Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Posts Tagged ‘education’
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.
Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
I have great trouble with the attitudes of contemporary artists who feel their chief function as an artist is to shock the lay public. This same public can bite you back when it comes to public art paid for by citizen taxpayer. This desire to shock actually paid off in a big way for those artists who discovered that people who could afford it would pay big bucks for the most outrageous stuff they could come up with. This attitude comprises more than a need to shock strangers, it is inspired by the contempt these artists feel toward the remainder of humanity. On top of that, this contempt shapes the character of the created piece. Great art can initially shock but that is not the central ingredient of its enduring value. I am still listening to Stravinsky “Rite of Spring” and had the pleasure of traveling to Madrid where I observed Picasso’s “Guernica”, both now hailed as lasting masterworks of the last century. I do not think either Stravinsky or Picasso would claim that their chief motivation in doing what they did was to do something as silly and superficial as to reduce their art to a stunt devised to shock strangers. They are also very good examples of those innovative artists who created daring new approaches to their art, yet also possessed great talent and discipline, with a vision of creativity that went beyond making their art into an insult.
Let me provide you a few concrete examples. Michael Kammen, in his book, “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture”, describes the issue of the proper role of art in a political democracy placed next to the ambiguity and diversity of much of modern art. He makes the point that most lay people are not used to figuring out and selecting the possibilities of multiple meanings in artwork. That task is difficult enough for the innocent and naive public, but then to have artists insist that their role is to regard the potential observer as adversary – and the purpose of their art to shock and offend that observer/adversary. Once the function of culture was that the arts and humanities were to ennoble and enrich humanity. When was that central legacy of Western civilization abandoned? What has been the cost and consequences of that abandonment? Doesn’t art that contains as content contempt for intended observers dis-empower those observers?
Kammen provides anecdotes about a few artists who became quite successful in doing what I just described,
“One might even argue that the common denominator – a constant – during the swift shift from one ‘ism’ to the next has been the desire to shock. Looking back to his brazenly tongue-in-cheek painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953), Larry Rivers explained that ‘I was energetic and egomaniacal and what is more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something no one in the New York art world would doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd.’ Roy Lichtenstein remarked in an interview that ‘the problem for a hopeful scene-making artists in the early sixties was how best to be disagreeable. What he needed was to find a body of subject matter sufficiently odious to offend even lovers of art.’ So he opted for the commonplace: comic book images. Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg insisted that ‘if the painting doesn’t upset you, it probably wasn’t a good painting to begin with.’ Abstract sculptor George Sugarman, whose Baltimore Federal raised a ruckus in that city during the later 1970s, asked rhetorically: ‘Isn’t controversy part of what modern art is all about?’ Performance artist Karen Finley asserted in 1990, as the case of the NEA Four unfolded, ‘That’s what art is about – its shock value.”
I do not contend that this is damning testimony about the aesthetic value of these artists. All those mentioned here are serious artists and most have done important and enduring work and contributed much to our culture. I have varying enthusiasm as reactions to their results but that has only to do with my own temperament and tastes. But still I think their comments are revealing of an attitude and approach to art that I maintain cannot be healthy or ultimately good for the culture. I declare my affinity and solidarity for the affirmative benefits of human culture and civilization. To delight in disfiguring the artifacts in such a way that it provides only the “disgusting, dead, and absurd” is to conclude that all human civilization is decadent, diseased and doomed. I can look at the wars, genocides, and mass starvation of my time on earth and agree that we have amassed considerable evidence to support that position. But to surrender to that hopeless perspective is to make human culture a fatal causality of all those calamities. Culture becomes a collection of pathologies and all our behaviors, including our creative ones, becomes symptoms of a terminal sickness endemic to the human species.
I totally disagree with all the statements of the various artists above. Despite my own reservations about the motivation and intent of some of these artists, I do not have patience or sympathy for those offended who seek to suppress the offensive art. I would never be so silly as to seek to ban that which offends me. I do not wish to define what art is really art and seek to force my conclusions on others. I do not support censorship of the arts, either in the visual image, the dramatic performance, or the content of the text in literature. I further support government sponsorship of public art, all of which will offend somebody, maybe even me on occasion.
I have about completed a book, “The Measure of Our Days: New Beginnings at Life’s End” by Jerome Groopman, M.D. Groopman is a physician, involved as both medical clinician and researcher, who specializes in the worst cases brought about by diseases like cancer and aids. He spends much of his time treating terminally ill patients, trying to find some combination of medicine and personal regime that might give them a few more years to live. Each chapter deals with a real patient that he had once treated. In one chapter Dan, a medical colleague, becomes seriously ill. Dan wanted to do everything possible to live. He talked to Groopman about his father, an Auschwitz survivor, and related that his father had told him that when a person in that concentration camp surrendered to despair, he would die. And that if he survived by becoming an angry animal who stole crusts of bread and bowls of soup from others, then he died inside as a human being. His father explained that just as there were these two types of death, there are also two types of life. One was trying to live a moral life as a moral person and the other was to help others do the same. These thoughts lead Groopman to the following ruminations.
“I searched my memory for the connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary, how there was an alchemy that transmuted the mundane into the sacred. It came to mind. Again, it was a story from the Holocaust, the story told by Prima Levi, the Jewish Italian chemist, who used the transmutability of the elements as a metaphor to explain the radical change in the substance of his life when enslaved by the Nazis. He wrote that it was the performing of the ordinary things that had sustained his sanity, his dignity, his humanity in hell’s inferno. The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims, asserting they were subhuman, without freedom or choice, and not deserving of life. Levi recounted how, when he was close to despair and considering giving in to death, he was instructed by a comrade in camp to wash his face every day. This ordinary and simple act restored dignity and structure to his person, because he exercised his will to do it, and it was a conscious choice. Levi also found that sustaining the life of the mind in the senseless world of the concentration camp gave him strength. With another friend, he regularly recited verses from Dante, as he had before his enslavement. He had chosen to introduce beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist. Levi believed the greatest form of resistance was to continue to act in the ordinary, normal ways that had marked one’s life before the deportation. It demonstrated a sense of control, an exercise of will, and signaled the potential to triumph over the forces that sought to destroy you. With restoration of dignity came a renewed capacity to hope.”
There is much to consider here. How can people even try to lead ordinary lives when confronted with extraordinary peril and degradation? The ability to wash one’s own face in such conditions is an act of defiance that also supports one’s dignity and humanity. As long as some modicum of choice exists or is willed to exist, then one is not totally without freedom. Yes, Groopman, I share your agonizing grief, “The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims.” Can art do the same thing? If the purpose of that art is calculated to only offend, to shock, to alienate the engaged observer, to mock everything important to that person, can there not be serious dehumanizing effects on that person? I can fully support critical or contentious art that challenges conventions and the status quo. I cannot support art that deliberately seeks to dehumanize those human beings that unfortunately come in contact with the noxious artifact.
I am sure you must resonate with Groopman’s story about how Levi was able to sustain the life of the mind by reciting the poet Dante, by introducing “beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist.” Should not art play a role in empowering people with the will and potential to triumph over the forces that seeks to destroy them? Does being modern require one not to care about what Groopman and Levi cared about? I fear that too often it is. What have we lost and when did we lose it? I fear that what we have lost in the arts has nothing to do with realism or abstraction, nothing to do with expression or skill, nothing to do with concept or completed artifact. What I fear we have lost in the arts is the determined urge to celebrate our humanity.
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.
Sunday, September 25th, 2011
I am quite aware that many potters are also collectors. Some potters also write in addition to creating ceramic art and collecting. British ceramic artist Edmund de Waal is one of the most distinguished of the potters/writers/collectors today. He has written several important books regarding ceramics, including “Bernard Leach” and “Twentieth Century Ceramics”. He has had many important exhibits and installations of his ceramic work, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Britain. In the last few years he has assembled multiple ceramic vases of his in compositions that occupy large spaces in galleries and museums. As I continue this discussion about collecting, I would like to share with you a book of his that I am currently reading. The title of his latest book is “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss”.
Here de Waal tells the story of his descendents, a fabulously wealthy Jewish family in the 19th century, with huge mansions in several major cities of Europe, great masterpiece paintings on the walls of these vast palaces, villas in the most plush mountain and sea resorts, and scores of servants to attend to their every need. Among the treasures collected by members of the family was a group of antique wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. These objects were Japanese netsuke and they form the central spine of this book. Despite the devastation and chaos of World War I, Hitler and World II, this collection was handed down from generation to generation and finally to Edmund de Waal. While their world was being destroyed and many family members were tragically eliminated in the holocaust along with millions of other Jews in Europe, those 264 objects somehow survived intact.
In an article de Waal wrote in the Saturday Guardian 29.05.10, he explains more about his collection,
“I have 264 netsuke: street vendors, beggars and monks, rat catchers, dogs, lovers, a woman and an octopus, an elderly lady on an elderly horse, a witch trapped in a temple bell, a persimmon about to split, a hare with amber eyes. It is a very big collection of very small objects. I pick one up and turn it round in my fingers, weigh it in the palm of my hand. If it is wood, chestnut or elm, it is even lighter than the ivory. You see the patina more easily on these wooden ones; there is a faint shine on the spine of the brindled wolf and on the tumbling acrobats locked in their embrace. The ivory ones come in shades of cream, every colour, in fact but white. A few have inlaid eyes of amber or horn. Some of the older ones are slightly worn away: the haunch of the faun resting on leaves has lost its markings. There is a slight split, an almost imperceptible fault line on the cicada. Who dropped it? Where and when?”
This is truly a fine book by a great ceramic artist about his legendary family and that special collection whose responsibility for preservation and care he now assumes. Unlike de Waal, I do not come from a family of collectors. There was little or nothing of value to pass down. My grandfather on my father’s side was a shoe salesman, on my mother’s side her father was a bartender who became rather wealthy and owned several valuable properties in downtown Los Angeles that his sons lost during the Great Depression. I have two brothers and they do not collect anything but the usual household goods and appliances. So my obsession with collecting ceramics must be a unique trait that cannot be traced by genes or attitude back through my family ancestors. Indeed I may well be the first and last collector in my family. I know that someday this will be very bad news for all the potters now dependent upon me for their lavish lifestyle but that’s the way it is.
I want to offer you another quote about collecting from my book. This comes from my 22nd letter, November 24, 2003,
“Is there some relationship between my love of trees and pots? Both face the same challenge. In this very practical and pragmatic society, trees and pottery need to justify their existence and value to survive. Both are endangered species. I once tried to save a grove of Oak trees in my community by justifying their value; the lower temperatures by providing shade, the filtering and cleaning of air, reduced need for air conditioning, etc. I lost that struggle. The oak grove was destroyed. Pottery can pour beverages, hold food, receive liquids and hold flowers. So can plastic cups and plates from Wal-Mart. We must try to provide more convincing arguments. I love trees and pots for other reasons. I experience them. The sheer sensual beauty of a tree; the Jacaranda in my front garden where I sit on a bench in its soft shade, see and hear the movement of wind through the moving leaves, sway of branches, sunlight filtered through the tall trunk and branches. The creative form of the pot, elegant in its length and shape, cascades of colored glazes in subtle patterns, striking designs that represent natural or geometric origins. Why is that value not more convincing or conclusive in this society? What will happen to my trees and pottery after I am gone? Their destiny should not depend on my partisan or personal support, but their intrinsic significance to any worthy quality of existence.”
Like de Waal’s netsuke, some of my pottery has a very long and unknown history before I acquired them. How did that German Mettlach antique Griffin vase, quite beautiful with such detailed precision and vivid colors in the shape of the mythical animal, get that severe break at the base that was so clumsily repaired? I am sure that this visible repair was the only reason I won the rather low bid on ebay and obtained it. I had to pay a considerable shipping expense because I had purchased it from someone in Australia. How did that antique German vase get to Australia? Every object has a story to tell but most of them we will never know. I can see it right now from my desk in the pottery gallery, the neck of the vase also the neck of the griffin, his head at the very top with an open mouth and his wings in back, his paws clutching the side of the rounded belly in the front of the vase.
Or how about that British Royal Doulton biscuit jar with the silver plated lid and handle that dates from 1881-1892? I don’t think we use biscuit jars in Glendora anymore, if we ever did. I am not sure we eat that many biscuits anymore either, having several donut shops in the area. Times changes but these objects stand still – just like that Jacaranda tree I was talking about above. I am sure you don’t want this old man to lament the cruel changes that have occurred in his lifetime without his permission. Maybe that’s why I go into my pottery gallery so often and stay so long. Nothing changes except when I want it to – and then only the movement of a vase from one shelf to make room for yet another pot just purchased. That’s enough change for me right now. My pots and I are frozen in an unbreakable embrace, locked within my home and gallery, safe and secure in our timeless pursuit of a durable beauty. Surely, unlike de Waal’s family, no foreign army will invade me, no adversaries will seek to take my collection away from me. You see, we collectors have so much to worry about and such heavy responsibilities to protect and preserve those things we love and collect.
I want to provide you now with another excerpt from my book about collecting. This is from my 28th letter, dated June 7, 2004,
“What is not prerequisite for me is the technical knowledge involved in the construction of the piece. I do not need to know the firing temperature of the kiln or the chemical mixture of the glaze, nor have the skill to throw a pot to engage the finished artifact with great benefit. It is the aesthetic engagement that is new and unique on each occasion. Even approaching the same pot daily, it is never quite the same. I am never exactly in the same condition, what has happened to me just before and since the last time I encountered the pot. The pot changes with the light, reveals portions once shaded; seems to shine with greater intensity, modesty abandoned and brazen in its beauty; then, depending on the time of day, withdraws, once again sublime in its continuing mystery. Still the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself. This community of intent and appearance remains general, you still need to stop and look at the individual pot for an experience that cannot be predicted by known class, category, or type.”
How can I justify the acquisition of all that pottery over years without becoming an expert on how pottery is made? I wonder if potters really understand that I have an aesthetic interest in their pots, not a technical one? When I indicate I wish to purchase a pot, many potters in the past have tried to explain to me how they made it. I do attempt to remain polite, even nod my head, but these are things I simply do not wish to know. Does that ignorance of the essential knowledge of how a ceramic artifact is created limit me to a superficial level of understanding and appreciation? Do gourmets who love great cuisine have to know how it was prepared (or even able to prepare it themselves)? Does a connoisseur of really fine wines have to understand the complex procedures necessary for it to arrive in the wine goblet shortly before sipping? I want my experience with pottery to be a cultural event, not a lesson in the chemistry of the glaze or the process of hand and tool manipulation of clay on the potter’s wheel. Would my attitude annoy some potters? I hope not.
What do I mean in the quote above by “the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself?” This has to do with the complex issues that I have discussed in this blog and in my other writings over the years. They bring forth such issues as attempting to maintain a craft whose functional capacities as vessels have modern alternatives in materials such as plastic that threaten to replace them; a postmodern art market that seems to privilege the remnants of manufactured debris as assembled art rather than a hand-crafted artifact as object; and the onslaught of electronic means to design artifacts that do not require the direct manipulation of the human hand. All this takes place within dynamic cultures that are currently being shaped by the fluctuation in a globalized economy that values quantity over quality; in economies that prize the disposable product as the most dependable source of continued profit. All these contemporary issues are only the current manifestations of the long history of ceramics as a primary activity and legacy going back to the origins of human civilizations.
I assume that what I contribute to the discussion as formulated above is of value to potters. I have reason to be confident of that because over the years many potters have communicated their support and appreciation for my efforts. The placement and integration of ceramics as a significant contribution in the wider patterns of cultural and aesthetic meaning provide my chief interest and essential motivation. In a sense that is what collectors do in their actual behavior. I literally take ceramic objects and place and integrate them in my home in original compositions of forms and color. The arrangement of multiple objects within interior space requires a pattern of intention and design. I create and organize the rooms of my house with ceramic objects as the central resource. That is what a collector does.
I have more to say about these themes and will continue to explore them in the next blog…
Friday, July 22nd, 2011
One of my favorite American intellectuals and writers is Lewis Mumford, a person who was able in a long life to explore and examine a wide spectrum of ideas and issues, and in particular wrote an important book about technology. Although written in the 1960’s, and thus before the major impact of the electronic revolution, “Technics and Human Development: The Myth of the Machine” still provides a profound discussion of the relationship of technology to human culture. In his opening statement in the ‘Prologue’, which also serves as Chapter One, Mumford states his basic position,
“The last century, we all realize, has witnessed a radical transformation in the entire human environment, largely as a result of the impact of the mathematical and physical science upon technology. This shift from an empirical, tradition-bound technics to an experimental mode has opened up such new realms as those of nuclear energy, supersonic transportation, cybernetic intelligence and instantaneous distant communication. Never since the Pyramid Age have such vast physical changes been consummated in so short a time. All these changes have, in turn, produced alterations in the human personality, while still more radical transformations; if this process continues unabated and uncorrected, loom ahead. In terms of the currently accepted picture of the relation of man to technics, our age is passing from the primeval state of man, marked by his invention of tools and weapons for the purpose of achieving mastery over the forces of nature, to a radically different condition, in which he will have not only conquered nature, but detached himself as far as possible from the organic habitat. With this new ‘megatechnics’ the dominant minority will create a uniform, all-enveloping, super-planetary structure, designed for automatic operation. Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal whose proper functions, as technicians now interpret man’s role, will either be fed into the machine or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of de-personalized, collective organizations.”
Mumford is obviously not a technological triumphalist in his dire warnings about the impact of technic development on human civilization. Looking back over forty years since he wrote this book, I think our smug assumptions back then that the technology of the 19th century had allowed us to conquer nature in the 20th century has been shown to be a gross miscalculation with grave implications for the future of the earth. Nature has retaliated in unforeseen ways and we cannot maintain the current employment to wage war against the natural environment.
Have we become the passive and purposeless creatures that Mumford charged was happening as “machine-conditioned animals? Are we being fed into our computers now, as we increasingly inhabit a virtual reality? Has technology given us more choices or less? More autonomy or less? What have we gained in the last two hundred years and what have we lost. How have we changed and how has human culture changed because of technology? Why do I so resist these changes? Will I have to just accept I am a traditional person, (whatever that means) and not a modern one? Why do I want to keep the machine, in function as well as image, out of our cultural achievements? Should I find the clean machinery of the computer age more acceptable than the grimy and gritty machinery of the industrial age? If Mumford is right about things, then are our contemporary artists and craftspeople more passive in what they do and is their work more de-personalized than before? Isn’t abstraction in art the depersonalization of art? Are artists becoming more machine-conditioned too?
Speaking of machine-conditioned aesthetics, I had another experience lately that informed me that we were entering a brave new world of a kind of technology employed in art and craft that is profoundly different from past technologies. It is an exhibit currently at the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, California, called “Ceramics: Post-Digital Design.” The exhibit displays those contemporary ceramic artists and designers who have used post-digital technology and others, such as Eva Zeisel, now over 100 years old, who have pioneered highly designed, mass manufactured ceramic objects. The wall text for this exhibit is very optimistic and positive about this approach. The following excerpts from a exhibit wall statement written by Karen Crews, the curator of the exhibit, introduces the theme and intentions of this show,
“The emphasis of producing limited edition multiples through the use of molds, yields an expression that relates to the mid-century modern design movement and pays tribute to the Scandinavian architectural model influenced by the Bauhaus style. In Ceramics: Post-digital Design, each artist presents a unique perspective with their own ceramic processes and designs that continue a dialogue examining the future concepts in ceramic art. Because technology is continually advancing, we question, how far we can go? What will the future of industry, commerce and even art be like? New Technology brings new advancements with a multitude of opportunities and ideas, but we question if there will be a point where the human footprint will be lost, or if we will return to traditional methods for creating and communicating due to our communal nature. Ostensibly, the future holds a hybridization of all the above; as technology grows, humans evolve, and societal networks change, art is expressed in new powerful ways. The idea of a ‘Post-Digital Age’ is upon us, and many art historians believe therein lies the future of art. Artist and educator Mel Alexenberg, author of The Future of Art in a Post-Digital Age, writes about new emerging art forms that ‘address the humanization of digital technologies’ and explores post-digital perspectives that are ‘rising from creative encounters among art, science, technology, and human consciousness.’ Among the fundamentals of ceramics rooted in traditional use, concepts and designs have evolved to keep with a continually advancing aesthetic. Technology has not only transcended the process in which ceramics can be made and modified, but it has also transcended the way artists conceptualize their artwork. AMOCA’s exhibition, ‘Ceramics: Post-Digital Design’ exhibits the very principals of Alexenberg’s thesis, that artists, no matter what medium, are making ‘interactive and collaborative forms, resulting in a fusion of spiritual and technological realms.”
I found many of the objects in the exhibit at AMOCA to have beautiful forms that achieved that delicate balance between form and function with an understated elegance. A designed form that fits in with other designed forms in rather astounding and imaginative ways can be a visual delight and aesthetically successful. The creative expression of the designer is strained by a ruthless discipline and clear linear objectives. The results are the triumph of a highly rational objectivism that makes the protocols of problem solving the essential aesthetic experience for the designer. It is one way of being in the world and one way of making sense of the world. It does not represent, however, any kind of advance or superiority over the cultural legacies that have preceded it. All these past achievements of human civilization in this statement are placed under the apparently invidious term of “tradition”. I cannot help but wonder what they were called when they were originally introduced with novel deviations not seen before that time. How many years does it take for something to be called traditional? What does that mean anyway? In the conventional discussion of technology, I am afraid tradition is another word for obsolete. We must be most careful not to transfer that attitude to cultural and aesthetic contributions as seen in their historical sequence and perspective.
We must also acknowledge that the very idea of design is the intrusion of a rational problem solving process into the creative process. Design is the domestication of the creative process, the self-imposed discipline to organize yourself according to preconceived plans, the taming of emotions in order to achieve an orderly process of making. Maybe that doesn’t worry you, maybe that is the way you do things anyway. Somehow I don’t think that is the way Van Gogh worked or that was the way that Peter Voulkas worked either. Design is also very much involved in the commercializing of the artifact into a manufactured commodity. To design something is not only to make it functional but also to make it attractive for the marketplace. Is design the death of the human imagination or the rational need to control the creative process in order to make it productive? What do you think? I think your answer to this question will reveal if you are a realist or a romanticist.
Realists who disagree with each other tend to have the greatest and most passionate feuds, given their joint presuppositions that there is only one reality to fight over. Their versions could never agree exactly and thus must compete for favored preference. The advantage of the Romantics is that they can never be proven to be mistaken. Their images and dramatized concoction of thoughts and feelings do not depend on empirical evidence but conjured worlds unique in their visionary projection. These worlds thus do not compete and they do not have to bear the scrutiny or rigor of duplicating a documented and common world that could be agreed upon by all.
Why is it that some of most popular and profitable hits in books and films have to do with stories like Harry Potter and his student days at Hogwarts? I have been to England several times and lectured at several British universities but I don’t recall visiting that institution. What is the appeal, not limited just for children, but for all of us, of those magical worlds where there are only very good heroes and very evil villains, all capable of thrilling adventures, with danger and evil lurking in every corner? Given the bland everyday existence we are all mired in and given our ordinary habits of daily repetition, who would reject an escape to a magical kingdom? Walt Disney well understood this need. Doesn’t all art, including ceramics, offer some kind of escape from an ordinary world in providing an object or experience that is somehow unexpected and delightful?
Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
Realism vs. Romanticism
Who do you trust and depend upon the most in your own ceramic work – your head or your heart? Can you separate these two things and choose one over the other as the dominant force in your ceramic work? What exactly do they mean in terms of your life and your ceramic art? These ideas are embedded in the essence and history of Western art. We can trace the dual legacies of romanticism and realism in that history and find many of the competing strands of their perspectives. We would, of course, associate the head with realism and the heart with romanticism. Let me make it clear that this has more significance and meaning then just as an art technique or attitude toward creating art. These ideas impact the very way you live in the world and make sense of it. Observers of your ceramic art might place your work within one or the other of these categories. Where would you put your work? Maybe some of us would like to think that we bridge those differences and are capable of both kinds of behavior and both ways of being in the world. You might claim that you can access both head and heart in your crafting of the ceramic object.
Others of you might be far more partisan and claim that one of these approaches is vastly superior to the other. Romantics might claim that it is the lyrical expression of feeling, the vivid personal passion that inspires their creative process and achieves great art. Passionate love, including erotic and sensuous love, is the very engine of the human personality. Much of 19th century literature and art in Western Europe would claim that view. Isn’t it evident in the differences between the delights of poetry and the flat prose of a newspaper? The poet can celebrate the beauty and joys of life and nature. But on the other hand I would prefer journalists who write for newspapers or TV news to get their facts straight and not go off in fanciful fiction. For journalists, their integrity is dependent upon their rigorous presentation of what they know to be objectively true. For most poets, that approach would completely stifle their creative process. Maybe romantics belong in certain creative arenas and realists belong in fields that depend upon accuracy and precision in their fidelity to reporting what they see and experience. I think I would prefer a brain surgeon to be a realist instead of a romanticist if I was about to undergo brain surgery.
The HeArt of Technology
Romanticism was a hostile reaction first to the growing secularism that came out of the Enlightenment that so highly valued objective rationality, later it reacted to the growth of science and its application in various technologies that sponsored the industrial revolution. Technology has been the traditional enemy of the romantic. The machine for the romantic has been perceived as the adversary of the artist. In what ways has technology served your creative work? Could you explain and convince others that the human hand can do things with clay that a machine could never do? The industrial potteries of the 19th century were organized on the factory model and made multiple copies of the same artifact based on assembly line procedures. Today ceramic designers, many who never actually touch the clay themselves, work for corporate entities that mass produce and manufacture ceramic domestic ware. Isn’t the individual studio potter by nature and circumstances a romantic? Some people would say that romanticism is obsolete and out of place in our modern world? What do you think?
Of course my own lifestyle is completely dependent upon a variety of technologies to provide creature comforts and ease my way in the world. I would not surrender any of them for the alternative that existed before their invention. I suppose I could get along without the microwave, although I did warm up leftover Chinese food for lunch today and often use it for that purpose. I certainly could not do without this computer and its word-processing ability. I do have a hybrid car that runs jointly on a battery and gas with resulting low mileage. I would probably surrender it to a totally electric car if there were adequate facilities to recharge them. At this very moment the air conditioning is off but summer is coming and I cannot bear the onslaught of a natural environment if it would cause me to sweat. I do use a mop and broom, both having long and honorable ancestors going back centuries. But I also highly value my vacuum cleaner, cord plugged into the wall, sucking up leaves and dog hairs on the tile and carpet. We have several wall plugs in every room, allowing me to view television, watch my foreign films, listen to the stereo, enjoy my huge classical music CD collection. I do try to limit the electric lights at night just to the rooms of the house we are occupying but I do require considerable illumination in the room when I read at night.
In my 8th letter to Christa Assad, in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter, I said the following about the relationship of technology to culture and quoted from a book by Nicols Fox,
“Both the American and English intellectual traditions question the devastating development of technology that represented the industrial revolution. Here Thoreau and Emerson join Ruskin and Morris in deploring the impact of industrial technology on the lives of artisans, workers and the environment. In a wonderful new book, ‘Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives’, Nicols Fox explores the broad dimensions of this thinking,
‘As a theme, resistance to technology appears in Romantic and Victorian literature, in transcendentalism, in the Arts and Crafts movement, the agrarian movement, the environmental movement. It is present today in the writers who cling to their typewriters, the fine cabinetmakers who cherish their old tools; the hand-weavers and basket-makers, and potters and needlework enthusiasts, who keep to their craft against all logic; the herbalists and organic growers who are convinced that what they do is important and brook no argument – all those who cling consciously in whatever manner or degree to the old ways.’
What is the state of this issue among potters today? I can’t remember if the wheels in your studio are plugged in or get their power from your feet. Does it make a difference? Is there some organic integrity with feet powered wheels or are they obsolete now? I do remember that you have electric kilns. Is your arrangement a compromise out of expediency or can you justify the use of power appliances in your craft? Does it matter in the kind of pottery you create? The wood turner uses a lathe and it is still considered a craft. Has some accepted authority determined and defined what represents a hand crafted object? At some point, does the extensive use of electric appliances disqualify a craft product and turn it into a manufactured product?
Is it simply the inevitable conservatism of old age that motivates tentative and uncertain reservations about technology? John Ruskin and William Morris failed in attempts to find a utopian paradise based on medieval practices. The sound of the train invading the countryside appalled Henry Thoreau. I hide in my secret garden, seeking to escape the hum of the nearby freeway. As in politics, where my vote usually guarantees the candidates defeat, I must be careful not to be a sore loser in the cultural battles of my time.
I am not sure what to label myself without offending friends, becoming foolish, or revealing my lack of sophistication. How can one confess affinity with nineteenth century romanticism without suffering ridicule? In a chapter entitled ‘Romantic Inclinations’, Nicols Fox describes this impulse,
‘Romantic was a way of seeing, a certain cast of light that could transform anything. In this new illumination, the imagination could play with the unfamiliarity of familiar things, accentuating the strangeness of the half-visible. This sensation of newness, of possibility, of transformation defined the word. This was the mind at playful work, allowed to range and create and interact with the ever-changing nature of reality. The Romantic’s priorities were with the exercise of imagination, with excess, with the mystical and, at times, the irrational. The natural world was a powerful and important place where God dwelt; human emotion, intuitions and yearnings were not simply valid, but vital, and could be trusted.’ ”
What part of what Fox is talking about would you be willing to give up? There is a puritan tradition in the American Arts & Crafts movement that showed up again in the streamlined designs of Art Deco and today in the highly designed forms of mass produced ceramic domestic ware. It is severely simple, devoid of decoration, shorn of any graphic or illustrated pictorial surface, pure in its subtraction of extraneous elements. Minimalism in painting and other arts strongly display this influence. This approach sends shivers into the heart of the romanticist. This approach is simply not enough, it is not nearly enough to satisfy the robust aesthetic appetites of the romantic. Take another look at your ceramic artifacts. How would they fit here?
Thursday, April 28th, 2011
There is a romance to wanderlust – the sheer adventure of exploring exotic lands far away from your own origins and home. Modern modes of transportation has made all this quite possible. There is an irony here in that as foreign lands have become available they have also become more globalized and influenced by those who visit them and thus they start to become more and more like us. There is a reciprocal exchange of influences when people visit another culture or country – visitors or tourists are impacted and take back to their home culture certain new ways of looking at things and different styles of living. The visited country also is influenced by the visit and sees certain advantages in adopting ways not native to their own land. Most people assume that this exchange and interaction leads to greater interdependence and mutual understanding across cultures and countries. I am not sure that the history of contact between previously unknown cultures and countries would back up this assumption. We only have to investigate the history of European discoveries in the New World to learn that the occupation and colonization of these lands led to the violent destruction of the indigenous cultures.
Multinational commercial and corporate transactions greatly homogenize the way people live and the ways things look across the globe. While traditional cultures might offer what is considered unique and valuable local or regional handcrafted artifacts, these aesthetic traditions are as fragile and vulnerable as the endangered species and plant life that co-exist with them in these regions of the world. Can we preserve or conserve the integrity of these foreign cultures and natural environments or will the rest of the world eventually be essentially just like us? Does being ‘highly developed’ have more to do with the quantity of things rather than the quality of things? Even the words we have used in describing these lands convey implicit assumptions of superiority. Are those nations that do not possess the same bathroom facilities or kitchen appliances we can boast about really ‘underdeveloped? Does it follow that their culture is also as underdeveloped as their economy? Would you explore the pottery of a foreign land and judge its quality by the GNP of that culture? Can culture ever be ‘underdeveloped’ in any human civilization? I am making the point that this history of assumed superiority subtlety influences how we regard and engage cultures in the non-Western world and can led to grave mistakes in judgment and the discounting of the profound achievements of cultures quite unlike our own.
This leads to further issues and questions for all of us to consider. Can we love our own culture or country without having to prove it is superior in all regards to all others? Is it even rational to make that kind of claim? Why does it seem so difficult for humans to take pride in the unique virtues and achievements of their own culture while fully acknowledging that all cultures enjoy unique virtues all their own? We live in a very competitive society where hierarchies of superiority are encouraged by the way we are organized and the way we think. To be number one – be it in sports or in life seems very important to us. Those of us interested in the arts usually don’t feel the need to transfer that kind of thinking to what interests us there. I don’t remember any book on pottery or aesthetics that tries to rank the 100 best pots or paintings in the world in order of their supposed value. We do try to establish the importance of achievements in the arts by describing those attributes of the artifacts that display the sublime refinements of a significant achievement. This is quite a different thing. The qualities of a cultural achievement cannot be reduced to a simple formula by which an easy judgment can be made about worth. One cannot obtain the wisdom and meaning of a cultural artifact by trying to decide if it is a winner or loser or by the amount that you have to deduct from your bank account when you purchase it.
This can lead to another possible tendency for us – to judge the value of the piece by affixing a monetary price on it. Now we have a firm quantifiable number by which we can gauge the value of the object. What a relief! But not all cultures put a price tag on things, not all societies are inherently commercial in that all objects are reduced to commodities for sale. Much craft was created for centuries for use in daily life without thought of production for profit. I am sure that a working potter needs at some point to place a price tag on the bottom of their ceramic wares. But I would hope that the potter would not think that act in itself determines the true value and qualities of the pot. I have been to too many pottery shows and galleries not to know that the establishment of monetary value is a necessary step. I bring my wallet, checkbook, and credit cards with me because I know that the final act of acquisition requires these financial accouterments. That’s the way the real world works, at least that’s the way our world works. We must remember that this is not always the way other cultures work.
As a collector, I do not want to think that the potter or ceramic artist is influenced or motivated while making the piece by opportunities to increase its monetary value. Perhaps I am being naïve here or making impossible demands for an aesthetic innocence on the part of the potter that cannot be sustained. I do recall times when very good potters have told me, when looking at their work, that some of the pottery were examples of their ‘bread and butter’ work. I took this to mean that these items were popular, often purchased, and provided a dependable source of revenue. Who am I to be a purist in this matter? I remember a passage in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter” in which I discuss the quandaries and contradictions of price and value,
“Do all potters start off as humble ‘repetition’ potters making stacks of domestic ware? And slowly work yourself up to that dramatic risk of doing far less work for far more money? Is the big difference, aside from ego and ambition, the fact that some potters are graduates of prestigious university departments or art schools, mentored by famous potters, while others start as humble apprentices in somebody’s studio? I would like to think, at that crucial moment of the business transaction – to buy or not to buy, that I am far more impressed with the quality of the pot rather than the modest price. There are difficult merchandising questions for both buyer and seller. Perhaps a scale should be installed in the gallery and pottery sold by the pound. Small pots, except for those by very famous potters, tend to cost less. I have talked to a few potters who are frustrated that other potters, perhaps at an adjoining booth at some pottery fair or show, somehow get a far higher price for pots they insist are not any better than their own. I do have some standards – I will not purchase a pot I do not like – no matter the bargain price. Now, due both to my modest financial situation and the few remaining spaces left on my shelves, I am selective in adding only quality pots to my collection. When do potters raise their prices? Are the quality of the pot and the increasing reputation of the potter the basis for increased price? Or is it all a bluff? Raise prices, cut down on production and hope people will be so impressed with the high prices that they will also be impressed with the pottery? As a collector, I do hope that my enthusiastic appraisal of your pottery in these letters will not be the cause for you to further raise your prices. There must be consumer psychology behind all this. Perhaps you should consult people who manufacture and sell footwear or fast food hamburgers to discover the successful marketing principles involved. I do expect my potters to outperform stocks and bonds – no downward fluctuation, please – steady and sure accrual of worth as potters and the value of their pots mature over time. It is morbid to relate, but it appears that your future demise, after a lengthy and successful career, of course, will provide the big spike in increased value for your pots. Despite all that, I do sincerely wish you a very long and productive life. At my age, I will appear in the obituaries far sooner than the precious young potters represented in my collection. What determines the prices at estate sales? Oh, well, I won’t have to worry about that; Judy will have to sort that out.”
It was Oscar Wilde, the 19th century Irish wit and playwright, who once said that “nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Ultimately no one can place the value on anything for you, that is something you have to do for yourself. The value of something is the meaning and importance you give to that thing. The ceramic artists has an extra burden here; they have to determine both the price for each individual ceramic piece and also make a continuing assessment of the aesthetic value of their own work. When I went on my lecture tours of Britain with my publishers, I would usually give a lecture at some university or ceramic gallery, then I would sit at a table and sign my books for those who decided to purchase them. I did not establish the price of my book; my publishers did because they incurred the cost of having them published. How could it be determined if readers got their money’s worth? How do you translate value into something as superficial as cost or price? (I guess it’s not all that superficial if you can’t afford the price.) As far as that is concerned, you are right now receiving my very profound thoughts and my very sensitive feelings completely free on this blog. Somehow that doesn’t seem fair. I have my pride and will not request a voluntary donation from the readers of this blog but if someone, rightfully full of guilt, wants to send me a pot or two I would not object.
I realize that I am contradicting myself when I earlier pleaded for potters to remain pure in ignoring the siren calls of monetary reward when creating their work and here I have just attempted to do the same thing. How much is a page of Jacobs’ text worth? This is one time when I do not wish you to respond to this blog. Your response could only be rude and hurt my feelings. We all exist in a world where we attend to both the sacred and the profane, the monetary price of objects as commercial commodities and the joyful engagement of objects as containers of beauty and meaning. We live in this world and yet we need on occasion to transcend it. I wish you the best in your own life’s journey in finding and giving your own meaning and value to those things you desire and treasure.
Thursday, March 31st, 2011
How We Learn
There is a psychological dynamic that happens when you make your own discoveries as a learner. The stuff they told me at school belonged to the teachers, a kind of official knowledge they already knew and was already in the textbooks and they insisted that I had to know it too. Even when I memorized that information for tests, it never really belong to me, it always seemed to belong to them. But my private learning was this subversive and surreptitious learning, not sponsored or imposed by parents or teachers. Here I explored and learned things because I wanted to know for myself. It became my own learning and I could proudly claim it for myself. Does this sound odd to you? Surely I am not the only person to ever feel that way?
I am trying to make the case that people should not only know what helps them instrumentally to get a job and make money. Even if that job or central activity is being a potter or ceramic artist, to limit your own awareness and knowledge to only those things that have immediate relevance to just that one human activity, however special and creative, is to limit the growth and development of your own range of abilities and capabilities. I think great curiosity about the world and the manifest richness and diversity of both the natural environment and human culture can naturally lead to a focus on particular activities. But that does not mean you have to give up the rest and limit yourself just to one corner of the garden. As you go through school, there is increasing pressure for you to narrow your interests to an isolated area of knowledge that might have some practical ability to someday help you get a job and make a living. But I don’t think school on any level, including college, should become a job-training program for just one kind of work. We should resist being put in a box, even if that is a pottery box, and you know how I love pottery. We are not just one kind of person, we are all many- splendid creatures and we cannot be totally explained by any one single identification.
Quality of Life
John Ruskin, the 19th century British writer, said, “there is no wealth but life”. He meant that we need to encompass the totality of life within our grasp and comprehension, that no isolated or specialized area or activity can contain the essence of life itself. Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright, courageous leader in the fight against communism in his country and former president of that country has this say about how we misdirect our energy and efforts and squeeze out the really important things in our lives,
“The dictatorship of money, of profit, of constant economic growth, and the necessity, flowing from all that, of plundering the earth without regard for what will be left in a few decades, along with everything else related to the materialistic obsessions of this world, from the flourishing of selfishness to the need to evade personal responsibility by becoming part of the herd, and the general inability of human conscience to keep pace with the inventions of reason, right up to the alienation created by the sheer size of modern institutions – all of these are phenomena that cannot effectively be confronted except through a new moral effort, that is, through a transformation of the spirit and the human relationship to life and the world.”
Well, that sounds like a big undertaking and an even greater challenge. Havel is indicating that what we need right now is moral knowledge and new kinds of relationships with each other and the earth. According to Havel, we need more intimate caring for each other and the environment and we need to further develop and apply our moral conscience. Where do we learn about that? How do we learn to become successful human beings as well as being successful in our careers? Do ceramic artists and potters have some wisdom about these issues? Did they make choices in their youth that said the quality of life was the real wealth of life? And that quality of life had to involve creating beautiful things and celebrating that beauty as an intrinsic part of their lives? I have this to say about William Morris and his friend and mentor, John Ruskin, in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”, in relationship to Havel’s quote,
“To understand the stained glass windows, wallpapers, and tapestries of William Morris, you must understand the aesthetics of John Ruskin. As we know Ruskin never made stained glass windows, wallpaper or tapestries. Why did Morris bother with Ruskin? To understand William Morris and John Ruskin, two privileged members of the English upper class, you have to understand why they organized seminars and presented lectures to industrial workers, even though those workers could not afford to travel to Italy with Ruskin or buy the wares of Morris. Havel would understand, it was to share ‘…that transformation of the spirit and the human relationship to life.’ We are all ordinary and remarkable, and we are all eligible for that transformation.”
Waiting for the Future
There are many benefits in pursuing interests that you don’t necessarily add to your job resume. Everything you know and everything you have experienced in life enriches you and makes you more complicated. You might well retort, particularly in these perilous times of recession and high unemployment, that preparing for a good job is all important and comes first. It is easy for me to ruminate on these things, after all I am retired and I have my pension and health plan. It is even more difficult to take advice from someone born to wealth, such as John Ruskin, already quoted above, who had a great influence on the Arts & Crafts movement there. I quote Ruskin many times in my book. I found and used in my book this quote of Ruskin’s in a wonderful biography of Ruskin, “The Wider Sea: A Life of John Ruskin” by John Dixon Hunt. Here is what Ruskin has to say about the benefits of pursuing knowledge in difficult times,
“…does the pursuit of any art or science, for the mere sake of the resultant beauty or knowledge, tend to forward this end? That such pursuits are beneficial and ennobling to our nature is self-evident, but have we leisure for them in our perilous circumstances? Is it a time to be spelling of letters or touching of strings, counting stars or crystallizing dewdrops, while the earth is failing under our feet, and our fellows are departing every instant into eternal pain?”
I don’t know exactly what the ‘perilous circumstances’ that Ruskin was talking about in this comment. Maybe something to do with the awful living conditions in Britain for workers during the industrial revolution, maybe some war the British Empire was waging somewhere at the time. The point is that there are always excuses and reasons not to do what you yearn and dream of doing and learning. Things always seem bad, the economy always seems in trouble, war or the threat of war is always on the horizon and there is never enough money in the bank account to pay for those special things after you pay the mortgage and I am not even going to talk about the price of gas. So we often put our dreams on the back burner as being unrealistic or impractical. Our dreams might include exploring, engaging and discovering new creative realms and experiences, traveling to foreign lands and experiencing different cultures; learning about some subject or theme that has always intrigued you but you never had the time to explore; all these adventures somehow never seem convenient, never easy.
Many of us delay our real life adventures and learning about new or different things to some day in the distant future. We promise ourselves that we will do all these things when the kids grow up; the nest is empty or when we retire. Then we will finally have the time to actually do what we have always dreamed about. But when that day finally arrives, all too often people find out they don’t have the energy or even the desire anymore. They waited too long. What is left is a lot of time that they don’t know what to do with. There is nothing they want to know and there is nothing they want to do. The windows to wonders beyond their own immediate lives were closed a long time ago and they don’t know how to open them now. Retirement has been a blessing for me. But I know others for whom it has been an empty void they don’t know how to fill.
Sometimes the best things in life are really free – or nearly free. What are the things you do and the things that you learn about just for the sheer pleasure and joy these things bring you? I bet some of them don’t cost a dime. Do some of then, as Havel stated, involve “transformation of the spirit and the human relationship to life’’? Here I think that artists and craftspeople have a wonderful advantage over many others. I don’t believe that many of you walk into your studio with a sense of dread at having to be there and work with clay. If you can truly integrate what you want to do and what you want to know into your daily life, and even make some kind of income as a result – then you are indeed very fortunate and among the relative few able to pull that off. We can enjoy more than one kind of experience and more than one kind of knowing. There are many ways of knowing. I join you in the pleasures of being wide-awake and alive in the world. We use all our senses, all our energy and abilities to engage the world. Some of us even try to add something to that world – maybe a pot or maybe a page of thoughts or ideas. We are indeed a community of learners and makers. I think I am in very good company.
Monday, March 28th, 2011
Our Changing Knowledge
When we went to school as youth we were given something called the curriculum. This was a twelve-year sequence of what school authorities thought every child and young person should know by the time they graduate from high school. After that, if you went on to college, the first two years were largely filled with a series of courses called ‘general education’. There were introductory or survey courses in subjects that those in charge of the institution thought were sufficiently important that all students, regardless of their individual interests, had to take before they started taking the courses in their chosen major. Have you ever questioned those imposed courses and their lessons? Are there some things all people need to know? Are there things a potter should know that have nothing to do with pottery? I want to dare to suggest that it is that very knowledge that has nothing to do with pottery that might well be among the most important things you bring to the potters’ wheel.
What are some of the things that everyone really needs to know? Here we need to be practical and realistic. I am just trying to make the point that these things should not squeeze out all the great stuff you want to know about that give you pleasure and joy. I think it is reasonable for us to know something about how our government works and the important issues facing us as citizens and voters. Knowing more about our history would give you an informed context for what is happening today. I would add to that knowing as much as you can about what is happening in the world so we can understand how the actions of foreign countries impact our country and economy. We also need to understand how to be smart consumers and how to take care of our family finances. There is a whole new area of knowledge that did not really exist when I was born – to know how to preserve and protect our environment and do one’s part to reduce our collective footprint on the earth. Another area of new knowledge that happened during my lifetime – we should be able to utilize the various electronic and computer appliances for our own betterment and development. To be able to think critically about these issues some basic knowledge about science would help. I would certainly include exposure to the great art and literature that constitutes your legacy of the world’s civilization and achievements. You can probably add a few more fundamental areas of human knowledge to this list that I missed but I think I will stop here.
Thanks to computers, a huge avalanche of knowledge is available, far too much knowledge for any one of us to digest or take in. Most of this huge mound of information is best stored in the computer, not in your head. We have to decide for ourselves what is worth knowing and why. We are not going to make the same decision and the same choice. Each of us have our own passions in terms of what we want to experience and what we want to know more about. I don’t know of any neighbors, and I have lived in this neighborhood for over thirty years, who are interested in pottery. To be fair, I am sure they know things I do not know or want to know. Come to think of it, I do know just one person, a woman whose children go the same elementary school where my grandchildren go, who takes pottery classes from a nearby adult education program. I do not make judgments about what others prefer and choose for their own self-enrichment and satisfaction. I could not live without my books and pottery, but I also need to weed my garden and do my spring planting. From years of gardening, I think I know something about that activity, at least in a Southern California garden. And there are great films, plays and concerts – the list could go on and on and there is never time to do it all but I will not surrender any of it.
One of the most important skills involved in learning is to know where to look for what you want to know. The computer does not solve this problem. In fact it makes it worse because it offers so many more choices and citations than you could possibly go through or explore. What is even more complicated is when you seek diverse perspectives or investigate some controversial issue than has multiple points of view. Here you can follow your own prejudices and end up with a bunch of expert opinions that happily agree with you. But the integrity of forming a critical intelligence that transcends your own current position demands that you confront diverse judgments that challenge prior assumptions. The act of learning requires this ability to revise and reverse your own thinking about something as well as add to it. Most of us have our egos invested in what we think we believe at the moment and it is often difficult to admit that we have changed our minds. I believe that, rather than being embarrassed by this capacity, one should feel great satisfaction when an expanded and informed viewpoint allows you to revise previous opinions and attitudes. It is a sure sign of intellectual growth.
I will go further than that and say that a sure sign of intellectual development is when you start from certainty and end up in doubt. Most people think that the normal and appropriate sequence in learning is just the reverse. I believe that to be mistaken. A highly informed perspective does not resolve an issue but complicates it. To think you had the easy and obvious answer to some problem and than find out that there are multiple ways of perceiving and experiencing ideas just as there are with ceramic artifacts. We wouldn’t just take one person’s opinion about the value and meaning of a particular potter’s work. We fully realize that each person experiences art and craft differently. Some people are surprised to know that the same diversity of judgment exists in intellectual work too. To seek the single right answer that will forever be true is a fool’s folly. To find and assess several valid and valuable responses to any issue or idea is to live with multiple possibilities, even including those that contradict each other. The great American philosopher of the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in his essay on “Self-Reliance” that,
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”
The danger in intellectual as well as artistic work is to have a smug presumption that you have the solution, the right answer and thus terminate further interest and activity in the area of that supposed right answer. As Emerson declared, a person that is convinced he/she already knows the right answer “has simply nothing to do.”
Knowledge of the Past
One valuable test of my thinking on this idea would be to obtain old textbooks from fifty years ago – the ones used in elementary, secondary and the university level. It doesn’t matter the subject – science, the arts, the social sciences, history, whatever. You will be amused (or maybe shocked) that they are full of what was once thought objective knowledge that has long been revised or revoked by continuing scientific experiments or increased cultural awareness. I don’t even have to bring up how girls and women were portrayed in children’s literature and textbooks back then, much less the absence of people of color and others. All human knowledge and all human culture are dynamic, expanding, overthrowing and revising all that went before. Thus all human learners must display the same traits of being dynamic and active in their critical assessments and rigorous investigations. The same discipline and focus that you might bring to the potter’s wheel is also suitable for the open book and the printed page.
In saying this, I want to emphasize the joy and pleasure of making sense of things, of the revelations and epiphanies possible in engaging ideas as well as art. It might sound silly, but as I sit at my computer and do this blog, I often delight myself with self-discoveries and the joy of just thinking about things. I also goof up and delete stuff after re-reading it. To delete your own stuff is hard. It is sort like when you look at some half-finished pot on the wheel and decide it is not going to work and smash the clay and start over. It’s OK to start over. My dear wife, Judy, who has the task of proofing all my writing, will often not only correct the grammar or spelling, but also say that she simply can’t comprehend what I wrote or what it meant. I love Judy very much, despite her comments, and my writing is always improved by her critical scrutiny. We learn by making reasonable approximations and errors. We need not strive to totally eliminate errors, only how to learn from them. Mistakes and errors can lead us to improved choices. Some of our greatest masterpieces in art, music and literature were first believed to be mistakes by critics of the time who rejected them. Think of a George Ohr pot as another example of a changed perception that took a long time in coming.
Our Beloved Teachers
The best teachers helped you learn by encouraging you to use your curiosity and intrinsic motivation to find out things that you want to know. All knowledge is eventually personal knowledge. The best retention and application of what is learned happens when the learner is invested in the learning and do it for themselves. School too often makes work out of what should be naturally stimulating and rewarding. Knowledge is not just knowing a lot of stuff – it is being able to make sense of what you learn and develop your own perspective and point of view and apply that knowledge to make your life more interesting and meaningful.
As a student, I never was satisfied with most of the stuff in the textbooks and those things that teachers made you study and they talked about in class. I loved history and art projects and eventually became an art major in high school. But most of my learning as a child and youth did not happen in a classroom. In the evening, after dinner, I would paint and draw at the kitchen table until I had to go to bed. There was a small public library branch at the end of my dead-end street in West Los Angeles where I spent countless hours of my childhood. No one there told me what I had to read and what I had to know. I explored both fiction and non-fiction, read just about every book in that small branch library and started to order books from the central library in downtown Los Angeles. I was so proud one day when a librarian from the central library visited our sixth grade elementary class and asked ‘is Dick Jacobs here?’. I stood in front of my classmates and she told us that I had ordered many fine books and she congratulated me on my devotion to reading. For a very shy and introverted little boy, that was an unforgettable and very special day.
What were the worlds that you explored in your own childhood and youth? I don’t mean the school lessons and the homework assignments but your own private exploration of those things that excited and thrilled you. There is a special romance in allowing your own interests and curiosity to motivate your discoveries of the marvels of a great big wonderful world formerly unknown to you. You might even be able to remember that day and that memorable moment of excitement and pleasure when you knew that your engagement with some activity or special book would help organize your future lifetime. In my home I arrange my pottery and books with equal devotion. I have shelves from floor to ceiling with both books and pottery in my gallery, and books and pottery can be found in just about every other room, too.
Thursday, December 16th, 2010
I have spent a lifetime as an avid reader. Do young people still read? Do they have time left to read when they are not playing electronic games on their cell phones or other electronic devices? One of my daughters-in-law has a Kindle e-book, which she loves to use as her reading device. I cannot make that leap in my own life. I have a stack of books on the armrest on my big wooden chair in the living room where I do most of my reading. I read about a dozen books at the same time, along with numerous periodicals and journals. I read my journals on my exercise bike in the patio, where I spend a full hour every morning of the week. I like the physical heft and look of a book. I enjoy the physical behaviors required of the reader, holding the book in a comfortable position, sitting in my favorite chair, just turning the next page, or flipping back pages to an earlier chapter to remind me of some detail I had missed or forgotten, all the small maneuvers that holding a real book entails. I value the appearance of a book, the design of the jacket, the style of the printed text, the visual attraction of illustrations and images, all the embellishments of books as revered objects. Is this because I am old and thus old- fashioned? Is reading a real book just a habit soon obsolete? Is the published book just another failed technology doomed to disappear?
I am a collector of objects. Among the objects I collect are pottery and books. I subscribe to many ceramic periodicals that have truly beautiful images of pottery but I know that there is nothing so satisfying as engaging a real three dimensional pot right in front of you. It is just not the same experience. I take the same attitude with books. I spend a lot of time at my computer writing blogs and books. I also do a bit of reading at the computer, mainly received email messages or viewing websites of interest. But I could never accept the computer as my chief reading instrument. It is too big to hold. I love books and one central way I can demonstrate my affection and fondness for what they contain and the pleasure they give me is by holding them. When I visit potters in their studios or galleries, I can observe the same need on their part to take physical possession of the ceramic object, to hold it and feel its surface and to gauge with their hands the thinness of the walls and the thickness of the foot, to run their fingers over the glaze, to feel the smoothness or roughness of the surface. People who love objects need to touch the objects of their devotion. I need to hold and touch pots and books. One of the great compromises I have had to make in my own pottery gallery was the need to apply earthquake putty to the bottom of my pots. Given the real dangers of California earthquakes, it is sadly necessary. But sometimes I just can’t help it. Occasionally I will walk over to a shelf, slowly twist the pot, lifting it carefully and taking full possession of this beloved object and cradle it in my hands.
We know that the making of books is an ancient craft that is still flourishing. There is a complex aesthetics involved in the choice of paper, type of binding, font, and many other elements of design, lay out, and the making of the book as a hand/ crafted object. We also know that there are small, independent printers who seek to perpetuate the publication of these kinds of books. They might be marginal compared to the big publishing companies that can run thousands of copies of best sellers but they seek quality and beauty in the finished product. Many great artists have also illustrated such books. I do not want to see this art and craft go the way of so many small, independent booksellers who could not compete with the franchise bookstores. Is there still room in our globalized world for this kind of hand created quality? When I go to the Huntington Library in nearby San Marino I see many famous original books, opened with often yellowed pages of great age, secured in glass cases, ranging from the beginning of printing press with the Gutenberg Bible to the modern books of California authors such as Jack London, as well as contemporary authors. These books form the cultural icons of our rich legacy of the printed word. I somehow cannot see some day in the future when I visit the Huntington Library and find in the same glass cases e-books displaying the same texts on small screens. Surely you would agree it would not be the same kind of quality experience.
Aside from the book as an aesthetic artifact created by master craftspeople, we also need to discuss what we use them for. Books have a vital function in human civilization. People read them and obtain knowledge and wisdom that is not available anywhere else. I want to talk about the act of reading. This involves the behavior of the reader and the approach to the printed page that would extract the greatest value for those who devote countless hours of their lives to the company of books. We will continue in this discussion to draw analogous examples with pottery. How do you approach the engagement of a pot? What is the nature of the active observer seeking to maximize pleasure and meaning when in the company of ceramic art? We can ask the same questions about books.
Too often both ‘art appreciation’ and ‘reading instruction’ lessons in educational institutions render both kinds of engagements passive events for the observer and reader. Youth are instructed to memorize information about the name of the artist, period, art style, technique, and other data of that nature. Similarly, children taught to read go through the mechanical details of the grammar of language and the retention of the content obtained from the printed word as a duty of memorization, subject to testing. Can you teach the joy and great pleasure of living with art and craft as icons of beauty and the noble offspring of human imagination and creativity? Can you teach youth how to live with books as friends that open the windows of the world to you? That seems all too rarely to come from a lesson in a classroom. What can it come from and how do you help people develop that capacity? The actual lived experience of engaging the pot or book is not the same thing as the information about the pot and the book. Do you know what I am talking about?
I will offer you now a quote that I think will reinforce what I am talking about. It is a quote I employed in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”. This excerpt in my book is from one of the finest books written about ceramics, in fact that is the title of the book, “Ceramics” by Philip Rawson. In the Foreword to this book, Wayne Higby, an important American potter, speaks of Rawson’s ideas about how to experience pottery,
“He recommends looking at the forms of pottery not just to classify them, but to read them as symbols analogous to sense experience. This recommendation has far-reaching implications since, in our society, critical awareness is primarily achieved by acquiring factual knowledge rather than by developing the resources of intuitive feeling. The emphasis on factual knowledge has isolated art from the general flow of Western culture by reserving it for a relatively small group of ‘informed’ individuals. The very fact that pottery is accessible to everyone by virtue of its immediate connection with human experience has disqualified it in the past as a major art form. Rawson introduces this accessibility factor as an important aesthetic consideration and implies that the power of pottery as art lies in its ability to communicate to a wide audience by expressing human sensuous life. He asks the reader to become more aware of emotional responses to pottery in order to give depth and clarity to learned perception.”
There is a lot to think about in this quote. How do we learn to experience ‘human sensuous life’ with pots and books without getting caught in the all too familiar trap first learned in school, when we were taught to reduce everything to ‘factual knowledge’ rather than the encouragement of the development of ‘intuitive feeling’? Here the tail wags the dog. If you can’t test intuitive feeling on a standardized exam, and the easy lure of testing factual information is all too available, than the emotional and intuitive dimensions of human feelings and experiences are simply ignored. Even more than that, the implication of this abandonment is that human feelings (the very core of a complex aesthetic) are really a trivial and superficial realm of human experience. I would add another critical wrinkle to this conversation, since I am a man commenting on the thoughts of two other men, Rawson and Higby. Traditionally in Western society it was believed that women, given their highly emotional and fragile state, existed as emotional creatures but us men were capable of transforming the world into tough, durable facts. So I am rather proud as a man to be in the company of these two other modern men in conceding that the richness and complexity of the subjective emotions are as important as the objective world of factual knowledge. The aesthetic significance of human culture is dependent on this awareness. I am going to continue this discussion in future blogs. I do wish to conclude this blog wishing all of you the very best of the holiday season and a happy New Year.