Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Posts Tagged ‘Beauty’
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.
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…
Thursday, September 1st, 2011
I am going to take the next few blogs to explore my thoughts and feelings during the last 35 years of my life as a collector of pottery. I recently went through my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter” and pulled out all the references I could find that relate to collecting pottery. Actually this passionate obsession of mine that has resulted in nearly a thousand ceramic artifacts housed in my modest cottage was a central theme of the book. Are potters really interested in collectors? I mean besides the profit derived from the sale of pottery to them? I want you to love me for myself, not just the contents of my wallet or bank account. Do you care about what we do with your pot after we buy it? Do you act toward those who purchase your pottery like any store clerk would act in making a sale from behind the counter? Is it just another commercial transaction or can this contact between pottery and collector also bring a kind of communication and relationship that in itself can be rewarding and deeply felt? Can our mutual roles as advocates of pottery play a vital role in defending and preserving ceramic art?
I go to a lot of craft fairs and pottery exhibits, often seeing the same potters that I have seen before. Many of them remember me and some don’t. The ones that remember me tend to be the ones from whom I have purchased more than one pot over the years. Some potters have become friends over those same years. I even occasionally send a letter I have just finished writing to a potter as a personal gift. They make pots and I write letters, both creative acts that require different skills and talents. As I have often stated before, perhaps in one of these blogs, I believe that the aesthetic act of engaging the ceramic artifact is as complex and demanding as the creative act of making it. This is what I have spent most of my lifetime honing and developing. I am still seeking at this late date to further deepen and develop this capacity to fully experience the object before me.
I would like to feel that the maker and the collector are natural partners, even collaborators in working to assure that there is a future for ceramic art and that the creation of the ceramic artifact remains as one the core activities at the heart of human civilization. I have developed my voice in order to articulate these views as a writer. This accumulation of excerpts from several years of writing letters to a potter is my tribute to the work potters create and to the contributions they have made throughout centuries of ceramic achievements. Through a collector’s voice, these letters give testimony to pottery as passion and pottery as property. There is an irony here. I have epiphanies of joy as I experience them aesthetically and take delight in them. But I am also the custodian of these physical objects and so have developed a rigorous routine of caring for the pottery as material property. Long ago I decided to take responsibility for their care, trying to preserve my pottery for the next generation and after. I am the willing docent and curator for those ceramic treasures that find their way to my home. I take that role very seriously. To see me dusting my pottery, while not exactly poetry in motion, waving my long handled dusting wand and caressing each object and the shelf around it, forms a unique choreography and a most unusual dance for this old man totally unlike my behavior on any other occasion.
I am going to begin with my very first letter, dated July 31, 2002 and mailed to Christa Assad, the young potter I had recently met at her gallery/studio in San Francisco. This initial mailing occurred almost five years before the first forty letters to her were published as a book. Here it is,
“I have always been a risk taker, and at this point perhaps you might think this communication somewhat eccentric. Even intrusive in seeking some exchange beyond the commercial transaction that is the only evidence of our previous relationship. In your note you indicate appreciation for supporting your career. However modest that support, I do acknowledge that it is a function from which I derive much satisfaction. I do think your pot was worthy of my purchase – and I am pleased that you directly benefited – but again self-interest played an important part. I do not mean some calculated financial investment for future gain – indeed I frankly do not care if your career eventually inflates the value of that vase. Nor do I celebrate the acquisition of a commodity that increases the inventory of my private possessions. Your pot contributes daily to the enrichment of my domestic life. I house it in order to meet it each day. The true aesthetics of art do not reside in highly refined and esoteric discussions of critics and academics. The engagement of an artifact with human sensibilities is a pedestrian and ordinary event – I wash the dishes, take out the trash, and engage my pottery. They are all necessary actions and behavior to maintain my life and sanity.”
As you can see, I wanted to establish the fact that what I had purchased in her studio was not just another commodity to fill up some space on a shelf in my home. Rather these objects, housed in a domestic setting, were vital elements in a quality of life that had the transformative and compelling ability to enrich my very existence. At the same time, by placing them in my home, not a museum or gallery, they were my daily companions and their presence made them family members. The amazing grace of pottery is that its lacks a pretentious and inflated self-importance. Pottery is precious to me but remains the common accomplices of my ordinary, everyday life.
In my third letter, dated August 17, 2002, I talk a bit about my motivations in collecting pottery and the fact that I do not actually use most of them in my kitchen or dining room but rather place them throughout the house as objects of pure delight. I know a lot of potters who make functional pottery are disappointed that I don’t actually use them as intended. I do of course use some for their intended purpose as plates, mugs, and vases. But also in these letters I try to make the case that they have sufficient aesthetic value that they don’t need to justify their existence by having just a utilitarian role. Beautiful pottery well made and a delight to observe has every right to be celebrated on their own intrinsic merits as works of art and craft. Here is a brief excerpt from my third letter,
“What is the fate of the pot? You make them and I collect them. What responsibilities does the potter and the collector have to the pot? I do not pour from them, few rarely hold flowers. Containers without content – objects without objectives. They sit in rows on shelves, splendid and quiet friends who make little demands of me and reward me each day by their very existence. No rare trophy pieces here for investment purposes, rather an electric and inclusive collection that documents my great affection for hand made craft. I partially justify my collection by offering custodial protection. They are safe. I dust them weekly and bravely await the next California earthquake, knowing that museum wax secures them to the shelf. I have an alarm system and punch in the numbers on the small keyboard on the hallway wall each time I leave the premises. I do not know what this says about our culture, or the low state of the criminal mind, but I suspect that thieves would sooner swipe silverware and computers. I take caution anyway, assuming their might be the one criminal with good taste in the vicinity.
And, by God, I do enjoy them. I invite in neighborhood children and take them on tours of the cottage. Each pot has a story of acquisition, many in some far-off land. Each pot contains memories of associations with people and places that form the vita of my last twenty five years on earth. At some point, I don’t remember when, they replaced the camera snapshots that used to record my adventures in the world. Some are antiques, and like a true Californian, I join their youthful reverence at anything over twenty five years old. I assert to my young charges that indeed some are even older than me, and despite their incredulous response, share their wonder at these objects who preexisted before our time and who might survive after our demise. Like the California Redwood tree, ceramics has historic durability that is not typical in our disposable consumer culture.”
I am a modest and humble collector. I never had a vast personal fortune to spend on purchasing pottery. I am not a retired CEO of some big corporation. I was a school teacher, later a professor at a state university. For the last 15 years I have been retired, spending much of our discretionary income on pottery. We live primarily on my pension, social security, a bit of money stored away in a tax sheltered annuity accumulated when I was a professor. I have distinguished ancestors in the long history of legendary collectors. I must compete for glory with the Popes of the Holy Roman church, European kings of vast empires, the nobility and members of the landed aristocracy, wealthy robber barons of the 19th century, generals and their armies who looted countries under their occupation in various wars, and industrialists who used their vast fortunes from ownership of railroads, gold mines or oil to purchase vast warehouses of artistic riches to fill their vast mansions. Then there is me and my cottage in Glendora. I have indeed the ability and resources to occasionally invest in an antique teapot or a ceramic vessel from a contemporary potter and have done so with great pride.
Is collection a pathology? Some kind of sickness that results in an obsessive need to collect beyond any reasonable need to do so? How can I explain and defend this primary activity of mine over the years? Here is what I said in my 9th letter, dated November 30, 2002.
“I do not need to justify my motivation. I know a need from a want. I want pottery because I have an obligation to support human imagination and creativity in a world where human destruction and tragedy often appears to be triumphal. I need pottery because I am daily enhanced and enriched by the presence of pottery within the domestic chambers of my family life. Surely history proves that art is an endemic activity shared by all groups. I can only offer my own testimony and experience that the celebration and appreciation of art is as natural and necessary as its creation. Collecting cannot be explained, since it is not a rational pursuit and depends on an unlikely duality – obsession with beauty and a lust for private ownership of beautiful things. Bankruptcy becomes a distant danger if this obsession cannot be controlled. Who can tell you when you have enough French Impressionist paintings or sufficient pots? When is enough really enough? The finite shelf or wall space in your home cannot be the measurement of your appetite. That would represent a cruel limitation. Mortality is the great unspoken curse of the collector. The inevitable approach of that mortality sharpens the race, a monopoly of some category of art must be achieved before you falter and weaken, this is the great contest that energizes memorable collectors. It is simply good sportsmanship to donate the collection when your demise becomes evident and unavoidable. I must be realistic. There are no collectors genetic link in succeeding generations of family members. I will pass on to them the pots, but cannot provide them the passion for collecting them.”
I have a lot more to discuss with you about how we collectors make our way in the world and how we approach the maker and the artifact created by the maker. In the end, I can only speak from my own idiosyncratic view. I am afraid there is as much diversity and differences among collectors as among ceramic artists. Summer is a good time to appreciate one’s collection. It is too hot right now to go out in my garden. I stay inside and walk the corridors and rooms of my home. I have much to see and engage on the shelves of these rooms. I really do think a collector’s lot in these circumstances can be a very happy one.
Thursday, January 13th, 2011
Both time and memory are expendable and fragile. Time is quite independent in attitude. It will not slow down its daily rush to suit those of us who wish to delay its finite length as measured in our life span. Due to my long life, I now have an extensive span of assorted memories stretching back to early childhood. I know that the older memories are not very reliable, and that even the more recent ones bear my self-serving version of what I think happened. Others close to me who had witnessed the same events might have a different version of what we think is a single reality. Even with the most earnest and honest attempts to retrieve the past, memories do play tricks on all of us. It is only natural for people to try to remember only the happiest moments of the past and let go of the rest. Others cannot forget those terrible hurts or incidents that brought them such recorded pain. These unwelcome memories often do not seem to fade with time but become all too durable. They are a few wise philosophers who have advised us that we have more to learn from our past pain than from our past happiness. What do you think?
The calendar allows us an excuse to make an accounting of the year just passed and the possibilities for the year newly engaged. How do we make such an assessment? I am not talking about New Year resolutions here. They are easy to make and even easier to forget. One cannot assess how one wants to change in the New Year without seeking improvements in both behavior and circumstances. If the wish for the new year consists of a desire to win the state lottery or thousands of dollars on the television game show Jeopardy, then these desires will remain largely dreams or fantasies of an easy and unearned success.
So wanting to change behavior must come before wanting your circumstances to change. The economic recession we are in now is not going to change immediately just because of our wishes for it to do so. The same can be said for our hope that the war in Afghanistan will end so our troops can come home. These and other similar issues appear to be out of our direct control or influence. So maybe the first decision to make is to identify those behaviors of your own that you might actually be able to change or modify. Then you can realistically organize your efforts to execute that plan during this coming year.
The hope of course is that by changing our behaviors we can also change to some degree our circumstances. I do not think this is an unrealistic goal and well worth some reflection and effort. We can marshal our energy and resources at the beginning of this new year and offer ourselves a fresh supply of hope. We can make new beginnings in a number of gestures, testing and trying out new behaviors that can modify or even abandon those old habits that did not enhance our situation. The delicate balancing act of recognizing the issues that confront us while at the time refusing to be just a victim of circumstances allows all of us the opportunity to be our own local heroes. Simply getting through the day requires a kind of courage. Getting through the day with grace and generosity requires an affirmation of the human spirit and the commitment to make a positive difference in the world. We all cope daily with a number of variables that test our mettle and strain our capacity. There is a new movie just out, a remake of an earlier film that was originally a novel. It is called “True Grit”. How would you define that term? Could you claim it as your own personal virtue?
Are there specific attributes of the maker that reflects this ability to renew oneself? Are creative people more able to create new behaviors for themselves as well as their creative moves on the potter’s wheel? Is the creative act itself a form of renewal? Isn’t it time, at the beginning of the rich promise of a new year, to try new things? To experiment with technique or style even despite your currant success with the old? Isn’t it better to try something new when you are contented with what you are now doing, rather than attempt to change when you are stuck and desperate? Isn’t that true in your private life too? Perhaps an unreflective state of bliss can become a kind of stupor. Success does breed complacency. What do you need to happen to arouse your creative juices and dare to try something that you are not sure you can even do? Aren’t all makers risk takers?
I want to provide you with one viewpoint regarding the questions above from a creative maker. Among the dozen or so books I am currently reading, one very fine book is “Choosing Craft: The Artist’s Viewpoint”, edited by Vicki Halper and Diane Douglas. The entire book is a series of statements by craftspeople made over the post Word War II years in America. Anni Albers was one such craftsperson, director of the weaving workshop at the Bauhaus in Germany, refugee from Nazi Germany along with her husband, the painter Josef Albers, published in Design Magazine in 1944 that was quoted in “Choosing Craft”. Here is just a sample of some of her thoughts in a series of her statements I selected from her essay,
“Our world goes to pieces, we have to rebuild our world. We investigate and worry and analyze and forget that the new comes about through exuberance and not through a defined deficiency. We have to find our strength rather than our weakness. Out of the chaos of collapse we can save the lasting: we still have our ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the absolute of our inner voice – we still know beauty, freedom, happiness…unexplained and unquestioned. Intuition saves us examination.”
“We learn courage from art work. We have to go where no one was before us. We are alone and we are responsible for our actions. Our solitariness takes on religious character. This is a matter of my conscience and me. We learn to dare to make a choice, to be independent; there is no authority to be questioned. In art work there is no established conception of work; any decision is our own, any judgment.”
“We learn to trust our intuition. No explaining and no analyzing can help us recognize an art problem or solve it, if thinking is our only relation to it. We have to rely on inner awareness. We can develop awareness, and clear thoughts may help us cultivate it, but the essence of understanding art is more immediate than any thinking about it.”
“We learn patience and endurance in following through a piece of work. We learn to respect material in working it. Formed things and thoughts live a life of their own, they radiate a meaning. They need a clear form to give a clear meaning. Making something become real and take its place in actuality adds to our feeling of usefulness and security. Learning to form makes us understand all forming.”
You will notice that Albers takes a somewhat different perspective than my own. I always think it is a good idea to listen to a variety of differing viewpoints, but finally you have to trust your own judgment. She emphasizes the intuitive over the intellectual approach, feeling over thinking. Is it necessary to make a choice between the two? What do you think? How do you feel about this? It is a matter of temperament and preferences that will always differ between individuals. It is also reflected in their work. Some ceramic art is highly designed and obviously crafted through a tight control of technique. Other work is highly expressive, vivid with the emotional impact of a more spontaneous style of the maker. I have both approaches represented in a variety of artifacts in my pottery collection. I think the creative act inherently contains elements of both the emotions and reflected thought. In the best of times, both the expressive and analytical elements work together, silent partners in the creative act. They need not be on the surface of the maker’s consciousness but they are there nonetheless.
I think that both Albers and I agree that the creative process is therapeutic for the maker in a number of ways. It too is a place where time and memory play a part in the steady construction of self as w ell as the creation of vessels or other ceramic work. The embedded memories of all these experiences accumulate in an increasing mastery that can command a greater and greater vocabulary of possible results. In that sense, both time and memory are friends and allies of the maker. I want to end this particular blog with a quotation from my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, concerning how makers create themselves as they in turn create the pot.
“The observable integrity of the individual pot is a representation of the integrity of the person who created it. Ironically, this stumbling struggle to attain mastery only becomes convincing when it also demonstrates the fallibility of your human status. You are embedded and enshrined in the artifact – including the unconscious orientation of your time and place, the worldview grafted on you at birth, the parochial elements of the neighborhood of your youth. You cannot ever erase all evidence in the pot of the world that made you. You can only add self-conscious elements that form the truly creative aspects. This dual struggle requires great energy – to create yourself and those self-advertising artifacts that celebrate that self – all at the same time. You must surely learn to love yourself – forgive yourself – and go on. In fact perhaps the greatest triumph will occur when you find yourself in the pot, when the pot represents a personal identity that you could never understand any other way. Perhaps each pot becomes a self revelation to yourself as you fuse person with pot.”
Thursday, December 16th, 2010
I have spent a lifetime as an avid reader. Do young people still read? Do they have time left to read when they are not playing electronic games on their cell phones or other electronic devices? One of my daughters-in-law has a Kindle e-book, which she loves to use as her reading device. I cannot make that leap in my own life. I have a stack of books on the armrest on my big wooden chair in the living room where I do most of my reading. I read about a dozen books at the same time, along with numerous periodicals and journals. I read my journals on my exercise bike in the patio, where I spend a full hour every morning of the week. I like the physical heft and look of a book. I enjoy the physical behaviors required of the reader, holding the book in a comfortable position, sitting in my favorite chair, just turning the next page, or flipping back pages to an earlier chapter to remind me of some detail I had missed or forgotten, all the small maneuvers that holding a real book entails. I value the appearance of a book, the design of the jacket, the style of the printed text, the visual attraction of illustrations and images, all the embellishments of books as revered objects. Is this because I am old and thus old- fashioned? Is reading a real book just a habit soon obsolete? Is the published book just another failed technology doomed to disappear?
I am a collector of objects. Among the objects I collect are pottery and books. I subscribe to many ceramic periodicals that have truly beautiful images of pottery but I know that there is nothing so satisfying as engaging a real three dimensional pot right in front of you. It is just not the same experience. I take the same attitude with books. I spend a lot of time at my computer writing blogs and books. I also do a bit of reading at the computer, mainly received email messages or viewing websites of interest. But I could never accept the computer as my chief reading instrument. It is too big to hold. I love books and one central way I can demonstrate my affection and fondness for what they contain and the pleasure they give me is by holding them. When I visit potters in their studios or galleries, I can observe the same need on their part to take physical possession of the ceramic object, to hold it and feel its surface and to gauge with their hands the thinness of the walls and the thickness of the foot, to run their fingers over the glaze, to feel the smoothness or roughness of the surface. People who love objects need to touch the objects of their devotion. I need to hold and touch pots and books. One of the great compromises I have had to make in my own pottery gallery was the need to apply earthquake putty to the bottom of my pots. Given the real dangers of California earthquakes, it is sadly necessary. But sometimes I just can’t help it. Occasionally I will walk over to a shelf, slowly twist the pot, lifting it carefully and taking full possession of this beloved object and cradle it in my hands.
We know that the making of books is an ancient craft that is still flourishing. There is a complex aesthetics involved in the choice of paper, type of binding, font, and many other elements of design, lay out, and the making of the book as a hand/ crafted object. We also know that there are small, independent printers who seek to perpetuate the publication of these kinds of books. They might be marginal compared to the big publishing companies that can run thousands of copies of best sellers but they seek quality and beauty in the finished product. Many great artists have also illustrated such books. I do not want to see this art and craft go the way of so many small, independent booksellers who could not compete with the franchise bookstores. Is there still room in our globalized world for this kind of hand created quality? When I go to the Huntington Library in nearby San Marino I see many famous original books, opened with often yellowed pages of great age, secured in glass cases, ranging from the beginning of printing press with the Gutenberg Bible to the modern books of California authors such as Jack London, as well as contemporary authors. These books form the cultural icons of our rich legacy of the printed word. I somehow cannot see some day in the future when I visit the Huntington Library and find in the same glass cases e-books displaying the same texts on small screens. Surely you would agree it would not be the same kind of quality experience.
Aside from the book as an aesthetic artifact created by master craftspeople, we also need to discuss what we use them for. Books have a vital function in human civilization. People read them and obtain knowledge and wisdom that is not available anywhere else. I want to talk about the act of reading. This involves the behavior of the reader and the approach to the printed page that would extract the greatest value for those who devote countless hours of their lives to the company of books. We will continue in this discussion to draw analogous examples with pottery. How do you approach the engagement of a pot? What is the nature of the active observer seeking to maximize pleasure and meaning when in the company of ceramic art? We can ask the same questions about books.
Too often both ‘art appreciation’ and ‘reading instruction’ lessons in educational institutions render both kinds of engagements passive events for the observer and reader. Youth are instructed to memorize information about the name of the artist, period, art style, technique, and other data of that nature. Similarly, children taught to read go through the mechanical details of the grammar of language and the retention of the content obtained from the printed word as a duty of memorization, subject to testing. Can you teach the joy and great pleasure of living with art and craft as icons of beauty and the noble offspring of human imagination and creativity? Can you teach youth how to live with books as friends that open the windows of the world to you? That seems all too rarely to come from a lesson in a classroom. What can it come from and how do you help people develop that capacity? The actual lived experience of engaging the pot or book is not the same thing as the information about the pot and the book. Do you know what I am talking about?
I will offer you now a quote that I think will reinforce what I am talking about. It is a quote I employed in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”. This excerpt in my book is from one of the finest books written about ceramics, in fact that is the title of the book, “Ceramics” by Philip Rawson. In the Foreword to this book, Wayne Higby, an important American potter, speaks of Rawson’s ideas about how to experience pottery,
“He recommends looking at the forms of pottery not just to classify them, but to read them as symbols analogous to sense experience. This recommendation has far-reaching implications since, in our society, critical awareness is primarily achieved by acquiring factual knowledge rather than by developing the resources of intuitive feeling. The emphasis on factual knowledge has isolated art from the general flow of Western culture by reserving it for a relatively small group of ‘informed’ individuals. The very fact that pottery is accessible to everyone by virtue of its immediate connection with human experience has disqualified it in the past as a major art form. Rawson introduces this accessibility factor as an important aesthetic consideration and implies that the power of pottery as art lies in its ability to communicate to a wide audience by expressing human sensuous life. He asks the reader to become more aware of emotional responses to pottery in order to give depth and clarity to learned perception.”
There is a lot to think about in this quote. How do we learn to experience ‘human sensuous life’ with pots and books without getting caught in the all too familiar trap first learned in school, when we were taught to reduce everything to ‘factual knowledge’ rather than the encouragement of the development of ‘intuitive feeling’? Here the tail wags the dog. If you can’t test intuitive feeling on a standardized exam, and the easy lure of testing factual information is all too available, than the emotional and intuitive dimensions of human feelings and experiences are simply ignored. Even more than that, the implication of this abandonment is that human feelings (the very core of a complex aesthetic) are really a trivial and superficial realm of human experience. I would add another critical wrinkle to this conversation, since I am a man commenting on the thoughts of two other men, Rawson and Higby. Traditionally in Western society it was believed that women, given their highly emotional and fragile state, existed as emotional creatures but us men were capable of transforming the world into tough, durable facts. So I am rather proud as a man to be in the company of these two other modern men in conceding that the richness and complexity of the subjective emotions are as important as the objective world of factual knowledge. The aesthetic significance of human culture is dependent on this awareness. I am going to continue this discussion in future blogs. I do wish to conclude this blog wishing all of you the very best of the holiday season and a happy New Year.
Monday, December 6th, 2010
I have just celebrated in the previous blog the great importance of the garden in terms of the meaning and quality of my life. I am sure that there are people who might read this blog that could provide their own testimony of great affection for their gardens. One vital component of any garden is its trees. I cannot imagine a garden without trees. One advantage of having a long residence at one particular home and garden is that you can spend decades watching young trees mature as they gain in both stature and size. Now there are many trees that tower over my home, still growing in slow, incremental steps that are not discernible or evident to the naked eye on any given day. A tree is an investment in the future, requiring patience when the young sapling is planted in the garden, knowing the extended time required to reach their full promise. Trees have been the sentinels of my lifetime, standing guard in my garden, spreading their branches out and over me and allowing me the gift of their shade. They will endure long after I am gone.
Trees form the rooted foundation of many memories of my childhood and youth. Here in Southern California, trees can inform us of much of the history of this area as that history has seen the successive replacement of one kind of tree by another. These changes have nothing to do with nature but everything to do with the increased waves of incoming human habitation and the impact of these rapidly growing communities on the natural environment. Like all other types of what has been called human progress, trees have often not been treated gently, often eradicated in clear-cut brutality or replaced by a more domestic variety as a profitable enterprise. The trees of my childhood have largely been replaced, or in too many cases, not replaced at all. I feel the cutting down of a grown tree should require a most serious evaluation and never become a casual decision. To remove a grove of trees or an entire forest must surely be a crime or require a very good excuse. In my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, I describe the history of my region and my personal biography in relationship to the changing fate of those trees that are the milestones of so many of my memories,
“In California, trees document the successive waves of historical change. Trees here have not fared better than the indigenous people. Their eradication was the indicator of progress or disaster, depending on your point of view. First the vast groves of oak trees, natural to Southern California, present here when the Europeans arrived. I remember my parents had a very old and huge oak tree in their back garden when they lived in the foothills. It provided a great swath of shade for us in the hot summer weather. It was an important and prestigious tree in that community, pride of my father. Thousands of oak trees are still being cut down in Northern and Central California to plant grape vines. Some counties and cities are trying to initiate laws to protect and regulate them but much damage has already been done. In Southern California the oaks were cut down for citrus groves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some oak groves still exist, mostly in parks. Later, after World War II, the next generation of trees, the citrus groves, once the very symbol of this part of the state were largely cut down for the suburban tract homes that filled the land. In my community, when the last orange grove in town was being leveled, after civic protest, city officials agreed to plant a few orange trees in a small heritage park in the southern end of town, next to an old house they moved there. They are both museum pieces, representatives of history, not the present. Even the tall spindly palm trees, planted along the parkways between sidewalk and street in Los Angeles during the first three decades of the 20th century are dying off, not being replaced. Their vigorous swaying on a windy day, fading memories of my childhood, made them look most unstable, with the heavy burst of palm fronds on the very top of a long slender trunk. Do the images of trees planted in childhood memories evoke special meaning of place and time for others? They do for me.”
History is not always kind to those things we treasure and associate with our lifetime of experiences and memories. We all know that change is inevitable and we cannot resist it. We of course also change, the aging process does not always bring good news but we adjust as we go along. In my pottery gallery, I can see examples of pottery that extend over 150 years, from many different cultures. Most of the antique pottery I have has not only aged in the physical sense but also in terms of style and appearance. That is, they are no longer creating pottery that looks like they look. There is often an inference that what is now considered obsolete or dated in terms of aesthetic fashion also loses it intrinsic value. Should we be embarrassed if we still find a ceramic artifact of great age moving and profound in its technique and beauty? Are we old-fashioned if we enjoy and prize old things?
Is what ceramic artists are doing nowadays better than what they did in the past simply because what is being done is new and thus has to be better? Can you respect and treasure the past and still wish to do original work that is not a copy of what has been done in the past? Here I think an analogy with the trees I have been talking about in this blog might be helpful. I can lament the wholesale removal of the oak tree, mourn the leveling of citrus groves, and miss the predominance of those palm trees, all symbols of a past that is no more. What about the efforts to rescue and preserve those species of plants and animals that are in great danger of being completely lost? What are the implications if we just shrug our shoulders and say that is just progress and there is nothing we can do about it? Similarly, doesn’t the invention of plastic containers provide a justification for abandoning containers made of clay? Are you potters out there working in a brave new world making obsolete things with obsolete materials? If you cannot find a reason for saving oak trees, how can you then justify continuing to make things out of clay?
This whole business of what should be valued and preserved needs some serious rethinking. I recently went to a zoo and saw that many of the animals there had signs in front of their enclosure that informed me that they were near extinction. They displayed maps on these signs that showed the original range of their habitation, often across several continents, then a second map that showed their present range, often just a few dots in one region of the world. Do you have a convincing story to tell about those things that never age, never become obsolete because what they offer us is invaluable and worth keeping? Can you provide a narrative that is compelling and persuasive in terms of those things we must preserve in order to have a human culture and civilization worth living? Does creativity always require novelty? And is that novelty always an improvement on the past? How can we value the past and learn from it while at the same time create refinements and innovation in our own work? Does the new always have to betray the old and overthrow it in order to establish it’s own credentials and meaning?
I will end this blog with another quote from my book that directly deals with this question and my great concerns regarding it.
“Is there some relationship between my love of trees and pots? Both face the same challenge. In this very practical and pragmatic society, trees and pottery need to justify their existence and value to survive. Both are endangered species. I once tried to save a grove of oak trees in my community by justifying their value: the lower temperatures by providing shade, the filtering and cleaning of air, reduced need for air conditioning, etc. I lost that struggle. The oak grove was destroyed. Pottery can pour beverages, hold food, receive liquids and hold flowers. So can plastic cups and plates from Wal-Mart. We must try to provide more convincing arguments. I love trees and pots for other reasons. I experience them. The sheer sensual beauty of a tree; the Jacaranda in my front garden where I sit on a bench in its soft shade, see and hear the movement of wind through the moving leaves, the sway of branches, the sunlight filtered through the leaves and branches. The creative form of the pot, elegant in its length and shape, cascades of colored glazes in subtle patterns, striking designs that represent natural or geometric origins. Why is that value not more convincing or conclusive in this society? What will happen to my trees and pottery after I am gone? Their destiny should not depend on my partisan or personal support, but their intrinsic significance to any worthwhile quality of existence.”
Tuesday, September 28th, 2010
I do not presume to define what things should mean for other people. For a former university professor, I think this display of humility is quite unusual and should be complimented. At best I can only contribute my own limited and incomplete effort to make sense of things. My assessment or interpretation of an idea or issue rarely satisfies me, so I am not surprised if it does not completely satisfy others. So how do we start to work on defining beauty? And what are the chances we will reach agreement on this matter? Hopefully our definitions will overlap but they need not find perfect agreement. The presence of beauty is at least partially invented within the aesthetic sensibility of the observer or maker. The artifacts that inspired this judgment might evoke very different responses from equally sensitive and insightful people. In short, I do not think anyone has a monopoly on the idea of beauty as a theory in which you do a laundry list of the ingredients of beauty that are unchangeable and invariant in all cultures and throughout all human history. Notions of beauty change with time and culture and I, for one, do not need a universal one-size-fits-all definition of beauty.
If we cannot come up with a single theory of what constitutes beauty, can we at least try to reach agreement on what is beautiful in the artifact itself that would cause us to call it beautiful? I could escort you around my pottery gallery and occasionally point out a pot and declare – ‘that pot is beautiful”. Would you dare to defy me? And if I indeed pointed out something you considered ugly or even grotesque, would you be so rude as to tell me? Are only those things obviously beautiful the only beautiful things? We all know that a sunset is beautiful and that flowers are beautiful and as a man I still retain youthful memories of Marilyn Monroe as being beautiful but does that mean something has to be pretty in order to be beautiful? Doesn’t that make beauty a rather superficial thing?
Is beauty something that just happens on the surface? Can we somehow experience beauty as a quality embedded in the very object itself? Is quality a thing we can experience in the company of a ceramic object but is not necessarily visible on the surface of that object? Some people have been called beautiful because they are loving and caring people, not because of handsome facial features or glorious bodies. Do ceramic artifacts have the same capacity to radiate beauty as an essential quality of their very nature? Do ceramic objects have a unique character and even personality – much in the way people do? Is beauty the sum of all the elements integrated together and not just a bunch of separate things that happen to be evident in the same piece? Can a ceramic object be in some ways ugly and in some ways beautiful and still be considered beautiful? Is ugly always the opposite of beautiful?
To make this discussion very personal, I was brushing my teeth this morning and had a good look at myself in the mirror. I have the face of an old man with deep wrinkles that spread a web of lines around my eyes and across my forehead. My beard is quite white and I have a ring of hair around the middle of my head with most of the top of me quite bald. Now, given that description, am I candidate for being ugly or beautiful? I am not sure I really want your response to that question. I have a decided preference in the matter but I am not confident of your agreement. Maybe in this case we could agree that we are both beautiful and let it go at that. I think Morris, my golden retriever is beautiful, but I obtained Morris as an old dog from a rescue agency and Morris was abused when young, with a large scar visible on one leg. I still think Morris is beautiful, even with the scar.
Does something have to be perfect to be beautiful? Does a very slight crack in the clay, a tiny hairline barely visible to the naked eye condemn the pot and exile it from being considered beautiful for all its other qualities? Does that tiny crack or a single drop of glaze that ran beyond the proscribed boundaries of the potter’s intention thus lose the pot the capacity to be judged beautiful? Does beauty always have to be deliberate? Come on, confess and tell me the truth – sometimes a happy accident in your kiln makes an ordinary pot quite beautiful. Should you still take credit for its beauty? Isn’t that cheating? Can beauty ever be an accident?
Well, I have been asking a lot of questions in this blog so far and providing very few answers. But I did warn you at the beginning that I was not going to even try to give you my answers. I have full confidence in your own ability to provide yourself with a tentative and approximate response that you fully intend to further modify and refine during the rest of your lifetime. Beauty, like all the other truly important things in life, does not need a final answer. It just needs you to spend the rest of your life exploring all the possibilities to further enhance its presence and to fully extract joy and meaning from your discoveries.
In my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, I had this to say about beauty,
“Beauty lacks precision. At best it is a generous word, lacking the edge of irony or the more favored force of aggressive criticism. It is a dangerous word to use. It signifies an uncritical and lavish exaggeration, a lapse in decorum that could prove embarrassing in sophisticated circles. Beauty has been restricted to the sentimental and saccharine expression of popular and easy taste. It is unsuitable for the modern age. It is old-fashioned, this word, this idea of beauty….There are those of us who believe in beauty and would make it the core of things, the very core of life itself. It is the one idea I do not want clarified or defined for me. Rigorous scholarship might exclude those things I favor and enjoy. I want to use the word promiscuously for anything and everything that pleases me and makes each day a bit easier. I embrace beauty, but I don’t want to make it special. I want beauty to remain ordinary for me, as ordinary as the daily engagements with familiar sights that form my common habits. That is why my home and garden are the perfect places to find beauty. It is in the daily chores and rituals of my personal and interior existence in my modest cottage that I encounter treasured artifacts and memorable moments that I will arbitrarily bless as beautiful. The word serves me as a complement for my enhanced state. Others may use it or abandon it according to their own disposition. It will remain in my vocabulary.”
We have a great deal of trouble in our society with those qualities that cannot be measured or forced in quantifiable scores. I made that criticism a few blogs ago about our obsession with testing in our schools and reducing education to right or wrong answers on standardized tests. We have much the same problem with things like beauty. Some people would say it doesn’t exist because we can’t reduce it to a simple formula and maybe score our pots from one to ten on a beauty test, 10 being best. I don’t think the most important things in life can be reduced to a single formula or reduced to numbers. Beauty is one of them. Beauty is an affair of the heart, a registered impact on our very souls. The experience and celebration of beauty is one of the central impulses that make us human. My own search for beauty has been realized and fulfilled with the contents of my pottery gallery. Yet, being human and lacking self-discipline in seeking beautiful things, I plan to add just one or two (or maybe three or four) more beautiful pots to my collection in the future. The search for beauty will never end for me.