Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Posts Tagged ‘ceramics’
Monday, October 22nd, 2012
The complex feelings involved in attaining a transcendent experience could well be a combination of many emotions and not just a single one. But the emotion being discussed here has to do with the elevation of the human soul and consciousness beyond the grounded reality of our ordinary lives. Most people might associate this special state with a spiritual experience and that would be quite appropriate to use in this way. I am going to employ this idea in this blog as the intellectual and emotional canopy for the aesthetic engagement and celebration of art. I intend to assert that we all need to be replenished and enriched by an infusion of those ennobling experiences that transcend anchored reality and liberates us to soar above and beyond our everyday existence. In a materialistic culture that seeks to emphasize our roles as consumers of perishable commodities, there seems to be few opportunities to experience those intense and memorable moments whose sublime and thrilling beauty enrich our lives. This theme reminds us of the injunction that we humans cannot live by bread alone.
There is no competition evident in seeking revelation and exhilaration from either the spiritual or the aesthetic. In fact they have been partners throughout human history. We know that religion has historically utilized aesthetic principles in constructing crafted temples of worship, in the soaring and inspiring music that accompanies religious rituals, in the sponsorship of artists in such periods as the Italian Renaissance where they painted vast murals in churches and other religious sites. In some regions of the world, this collaboration of the spiritual and the aesthetic resulted in the three dimensional and often monumental portrayals of such religious figures as Buddha and other spiritual deities. In more secular and modern societies, where art often is without religious sponsorship or content, the revelatory joys of aesthetic engagement depend on the qualities of the artifact itself.
Who is Worthy?
Can only special people enjoy this very special kind of experience? Do you have to be an expert on ceramic art, an authority on the stocking of the kiln, inside knowledge of ingredients of the clay and the chemistry of the glaze, to be truly enthralled by the engagement of the created pot? Can only an artist appreciate the work of other artists? I can only answer these questions for myself but I would emphatically deny the exclusivity of the transcendent experience to those with expert authority or specialized knowledge. That would be analogous to claiming that a higher spiritual state is available only to the priesthood or clergy of that faith and not devoted believers in that faith. I must maintain that the ability to activate the wisdom and glory of the aesthetic experience to uplift and enrich your life is open to all people. That is not to say such transcendent experiences are easy or accessible without self-discipline and concentrated focus. As with all the finer things of life, there must be a prior investment of devoted attention to achieve those rarefied moments of epiphany that mark the enraptured exaltation of experiencing great art and craft.
There are those who would not limit this ability to various types of people but would limit it by insisting that those qualities that could sponsor such emotions are embedded in only very special varieties of ‘fine art’ and cannot be found in craft or specifically pottery. This is an elitist view that exiles the handcrafted artifact to the lesser level of utilitarian ware. There is an implicit inference here that not only is the ceramic artifacts of a lower status but the maker of that object operates on a lower level of spiritual and aesthetic behavior. In his book, “The Spirit of Ceramic Design: Cultivating Creativity with Clay”, Robert Piepenburg has a chapter titled “Spiritual Principles – Intimate Guidance” in which he talks about those spiritual attributes of the ceramic artist that transcend material expertise and craft technique. Although his remarks in this book are addressed to ceramicists, his comments do not limit the attainment of these qualities to just artists. Nor does his definition of spiritual principles require a special religious membership but are rather universal in nature and can become the rightful property of all that seek it. This is what Piepenburg has to say,
“Where a lot of artists are at right now is a place of personal discovery where they realize that having a spiritual component to their art-making is every bit as important as having it in their lives. This is especially true with ceramists. While this emergence may be due in part to the primal nature of the clay itself, I think it is mostly a reality shift of consciousness. Any alternation of consciousness, like any process of internal transformation that leads to a new state or quality of being, can be likened to an awakening. If such discoveries lead to a deeper dimension of self they are in essence spiritual and add new purpose to being alive. As for what exactly constitutes spirituality it is never easy to say, but we do know that it endows everything from art to politics with humanness. We also know that it is a precondition to our becoming – to the finding of our own authentic path in life – because spirituality gives intimate meaning and guidance to life. It is the sum total of energy that exists within our heart, mind, and body. Without it we are unable to recognize a deeper sacredness in life, let alone understand the creative process. If we acknowledge the importance of our spirit and its reverence for that which is universally true, positive, and wise then the next question becomes: ‘How do we take it into the studio?’”
Feeding Our Souls
In the sense that Piepenburg offers here, the making and engagement of art provides the spiritual stuff that can nourish that internal state or condition that gives purpose and reason to being alive. These spiritual and aesthetic resources are obtained by the life we lead. I often read about the importance of diet, the avoidance of too much processed food or the chronic ingestion of food with excessive amounts of sugar and salt as leading to obesity or even ill health. Here Piepenburg is talking about food for the soul and he is talking about ceramics. First we take it into our hearts, minds and bodies, then some of us who are makers can take it into the studio. I like the use of that word ‘cultivating’ in the title of his book. That is the life long chore or task for all of us – to cultivate those inner qualities and assemble around us those aesthetic resources that lead us to a more refined and sublime level of existence.
Transcendental experiences cannot be obtained by some short cuts or immediate acquisition. Like all good things that really count, they have to be earned. People today are spoiled by cheap and easy access to forms of entertainment that can be manipulated in some hand-held electronic appliance. Transformation and transcendence requires a longer attention span and greater effort than that. The difference – if you will forgive my frank honesty – is the difference between a superficial existence or a profound and meaningful existence based on the very best that human culture could provide us. They might be some among us that do not have sufficient self-esteem to believe that they are capable of such experiences. I spent much of my time as an educator trying to convince students otherwise. There had even been times in our history where discriminating practices and laws forbid women and African-Americans and others full access to the riches of our culture in higher education and elsewhere, because they were judged unworthy and not capable of absorbing it. Some groups have had to struggle and fight for the eventual right to attain access to these cultural opportunities. Far too many of us who had and have the inherent privilege of such access have not sought to obtain it. It is that ‘awakening’ that shakes the very core of the inner self, which arouses all the inner energy and drive of your person, to transcend all the surrounding handicaps and limitations, and finally overpower them by transporting the gifts of human culture into the raw fuel of self-construction.
I do not think it is necessary to be unhappy with your everyday life to want to occasionally transcend it. I have written often about the infusion of art and beauty into our everyday lives and do not believe this represents a contradiction. On the contrary, it is in the familiar grounds of our own neighborhood and home that we can import those aesthetic experiences that can elevate our joy and consciousness. We can temporarily transcend in spirit our domestic premises without having to charge our credit cards for the cost of travel. How do we open up ourselves to be carried away – not by motorized vehicles – not by a cramped seat within the sealed tube of air flight – but by a memorable and remarkable musical composition, by a great novel, by a stunning pot whose glazes run like molten rivers of vivid color down its sides. I am satisfied to be of this world and reside in it, but creative human culture provides me a passport to other worlds anytime I seek that kind of journey.
Friday, May 25th, 2012
Nineteenth century Romanticism encouraged the expression of the emotions as integral to the creative act and to the resulting object or performance. Here the advocacy and activation of the emotions was at least partially a reaction to the technological mechanization resulting from the Industrial Revolution. This took place not only in music, drama, literature and the fine arts and other media but was expected to be demonstrated in the larger than life persona of the artist or performer. Here the artist as an eccentric and flamboyant character often took darker directions and there emerged the profile of the artist as a self-destructive agent of excessive consumption of drugs and drink and other assorted vices. The glorious culmination of the romantic life was the agonizing propensity for a final tragic fate. Off hand I don’t think craftspeople were usually included in this motley crowd and thus avoided both the notoriety and dangers of Bohemian life. I don’t recall stories of struggling potters, sunken in poverty and near starvation, throwing clay in dingy garrets on the left bank of Paris. Poets seemed to be far better in enjoying that fate.
There is a passage in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter”, that discusses aspects of Romanticism. The quote cites comments in a book by Nicols Fox titled, “Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art and Individual Lives”, where I briefly introduce Fox after confessing my own romantic nature.
I am not sure what to label myself without offending friends, becoming foolish, or revealing my lack of sophistication. How can one confess affinity with nineteenth century romanticism without suffering ridicule? In a chapter entitled ‘Romantic Inclinations’, Nichols Fox describes this impulse:
” ‘Romantic’ was a way of seeing, a certain cast of light that could transform anything. In this new illumination, the imagination could play with the unfamiliarity of familiar things, accentuating the strangeness of the half-visible. This sensation of newness, of possibility, of transformation defined the word. This was the mind at playful work, allowed to range and create and interact with the ever-changing nature of reality. The Romantics’ priorities were with the exercise of imagination, with excess, with the mystical and, at times, the irrational. The natural world was a powerful and important place where God dwelt: human emotion, intuitions and yearnings were not simply valid, but vital, and could be trusted.’ ”
The pattern of commentary about emotions, including sentimentality, is beginning to form around patterns of definitions that reinforce each other. One is this question of the irrational. I have always assumed that to be irrational was to be out of control. Irrational behavior might lead to violence and other frightening things. What should be included under the umbrella of irrational behavior? Is the creative process a rational or irrational activity? Some artists and potters talk about the carefully controlled design of the ceramic form, the calculations of the chemicals in the glaze, the appropriate composition of the clay, the temperature in the kiln, the mastery of the wheel through disciplined procedures. Yet I have read and heard other potters talk about the excitement of the process, the surge of that creative spirit that can bring about unexpected results that deviate from past practices and seem to make no immediate sense. Well, how is it for you? Can you train a future potter through rational how-to-do-it lessons or is there something more that comes from the gut or the heart that no one can explain and no one can give to you?
Are the romantics right – can human emotions be trusted? I thought the sign of maturity was supposed to be the successful suppression of emotions. Are emotions only appropriate under certain conditions and at special sites? I would prefer that other drivers on the freeway restrain their emotions; certainly I would include the brain surgeon, especially if one is operating on me, and also the reader of this blog, particularly when disagreeing with me on some point I have just made. Do both anger and love involve a loss of control? Are some emotions good and other emotions bad? Is it difficult for emotional people to allow the full expression of some of the more benign emotions but suppress others who might do harm? I will now petition the Renaissance writer and sage, Montaigne, for his advice by way of a writer, Sarah Bakewell, who recently wrote a book about him. I have long depended on him as my mentor and guide through life. I know that he will not disappoint me.
Both sentimentality and vulgarity can be extreme emotions. Some have concluded that art requires one or both elements. Some others seek moderation far less exuberant. I want to refer to my good friend and mentor Montaigne in this regard. Sarah Bakewell, in her book, “How to Live” describes his essential moderation in this way,
“By singing the praises of moderation and equanimity, and doubting the value of poetic excess, Montaigne was bucking the trend of his own time as much as that of the Romantics. Renaissance readers fetishized extreme states: ecstasy was the only state in which to write poetry, just as it was the only way to fight a battle and the only way to fall in love. In all three pursuits, Montaigne seems to have had an inner thermostat which switched him off as soon as the temperature rose beyond a certain point. This was why he so admired Espaminondas, the one classical warrior who kept his head when the sound of clashing swords rang out, and why he valued friendship more than passion. ‘Transcendental humors frighten me,’ he said. The qualities he valued were curiosity, sociability, kindness, fellow-feeling, adaptability, intelligent reflection, the ability to see things from another’s point of view, and ‘good-will’ – none of which is compatible with the fiery furnace of inspiration.”
Montaigne does identify some admirable emotions but emphasizes moderation in the expression of them. Notice that he advised all to avoid “the fiery furnace of inspiration”. To be sentimental one has to be inspired by optimism. The sense of well being derived from sentimental experiences justifies and reinforces that emotion. Despite the tantalizing pleasures of vulgarity, its great danger is when it is realized that vulgarity, like addictive drugs, often requires a greater and greater dosage to produce the resulting thrill. The inability of being shocked ruins vulgarity. Do you have a creative thermostat which switches off when you need to make a crucial decision in the creative process? Would you argue with Montaigne when he advised us to avoid “poetic excess?” Somehow, however much I admire Montaigne and am influenced by him, I don’t think he understood much about the creative process and those who practiced it.
There is one legendary American potter who never avoided ‘poetic excess’ in the display of his emotions. That potter was of course George Ohr. We all know the essential story here: an eccentric genius thought mad by some, a master at the wheel, long forgotten after death, boxes and boxes of his pottery stacked for years, his rediscovery decades later and his belated recognition as one of our greatest potters. Eugene Hecht, in his book, “After the Fire: George Ohr: An American Genius”, tells us about this strange fellow in the following two passages I have selected from his book.
“Surely, George was already being singularly idiosyncratic – when a vase inadvertently got chipped, he chipped it all around, turning the accident into a disquieting decorative motif. That gesture says a lot about his relationship to both the concept of accident and to the traditional notion of perfection so valued by the craftsman – but of course Geroge E. Ohr was an artist with a very different agenda. The craftsman seeks a kind of utilitarian perfection, the artist struggles to capture some essence of humanity, however imperfect. Constrained chance and spontaneity, driven by passionate intuition and an unfailing sense of the sensual, formed the basis of the dynamic process of creation Ohr was already evolving.”
Before I offer you the second quote from this book, I need to question you about what this statement means to you. Hecht established the differences between the craftsman who seeks a utilitarian perfection and the genius of George Ohr who was able to take advantage of the imperfections of human existence to capture some essence of humanity. Where are you? Where do you stand? Do you seek a utilitarian notion of perfection or the employment of that “constrained chance and spontaneity, driven by passionate intuition and an unfailing sense of the sensual” that Ohr demonstrated? Can devotion to both approaches result in great pottery? Ohr proves that mastery of the medium and creative genius in highly unique and expressive pottery can be partners and not rivals. Can you be rational on one hand and yet somehow irrational at the same time? Can you be emotional in the expressive power to create unique work and yet employ reason necessary in the sound construction of the object at the same time? Does your own pottery enjoy the integration of human creativity and the making of things? Ohr proves that emotion and reason were his allies in the creative process. How does your pottery prove this?
Now for the second offering from this book about Ohr. I do want you to know, without going into details, that Ohr was a vulgar man, an obscene man. Do you know about his brothel tokens? I won’t go into further details but in talking about Ohr and his genius, you are also talking about sensuality and lust as chosen elements in his life and work. American culture, given our religious traditions, has been historically very, very nervous about sexual aspects of passion and its unseemly association with aesthetics and art. Ohr breaks rules, conventions and supposed tenets of good taste along with creating great pottery. I really admire George Ohr but I am not sure I would want him as my next-door neighbor. My fire insurance rates might go up considerably, as a devastating fire once destroyed his studio and neighboring structures, along with badly scorching his pots. Here is more from Hecht about Ohr’s powerful emotions.
“Along the way he began turning the vaseforms thinner than he ever had before, and that made possible a whole new range of manipulative gestures that carried the work to a still higher level of expressiveness. The potter was there whirling each vessel into existence. And the sculptor was there, swiftly, spontaneously, taking each beyond itself; imbuing each with the wordless voice of humanity. Those were sure hands, confident in a mature, powerful intuition; an existential intuition that was all passion, grace, and wit, sensuality, and lust, and angst; an intuition that was the man. Liberated from the contemporary tenets of good-taste and energized by the self-assumed imperative to produce no-two-alike, Ohr was forever risking it all at the boundaries of his own wonderful imagination.”
Wow, that is a potent emotional cocktail that Hecht is attributing to Ohr. We have passion, grace, wit, sensuality, lust, and angst, all involved in “an existential intuition” that combined with “sure hands” that created pottery that articulated, again according to Hecht, the “wordless voice of humanity”. Listen up, my potter friends; we are talking about pottery that contains the wordless voice of humanity. Wow, I think we should pause here to really reflect on this. What potters would you place alongside Ohr in their capacity to provide some of the qualities that I think Hecht rightly accords to Ohr’s pottery? We are not talking about technique here or practical function. We are talking about the most profound and sublime feelings of human beings expressed with clay and taking the shape of pottery.
I am sure you could help me make this case with examples from many ceramic legacies and cultures. We could also select and honor those contemporary potters who have attained an expressive level with clay that communicates essential human emotions in a unique visual voice. We must assert with greater confidence the central placement of ceramic achievements in the arts with other supreme expressions of human culture from various media. I am going to continue this discussion of the emotional components active in the creative process in ceramics. Without this creative capacity and its proper recognition, pottery is restricted to domestic accessories that serve as household appliances. We need not be embarrassed by the utility that pottery offers in this capacity, but I think we have been habitually modest if not defensive in not fully celebrating the aesthetic and artistic elements that indeed have contributed grace, meaning and beauty to our world over centuries of human civilization.
Thursday, May 10th, 2012
After bringing up these unsavory attitudes toward sentimentality, I going to take the risk and confess that I too have critical reactions to excessively sentimental depictions in various artistic media. It is not for the same reasons as discussed above. A film I saw recently inspired my reveries about sentimentality. Judy and I went out to dinner and a movie with friends on New Year’s Eve. We went to a huge mall not too far from us located in an adjoining suburb, connected by the freeway that runs close to our house and goes through a string of suburbs on its way to Los Angeles. We saw the film, “War Horse”, directed by Steven Spielberg. I had concerns about going to see the film, concerns about Spielberg’s tendency to make conventional Hollywood films even out of the most unconventional themes. We are due to see the play soon in a month or two. It originated in Britain and was adapted from a novel. I anticipate a very different experience with the play. The film served the standard Spielberg formula, with intervals of two rather brutal and realistic World War I battle scenes sandwiched between sentimental slabs of overripe storytelling lit by rose-colored skies. The visual scenes of the English countryside with those charming huts with thatched roofs have been seen before on calendars, jigsaw puzzles and on the covers of boxed candy. It was this combination of the inherent vulgarity of war and the sloppy sentimentality of the remainder of the movie that triggered the contents of this letter.
John William’s lush music lathered the film with sweeping and rolling romantic crescendos that constantly tugged at my heartstrings. Spielberg somehow succeeds in manipulating the audience to care only about the survival of the boy and his horse despite the graphic horrors portrayed of the war, bodies of young men piled in the trenches, rats gnawing corpses, all representing the bloody and savage end of prior European civilization. There is a faint and latent message embedded in the film that perhaps if men only loved each other as much as they loved horses we would have no more wars. It contained almost all the elements I dislike and find all too common in Hollywood movies.
I will offer this review of the film by Andrew Pulver, who, in the Tuesday 20 December 2011 edition of “The Guardian”, had this to say about the “War Horse”,
“Following hard on the heels of the rousing, if charmless, ‘Adventures of Tintin’, Steven Spielberg has opted for a lachrymose, buttery treatment of the Michael Morpurgo book-then-play, which is still packing them out in the West End. The original novel is famous for its horse-viewpoint narration, while the stage version is celebrated for its puppetry; Spielberg has jettisoned both of these (relatively) adventurous devices, and tells it pretty straight. But straight doesn’t mean unvarnished. From the first swooping shots of a chocolate-boxy English countryside, this ‘War Horse’ is rooted in a buffed-up sanded-down version of rural England, where even alcohol-fuelled poverty is given a picturesque, storybook patina.”
I do appreciate that at least Pulver agrees with me on this film. I seem to have two choices in engaging the arts today. Most media in popular culture offers a variation of the sentimental to lure a big box office. The other box office strategy is the vulgarity of violence. The avant-garde in the fine arts regularly offers the vulgar, often under the cover of claiming satire, but most often merely adding to the towering modern and postmodern achievements of the vulgar. A few of the most highly successful artists in the fine arts today have managed to achieve a deadly combination of both. My aesthetic tastes and standards do not appreciate the domination of either possibility. I can tolerate elements of both present in the artifact or performance but only as counterpoints to some greater purpose or meaning. If I reject the sentimental and the vulgar as aesthetic standards, what is left for me? I do not find the vulgar offensive but rather banal when its need to shock becomes a desperate strategy.
I do often find the sentimental offensive, trying to deceive me into believing in the ultimate triumph of a happy ending that ignores the fact that we cannot escape death. Life teaches you that there are thorns even on something as beautiful as a rose bush. Sentimentality requires experiences that successfully turn past reality into today’s fiction. In this case the falsification of past life transforms present life into a romance. Sentimentality becomes the emotional cemetery for our lives, the buried memories that are awakened and sweetened with the help of stimuli created for that effect. Sentimentality wisely avoids the significant and focuses rather on those intimate experiences and relationships of personal lifetimes. To be sentimental one has to demand that your memories of the past promise to faithfully tell you loving falsehoods. Sentimentality lacks the resources to be profound. But it just might make life worth living for those of us who have known great suffering. Sentimentality often becomes a well-intentioned lie justified for the purposes of overall morale. The lie is in what is left out, the harsh and cruel aspects of the human condition. It a lie of omission, necessary for the sweet bits and pieces to triumph in the one sided presentation stacked to make you feel very, very good.
Well, I do seem to have rather definite feelings about the employment of sentimentality in the arts, don’t I? It appears that most people might well disagree with me. The film, “Warhorse” was nominated for best picture for an Oscar, although it did fail to achieve that goal. You might well think it is one of the greatest films you every saw. I need to argue a bit with myself about my critical attitude. To love is to feel sentimental. Not just at that moment of joyful revelation, but hopefully ever afterward. Children would not want parents who were not endearingly sentimental in their feelings toward them and demonstrative in displaying those feelings. Judy and I are going to have our 40th anniversary later this year in the fall. We have been planning a trip, maybe to Europe, to celebrate the occasion. I have a rich memory bank of our lives together, things we have experienced together over the years and now share in our fond recollections. These rich memories form a sentimental web that wraps around and bonds our present lives. Yes, yes, I also feel quite sentimental about my old Golden Retriever, Morris, and to remain completely candid for at least another sentence or two, even though it might weaken my argument, I absolutely adore my 19th century Royal Doulton pottery that has bright and pretty hand-painted flowers against deep blue backgrounds. Do you get the feeling that I am a bit conflicted about the whole subject?
That said, I am going to get back to critiquing sentimentality. I do get so emotional about emotions. I want to compare this sentiment with another quite popular element in our society and in our arts, and that is vulgarity. I have a deep aversion and prejudice of anything sentimental or vulgar that achieves great popular or commercial success solely because of those attributes. In our world today, too often vulgarity and sentimentality have ceased being authentic human emotions. Today the demonstration of the vulgar and the sentimental are commercial activities and these emotions and the behavior they inspire become contrived for profit in the marketplace. When something vulgar becomes successful or acceptable it stops being vulgar. When something sentimental becomes a success, it remains sentimental. Sentimentality can be bonding in forming a community of people. Vulgarity separates people and can be most divisive. The new or unusual cannot be vulgar on those grounds alone and should not alone be the cause of alienation. The greatest curse of sexism for both men and women is to charge that women are naturally sentimental and men are naturally vulgar.
Again I must retreat and reconsider my brash declarations of personal taste. Almost all great art, even including the French Impressionists, were once declared to be vulgar as compared with the traditions and practices at the time. Any innovation or change at first appears to be an insult and challenge to what went before it. Sentimentality has a generosity and kindness that can be therapeutic even though on occasion most unrealistic. Vulgarity can celebrate those essential animal lusts that are authentic sponsors of our passionate and excessive expressions. Sentimentality can be used to overly domesticate the unruly powers that make great art possible.
Some who might be amused or even perplexed that I collect pottery might charge that contemporary pottery is in itself a sentimental attempt to retrain an obsolete way of making things. Plastic is practical, modern and tough. It is only the nostalgia of yesterday – a key ingredient in sentimentality – that keeps us making and collecting something called pottery. Now, don’t get upset. You know I don’t believe that for a minute. But isn’t sentimentality a key element in ceramic traditions? Can we justify maintaining and continuing artistic legacies practiced over centuries based on such a defense of continuity and tradition? Is the only way to make pottery modern to take an abstract expressionistic approach and tear holes and punch dents in them just like you know who? (Initials P.V.) I do have some rather modern pottery in my gallery that I hesitate to pour liquids in because they might leak. Is leaking pottery just more modern and less sentimental than the old fashioned pottery that doesn’t leak? Many modernists would assert that to be sentimental is to be weak and that anything sentimental in a work of art diminishes its artistic value and rigor. But isn’t a love of humanity central to a love of the humanities? Should we be that judgmental of it’s appearance in our art and culture? Maybe I am just a softy after all.
I am not through yet with sentimentality. On to the third part…
Monday, April 2nd, 2012
The supposed difference between what is called fine arts and what is called craft, including pottery, is that the former can contain profound expressions of human thoughts and emotions while the latter, at best, can become efficient in their function as objects made with great skill and mastery of the medium. The corollary to that is that one can engage and experience human emotions while engaging painting or sculpture but cannot extract that while engaging crafted objects, and this would include pottery in particular. Do we want to challenge that idea? I don’t know about you, but I have a house full of pottery and I think one or more human emotions are embedded in some form or another in them. I can certainly locate these emotions in me as I engage and experience them. Is that because I am obviously abnormal in my obsessive love of pottery and should seek immediate therapy? Or is it because the containers themselves house one or more aesthetic elements that represent these basic emotions? Would potters, usually a modest and humble lot, claim one or more of these emotional properties present in their own pottery?
The answer to these questions is of course more obvious in ceramic sculpture, where clay is used in a figurative or even abstract construct. Here ceramic artists can claim to be a part of that long and prestigious history of sculpture as a fine art medium. I collect antique and contemporary tiles and here again a long history of visual portrayals of human activities and natural landscapes places them within a tradition of narrative that can contain visual images and symbols more easily interpreted and translated into metaphorical aspects of essential human emotions. What can a teapot tell you? How can a vase or bowl convey or arouse strong feelings? Should I even try to prove my point with a teacup and saucer of all things? Maybe I should stop this discussion right now and just give up.
The very idea of emotions has never enjoyed a good reputation in the Western World. Emotions were associated with irrational behavior while the triumph of reason in the Age of Enlightenment was considered the true emergence of mature civilization. This idea that emotions are more primitive, less intelligent, less dependent, and more dangerous and had to be controlled and governed by reason is embedded in our history and culture. Art was once considered by some to be an unstable activity that threatened the order by stimulating the emotions. Plato condemned flute music as conducive to licentiousness. I am not sure how he regarded potters back then but surely potters are at least as dangerous as flute players. I can verify that every time I walk into my pottery gallery something really intense happens with my emotions that might fully justify Plato’s concerns.
In an essay by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins about “Emotions: An Overview” in the 2nd volume of the Oxford ‘Encyclopedia of Aesthetics’, they concluded this about the role of emotions in aesthetics,
“In contemporary aesthetics in the English-speaking world, the role of emotion is still a matter of considerable debate. Much of this debate turns on the nature of emotion, which, as this brief history suggests, is no simple matter. How we conceive of emotion depends not only on science but also on ethics, one’s conception of human nature and the good life. And to this short list we can add one’s conception of the arts and their role in the good life. Insofar as emotions are conceived as primitive, unintelligent reactions or forces, straining for release, then aesthetics will reflect the satisfications and dangers of such catharsis. On the other hand, insofar as one’s conceptions of the emotions become more complex and sophisticated, aesthetics will become more complex and sophisticated as well.”
Can craft have a sense of humor? Can there be a tragic element in pottery? Ever met a sensuous vase? Does something made of clay have to be called ‘ceramic art’ in order to possess these qualities? As with all questions I have asked you, I do not have a single or final answer. What do you think? I have always identified myself as a pottery collector. Pottery historically/traditionally has provided dependable service in the kitchen or dining room table. The function of pottery was to hold liquids and food in some essential form. Much of it continues in that noble role. I am very proud of that history and do not need to defend it here. But some people that work with clay, maybe even some who call themselves potters, do try to go beyond function, do try to integrate sentimental, tragic, sensuous or humorous elements in both the form and decoration of their work. Are some of you pottery purists who can’t accept that? I want to explore this with you, might even take a few blogs to try to sort this out. Are you with me?
Let’s approach the sentimental first. Of all these qualities, isn’t sentimentality the most often and common element present through the centuries in ceramics? Lots of pottery, from previous centuries especially, had hand-painted portrayals of sweet children or adorable animals or beautiful landscapes in ripe colors on porcelain pottery, surely enough to melt your heart. Does that give this kind of pottery a bad reputation today? In those industrial potteries in the 19th century women were restricted to painting or decorating pottery and not allowed to throw the pots themselves. Did this imply that not only was sentimentality inherent in the aesthetic taste of that time but also assumed that it was also an integral aspect of women’s nature and far easier for them to replicate on pottery?
It was of course other women in the domestic kitchens of that day that were using the pottery that their sisters in ceramic factories had decorated. Do we still think that sentimentality is thought more natural or normal for women than men? As a man, I resent the implication that a man can’t be as tender and sensitive as a woman. As an amateur gardener, I object to the fact that I have great trouble when I go shopping and find only gardening gloves and hats designed and sized for women. We now recognize that women can be and are great potters. We have made some progress in the last hundred years. Well, it works both ways. Men can be great gardeners too and why is that considered a women thing in our culture?
It is not fashionable for either men or women to be sentimental these days. For women, seeking full scope and definition of their human hood, sentimentality is a part of the old stereotype of them that held them back for so long. Some want to prove that they can be as tough and strong as any man. It is particularly important to display these qualities in the work world where they must compete with men. Many women, particularly if they are executives or elected to office, try very hard to avoid crying in public. Many men are insecure in demonstrating their feelings and emotions in public, assuming that this violation of traditional definitions of masculinity would result in damage to their manly image. Artistic activities of any kind were not always considered appropriate for ‘real men’ in the history of Anglo-Saxon societies. Perhaps men potters are considered more ‘macho’ because they can throw huge piles of clay on the wheel and are in better shape than those ‘sissy’ men artists that dab a canvas with a paintbrush. I felt this gender prejudice as a boy when I loved to paint and later as an art major in high school and as a young art major in college. Please tell me that it is long gone and buried.
I am looking around my pottery gallery right now as I sit at my desk and computer in the front of that big room and I do notice some blue vases, although offhand I can’t seem to find any pink ones. Should I assume that the blue ones were made by men or for them? Should I assume women made them if some vases have soft, pastel glazes? It gets kind of silly, doesn’t it? Yet we are talking about centuries of gender discrimination based on such ridiculous premises. Why should we assume that pottery was not impacted too? Do men and women potters escape from these limiting culture stereotypes today? Do women who purchase and collect pottery generally look for different things those men? I know many husband and wife teams of potters that work side by side in the same studio and display their work together in the same gallery. This was true in Seagrove, North Carolina where I visited late last year and was the subject of my previous three blogs here. What would they have to say about this issue of sentimentality?
I am really going to explore several rather provocative positions here. One is that the potter is no more innocent than any other maker or citizen of the republic. We are all products of a particular time and place and the orientation of the culture at that time and place is embedded in us too. If some influences are toxic or invidious, then they have to be consciously eradicated by a self-conscious purging of that cultural prejudice from our very being. Another is that the general culture impacts all of us and can contaminate, pollute, even corrupt the creative process (as well as inspire and inform it) at the potter’s wheel as well as any other site in the culture. In saying that, I would also balance that charge with full credit to the positive aesthetic and cultural influences that inspire great work and outstanding ceramics effects that are hopefully more dominant in our ceramic legacy and in your own work. As I have alluded to earlier, the chief accusation against sentimentality resides in the historic gender prejudice that it is a women’s trait and lacks the rigor and discipline of a masculine characteristic. I do not accept this idea, it is offensive to me, but it is an essential part of our history.
I am just getting warmed about the role of sentimentality and other emotions in aesthetics, craft and art. I will continue to explore the subject in the next blog.
Wednesday, February 1st, 2012
North Carolina Pottery Center and
Bulldog Pottery – Bruce Gholson & Samantha Henneke
We followed the map provided to us at the North Carolina Pottery Center in Seagrove. This center is a wonderful place to start your Seagrove ceramic adventure. It has ongoing pottery exhibits of the local potters as well as a collection on display of the historical achievements of families of potters in the area over many generations. We made a much sought after discovery while in Seagrove. Bulldog Pottery had been recommended to me as one of the best places during our first trip to Seagrove many years ago. No one seemed at home at Bulldog Pottery during that first visit and again when we visited for the second time a few years later. This time our determined effort really paid off. We met the two outstanding ceramic artists represented here – Bruce Gholson and Samantha Henneke. The work on display in their gallery was astonishing. We met and talked with these two friendly and welcoming people. Judy and I decided on a very large and stunning vase by Bruce. It was the most expensive pot we bought on this visit to Seagrove but well worth it. Today it is situated on a Japanese lacquer box in our living room. The unique flow of vivid glazes running down this tall vase offers continuing pleasure for us. These two devoted craftspeople epitomize the great pride and dedication of the Seagrove community to the highest levels of ceramic mastery. By the way, Bruce expressed surprise when I told him that we have tried two times before to visit their gallery and failed to find anyone home. He assured us that their absence from this site is actually quite rare. Bulldog Pottery was well worth the effort to locate and to finally receive the full benefits of meeting Bruce and Samantha and obtaining one of their very special ceramic artifacts.
Whynot Pottery – Mark & Meredith Heywood
I have been to Whynot Pottery on previous visits. We have two or three pieces of their work in our pottery gallery at home. This time I got a chance to meet and talk with Mark Heywood, who, along with his wife, Meredith, are the potters and owners of this establishment. We choose a lidded vase with a rich impasto of running glazes in golden hues. I try to introduce myself in a way that will convey my long involvement and dedication to pottery as a collector, lecturer, and writer without sounding self-important or pretentious. I also try not to initiate a passionate and lengthy tirade about the pleasures incurred in my experiences in these various capacities. Judy has warned me that my enthusiasm can result in a dense rush of commentary that can be overwhelming to the newly introduced potter. Most potters forgive my excess. Regardless, I found potters in general most responsive to those of us who display genuine investment in our mutual devotion to ceramics.
I want to include a quote about Seagrove pottery from a fine book, “The Remarkable Potters of Seagrove: The Folk Pottery of a Legendary North Carolina Community” by Charlotte Vestal Brown. This is what she had to say,
“Understanding the chemistry that seems to pervade this amazing congregation of potters is not easy. It is tempting to see parallels between the potters’ personalities and their work….These makers are complex, talented, and, above all, private people. The work they show represents but a facet of the world in which they live. The work we see is the result of huge efforts and long years of questioning their personal visions and goals and of struggling to attain a satisfying standard. We never see what is thrown away. All of the Seagrove potters are driven by an individual ideal of perfection, to make nothing less than strong and consistent work. Some have goals that drive them perpetually to make new kinds of work, work that is sometimes vastly changed from what came before, sometimes only a few throws different from yesterday’s jug. Of such progress, Pam Owens said, ‘we take baby steps,’ and I don’t believe she means justly small steps, but explorative, experimental ones, to find the best ways to make their wares. These potters consistently make work that speaks directly, without benefit of their makers’ intervention. I walk into a shop and wait for the work to speak to me in the voice that the potter has chosen. I don’t always know if the clay is local or commercial, if the kiln is gas or wood, if the maker mixed her own glazes or not. Of course I usually am able to identity all these things, but first comes the voice of the work itself. The ability of these people to elicit powerful feeling through their work is part of what makes me go back to the area again and again. Sometimes I need a new mug, sometimes a plate or a vase, and sometimes I just need to escape to a place that I know is not like where I live. Some of the potters’ favorite stories are those that tell of the difference their work makes in the lives of those who use it. What more could one ask for than to know that the work of one’s hands could cheer, comfort, amuse, and enrich a person’s daily life?”
Jugtown Pottery – Owen Family
I want to refer back to Jugtown Pottery. We returned to this historic pottery as we have on every previous visit. Vernon Owens grew up working in his dad’s shop, learning and working along side his father, M.L. Owens and his uncle Walter Owen. He started working at Jugtown in 1960, over fifty years ago. Today he and his wife, Pamela Lorette Owens, a gifted potter in her own right, are partners in this enterprise. They have been joined by their son, Travis, who stared making pots at age 2 and now works full time at the pottery. They have a great museum at this pottery, which has samples of generations of local potter’s who created their pottery while at the Jugtown Pottery. Judy and I took a leisurely stroll through the rooms of the gallery, enjoying the classic designs of Jugtown pottery carried on by Vernon and Pam Owens. We noticed larger vessel forms and more intense glazes on some of the ceramic pottery. These were recent work by Travis, who is offering a new generation of contemporary statements that emanate from past traditions but provides his own unique creative infusion. We purchased one of his vibrant pots and were quite pleased when he came out to meet and talk with us. It is very reassuring to know that he is quite willing and able to continue the work of his family into the coming decades. We also purchased a fine pair of candlesticks by Vernon in that frog skin glaze long celebrated by Jugtown.
Westmoore Pottery – David & Mary Farrell
We returned to a pottery we knew well in Seagrove, Westmoore Pottery and the work of David and Mary Farrell. They came to Seagrove in the 1970’s, first as apprentices at Jugtown, then stayed on to establish Westmore Pottery. Here they create redware plates and pots faithful in many ways to the German and Pennsylvania work made by Moravians of Central Europe in earlier centuries. They make dinnerware decorated by stylized floral forms, bands of color and other designs, all made by slip trailing on the surface of strong red clay intensified by a clear glaze. We already had a big, stylized chicken and a plate obtained on previous visits. I spotted a large brown pot with a base relief face of a beautiful, old bearded man. I immediately recognized that I saw that same face every morning when I looked in the mirror so I had to have it. The Farrell’s are focused on taking a particular pottery tradition that came to North Carolina with some early settlers and to continue that tradition with variations that can be directly traced to the source of their inspiration. At the same time the work is not only charming but also novel because of their unique distinction of seeking to preserve and continue a cultural tradition of long standing.
A Collector’s Reasoning
How can I justify all these purchases of something as non-essential as pottery? Is it a foolish self-indulgence, particularly at my time of life? Should I have long stopped the acquisition of pottery and rather concern myself with how I am going to dispose of it? Do I dare claim that my acquisition of pottery is somehow a more noble impulse than those who prefer to do their shopping at Wal-Mart or Target? Is not the raw lust of consumerism behind all such activities? Schiller, the German Romantic poet of the 19th century, discussed this issue and I responded to his comments in my 46th letter to Christa Assad,
“One cannot easily shift consumer desires from commercial and manufactured commodities to the more ephemeral objects of aesthetic refinement. It is difficult, as creatures of habit, to accord objects of beauty a different status than those objects bought off the shelf in other consumer transactions. How can we claim a special endowment and more noble intention in seeking to secure a work of art? The desire of acquisition, ‘restless and plagued by imperious want’ as stated by Schiller, might obtain the object, but it cannot give you the resources to appreciate the beauty of the object. How do we attain that ‘higher power and greatness’ inherent in the disciplined encounter with the subtle elements of the beautiful? Without beauty, is not consumerism, even possessed by those with the ability to sponsor extravagant purchases, finally a state of ‘exhausted desire’?”
Artists of the Future
I am fully aware that there are many creative centers and communities of pottery making in other regions of America as well as elsewhere in the world. Why do I find so much encouragement and hope when I travel to North Carolina and Seagrove in particular? I am truly inspired when I encounter a new generation of potters, in an area where pottery making goes back well over two hundred years, potters like Travis Owens and Alex Matisse who are determined to further that ceramic legacy into the future. I want to believe that pottery has that kind of future, still attracting young people who see purpose and pleasure in creating that pottery whose existence has brought me such aesthetic joy over my lifetime. I also profoundly respect that older generation of potters who have not only contributed great pottery of their own but have provided leadership and training to those who aspire to reach the same level of mastery and achievement that they have already accomplished.
I cannot predict the future, particularly the future where I will no longer be around to observe and experience. I do see great hope and concrete evidence of the vitality and creative endeavors of the makers of pottery. I do not think that external circumstances or current events in the world can ever totally obstruct or defeat that primal drive to take a wad of earth and shape a memorable container of timeless beauty out of it. I am grateful to be a part of that web of people who either make or celebrate pottery. It is a very good thought to have as I experience the last days of this year. I fully accept my portion of responsibility in this relationship. I will continue to make every effort to further develop that “higher power and greatness inherent in the disciplined encounter with the subtle elements of the beautiful.” This endeavor can never be fully completed but gives me ample reason to look forward to the next day and the day after that and the coming new year and even beyond.
Note: If you would like to view an aerial map of Seagrove’s pottery community click here.
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.
Sunday, September 25th, 2011
I am quite aware that many potters are also collectors. Some potters also write in addition to creating ceramic art and collecting. British ceramic artist Edmund de Waal is one of the most distinguished of the potters/writers/collectors today. He has written several important books regarding ceramics, including “Bernard Leach” and “Twentieth Century Ceramics”. He has had many important exhibits and installations of his ceramic work, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Britain. In the last few years he has assembled multiple ceramic vases of his in compositions that occupy large spaces in galleries and museums. As I continue this discussion about collecting, I would like to share with you a book of his that I am currently reading. The title of his latest book is “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss”.
Here de Waal tells the story of his descendents, a fabulously wealthy Jewish family in the 19th century, with huge mansions in several major cities of Europe, great masterpiece paintings on the walls of these vast palaces, villas in the most plush mountain and sea resorts, and scores of servants to attend to their every need. Among the treasures collected by members of the family was a group of antique wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. These objects were Japanese netsuke and they form the central spine of this book. Despite the devastation and chaos of World War I, Hitler and World II, this collection was handed down from generation to generation and finally to Edmund de Waal. While their world was being destroyed and many family members were tragically eliminated in the holocaust along with millions of other Jews in Europe, those 264 objects somehow survived intact.
In an article de Waal wrote in the Saturday Guardian 29.05.10, he explains more about his collection,
“I have 264 netsuke: street vendors, beggars and monks, rat catchers, dogs, lovers, a woman and an octopus, an elderly lady on an elderly horse, a witch trapped in a temple bell, a persimmon about to split, a hare with amber eyes. It is a very big collection of very small objects. I pick one up and turn it round in my fingers, weigh it in the palm of my hand. If it is wood, chestnut or elm, it is even lighter than the ivory. You see the patina more easily on these wooden ones; there is a faint shine on the spine of the brindled wolf and on the tumbling acrobats locked in their embrace. The ivory ones come in shades of cream, every colour, in fact but white. A few have inlaid eyes of amber or horn. Some of the older ones are slightly worn away: the haunch of the faun resting on leaves has lost its markings. There is a slight split, an almost imperceptible fault line on the cicada. Who dropped it? Where and when?”
This is truly a fine book by a great ceramic artist about his legendary family and that special collection whose responsibility for preservation and care he now assumes. Unlike de Waal, I do not come from a family of collectors. There was little or nothing of value to pass down. My grandfather on my father’s side was a shoe salesman, on my mother’s side her father was a bartender who became rather wealthy and owned several valuable properties in downtown Los Angeles that his sons lost during the Great Depression. I have two brothers and they do not collect anything but the usual household goods and appliances. So my obsession with collecting ceramics must be a unique trait that cannot be traced by genes or attitude back through my family ancestors. Indeed I may well be the first and last collector in my family. I know that someday this will be very bad news for all the potters now dependent upon me for their lavish lifestyle but that’s the way it is.
I want to offer you another quote about collecting from my book. This comes from my 22nd letter, November 24, 2003,
“Is there some relationship between my love of trees and pots? Both face the same challenge. In this very practical and pragmatic society, trees and pottery need to justify their existence and value to survive. Both are endangered species. I once tried to save a grove of Oak trees in my community by justifying their value; the lower temperatures by providing shade, the filtering and cleaning of air, reduced need for air conditioning, etc. I lost that struggle. The oak grove was destroyed. Pottery can pour beverages, hold food, receive liquids and hold flowers. So can plastic cups and plates from Wal-Mart. We must try to provide more convincing arguments. I love trees and pots for other reasons. I experience them. The sheer sensual beauty of a tree; the Jacaranda in my front garden where I sit on a bench in its soft shade, see and hear the movement of wind through the moving leaves, sway of branches, sunlight filtered through the tall trunk and branches. The creative form of the pot, elegant in its length and shape, cascades of colored glazes in subtle patterns, striking designs that represent natural or geometric origins. Why is that value not more convincing or conclusive in this society? What will happen to my trees and pottery after I am gone? Their destiny should not depend on my partisan or personal support, but their intrinsic significance to any worthy quality of existence.”
Like de Waal’s netsuke, some of my pottery has a very long and unknown history before I acquired them. How did that German Mettlach antique Griffin vase, quite beautiful with such detailed precision and vivid colors in the shape of the mythical animal, get that severe break at the base that was so clumsily repaired? I am sure that this visible repair was the only reason I won the rather low bid on ebay and obtained it. I had to pay a considerable shipping expense because I had purchased it from someone in Australia. How did that antique German vase get to Australia? Every object has a story to tell but most of them we will never know. I can see it right now from my desk in the pottery gallery, the neck of the vase also the neck of the griffin, his head at the very top with an open mouth and his wings in back, his paws clutching the side of the rounded belly in the front of the vase.
Or how about that British Royal Doulton biscuit jar with the silver plated lid and handle that dates from 1881-1892? I don’t think we use biscuit jars in Glendora anymore, if we ever did. I am not sure we eat that many biscuits anymore either, having several donut shops in the area. Times changes but these objects stand still – just like that Jacaranda tree I was talking about above. I am sure you don’t want this old man to lament the cruel changes that have occurred in his lifetime without his permission. Maybe that’s why I go into my pottery gallery so often and stay so long. Nothing changes except when I want it to – and then only the movement of a vase from one shelf to make room for yet another pot just purchased. That’s enough change for me right now. My pots and I are frozen in an unbreakable embrace, locked within my home and gallery, safe and secure in our timeless pursuit of a durable beauty. Surely, unlike de Waal’s family, no foreign army will invade me, no adversaries will seek to take my collection away from me. You see, we collectors have so much to worry about and such heavy responsibilities to protect and preserve those things we love and collect.
I want to provide you now with another excerpt from my book about collecting. This is from my 28th letter, dated June 7, 2004,
“What is not prerequisite for me is the technical knowledge involved in the construction of the piece. I do not need to know the firing temperature of the kiln or the chemical mixture of the glaze, nor have the skill to throw a pot to engage the finished artifact with great benefit. It is the aesthetic engagement that is new and unique on each occasion. Even approaching the same pot daily, it is never quite the same. I am never exactly in the same condition, what has happened to me just before and since the last time I encountered the pot. The pot changes with the light, reveals portions once shaded; seems to shine with greater intensity, modesty abandoned and brazen in its beauty; then, depending on the time of day, withdraws, once again sublime in its continuing mystery. Still the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself. This community of intent and appearance remains general, you still need to stop and look at the individual pot for an experience that cannot be predicted by known class, category, or type.”
How can I justify the acquisition of all that pottery over years without becoming an expert on how pottery is made? I wonder if potters really understand that I have an aesthetic interest in their pots, not a technical one? When I indicate I wish to purchase a pot, many potters in the past have tried to explain to me how they made it. I do attempt to remain polite, even nod my head, but these are things I simply do not wish to know. Does that ignorance of the essential knowledge of how a ceramic artifact is created limit me to a superficial level of understanding and appreciation? Do gourmets who love great cuisine have to know how it was prepared (or even able to prepare it themselves)? Does a connoisseur of really fine wines have to understand the complex procedures necessary for it to arrive in the wine goblet shortly before sipping? I want my experience with pottery to be a cultural event, not a lesson in the chemistry of the glaze or the process of hand and tool manipulation of clay on the potter’s wheel. Would my attitude annoy some potters? I hope not.
What do I mean in the quote above by “the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself?” This has to do with the complex issues that I have discussed in this blog and in my other writings over the years. They bring forth such issues as attempting to maintain a craft whose functional capacities as vessels have modern alternatives in materials such as plastic that threaten to replace them; a postmodern art market that seems to privilege the remnants of manufactured debris as assembled art rather than a hand-crafted artifact as object; and the onslaught of electronic means to design artifacts that do not require the direct manipulation of the human hand. All this takes place within dynamic cultures that are currently being shaped by the fluctuation in a globalized economy that values quantity over quality; in economies that prize the disposable product as the most dependable source of continued profit. All these contemporary issues are only the current manifestations of the long history of ceramics as a primary activity and legacy going back to the origins of human civilizations.
I assume that what I contribute to the discussion as formulated above is of value to potters. I have reason to be confident of that because over the years many potters have communicated their support and appreciation for my efforts. The placement and integration of ceramics as a significant contribution in the wider patterns of cultural and aesthetic meaning provide my chief interest and essential motivation. In a sense that is what collectors do in their actual behavior. I literally take ceramic objects and place and integrate them in my home in original compositions of forms and color. The arrangement of multiple objects within interior space requires a pattern of intention and design. I create and organize the rooms of my house with ceramic objects as the central resource. That is what a collector does.
I have more to say about these themes and will continue to explore them in the next blog…
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.
Saturday, July 30th, 2011
It is apparent I do not privilege the new over the old. It is also apparent that I do not uncritically celebrate technological triumphalism posing as our salvation. Technology serves the reality that invents and owns it. Since it fortunately cannot exercise its own judgment, the disposal of its use is left to those who control the economy and can thus manipulate the technology. If that authority cannot be seriously questioned or challenged, than technology becomes the accomplices of arbitrary authority and can be used to exploit those workers that end up in the workplace as the accessories of some kind of machinery. The modern office building too often consist of floors of workers trapped in tiny cubicles in constant contact with computers that program their daily work chores. Has modern technology liberated us or has it simply replaced previous machinery with more efficient machinery? Are we really the masters of this new technology or are we in reality the servants of it?
By now you must realize that I am not neutral in this discussion. It is not only artists and craftspeople who must choose between these two ways of living, but all of us have a disposition that favors one or the other. As a pottery collector, I would like to think that you could observe a wide array of pottery in my home that does not favor just one aesthetic but is diverse and eclectic in the full range of possibilities. But in my heart of hearts I do so enjoy the eccentric if not excessive display of a highly refined but exuberant form of creative expression.
Is there an inherent rivalry and hostility between subjective and objective approaches to life and art? Would one try to find the poetic soul of a poet by taking an X-ray in order to find the location of their expression? I don’t think so. One could locate Kansas on a map but surely not the world of Oz. Was one more real for Dorothy than the other? All art requires some portion of imagination. The realist must subtract extraneous elements to reach the essence of the observed reality while romantics must add their own elaboration to reality, or even escape that reality and create a new world of their own. Both approaches require interpretations. No two realists, however devoted to depicting the actual reality, are going to come up with exactly the same reality in their work. Romantics do not have to worry about fidelity to reality but insist upon an individuality that encourages them to develop unique expressions and results.
How do we find out if the ‘common sense’ of the culture or the dominant definitions supplied by those in power really comprises reality? If reality is just the way things are done because that is the way things have always seemed to have been done, why should we trust those conventions as representations of an invariant reality? If the way most people think and make sense of things reflects the common intellectual habits of the general population, why should we mistake these customs of thought as though it constituted the only possibilities of an immutable reality? It is the sober, solid façade of how things just seem to be that provides inspiration for original and creative thinkers and artists to overthrow them. While physical reality and even mechanical reality might indeed be fixed in certain prearranged patterns of physical stability, cultural and social reality is created and revised by those people who do not defer to it but act upon it. Artists cannot be such cultural conformists that they create only the most banal and mediocre results.
One of the most influential art institutions in the early 20th century makes an interesting case study of the competing poles of realism and romanticism as the basis for curricula and instruction. I am referring to the Bauhaus; the German art school started in 1919 and closed in 1933 as Hitler seized total power in Germany. The very nature and definition of modernism in the 20th century was highly influenced by this institution, however brief its duration. In the first volume of the Oxford “Encyclopedia of Aesthetics”, in an essay by Detlef Mertins, the historical context of the founding of the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius was provided,
“Responding to the Enlightenment imperative to rethink art and architecture in relation to the authority of reason and sensation, modern aesthetics harbored a reformist agenda that required the simultaneous de-education and retraining of artists and audiences alike. By 1900, the powerful desire for a new and broadly generalizable art and architecture – nonmimetic, organic, and objective – had aligned itself with several aspects of modernization that has taken up aspects of the aesthetic project. The founding of the German Werkbund in 1907 gave momentum to Germany’s acceptance of industrialization for manufacturing in the decorative and applied arts, under way since the early 1890’s. It served to link the applied arts and architecture and redefined culture and society in relation to mechanical production. At the same time, scientist-aestheticians, offered scientific explanations of human perception and aesthetic experience that became a new foundation for the arts, reinforcing emerging preoccupations with abstraction, elementary form, color, contrast, rhythm, and geometric mediation. Assuming the authority of science for the project of aesthetic retraining would be the counterpart to the reform of subjectivity and everyday life made necessary by the psychological, physiological, and nervous trauma engendered by modernization and metropolitanization.”
As Mertin explains this pedagogical development, it included elements that belonged both to the German romantic legacy and to the ongoing modernization brought by the industrial revolution and continued technological advances. The constant counterpart of this uneasy relationship was reflected in the organization and conduct of the Bauhaus. A part of this emerging approach was influenced by such pedagogical pioneers as Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Frobel, and Maria Montessori, who placed great importance on bringing out children’s inherent gifts through a guided process of active learning through varies of student activities. Art education became a significant element of promoting inner discipline by providing greater outward freedom. Looking back now, it might seem improbable to us that this combination of emphasis on scientific objectivity and student creativity could ever be reconciled and integrated into a single educational program. It was indeed a merger of opposites that came together at the Bauhaus and one was destined to triumph over the other.
The conflict between the appointed pedagogue Johannes Itten and the director Walter Gropius demonstrated the split and conflict between realism and romanticism at the Bauhaus. Mertin describes this as follows,
“A split between Gropius and Itten emerged at the end of 1921 over differences in philosophy brought to the fore by Itten’s increasing influence. The quasi-religious aura around him had attracted a strong following among students, and the centrality of his teaching and workshop responsibilities began to rival that of the director. Itten focused exclusively on the self-discovery and empowerment of the students and eschewed the notion of art as a preliminary to the design of commodities. He had no commitment to craft training for the artist and took Gropius’s desire to bring actual projects into the workshops as damaging of the quietude and harmony necessary for creative expression. For Gropius, on the other hand, this was essential for re-grounding art and architecture, integrating theory and practice, and maintaining support from government sponsors. Itten’s teaching also lacked any systematic theory of structure, pictorial space, or composition. His mystic privileging of subjective expression led to criticism by influential outsiders who introduced the discourse of objectivity and collective societal expression then emerging among the European avant-garde, which became important to post-Expressionist art and architecture during the mid-1920s.”
How do we rescue the poetic metaphor and the creative impulses from association with those reactionary forces who would manipulate subjective feelings to destroy instead of create? Can the same emotional force that provides our love of beauty and art also lead to the glorification of the warrior and war, the hatred of the foreigner and alien? We know that art has been employed and still is employed to further totalitarian and violent regimes of suppression. What are the inherent virtues of objectivity when employed with intelligence and integrity? What are the inherent virtues of subjectivity when employed with intelligence and integrity? What are the dangers of both when employed by people without virtue and intelligence? I cannot continue this division of the two much longer. I am convinced that significant intellectual and artistic achievements contain integrated elements of both kinds of knowing and feeling. Likewise I am sure that scientists would also claim that their work consists of imaginative and intuitive leaps and insights as well as empirical methods and objective evidence.
The same site can sponsor realistic and romantic responses. Nature has been both the bountiful site of scientific discoveries and the stuff of romanticist images and soulful poems of wonder. God has been found in the glory of nature and yet biology and other scientific disciplines also lay claim to the same place. The emerging science of environmentalism exists side by side with literary hymns to the beauties of nature. We have the legacy of the creation myths and stores of origin that mark so many indigenous cultures coexisting with scientific research that has unearthed the empirical evidence of how that natural world works and have evolved. Do we have to disprove one in order to believe the other? Are poets simply unreliable and given to hyperbole and exaggeration in their depiction of nature or do scientists lack the grace and imagination to make lyric what they instead state in their dry, often turgid prose? Can you give me one example where the objective and subjective ways of making meaning work together in friendly partnership? Would you offer your own ceramic work as an example?
I do try to maintain the pretense that I can bridge most things, portable in my ability to move past boundaries, divisions and taxonomies in my cosmic interests in all things. I think I have unwittingly shrunk the parameters of that pretense a bit in this letter. I do have preferences and pick and choose on the basis of those preferences. I do have prejudices and resist those things that do not bring me pleasure. Just another example, I prefer the cello or violin to the human voice. Think what that means in terms of my musical taste. I know, I know, I don’t know what I am missing. I would like to think that what I don’t like is a result of my sophisticated taste in those things I do like; after all you can’t like everything. But I fear what I don’t like has more to do with my inherent limitations. It isn’t so much I don’t like mathematics or science; the truth is I can’t really comprehend the specialized complexity of science or mathematics. Is everything people don’t like really because they can’t comprehend it or do it? How can I be a romantic hero to myself if I am a romantic only because I can’t do realism? It is indeed fortunate for me that melancholy remains a perfectly acceptable state for the romantic.
I invite you to join me in my garden and walk with me to view my assembled pottery in the rooms of my cottage. My house and garden form the romance of my life. Its eccentric existence in an inherently unfriendly world requires a realistic assessment of those cultural forces that provide implicit support and those that threaten it. I am fully capable of providing that critique. Finally I know by now what makes me happy. I cannot dismiss the possibility that all I value might be as perishable as I am and could meet their decline and demise about the same time I do. I am resolved not to let that spoil things for me right now. At my age I am grateful for the hopeful prospect of reaching tomorrow.
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?