees love as a ladder: at the bottom, love of a beautiful body; then the beauty of many bodies; after that, beauty itself; after that, the virtuous soul; and finally, incorporeal beauty. If love of beauty is inseparable from the desire of immortality, why not participate in it through the contemplation of the eternal forms? Beauty, truth, and virtue are three and one; they are facets of the same reality, the only real reality. Diotima concludes: ‘He who has followed the path of love’s initiation in the proper order will on arriving at the end suddenly perceive a marvelous beauty, the source of all our efforts…An eternal beauty, non engendered, incorruptible, that neither increases nor decreases.’ A beauty that is entire, one, identical to itself, that is not made up of parts as the body is or of ratiocinations, as is discourse. Love is the way, the ascent, toward the beauty: it goes from the love of one body to the love of many, then from the love of all beautiful forms to the love of virtuous deeds, then from deeds to ideas and from ideas to absolute beauty, which is the highest life that can be lived, for in it ‘the eyes of the understanding commune with beauty, and man engenders neither images nor simulacra of beauty but beautiful realities.’ And this is the path of immortality.”
If the maker can embed a kind of beauty in the ceramic work, then that object can inspire the passionate search for truth and virtue as attributes of ‘beautiful realities’. I would not go along with Plato’s insistence, as articulated by Socrates, that there is only one absolute beauty, that perfect, ideal single form that is the eternal template for all lesser examples.
Variates of Beauty
I see many varieties of beauty as I look around my pottery gallery, taking in diverse appearances that can be traced to many cultures and styles as expressed in historical context through many generations of potters. I do aspire to attain that ascendant mountaintop where I can gaze at the marvels of past and present ceramic civilizations and celebrate that a small portion of that greatness resides in my pottery gallery. Passion can lead to love – a love that transports us to a profound and virtuous state of awakened contemplation and the embrace of marvelous beauty and sublime expression. When will it be safe in our society to talk about our feelings again? I for one am not ashamed to do so.
Art and craft, basic human culture, cannot flourish where emotions are suppressed. Art, and yes, craft and pottery, has been shifting to just another commercial activity, just another exchange of money for product as a financial transaction typical of how our society works. If there is no inherent nobility of spirit present, if there is nothing uplifting about possessing works of beauty, then maybe I should just transfer my consumer activity to other products that promise a bigger bang for my bucks. I have been going to craft shows for several decades. There is less and less pottery there because potters cannot afford the high fees required to obtain a booth. So they are being squeezed out. Apparently pottery is not a hot market commodity item or a big profit maker. Well, for me, pottery is not merchandize, and we must find others ways to sing the enriching virtues of pottery. Oliver Wendell Holmes, former Supreme Court Justice, once said that taxes are the price we pay for civilization. Well, in the same spirit, when you purchase pottery and other craft, you pay for human culture. I think that is a very good bargain indeed.
How do you sell a quality of life instead of just more stuff to store in your house? Maybe I should buy all my pottery from China in the future. It would be cheap and I could get a better deal than those more expensive America potters. Remind me to check out eBay and find some good buys. Pottery is a part of human culture and ceramics is a part of human civilization. Why can’t we seem to tell better stories of why that is important? Libraries are closing throughout America during these tough economic times. State parks are being closed in California. What kind of a society first closes its libraries and parks? Why don’t we seem to care about these things anymore? Have we forgotten what makes life worth living? Where does pottery and craft in general fit into a more compelling and convincing story about those values that makes everything else bearable? Do we still believe in them or have we also lost faith in what we do and the joyous impact it can have on others?
I want to offer you a portion of a poem that Octavio Paz wrote. Poetry contains the essence of highly refined passion. Emotions are distilled in poetry as metaphors for the universal issues of our brief existence on earth. Pottery uses that very earth to provide its own emotional vocabulary. One poem in particular by Paz speaks of something that all potters dread when they open up a kiln. This title of rather long poem, of which you will receive only a sample, is “The Broken Waterjar”, the last poem in a book of his poetry, “Octavio Paz: Early Poems 1935-1955”. This lyrical song celebrates much of what we have been talking about in these three blogs about passion. This is the last part of the poem,
“Tell me, drouth, stone polished smooth by toothless time,
by toothless hunger,
dust ground to dust by teeth that are centuries, by centuries
that are hunger,
tell me, broken waterjar in the dust, tell me,
is the light born to rub bone against bone, man against man, hunger
till the spark, the cry, the word spurts forth at last,
till the water flows and the tree with wide turquoise leaves arises
We must sleep with open eyes, we must dream with
we must dream the dreams of a river seeking its course, of the
sun dreaming its worlds.
we must dream aloud, we must sing till the song puts forth roots,
Trunk, branches, birds, stars.
We must sing till the dream engenders in the sleeper’s flank the
Red wheat-ear of resurrection.
The womanly water, the spring at which we may drink and
Recognize ourselves and recover,
the spring that tells us we are men, the water that speaks along in
the night and calls us by name,
the spring of words that say I, you, he, we, under the great tree,
the living statue of the rain,
where we pronounce the beautiful pronouns, knowing ourselves
and keeping faith with our names,
we must dream backwards, toward the source, we must row back
up the centuries,
beyond infancy, beyond the beginning, beyond the waters
we must break down the walls between man and man, reunite
what has been sundered,
life and death are not opposite worlds, we are one stem with
we must find the lost word, dream inwardly and
decipher the night’s tattooing and look face to face at the
noonday and tear off its mask,
bathe in the light of the sun and eat the night’s fruit and spell
out the writings of stars and rivers,
and remember what the blood, the tides, the earth, and the body
say, and return to the point of departure,
neither inside nor outside, neither up nor down, at the crossroads
where all roads begin,
for the light is singing with a sound of water, the water with
a sound of leaves,
the dawn is heavy with fruit, the day and the night flow together
in reconciliation like a calm river,
the day and the night caress each other like a man and woman
and the seasons and all mankind are flowing under the arches of
the centuries like one endless river
toward the living center of origin, beyond the end and
I think potters already have taken Paz’s advice and “dream with their hands”. Hopefully your pottery sings for you and the song fills the air with who you are and what you have just made and given to the world. Pottery does break down the walls, speaks a universal language, can aid in the reconciliation of all humans. Pottery is made of earth, fire and water, “flowing under the arches of the centuries like one endless river toward the living center of origin, beyond the end and the beginning.”
To be engaged in the world can only be recorded on your soul and heart if you are open to not only receiving sensations and meanings but also providing your own response in return. Many who read this blog do that very thing with their ceramic artistry. There is no reason to make that effort unless that created artifact contains the compressed summary of your thoughts and feelings. That passionate, expressive content is waiting for the observer, dormant in the ceramics object only when unseen or neglected, activated on contact when viewed and experienced.
We have so far explored sentimentality and passion as emotions inherent in the creative process and embedded in pottery. What are some other emotions contained in pottery? We will see in the next blog.
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.
Thursday, May 10th, 2012
After bringing up these unsavory attitudes toward sentimentality, I going to take the risk and confess that I too have critical reactions to excessively sentimental depictions in various artistic media. It is not for the same reasons as discussed above. A film I saw recently inspired my reveries about sentimentality. Judy and I went out to dinner and a movie with friends on New Year’s Eve. We went to a huge mall not too far from us located in an adjoining suburb, connected by the freeway that runs close to our house and goes through a string of suburbs on its way to Los Angeles. We saw the film, “War Horse”, directed by Steven Spielberg. I had concerns about going to see the film, concerns about Spielberg’s tendency to make conventional Hollywood films even out of the most unconventional themes. We are due to see the play soon in a month or two. It originated in Britain and was adapted from a novel. I anticipate a very different experience with the play. The film served the standard Spielberg formula, with intervals of two rather brutal and realistic World War I battle scenes sandwiched between sentimental slabs of overripe storytelling lit by rose-colored skies. The visual scenes of the English countryside with those charming huts with thatched roofs have been seen before on calendars, jigsaw puzzles and on the covers of boxed candy. It was this combination of the inherent vulgarity of war and the sloppy sentimentality of the remainder of the movie that triggered the contents of this letter.
John William’s lush music lathered the film with sweeping and rolling romantic crescendos that constantly tugged at my heartstrings. Spielberg somehow succeeds in manipulating the audience to care only about the survival of the boy and his horse despite the graphic horrors portrayed of the war, bodies of young men piled in the trenches, rats gnawing corpses, all representing the bloody and savage end of prior European civilization. There is a faint and latent message embedded in the film that perhaps if men only loved each other as much as they loved horses we would have no more wars. It contained almost all the elements I dislike and find all too common in Hollywood movies.
I will offer this review of the film by Andrew Pulver, who, in the Tuesday 20 December 2011 edition of “The Guardian”, had this to say about the “War Horse”,
“Following hard on the heels of the rousing, if charmless, ‘Adventures of Tintin’, Steven Spielberg has opted for a lachrymose, buttery treatment of the Michael Morpurgo book-then-play, which is still packing them out in the West End. The original novel is famous for its horse-viewpoint narration, while the stage version is celebrated for its puppetry; Spielberg has jettisoned both of these (relatively) adventurous devices, and tells it pretty straight. But straight doesn’t mean unvarnished. From the first swooping shots of a chocolate-boxy English countryside, this ‘War Horse’ is rooted in a buffed-up sanded-down version of rural England, where even alcohol-fuelled poverty is given a picturesque, storybook patina.”
I do appreciate that at least Pulver agrees with me on this film. I seem to have two choices in engaging the arts today. Most media in popular culture offers a variation of the sentimental to lure a big box office. The other box office strategy is the vulgarity of violence. The avant-garde in the fine arts regularly offers the vulgar, often under the cover of claiming satire, but most often merely adding to the towering modern and postmodern achievements of the vulgar. A few of the most highly successful artists in the fine arts today have managed to achieve a deadly combination of both. My aesthetic tastes and standards do not appreciate the domination of either possibility. I can tolerate elements of both present in the artifact or performance but only as counterpoints to some greater purpose or meaning. If I reject the sentimental and the vulgar as aesthetic standards, what is left for me? I do not find the vulgar offensive but rather banal when its need to shock becomes a desperate strategy.
I do often find the sentimental offensive, trying to deceive me into believing in the ultimate triumph of a happy ending that ignores the fact that we cannot escape death. Life teaches you that there are thorns even on something as beautiful as a rose bush. Sentimentality requires experiences that successfully turn past reality into today’s fiction. In this case the falsification of past life transforms present life into a romance. Sentimentality becomes the emotional cemetery for our lives, the buried memories that are awakened and sweetened with the help of stimuli created for that effect. Sentimentality wisely avoids the significant and focuses rather on those intimate experiences and relationships of personal lifetimes. To be sentimental one has to demand that your memories of the past promise to faithfully tell you loving falsehoods. Sentimentality lacks the resources to be profound. But it just might make life worth living for those of us who have known great suffering. Sentimentality often becomes a well-intentioned lie justified for the purposes of overall morale. The lie is in what is left out, the harsh and cruel aspects of the human condition. It a lie of omission, necessary for the sweet bits and pieces to triumph in the one sided presentation stacked to make you feel very, very good.
Well, I do seem to have rather definite feelings about the employment of sentimentality in the arts, don’t I? It appears that most people might well disagree with me. The film, “Warhorse” was nominated for best picture for an Oscar, although it did fail to achieve that goal. You might well think it is one of the greatest films you every saw. I need to argue a bit with myself about my critical attitude. To love is to feel sentimental. Not just at that moment of joyful revelation, but hopefully ever afterward. Children would not want parents who were not endearingly sentimental in their feelings toward them and demonstrative in displaying those feelings. Judy and I are going to have our 40th anniversary later this year in the fall. We have been planning a trip, maybe to Europe, to celebrate the occasion. I have a rich memory bank of our lives together, things we have experienced together over the years and now share in our fond recollections. These rich memories form a sentimental web that wraps around and bonds our present lives. Yes, yes, I also feel quite sentimental about my old Golden Retriever, Morris, and to remain completely candid for at least another sentence or two, even though it might weaken my argument, I absolutely adore my 19th century Royal Doulton pottery that has bright and pretty hand-painted flowers against deep blue backgrounds. Do you get the feeling that I am a bit conflicted about the whole subject?
That said, I am going to get back to critiquing sentimentality. I do get so emotional about emotions. I want to compare this sentiment with another quite popular element in our society and in our arts, and that is vulgarity. I have a deep aversion and prejudice of anything sentimental or vulgar that achieves great popular or commercial success solely because of those attributes. In our world today, too often vulgarity and sentimentality have ceased being authentic human emotions. Today the demonstration of the vulgar and the sentimental are commercial activities and these emotions and the behavior they inspire become contrived for profit in the marketplace. When something vulgar becomes successful or acceptable it stops being vulgar. When something sentimental becomes a success, it remains sentimental. Sentimentality can be bonding in forming a community of people. Vulgarity separates people and can be most divisive. The new or unusual cannot be vulgar on those grounds alone and should not alone be the cause of alienation. The greatest curse of sexism for both men and women is to charge that women are naturally sentimental and men are naturally vulgar.
Again I must retreat and reconsider my brash declarations of personal taste. Almost all great art, even including the French Impressionists, were once declared to be vulgar as compared with the traditions and practices at the time. Any innovation or change at first appears to be an insult and challenge to what went before it. Sentimentality has a generosity and kindness that can be therapeutic even though on occasion most unrealistic. Vulgarity can celebrate those essential animal lusts that are authentic sponsors of our passionate and excessive expressions. Sentimentality can be used to overly domesticate the unruly powers that make great art possible.
Some who might be amused or even perplexed that I collect pottery might charge that contemporary pottery is in itself a sentimental attempt to retrain an obsolete way of making things. Plastic is practical, modern and tough. It is only the nostalgia of yesterday – a key ingredient in sentimentality – that keeps us making and collecting something called pottery. Now, don’t get upset. You know I don’t believe that for a minute. But isn’t sentimentality a key element in ceramic traditions? Can we justify maintaining and continuing artistic legacies practiced over centuries based on such a defense of continuity and tradition? Is the only way to make pottery modern to take an abstract expressionistic approach and tear holes and punch dents in them just like you know who? (Initials P.V.) I do have some rather modern pottery in my gallery that I hesitate to pour liquids in because they might leak. Is leaking pottery just more modern and less sentimental than the old fashioned pottery that doesn’t leak? Many modernists would assert that to be sentimental is to be weak and that anything sentimental in a work of art diminishes its artistic value and rigor. But isn’t a love of humanity central to a love of the humanities? Should we be that judgmental of it’s appearance in our art and culture? Maybe I am just a softy after all.
I am not through yet with sentimentality. On to the third part…
Monday, April 2nd, 2012
The supposed difference between what is called fine arts and what is called craft, including pottery, is that the former can contain profound expressions of human thoughts and emotions while the latter, at best, can become efficient in their function as objects made with great skill and mastery of the medium. The corollary to that is that one can engage and experience human emotions while engaging painting or sculpture but cannot extract that while engaging crafted objects, and this would include pottery in particular. Do we want to challenge that idea? I don’t know about you, but I have a house full of pottery and I think one or more human emotions are embedded in some form or another in them. I can certainly locate these emotions in me as I engage and experience them. Is that because I am obviously abnormal in my obsessive love of pottery and should seek immediate therapy? Or is it because the containers themselves house one or more aesthetic elements that represent these basic emotions? Would potters, usually a modest and humble lot, claim one or more of these emotional properties present in their own pottery?
The answer to these questions is of course more obvious in ceramic sculpture, where clay is used in a figurative or even abstract construct. Here ceramic artists can claim to be a part of that long and prestigious history of sculpture as a fine art medium. I collect antique and contemporary tiles and here again a long history of visual portrayals of human activities and natural landscapes places them within a tradition of narrative that can contain visual images and symbols more easily interpreted and translated into metaphorical aspects of essential human emotions. What can a teapot tell you? How can a vase or bowl convey or arouse strong feelings? Should I even try to prove my point with a teacup and saucer of all things? Maybe I should stop this discussion right now and just give up.
The very idea of emotions has never enjoyed a good reputation in the Western World. Emotions were associated with irrational behavior while the triumph of reason in the Age of Enlightenment was considered the true emergence of mature civilization. This idea that emotions are more primitive, less intelligent, less dependent, and more dangerous and had to be controlled and governed by reason is embedded in our history and culture. Art was once considered by some to be an unstable activity that threatened the order by stimulating the emotions. Plato condemned flute music as conducive to licentiousness. I am not sure how he regarded potters back then but surely potters are at least as dangerous as flute players. I can verify that every time I walk into my pottery gallery something really intense happens with my emotions that might fully justify Plato’s concerns.
In an essay by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins about “Emotions: An Overview” in the 2nd volume of the Oxford ‘Encyclopedia of Aesthetics’, they concluded this about the role of emotions in aesthetics,
“In contemporary aesthetics in the English-speaking world, the role of emotion is still a matter of considerable debate. Much of this debate turns on the nature of emotion, which, as this brief history suggests, is no simple matter. How we conceive of emotion depends not only on science but also on ethics, one’s conception of human nature and the good life. And to this short list we can add one’s conception of the arts and their role in the good life. Insofar as emotions are conceived as primitive, unintelligent reactions or forces, straining for release, then aesthetics will reflect the satisfications and dangers of such catharsis. On the other hand, insofar as one’s conceptions of the emotions become more complex and sophisticated, aesthetics will become more complex and sophisticated as well.”
Can craft have a sense of humor? Can there be a tragic element in pottery? Ever met a sensuous vase? Does something made of clay have to be called ‘ceramic art’ in order to possess these qualities? As with all questions I have asked you, I do not have a single or final answer. What do you think? I have always identified myself as a pottery collector. Pottery historically/traditionally has provided dependable service in the kitchen or dining room table. The function of pottery was to hold liquids and food in some essential form. Much of it continues in that noble role. I am very proud of that history and do not need to defend it here. But some people that work with clay, maybe even some who call themselves potters, do try to go beyond function, do try to integrate sentimental, tragic, sensuous or humorous elements in both the form and decoration of their work. Are some of you pottery purists who can’t accept that? I want to explore this with you, might even take a few blogs to try to sort this out. Are you with me?
Let’s approach the sentimental first. Of all these qualities, isn’t sentimentality the most often and common element present through the centuries in ceramics? Lots of pottery, from previous centuries especially, had hand-painted portrayals of sweet children or adorable animals or beautiful landscapes in ripe colors on porcelain pottery, surely enough to melt your heart. Does that give this kind of pottery a bad reputation today? In those industrial potteries in the 19th century women were restricted to painting or decorating pottery and not allowed to throw the pots themselves. Did this imply that not only was sentimentality inherent in the aesthetic taste of that time but also assumed that it was also an integral aspect of women’s nature and far easier for them to replicate on pottery?
It was of course other women in the domestic kitchens of that day that were using the pottery that their sisters in ceramic factories had decorated. Do we still think that sentimentality is thought more natural or normal for women than men? As a man, I resent the implication that a man can’t be as tender and sensitive as a woman. As an amateur gardener, I object to the fact that I have great trouble when I go shopping and find only gardening gloves and hats designed and sized for women. We now recognize that women can be and are great potters. We have made some progress in the last hundred years. Well, it works both ways. Men can be great gardeners too and why is that considered a women thing in our culture?
It is not fashionable for either men or women to be sentimental these days. For women, seeking full scope and definition of their human hood, sentimentality is a part of the old stereotype of them that held them back for so long. Some want to prove that they can be as tough and strong as any man. It is particularly important to display these qualities in the work world where they must compete with men. Many women, particularly if they are executives or elected to office, try very hard to avoid crying in public. Many men are insecure in demonstrating their feelings and emotions in public, assuming that this violation of traditional definitions of masculinity would result in damage to their manly image. Artistic activities of any kind were not always considered appropriate for ‘real men’ in the history of Anglo-Saxon societies. Perhaps men potters are considered more ‘macho’ because they can throw huge piles of clay on the wheel and are in better shape than those ‘sissy’ men artists that dab a canvas with a paintbrush. I felt this gender prejudice as a boy when I loved to paint and later as an art major in high school and as a young art major in college. Please tell me that it is long gone and buried.
I am looking around my pottery gallery right now as I sit at my desk and computer in the front of that big room and I do notice some blue vases, although offhand I can’t seem to find any pink ones. Should I assume that the blue ones were made by men or for them? Should I assume women made them if some vases have soft, pastel glazes? It gets kind of silly, doesn’t it? Yet we are talking about centuries of gender discrimination based on such ridiculous premises. Why should we assume that pottery was not impacted too? Do men and women potters escape from these limiting culture stereotypes today? Do women who purchase and collect pottery generally look for different things those men? I know many husband and wife teams of potters that work side by side in the same studio and display their work together in the same gallery. This was true in Seagrove, North Carolina where I visited late last year and was the subject of my previous three blogs here. What would they have to say about this issue of sentimentality?
I am really going to explore several rather provocative positions here. One is that the potter is no more innocent than any other maker or citizen of the republic. We are all products of a particular time and place and the orientation of the culture at that time and place is embedded in us too. If some influences are toxic or invidious, then they have to be consciously eradicated by a self-conscious purging of that cultural prejudice from our very being. Another is that the general culture impacts all of us and can contaminate, pollute, even corrupt the creative process (as well as inspire and inform it) at the potter’s wheel as well as any other site in the culture. In saying that, I would also balance that charge with full credit to the positive aesthetic and cultural influences that inspire great work and outstanding ceramics effects that are hopefully more dominant in our ceramic legacy and in your own work. As I have alluded to earlier, the chief accusation against sentimentality resides in the historic gender prejudice that it is a women’s trait and lacks the rigor and discipline of a masculine characteristic. I do not accept this idea, it is offensive to me, but it is an essential part of our history.
I am just getting warmed about the role of sentimentality and other emotions in aesthetics, craft and art. I will continue to explore the subject in the next blog.