Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Posts Tagged ‘ceramics today’
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, November 1st, 2011
I have often stated that I have a passionate affection for pottery. It is indeed in the very title of this series of blogs. I must confess, and I know my wife, Judy, will be relieved, that I have never felt real passion for a potter. I know this will disappoint, if not devastate some of my potter friends. Don’t get me wrong. I am really very, very fond of a number of potters I have known for many years. It is a special delight to realize that beautiful pots often come from the same kind of person. I would like to feel that it would be unlikely that a truly beautiful ceramic object could come from a truly unlikable person but I might be a bit naive if I made that declaration. How do potters get along with other potters? Is there a natural rivalry and competition for my attention? Again I will remain within the romance of my illusions, not wanting to know those things that could disillusion me in this regard. Maybe it is a good thing that I don’t take the potter home with the pot. With all that energy it takes to make pots, they probably eat a bit more than the average person and they might find out where I hide my scotch
In my 30th letter from my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter”, I discuss my relationship to pot and potter,
“Christa, do I communicate with the potter when I gaze onto the pot? After the point of purchase, the potter does not go home with the pot. Yet I do interact with the author of the text. I question the implied assertion, accept and slide inside the style, hoping to catch the rhythm and mannerisms of language and metaphor. I accompany the author’s journey and surface her argument, seeking knowledge and wisdom for my own purposes. I never surrender my independence, but provide a leap of faith that must eventually be rewarded. To answer my earlier question, I do think I engage the potter as vigorously as the author of the written text; seek to discover the creator’s intention, to locate those imaginative deviations that mark originality, to place the object in context. The potter, fresh in the miraculous creation of the pot, might immediately claim a unique status for that object unmatched in previous ceramic history. As collector and perceiver, I must humble the pot by placement in a communal context that attaches that object to my world. The company of other pottery in my collection does not represent a hierarchy, but does teach that no individual pot or potter has a monopoly on creativity or aesthetic accomplishment.
What is the difference in my relationship to pot and potter? As a friend, you are always welcome in my home. I would even extend that invitation to all the potters represented in my collection. As host, I would try to provide my potter friends with food, drink and exposure to my beloved collection, home and garden. Your pot, in contrast, would join my family. I would take responsibility for the care and safety of that object. Accepted and housed, the pottery cannot cause me pain or disappointment. People are more volatile and uncertain in their possible behavior. This does not diminish the value and need of love and respect for family and friends. The risk is greater. As a teacher, my rewards were in the engagement with students. Whatever the differing degrees of anxiety, I still seek out and enjoy friends and family, the pot and potter. The creation and appreciation of pottery is a manifestation of the complexity and virtue of human beings and human culture. These gifts of the human hand encourage my contact and appreciation of people. I do not have to make a choice. Revealed insecurities do not embarrass me. I consider myself self-sufficient, social interaction does not come from concerns about individual isolation. Reading and art do not require the company of others. The sources of my life preferences and habits can be traced to the origins of my existence. A virtue becomes operational when it successfully compensates for the more obvious inadequacy. It is the inadequacies that give me humanity, it is the virtues that give me grace. Whatever virtuous habits I do possess, including the love of reading and pottery, they reflect both the joys and pain of a long life. I have no reason for complaint.”
I must admit I do so enjoy reading what I have written in the past. I am especially impressed if the portion I re-read was published as text on a printed page from a book with my name on it. Is there an author who would not admit what I have just confessed? Yes, yes, I do occassionaly re-read a passage I have written from my book and am a bit embarrassed and wish I could do it over. Is it similar to how a potter feels about their own work? Surely there must be a surge of pride when you walk into a gallery and see you work on exhibit? Can ceramic artists gaze on their own work and not admire it? I fully understand the high demands and standards artists or writers make of themselves, never fully satisfied and always seeking to improve. I too feel that when I write and will indeed often go back and revise and try to improve a sentence or paragraph. Sometimes it’s a single word I change, sometime a complete sentence, sometimes I simply delete a paragraph and start over. As a collector I am constantly moving my pottery around, always seeking to improve the arrangement of ceramic objects. Sometimes after moving a single object from one shelf to another, or even just turning it around to the side formerly facing the wall, I marvel at what a difference it makes and wonder why I didn’t do it years ago.
In the quote above, I try to explore the idea that I place a single pot in the company of other pots in my home that are initially strangers to that pot. Do potter’s like that idea? That a collector sticks their pot alongside pots from many different potters? Could your pot get lost on that shelf with twenty or more other pots of mine? In a gallery like I have with several hundred other pots all around it? Have you ever been to a collector’s house and seen a pot of yours and your heart sank because you believe it was in the wrong space and with associated in close placement with the wrong pots? I feel that all my pots are equally presented and displayed. I honestly don’t play favorites but rather enjoy all my pots. Admittedly I will sometimes spend a bit more time with a few pots for a day or two, enjoying the discovery of features that I had not fully perceived before in those particular objects. But if a parent would never confess a favorite among their children, surely you would not expect that kind of confession from me. Some pots seem to attract attention because of their size or rather spectacular shape or glaze. Sometimes I am in the mood to fully appreciate that bravado display but there are other times that the subtle variations of a smaller or more refined pot brings other kinds of aesthetic rewards. No, I don’t play favorites and that is the end of that.
I like the idea of placing pots in close proximity that are very different in character and type. For instance, maybe an antique pot that displays a highly disciplined and traditional character sits next to a contemporary pot with maybe a more outlandish attitude; a pot from an indigenous potter showing its local or regional distinction sits next to a highly sophisticated pot no doubt from a potter with at least an MFA from Alfred or some other distinguished institution. I also place ceramic animals from various sources among my pots, plates, cups and other kinds of vessels. I mix them all up, wanting to feature a central claim that I have always made as a collector – that human creativity and genius is not limited to one group or nation or culture – but is inherent and embedded in all groups, nations and cultures. It is this amazing diversity and infinite variety in the ways that diverse personalties and groups express themselves that proves the glory of the hand-created ceramic artifact and comprises convincing evidence of the rich achievements of human culture. I must also claim that all my ceramic objects eventually become friends with each other, relate to each other by their shared space, and compliment each other by their very differences, all coexisting and cooperating in my domestic community of ceramic objects.
I discuss this very idea in this except from my 41st letter from my book,
“This process of haphazard appropriation is essential for my temperament. It was not by accident that my MA thesis was on collage, the collection of disparate and discarded elements at one place on a two dimensional surface. The meaning comes later, after the relationships among the newly situated elements become more obvious. Placement and context invite improbable and novel relationships and alliances. It is difficult to be self-conscious and knowledgeable about the patterns of placement of ideas within my own active mentality. Multiple influences impact me, yet are filtered through a resistant and stubborn persona that eventually takes credit for any summary or results. It is difficult to calibrate or assess their consequence in my behavior. Yet there is a continuity to my attitude toward a number of things. The placement of my pottery within my collection is overt and visible. I do create a visual and physical collage with my pottery, an original composition that occupies each room and all the items within that room.”
Can collectors claim a moral imperative in what they do? After all, isn’t collecting the very essence of a selfish act? I buy art and craft and it becomes my personal property and I take it home where I lock the doors of my home every night before I go to bed. My home is my private space, not a public one. All those artifacts, over 1,200 of them, are reserved for me, my family and invited friends to enjoy. How can I weave a convincing story that changes this reality to a noble one? In this next and last excerpt from my book, taken from my 44th letter, I talk about stewardship and what it means to me. I am totally sincere about this role and responsibility and will continue to argue that the protection and preservation of our cultural legacies is as important as the protection and preservation of our environment. At a time in our society when there is a profound gulf between the pursuit of individual private profit and the collective attainment of civic welfare, this might be a difficult argument to make credible.
“Stewardship is another concept from the environmental literature that has great meaning for this collector. I care about things -I care for things – a grove of oak trees, the pottery in every room of my house. Stewardship is always brief – a lifetime or less, an essentially transient obligation that must be ultimately transferred to others. What we seek to cherish and maintain is under constant threat and carries a finite term of existence due to the mortal limitations of nature or the incidental accidents of history. We seek to lengthen and prolong that existence, believing in their sacred and irreplaceable properties. Nature has inherent recovery systems and can renew itself if our abuse of nature can be discouraged and finally denied. Our cultural traditions and treasures are more fragile. Our devotion demands heroic resistance to those forces that would threaten the endangered subjects under our care. Here the collector can claim a moral function, similar to those who seek to protect the natural environment. It springs from an altruistic dedication that transcend self and self profit, inspired by a transcendent love for the highest attainments of the species, of human civilization.”
I plan to continue this discussion at least in the next few blogs. Summers are interior months for me. Perhaps an hour or two early in the morning in my garden, then a hasty retreat to my air-conditioned house. I read an article or two about global warming in one of my journals while on my exercise bike this morning. Summer is not a good time for me to read articles on global warming. I reach out to a few vases for reassurance and they are still cool to the touch. It seems we are living at a time right now when systems are breaking down – natural, cultural and economic systems. Collectors needs stability as much as investors do. The maintenance of various systems are now global and require intimate cooperation because we have somehow all become interdependent.
Maybe it’s the hot weather impacting my morale but right now I huddle with Judy and my pots within the refuge of our home, uncertain in a world that seems to be growing ever more uncertain around me. I cannot compare my time to the turmoil and tragedy of Edmund de Waal’s family as discussed in Part 2 blog in this series. That story took place in the context of the previous century. The tides of history do not always predict an easy time or guarantee everyone a happy ending. De Waal’s book did demonstrate one thing, collections have their own unique history. This history includes the succession of people who care for them. In contrast to his story of the Japanese netsuke, my pottery collection is still young in its rather brief history and certainly younger than this old collector and blog writer who finds so much joy in taking care of them.
Friday, July 22nd, 2011
One of my favorite American intellectuals and writers is Lewis Mumford, a person who was able in a long life to explore and examine a wide spectrum of ideas and issues, and in particular wrote an important book about technology. Although written in the 1960’s, and thus before the major impact of the electronic revolution, “Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine” still provides a profound discussion of the relationship of technology to human culture. In his opening statement in the ‘Prologue’, which also serves as Chapter One, Mumford states his basic position,
“The last century, we all realize, has witnessed a radical transformation in the entire human environment, largely as a result of the impact of the mathematical and physical science upon technology. This shift from an empirical, tradition-bound technics to an experimental mode has opened up such new realms as those of nuclear energy, supersonic transportation, cybernetic intelligence and instantaneous distant communication. Never since the Pyramid Age have such vast physical changes been consummated in so short a time. All these changes have, in turn, produced alterations in the human personality, while still more radical transformations; if this process continues unabated and uncorrected, loom ahead. In terms of the currently accepted picture of the relation of man to technics, our age is passing from the primeval state of man, marked by his invention of tools and weapons for the purpose of achieving mastery over the forces of nature, to a radically different condition, in which he will have not only conquered nature, but detached himself as far as possible from the organic habitat. With this new ‘megatechnics’ the dominant minority will create a uniform, all-enveloping, super-planetary structure, designed for automatic operation. Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal whose proper functions, as technicians now interpret man’s role, will either be fed into the machine or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of de-personalized, collective organizations.”
Mumford is obviously not a technological triumphalist in his dire warnings about the impact of technic development on human civilization. Looking back over forty years since he wrote this book, I think our smug assumptions back then that the technology of the 19th century had allowed us to conquer nature in the 20th century has been shown to be a gross miscalculation with grave implications for the future of the earth. Nature has retaliated in unforeseen ways and we cannot maintain the current employment to wage war against the natural environment.
Have we become the passive and purposeless creatures that Mumford charged was happening as “machine-conditioned animals? Are we being fed into our computers now, as we increasingly inhabit a virtual reality? Has technology given us more choices or less? More autonomy or less? What have we gained in the last two hundred years and what have we lost. How have we changed and how has human culture changed because of technology? Why do I so resist these changes? Will I have to just accept I am a traditional person, (whatever that means) and not a modern one? Why do I want to keep the machine, in function as well as image, out of our cultural achievements? Should I find the clean machinery of the computer age more acceptable than the grimy and gritty machinery of the industrial age? If Mumford is right about things, then are our contemporary artists and craftspeople more passive in what they do and is their work more de-personalized than before? Isn’t abstraction in art the depersonalization of art? Are artists becoming more machine-conditioned too?
Speaking of machine-conditioned aesthetics, I had another experience lately that informed me that we were entering a brave new world of a kind of technology employed in art and craft that is profoundly different from past technologies. It is an exhibit currently at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California, called “Ceramics: Post-Digital Design.” The exhibit displays those contemporary ceramic artists and designers who have used post-digital technology and others, such as Eva Zeisel, now over 100 years old, who have pioneered highly designed, mass manufactured ceramic objects. The wall text for this exhibit is very optimistic and positive about this approach. The following excerpts from a exhibit wall statement written by Karen Crews, the curator of the exhibit, introduces the theme and intentions of this show,
“The emphasis of producing limited edition multiples through the use of molds, yields an expression that relates to the mid-century modern design movement and pays tribute to the Scandinavian architectural model influenced by the Bauhaus style. In Ceramics: Post-digital Design, each artist presents a unique perspective with their own ceramic processes and designs that continue a dialogue examining the future concepts in ceramic art. Because technology is continually advancing, we question, how far we can go? What will the future of industry, commerce and even art be like? New Technology brings new advancements with a multitude of opportunities and ideas, but we question if there will be a point where the human footprint will be lost, or if we will return to traditional methods for creating and communicating due to our communal nature. Ostensibly, the future holds a hybridization of all the above; as technology grows, humans evolve, and societal networks change, art is expressed in new powerful ways. The idea of a ‘Post-Digital Age’ is upon us, and many art historians believe therein lies the future of art. Artist and educator Mel Alexenberg, author of The Future of Art in a Post-Digital Age, writes about new emerging art forms that ‘address the humanization of digital technologies’ and explores post-digital perspectives that are ‘rising from creative encounters among art, science, technology, and human consciousness.’ Among the fundamentals of ceramics rooted in traditional use, concepts and designs have evolved to keep with a continually advancing aesthetic. Technology has not only transcended the process in which ceramics can be made and modified, but it has also transcended the way artists conceptualize their artwork. AMOCA’s exhibition, ‘Ceramics: Post-Digital Design’ exhibits the very principals of Alexenberg’s thesis, that artists, no matter what medium, are making ‘interactive and collaborative forms, resulting in a fusion of spiritual and technological realms.”
I found many of the objects in the exhibit at AMOCA to have beautiful forms that achieved that delicate balance between form and function with an understated elegance. A designed form that fits in with other designed forms in rather astounding and imaginative ways can be a visual delight and aesthetically successful. The creative expression of the designer is strained by a ruthless discipline and clear linear objectives. The results are the triumph of a highly rational objectivism that makes the protocols of problem solving the essential aesthetic experience for the designer. It is one way of being in the world and one way of making sense of the world. It does not represent, however, any kind of advance or superiority over the cultural legacies that have preceded it. All these past achievements of human civilization in this statement are placed under the apparently invidious term of “tradition”. I cannot help but wonder what they were called when they were originally introduced with novel deviations not seen before that time. How many years does it take for something to be called traditional? What does that mean anyway? In the conventional discussion of technology, I am afraid tradition is another word for obsolete. We must be most careful not to transfer that attitude to cultural and aesthetic contributions as seen in their historical sequence and perspective.
We must also acknowledge that the very idea of design is the intrusion of a rational problem solving process into the creative process. Design is the domestication of the creative process, the self-imposed discipline to organize yourself according to preconceived plans, the taming of emotions in order to achieve an orderly process of making. Maybe that doesn’t worry you, maybe that is the way you do things anyway. Somehow I don’t think that is the way Van Gogh worked or that was the way that Peter Voulkas worked either. Design is also very much involved in the commercializing of the artifact into a manufactured commodity. To design something is not only to make it functional but also to make it attractive for the marketplace. Is design the death of the human imagination or the rational need to control the creative process in order to make it productive? What do you think? I think your answer to this question will reveal if you are a realist or a romanticist.
Realists who disagree with each other tend to have the greatest and most passionate feuds, given their joint presuppositions that there is only one reality to fight over. Their versions could never agree exactly and thus must compete for favored preference. The advantage of the Romantics is that they can never be proven to be mistaken. Their images and dramatized concoction of thoughts and feelings do not depend on empirical evidence but conjured worlds unique in their visionary projection. These worlds thus do not compete and they do not have to bear the scrutiny or rigor of duplicating a documented and common world that could be agreed upon by all.
Why is it that some of most popular and profitable hits in books and films have to do with stories like Harry Potter and his student days at Hogwarts? I have been to England several times and lectured at several British universities but I don’t recall visiting that institution. What is the appeal, not limited just for children, but for all of us, of those magical worlds where there are only very good heroes and very evil villains, all capable of thrilling adventures, with danger and evil lurking in every corner? Given the bland everyday existence we are all mired in and given our ordinary habits of daily repetition, who would reject an escape to a magical kingdom? Walt Disney well understood this need. Doesn’t all art, including ceramics, offer some kind of escape from an ordinary world in providing an object or experience that is somehow unexpected and delightful?
Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
Realism vs. Romanticism
Who do you trust and depend upon the most in your own ceramic work – your head or your heart? Can you separate these two things and choose one over the other as the dominant force in your ceramic work? What exactly do they mean in terms of your life and your ceramic art? These ideas are embedded in the essence and history of Western art. We can trace the dual legacies of romanticism and realism in that history and find many of the competing strands of their perspectives. We would, of course, associate the head with realism and the heart with romanticism. Let me make it clear that this has more significance and meaning then just as an art technique or attitude toward creating art. These ideas impact the very way you live in the world and make sense of it. Observers of your ceramic art might place your work within one or the other of these categories. Where would you put your work? Maybe some of us would like to think that we bridge those differences and are capable of both kinds of behavior and both ways of being in the world. You might claim that you can access both head and heart in your crafting of the ceramic object.
Others of you might be far more partisan and claim that one of these approaches is vastly superior to the other. Romantics might claim that it is the lyrical expression of feeling, the vivid personal passion that inspires their creative process and achieves great art. Passionate love, including erotic and sensuous love, is the very engine of the human personality. Much of 19th century literature and art in Western Europe would claim that view. Isn’t it evident in the differences between the delights of poetry and the flat prose of a newspaper? The poet can celebrate the beauty and joys of life and nature. But on the other hand I would prefer journalists who write for newspapers or TV news to get their facts straight and not go off in fanciful fiction. For journalists, their integrity is dependent upon their rigorous presentation of what they know to be objectively true. For most poets, that approach would completely stifle their creative process. Maybe romantics belong in certain creative arenas and realists belong in fields that depend upon accuracy and precision in their fidelity to reporting what they see and experience. I think I would prefer a brain surgeon to be a realist instead of a romanticist if I was about to undergo brain surgery.
The HeArt of Technology
Romanticism was a hostile reaction first to the growing secularism that came out of the Enlightenment that so highly valued objective rationality, later it reacted to the growth of science and its application in various technologies that sponsored the industrial revolution. Technology has been the traditional enemy of the romantic. The machine for the romantic has been perceived as the adversary of the artist. In what ways has technology served your creative work? Could you explain and convince others that the human hand can do things with clay that a machine could never do? The industrial potteries of the 19th century were organized on the factory model and made multiple copies of the same artifact based on assembly line procedures. Today ceramic designers, many who never actually touch the clay themselves, work for corporate entities that mass produce and manufacture ceramic domestic ware. Isn’t the individual studio potter by nature and circumstances a romantic? Some people would say that romanticism is obsolete and out of place in our modern world? What do you think?
Of course my own lifestyle is completely dependent upon a variety of technologies to provide creature comforts and ease my way in the world. I would not surrender any of them for the alternative that existed before their invention. I suppose I could get along without the microwave, although I did warm up leftover Chinese food for lunch today and often use it for that purpose. I certainly could not do without this computer and its word-processing ability. I do have a hybrid car that runs jointly on a battery and gas with resulting low mileage. I would probably surrender it to a totally electric car if there were adequate facilities to recharge them. At this very moment the air conditioning is off but summer is coming and I cannot bear the onslaught of a natural environment if it would cause me to sweat. I do use a mop and broom, both having long and honorable ancestors going back centuries. But I also highly value my vacuum cleaner, cord plugged into the wall, sucking up leaves and dog hairs on the tile and carpet. We have several wall plugs in every room, allowing me to view television, watch my foreign films, listen to the stereo, enjoy my huge classical music CD collection. I do try to limit the electric lights at night just to the rooms of the house we are occupying but I do require considerable illumination in the room when I read at night.
In my 8th letter to Christa Assad, in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter, I said the following about the relationship of technology to culture and quoted from a book by Nicols Fox,
“Both the American and English intellectual traditions question the devastating development of technology that represented the industrial revolution. Here Thoreau and Emerson join Ruskin and Morris in deploring the impact of industrial technology on the lives of artisans, workers and the environment. In a wonderful new book, ‘Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives’, Nicols Fox explores the broad dimensions of this thinking,
‘As a theme, resistance to technology appears in Romantic and Victorian literature, in transcendentalism, in the Arts and Crafts movement, the agrarian movement, the environmental movement. It is present today in the writers who cling to their typewriters, the fine cabinetmakers who cherish their old tools; the hand-weavers and basket-makers, and potters and needlework enthusiasts, who keep to their craft against all logic; the herbalists and organic growers who are convinced that what they do is important and brook no argument – all those who cling consciously in whatever manner or degree to the old ways.’
What is the state of this issue among potters today? I can’t remember if the wheels in your studio are plugged in or get their power from your feet. Does it make a difference? Is there some organic integrity with feet powered wheels or are they obsolete now? I do remember that you have electric kilns. Is your arrangement a compromise out of expediency or can you justify the use of power appliances in your craft? Does it matter in the kind of pottery you create? The wood turner uses a lathe and it is still considered a craft. Has some accepted authority determined and defined what represents a hand crafted object? At some point, does the extensive use of electric appliances disqualify a craft product and turn it into a manufactured product?
Is it simply the inevitable conservatism of old age that motivates tentative and uncertain reservations about technology? John Ruskin and William Morris failed in attempts to find a utopian paradise based on medieval practices. The sound of the train invading the countryside appalled Henry Thoreau. I hide in my secret garden, seeking to escape the hum of the nearby freeway. As in politics, where my vote usually guarantees the candidates defeat, I must be careful not to be a sore loser in the cultural battles of my time.
I am not sure what to label myself without offending friends, becoming foolish, or revealing my lack of sophistication. How can one confess affinity with nineteenth century romanticism without suffering ridicule? In a chapter entitled ‘Romantic Inclinations’, Nicols Fox describes this impulse,
‘Romantic was a way of seeing, a certain cast of light that could transform anything. In this new illumination, the imagination could play with the unfamiliarity of familiar things, accentuating the strangeness of the half-visible. This sensation of newness, of possibility, of transformation defined the word. This was the mind at playful work, allowed to range and create and interact with the ever-changing nature of reality. The Romantic’s priorities were with the exercise of imagination, with excess, with the mystical and, at times, the irrational. The natural world was a powerful and important place where God dwelt; human emotion, intuitions and yearnings were not simply valid, but vital, and could be trusted.’ ”
What part of what Fox is talking about would you be willing to give up? There is a puritan tradition in the American Arts & Crafts movement that showed up again in the streamlined designs of Art Deco and today in the highly designed forms of mass produced ceramic domestic ware. It is severely simple, devoid of decoration, shorn of any graphic or illustrated pictorial surface, pure in its subtraction of extraneous elements. Minimalism in painting and other arts strongly display this influence. This approach sends shivers into the heart of the romanticist. This approach is simply not enough, it is not nearly enough to satisfy the robust aesthetic appetites of the romantic. Take another look at your ceramic artifacts. How would they fit here?
Thursday, April 28th, 2011
There is a romance to wanderlust – the sheer adventure of exploring exotic lands far away from your own origins and home. Modern modes of transportation has made all this quite possible. There is an irony here in that as foreign lands have become available they have also become more globalized and influenced by those who visit them and thus they start to become more and more like us. There is a reciprocal exchange of influences when people visit another culture or country – visitors or tourists are impacted and take back to their home culture certain new ways of looking at things and different styles of living. The visited country also is influenced by the visit and sees certain advantages in adopting ways not native to their own land. Most people assume that this exchange and interaction leads to greater interdependence and mutual understanding across cultures and countries. I am not sure that the history of contact between previously unknown cultures and countries would back up this assumption. We only have to investigate the history of European discoveries in the New World to learn that the occupation and colonization of these lands led to the violent destruction of the indigenous cultures.
Multinational commercial and corporate transactions greatly homogenize the way people live and the ways things look across the globe. While traditional cultures might offer what is considered unique and valuable local or regional handcrafted artifacts, these aesthetic traditions are as fragile and vulnerable as the endangered species and plant life that co-exist with them in these regions of the world. Can we preserve or conserve the integrity of these foreign cultures and natural environments or will the rest of the world eventually be essentially just like us? Does being ‘highly developed’ have more to do with the quantity of things rather than the quality of things? Even the words we have used in describing these lands convey implicit assumptions of superiority. Are those nations that do not possess the same bathroom facilities or kitchen appliances we can boast about really ‘underdeveloped? Does it follow that their culture is also as underdeveloped as their economy? Would you explore the pottery of a foreign land and judge its quality by the GNP of that culture? Can culture ever be ‘underdeveloped’ in any human civilization? I am making the point that this history of assumed superiority subtlety influences how we regard and engage cultures in the non-Western world and can led to grave mistakes in judgment and the discounting of the profound achievements of cultures quite unlike our own.
This leads to further issues and questions for all of us to consider. Can we love our own culture or country without having to prove it is superior in all regards to all others? Is it even rational to make that kind of claim? Why does it seem so difficult for humans to take pride in the unique virtues and achievements of their own culture while fully acknowledging that all cultures enjoy unique virtues all their own? We live in a very competitive society where hierarchies of superiority are encouraged by the way we are organized and the way we think. To be number one – be it in sports or in life seems very important to us. Those of us interested in the arts usually don’t feel the need to transfer that kind of thinking to what interests us there. I don’t remember any book on pottery or aesthetics that tries to rank the 100 best pots or paintings in the world in order of their supposed value. We do try to establish the importance of achievements in the arts by describing those attributes of the artifacts that display the sublime refinements of a significant achievement. This is quite a different thing. The qualities of a cultural achievement cannot be reduced to a simple formula by which an easy judgment can be made about worth. One cannot obtain the wisdom and meaning of a cultural artifact by trying to decide if it is a winner or loser or by the amount that you have to deduct from your bank account when you purchase it.
This can lead to another possible tendency for us – to judge the value of the piece by affixing a monetary price on it. Now we have a firm quantifiable number by which we can gauge the value of the object. What a relief! But not all cultures put a price tag on things, not all societies are inherently commercial in that all objects are reduced to commodities for sale. Much craft was created for centuries for use in daily life without thought of production for profit. I am sure that a working potter needs at some point to place a price tag on the bottom of their ceramic wares. But I would hope that the potter would not think that act in itself determines the true value and qualities of the pot. I have been to too many pottery shows and galleries not to know that the establishment of monetary value is a necessary step. I bring my wallet, checkbook, and credit cards with me because I know that the final act of acquisition requires these financial accouterments. That’s the way the real world works, at least that’s the way our world works. We must remember that this is not always the way other cultures work.
As a collector, I do not want to think that the potter or ceramic artist is influenced or motivated while making the piece by opportunities to increase its monetary value. Perhaps I am being naïve here or making impossible demands for an aesthetic innocence on the part of the potter that cannot be sustained. I do recall times when very good potters have told me, when looking at their work, that some of the pottery were examples of their ‘bread and butter’ work. I took this to mean that these items were popular, often purchased, and provided a dependable source of revenue. Who am I to be a purist in this matter? I remember a passage in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter” in which I discuss the quandaries and contradictions of price and value,
“Do all potters start off as humble ‘repetition’ potters making stacks of domestic ware? And slowly work yourself up to that dramatic risk of doing far less work for far more money? Is the big difference, aside from ego and ambition, the fact that some potters are graduates of prestigious university departments or art schools, mentored by famous potters, while others start as humble apprentices in somebody’s studio? I would like to think, at that crucial moment of the business transaction – to buy or not to buy, that I am far more impressed with the quality of the pot rather than the modest price. There are difficult merchandising questions for both buyer and seller. Perhaps a scale should be installed in the gallery and pottery sold by the pound. Small pots, except for those by very famous potters, tend to cost less. I have talked to a few potters who are frustrated that other potters, perhaps at an adjoining booth at some pottery fair or show, somehow get a far higher price for pots they insist are not any better than their own. I do have some standards – I will not purchase a pot I do not like – no matter the bargain price. Now, due both to my modest financial situation and the few remaining spaces left on my shelves, I am selective in adding only quality pots to my collection. When do potters raise their prices? Are the quality of the pot and the increasing reputation of the potter the basis for increased price? Or is it all a bluff? Raise prices, cut down on production and hope people will be so impressed with the high prices that they will also be impressed with the pottery? As a collector, I do hope that my enthusiastic appraisal of your pottery in these letters will not be the cause for you to further raise your prices. There must be consumer psychology behind all this. Perhaps you should consult people who manufacture and sell footwear or fast food hamburgers to discover the successful marketing principles involved. I do expect my potters to outperform stocks and bonds – no downward fluctuation, please – steady and sure accrual of worth as potters and the value of their pots mature over time. It is morbid to relate, but it appears that your future demise, after a lengthy and successful career, of course, will provide the big spike in increased value for your pots. Despite all that, I do sincerely wish you a very long and productive life. At my age, I will appear in the obituaries far sooner than the precious young potters represented in my collection. What determines the prices at estate sales? Oh, well, I won’t have to worry about that; Judy will have to sort that out.”
It was Oscar Wilde, the 19th century Irish wit and playwright, who once said that “nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Ultimately no one can place the value on anything for you, that is something you have to do for yourself. The value of something is the meaning and importance you give to that thing. The ceramic artists has an extra burden here; they have to determine both the price for each individual ceramic piece and also make a continuing assessment of the aesthetic value of their own work. When I went on my lecture tours of Britain with my publishers, I would usually give a lecture at some university or ceramic gallery, then I would sit at a table and sign my books for those who decided to purchase them. I did not establish the price of my book; my publishers did because they incurred the cost of having them published. How could it be determined if readers got their money’s worth? How do you translate value into something as superficial as cost or price? (I guess it’s not all that superficial if you can’t afford the price.) As far as that is concerned, you are right now receiving my very profound thoughts and my very sensitive feelings completely free on this blog. Somehow that doesn’t seem fair. I have my pride and will not request a voluntary donation from the readers of this blog but if someone, rightfully full of guilt, wants to send me a pot or two I would not object.
I realize that I am contradicting myself when I earlier pleaded for potters to remain pure in ignoring the siren calls of monetary reward when creating their work and here I have just attempted to do the same thing. How much is a page of Jacobs’ text worth? This is one time when I do not wish you to respond to this blog. Your response could only be rude and hurt my feelings. We all exist in a world where we attend to both the sacred and the profane, the monetary price of objects as commercial commodities and the joyful engagement of objects as containers of beauty and meaning. We live in this world and yet we need on occasion to transcend it. I wish you the best in your own life’s journey in finding and giving your own meaning and value to those things you desire and treasure.
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.”
Saturday, October 23rd, 2010
As I indicated in the first blog on this topic, I seek to explore the rewards and difficulties of long life and old age. A few of you might question what does this have to do with pottery and ceramics? I would claim that the fundamental issues of the human life cycle have profound impact on human culture and creativity. One fundamental question – is the aging process inherently friendly to the process of creativity and to those individuals who craft artifacts? One might make the case that there is an accelerated learning curve in youth, continuing into middle age for the craftsperson. But does that learning falter or lessen as one’s sheer physical energy slowly diminishes? Or are there compensating qualities from come from long experience and increased mastery that more than make up for the limitations of advanced age for those involved in creative activities?
All this discussion of old age is building up to a confession. I just purchased a big pot. I mean a really big pot. Why am I at age 76 spending thousands of dollars to buy a big, beautiful pot? Shouldn’t I be at a time when I should be planning to dispose of my pottery rather than adding to it? It was shipped all the way from England in a wooden crate. The driver had to use a forklift to move the box from the truck to the interior of my garage. It took my son and a friend almost a half hour to unscrew and remove the top and side of the box and then unpack another smaller box inside to finally reach the packed pot. Gareth Mason is the British ceramic artist who created the pot. I first saw the pot at a ceramic exhibit at the Royal College of Arts in London. Gareth is one of the finest ceramic artists in Britain and has a well-deserved international reputation. He is also a friend and a very decent chap to boot. His work is stunning and quite dramatic. Look him up on his website and take a look. His pot is now safely installed in my pottery gallery. I kid my friends and family by declaring that I am now going to have to charge an admission fee to enter my pottery gallery in order to recoup some of my funds spent on the pot.
That brings me to another question? Do old people have the right to claim a future? The projected length of that future might have to be considered in moderate extensions of time. It could start with having a cause or reason to look forward to tomorrow. After that, as I scan the calendar book we keep in the pottery gallery, I can spot the concert or play we are going to attend next week or next month and feel the pleasure of anticipation. We plan our trips well into the next year. Should old people be allowed only one month/ one page of the calendar at a time so we do not disillusion ourselves with an unrealistic timeline and false hopes? Is it wrong for us to have dreams and hopes beyond the immediate presence? Is it especially silly for old people to do so? But isn’t that what creative people do? Don’t potters project their imagination beyond the givens of what already exists and into realms of fantastic visions of their future work? The great danger when old people do the same thing is that this behavior can be judged as a symptom of old age rather than the innovation of a creative personality. Sometimes I worry that my life long eccentricity will one day become defined as senility.
I want to recommend a book about an old, remarkable woman to you. I don’t want you to think that I am so self-indulgent and self-absorbed in wasting your time talking about my old age that I cannot look beyond myself. The British author Diana Athill is a best selling writer of memoirs and is still going strong at 91. A few weeks ago I finished her book, “Somewhere Towards the End”. She had a distinguished career as a brilliant editor, working with some of the finest literary figures of her time. She fits my qualifications for a positive old age, to give up formal power in the world, to relinquish the authority that defined your reputation and resume, yet to end up with a respected and deep wisdom. This wisdom enhanced not only her but also the prospects of attaining wisdom for those who knew her or know about her. Old people like her inspire in others the possibilities and hopes to achieve a unique grace and self-created peace with the world that can never attain full reconciliation and resolution of all life issues but allows one to live with incompleteness and uncertainty as essential elements of that hard-earned wisdom.
Earning a Sense of Humor
All this sounds quite grand but the one trait I admire the most in old age is the retention of a sense of humor. It is not an impressive achievement if one has not earned it. One does not earn it through a succession of happy times and easy living. No, it is the great life disappointments and tragic disasters through which one earns this particular attribute. Humor is most appreciated and its presence most praiseworthy when it has been tested and survived the most difficult events of a lifetime. A sense of proportion and informed sensitivity regarding the nonsensical absurdity and yet possible nobility of our self-conscious species forms the character and shape of a sense of humor. One does not need the promise of happiness to have it. If you don’t have it as an embedded trait evident early in life, I think it is a very difficult thing to develop later on. You most appreciate its presence in dire circumstances when there seems no immediate reason for it to exist. I think humor comprises the courage of old age.
I would like to share another quote from my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter” in which I further explore my attitude regarding old age.
“I do not dwell on my age. I ask no edge in any voluntary forgiveness that might reduce standards for my performance. I expect no golfer’s handicap or early start. While I enjoy the generosity of others, I do not seek allowances or compensation for my long life. I do not think I require any affirmative action to comply with those standards of excellence and principle that have always guided my behavior. I do not need generous excuses or special dispensation. I hope to remain as stimulating and provocative as in earlier years, the sting of my critique and independent views not dulled over time. I wish only that the kindness of others corresponded with the effort made, given my natural limitations, and recognizing that the aging process is an active agent that does not seek my prior approval. I might look fragile but I do not feel fragile. I am not sure what I will do when appearance and condition are in agreement and confirmed. In the meantime, to be taken seriously is a most satisfying pleasure. Old people need to feel dangerous.”
Past and Present
One ongoing anxiety of old people is their fear of becoming obsolete. My grandchildren do not understand my references or citations that come from my childhood past. They apparently are not familiar with Bette Davis or Perry Como or Rita Hayworth. They do not view Hopalong Cassidy, Ed Sullivan or Flash Gordon on their television screens. They don’t seem to remember World War II or recall where they were when President Kennedy was shot. As we grow older, those things that date us become more apparent to others. Do potters face the same challenge? Do the ceramic references of your youth still challenge the young apprentice potters coming up? Do they still read Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” nowadays? Do students still bother with Marguerite Wildenhain or does everything start now with Peter Voulkos? What is this idea of obsolescence anyway? Does it make sense? Candles are still being used for charming effect at dinnertime even though we have had electric lights for over a century. Can people or pots ever become truly obsolete? Are ceramic containers obsolete because we now have plastic Tupperware?
Old people are living links to the past. We need to examine what we want to salvage and retain from the past and what is disposable. If the past is not valued in a society, it is highly probable that old people will not be valued either. Those who wish to be ‘modern’ in every regard and deny the past any role in art and craft today have treated traditions in art and craft unkindly. Are the legacies of past civilization only there to be overthrown? As a potter and ceramic artist, do you want to be known only for what is new and modern in your work? Are you embarrassed by any residue of the past in your work? Do I value what is old because I am old? Please help me make an argument for the seamless continuity of the past, present and future. Each epoch has gifts to pass on to the next era and generation. Please consider these two blogs as well-intentioned advice from an old man who values both the old and new in equal proportion. I have to leave you now. I want to spend some time with my pottery.
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.
Tuesday, September 14th, 2010
Searching for Beauty is of course the title of my book and an apt description of the central mission of my long life. Could I have largely wasted my lifetime in that pursuit? We must never seek the uncritical protection of self-serving rationales and excuses for what we do with our lives. Even now, sitting in my pottery gallery at my desk, looking up from the computer to view hundreds of ceramic artifacts on shelves from floor to ceiling – I must retain a critical self-consciousness and ask myself the hard questions about why I lived my life the way I did. I sense I might be out of step with the world around me. I could not find much evidence in the Los Angeles Times newspaper this morning about other people spending their lives looking for beauty. Most of the content of the paper describes the follies and crimes of humanity – war and other varieties of violence that makes victims out of the innocent. Most people in the world apparently are simply trying to survive – to get enough to eat everyday, obtain a small plot of earth where they can find adequate shelter, and seek protection for their families in a very dangerous world.
Would they find my search for beauty the work of a privileged person, selfish and self-absorbed in attempting to stock my private life with pretty pots? How do I justify my quest for beauty in such a world? And of course it is not just in far-off lands that we observe these terrible things happening. I garden every morning; in this hot summer weather I try to get out in my front garden by 7:00 or 8:00 at the latest. A nice middle- aged man, who lives just around the block while taking his morning walk, will often stop to talk to me. He is unemployed, fired from a job where he gave many years of his life and is now at a vulnerable age, looking in vain for employment. My own son was recently dismissed as a teacher in a local school district, and had to move to central California to find work. He took my grandchildren with him and I haven’t seen them for over a month. Maybe you too are feeling a bit insecure and you too have been unfavorably hit by the economic recession. But this is the current context of all our lives and even if we have been personally spared, we all have friends or family who, unfortunately have not.
So is my pottery collection just an escape from reality? A way of hiding out in a pampered existence within the insulated cocoon of my private home? How can potters make a decent living in this kind of economic environment? Why do you still make pots and why do I still buy them? Why do we require the pleasures derived from creative activities and the rewarding joys we gain from art and craft? You create beauty in the studio and I then celebrate it by taking it home. How would you justify what we do? I want to try to explain to you why I seek beauty in my life. Why isn’t it just a frivolous hobby or a rich man’s diversion? First of all I am not rich and have never been. I had to have a full time job to work my way through college. Nothing was ever handed to me. I have always worked for it. I have placed most of my life’s savings in pottery and I have never regretted it. It is an investment in the spirit and soul of human creativity and genius.
The questions I have asked you and myself so far in this blog have to do with getting beyond basic survival and those qualities that make life worth living. The next question is how do we discover or develop some greater purpose and pleasure in life? Many people never get beyond just the basic stuff, and even when they have obtained all the basics, as consumers they continue to pack their homes with more and more disposable stuff that has no real value in terms of the quality of their lives. What does make life worthwhile? Here I think we can make a convincing argument that art and craft – and ceramics in particular – contribute to a fundamental need to find harmony and grace, to find elegance and excellence in those objects created out of clay; to discover all those elements we can rightly call beautiful and be able to take it home and enrich your daily existence. In one of the early letters in my book I had this to say about trying to find beauty in a world consumed by war and other dire straits,
“I fear that all the potters and poets of the world cannot save me. The romance of my life consisted in the belief or illusion that art was the highest expression of a noble species and that war and bigotry were the dysfunctional symptoms of injustice and oppression. The inventory of wars, holocausts and atrocities during my lifetime could make me a fool”
I wrote that particular letter in September of 2002. I do not find a lot of evidence today that things are that much better. Human creativity gives me hope in a world today where I think hope is getting in short supply. My pottery reminds me, even when I am reading the L.A. Times each morning about the latest disasters in the world, that I just have to look around the rooms of my house and be reassured that the human species is not only capable of the horrors of war and violence, but also gifted with soaring imaginations and magnificent mastery as represented in my pottery. My pottery is my evidence of the best qualities of humanity found in almost all the cultures of humanity; the fruits and wonders of human civilization that really do make life worth living.
I want to share one of my favorite quotations about a mentor of mine, William Morris, the 19th century British Arts & Crafts leader. A few years back, I wrote 35 letters to William. As of yet, he has not responded. I hope to see these letters published some day as a book. William Morris was a poet, philosopher, craftsman, and also a compassionate leader in fighting for the rights and welfare of workers experiencing extremely harsh working conditions during the industrial revolution in Britain. In the introduction to Morris’ book, “News From Nowhere”, G.D.H. Cole explores the nature of Morris’ writing and vision:
“He was letting himself dream of a society that would let him do without stint everything he thought worth doing, and would not upset his pleasure in what he did by the sense that others were lacking a like freedom. He wanted to be free to make beautiful things, not merely for a fortunate few who could afford to buy them, but for everyone who would get pleasure out of having and using them. Through most of his life, nothing hurt him so constantly as the knowledge that his pretty things were out of reach of most who like them – except in the sense that most people had not been given a chance of finding out whether they liked them or not. He believed in his bones that the appreciation of beauty was a vitally important part of the art of living, and that a people devoid of artistic appreciation was inevitably a dead people, destined to slavery and decay. He believed that it came naturally to men to have this sense of beauty in the everyday things of common use, and that a society in which they had it not was fundamentally ‘unnatural’ – a society out of which half the pleasure and happiness had been banished. He believed that the quality of beauty in common things, and in man’s relation to them, affected the whole way of living, impoverishing any society that went without it, however men might pile up material riches. He believed that the ordinary things men made ought to be so made as to be ‘a joy to the maker and to the user,’ and that where most men spent their working days joylessly making ugly things, the death of civilization was at hand.”
I will make my stand with William Morris. Will you join us? I too want a society where all of us can enjoy the art of living by appreciating art as a daily experience. Beauty is not a special event; it needs to be present in our everyday lives. The experience of beauty is a basic right for all of us. Speaking of all of us, I am always embarrassed by extracting quotes from writers in the 19th and 20th centuries who used the gender designation ‘men’ as the universal term for women too. I am particularly disappointed when the quotation contains much virtue otherwise. Maybe we have made more progress during my lifetime in some areas than I otherwise thought and I should be more optimistic about things in the future. Anyhow I am going to write in the next several blogs about this search for beauty and how central it is for all of us. Potters do make ordinary things that are ‘a joy to the maker and user’ and we need to defend and explain why this is so important to human culture and to all of us. We need to sing our song in full confidence of the importance of what we are doing. The search for beauty continues.