Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Posts Tagged ‘life’
Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012
I have another problem with this appetite on the part of some modern and post-modern artists whose work can be summarized in its attempted urge to shock and offend. The very traits under discussion here, to mock, to shock, to offend, comprise trivial and superficial behaviors, often identified in adolescents as typical for that immature and difficult stage of life. If you really want to get serious about the trials and tribulations of the human condition, to dig deep in your gut for those haunting fears that can grip you in the dead of night, to sink into a profound and complex state of mind and soul, then you need to explore the long and rich history of literature about melancholy and its place in the arts.
I am currently reading “A Field Guide to Melancholy” by Jacky Bowring. The association of melancholy with talented geniuses in the arts has a long history. I am sure you are aware that poets have often been identified with that particular affliction, both in their persona and in their poems. Bowring gives one example with Emily Dickinson, for ‘her winter within’ a manifestation of her ‘fixed melancholy’, which, according to the author, “is seen as the major generative force in her poetry which is suffused with a poignant and brooding emotional climate.”
Bowring further expands this relationship between the arts and this condition of melancholy. Here she explains,
“The aestheticising of melancholy objects, as in a model who appears nearly dead, a dilapidated cottage, or a ruined post-industrial landscape, involves a process of detachment. Through this, the object is set apart, as Susan Sontag described in Melancholy Objects, and it then becomes like a ‘found object’, and the focus of fascination. This is the species of melancholy beauty that was the foundation of surrealism. In its super-realism, or verisimilitude, surrealism evoked the strange in the terms of the familiar. The uncanny place of the dream-world hovered on the edge of reality, unlikely juxtapositions and hybrids emphasized the feelings of alienation and isolation of the modern human condition. This potent, elusive beauty is a unique quality of melancholy, and one at the polar extreme to the aesthetic delight of that which brings joy. Edgar Allan Poe pronounced sadness and melancholy the sites of Beauty’s ‘highest manifestation’, and as death is the supreme melancholy topic, then its poetical potency is enhanced when aligned with beauty. Poe’s ‘beauty’ was no superficial superlative, but referred to an effect upon the self, ‘that intense and pure elevation of the soul – not of intellect, not of the heart.”
Here you have another poet, Edgar Allan Poe, who understood that sadness and melancholy could involve the ‘highest manifestation’ of the beautiful. As Bowring adds, this is no superficial superlative, as with so much contemporary art, but rather an “intense and pure elevation of the soul – not of intellect, not of the heart.” She also cites the importance of surrealism in bringing about the evocation of the strange in terms of the familiar in portraying dream-worlds that visualized the feelings of alienation and the isolation of the modern human condition. The aura of melancholy infuses the beautiful; it wounds the beautiful, and makes tears and blood prime ingredients of its composition. I demand that contemporary artists make melancholy and all its attributes as complicated and profound as their artist ancestors.
A quotation of Octavio Paz comprises the very last statement in the book, “The Double Flame”. It deals with the themes under discussion in this blog. It is an affirmation of live and love. It involves what I would want artists and human culture to help make possible for us. It connects us into wholeness and reconciles us with the totality of the world. It does not deny death but rather encourages us to face it. I think this statement is positive without being sweet or sentimental. One reason I so admire his work is that he did not pander to what might give us immediate pleasure, nor seek for us an easy way out. In reality Paz encouraged us to face the awful dimensions of life and death, because his work helps us discover ourselves, to become whole with nature and the totality of that whole, to accept our exile from paradise and to reconcile our life with our ever approaching death. Yet at the end of all this, he also gives us hope. It takes great courage to love under the dire circumstances of just being alive. His poetry and thoughts helps us to build that courage. Here it is.
“Love does not defeat death; it is a wager against time and its accidents. Through love we catch a glimpse, in this life, of the other life. Not of eternal life, but, as I have tried to say in several poems, of pure vitality. Speaking of the religious experience, Freud refers to an ‘oceanic feeling,’ that sensation of being enveloped in and rocked by all of existence. It is the Panic dimension of the ancients, the sacred furor, enthusiasm: the recovery of wholeness and the discovery of the self as wholeness with the Great Whole. When we were born, we were torn from wholeness; in love we have all felt ourselves returning to the original wholeness. That is why poetic images transform the beloved into nature – a mountain, water, a cloud, a star, a wood, the sea, a wave – and why in turn nature speaks as though it were a lover. Reconciliation with the totality of the world. With past, present, and future as well. Love is not eternity; nor is it the time of calendars and watches, successive time. The time of love is neither great nor small; it is the perception of all times, of all lives, in a single instant. It does not free us from death but makes us see it face to face. That instant is the reverse and complement of the ‘oceanic feeling.’ It is not the return to the waters of origin but the attainment of a state that reconciles us to our having been driven out of paradise. We are the theater of the embrace of opposites and of their dissolution, resolved in a single note that is not affirmation or negation but acceptance. What does the couple see in the space of an instant, a blink of the eye? The equation of appearance and disappearance, the truth of the body and the nonbody, the vision of the presence that dissolves into splendor: pure vitality, a heartbeat of time.”
If one has love for someone or something exterior to his or her self, one has to have hope. Life without love or hope is a life reduced to terrible despair. Paz is very lyrical and urges here that we can find love with another person or find it represented in nature, in a mountain, water, a cloud, a star, a wood, the sea, a wave. I can claim and assert, because I have experienced it, that we can also find love in the hand crafted ceramic object, in that marvelous pot, in those dazzling glazes that rush down the sides of a vase, in the elegant spout of a perfectly shaped teapot, in the detailed mastery of a work by a master potter. Paz is very inclusive and supportive in this regard. He says that “The time of love is neither great nor small; it is the perception of all times, of all lives, in a single instant.” I have had some of those single instants with my pottery. Art can sponsor that “reconciliation with the totality of the world” that gives purpose and meaning to life. Aesthetic pleasures reside in that “vision of the presence that dissolves into splendor: pure vitality, a heartbeat of time”. If Paz had ever visited my pottery gallery, I am sure he would have confirmed its present there.
As with all emotions, hope is only aroused when the person chooses to evoke its presence. Two individuals can be in exactly the same situation and one can see hope and the other only despair. A third choice, perhaps the most appropriate and insightful, is that some perceptive individuals can see elements of both hope and despair somehow embedded in almost all human circumstances. In this sense perhaps the greatest foe of emotions is a bland and blind indifference. You have to be invested to demonstrate feelings. You have to be concerned, caring and compassionate to expend the energy to arouse the finite emotional resources at hand. I suspect that is why some artists just wind down and finally stop working and walk away from their art or craft. Their inspiration has been dissipated, perhaps because of the inevitable hardships of life, and for some reason they have just stopped caring. One of the great legends of romanticism is that the emotions that emanate from pain and misery are greater signs of genius and the creation of greater art than work coming from someone who is generally happy and contented.
I do not think we should underestimate the essential joys and rewards of creating and engaging art and craft. I think that “A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression” by Howard Risatti, is one of the best books on craft I know. In this book Risatti talks about some of the soul satisfying benefits of creating craft for the craftsperson and those who encounter the results,
“Through the hand in craftsmanship, craft objects capture the efforts of their makers and make these efforts visible and palpable for us to see and comprehend; and in doing so, they reflect back to us our own efforts; they become mirrors of our own aspirations and possibilities. When we compare what our hand can do to that of skilled makers, we develop an awareness and appreciation of other human beings and, in the process, a greater degree of self-understanding and self-awareness. In this, craftsmanship in craft objects fosters a worldview that projects the creative imagination firmly within a humanly define, a humanly scaled, and humanly understandable tangible reality. Albrecht Durer’s appreciation of the incredible skill evident in those Pre-Columbian gold objects that he saw from Mexico is just such an example of human understanding found in the ‘thinking hand’ that is able to transcend time, space, and cultural horizons.”
Risatti is telling us that by engaging the artifact, they not only provide the efforts of the makers, but for people like me, they gave us opportunities to learn about ourselves, to see the object as “mirrors of our own aspirations and possibilities.” Thus, to paraphrase Risatti, the ceramic artifact can give those who make the effort the riches and qualities that are the very basis for hope – for a future, be it tomorrow or next year or the year after, that somehow will bring some relief, some modicum of improvement, some vestige of those modest self-initiated reforms of one’s own life that enhances our existence. In this way, we do not need wisdom and truth to be given to us whole by some kind of superior authority. Self-confidence begins with hope.
We can engage the book, the play, the musical concert, the painting, or the ceramic object and extract our own wisdom and truth. Hope helps us become the makers of our own meaning. This making of meaning for the observer can be as rich and stimulating as is the creative process for the craftsperson or artist. Finally we all stand together. We are all makers, active and alive in the world. The intensity of that life force is articulated and activated by our emotions. The ripe promise of hope must surely be one emotion we would want to nurture and protect in others and ourselves. We find it in ourselves when we look at children; we find it in the springtime flood of blossoms in a garden. We find it in the gentle touch of a loved one and we find it in an early morning sunrise that lights and warms our very being. We find it in the treasures still warm from the heat of the kiln. There are many, many good reasons for all of us to have and harbor hope.
Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
I have great trouble with the attitudes of contemporary artists who feel their chief function as an artist is to shock the lay public. This same public can bite you back when it comes to public art paid for by citizen taxpayer. This desire to shock actually paid off in a big way for those artists who discovered that people who could afford it would pay big bucks for the most outrageous stuff they could come up with. This attitude comprises more than a need to shock strangers, it is inspired by the contempt these artists feel toward the remainder of humanity. On top of that, this contempt shapes the character of the created piece. Great art can initially shock but that is not the central ingredient of its enduring value. I am still listening to Stravinsky “Rite of Spring” and had the pleasure of traveling to Madrid where I observed Picasso’s “Guernica”, both now hailed as lasting masterworks of the last century. I do not think either Stravinsky or Picasso would claim that their chief motivation in doing what they did was to do something as silly and superficial as to reduce their art to a stunt devised to shock strangers. They are also very good examples of those innovative artists who created daring new approaches to their art, yet also possessed great talent and discipline, with a vision of creativity that went beyond making their art into an insult.
Let me provide you a few concrete examples. Michael Kammen, in his book, “Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture”, describes the issue of the proper role of art in a political democracy placed next to the ambiguity and diversity of much of modern art. He makes the point that most lay people are not used to figuring out and selecting the possibilities of multiple meanings in artwork. That task is difficult enough for the innocent and naive public, but then to have artists insist that their role is to regard the potential observer as adversary – and the purpose of their art to shock and offend that observer/adversary. Once the function of culture was that the arts and humanities were to ennoble and enrich humanity. When was that central legacy of Western civilization abandoned? What has been the cost and consequences of that abandonment? Doesn’t art that contains as content contempt for intended observers dis-empower those observers?
Kammen provides anecdotes about a few artists who became quite successful in doing what I just described,
“One might even argue that the common denominator – a constant – during the swift shift from one ‘ism’ to the next has been the desire to shock. Looking back to his brazenly tongue-in-cheek painting titled Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953), Larry Rivers explained that ‘I was energetic and egomaniacal and what is more important, cocky and angry enough to want to do something no one in the New York art world would doubt was disgusting, dead, and absurd.’ Roy Lichtenstein remarked in an interview that ‘the problem for a hopeful scene-making artists in the early sixties was how best to be disagreeable. What he needed was to find a body of subject matter sufficiently odious to offend even lovers of art.’ So he opted for the commonplace: comic book images. Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg insisted that ‘if the painting doesn’t upset you, it probably wasn’t a good painting to begin with.’ Abstract sculptor George Sugarman, whose Baltimore Federal raised a ruckus in that city during the later 1970s, asked rhetorically: ‘Isn’t controversy part of what modern art is all about?’ Performance artist Karen Finley asserted in 1990, as the case of the NEA Four unfolded, ‘That’s what art is about – its shock value.”
I do not contend that this is damning testimony about the aesthetic value of these artists. All those mentioned here are serious artists and most have done important and enduring work and contributed much to our culture. I have varying enthusiasm as reactions to their results but that has only to do with my own temperament and tastes. But still I think their comments are revealing of an attitude and approach to art that I maintain cannot be healthy or ultimately good for the culture. I declare my affinity and solidarity for the affirmative benefits of human culture and civilization. To delight in disfiguring the artifacts in such a way that it provides only the “disgusting, dead, and absurd” is to conclude that all human civilization is decadent, diseased and doomed. I can look at the wars, genocides, and mass starvation of my time on earth and agree that we have amassed considerable evidence to support that position. But to surrender to that hopeless perspective is to make human culture a fatal causality of all those calamities. Culture becomes a collection of pathologies and all our behaviors, including our creative ones, becomes symptoms of a terminal sickness endemic to the human species.
I totally disagree with all the statements of the various artists above. Despite my own reservations about the motivation and intent of some of these artists, I do not have patience or sympathy for those offended who seek to suppress the offensive art. I would never be so silly as to seek to ban that which offends me. I do not wish to define what art is really art and seek to force my conclusions on others. I do not support censorship of the arts, either in the visual image, the dramatic performance, or the content of the text in literature. I further support government sponsorship of public art, all of which will offend somebody, maybe even me on occasion.
I have about completed a book, “The Measure of Our Days: New Beginnings at Life’s End” by Jerome Groopman, M.D. Groopman is a physician, involved as both medical clinician and researcher, who specializes in the worst cases brought about by diseases like cancer and aids. He spends much of his time treating terminally ill patients, trying to find some combination of medicine and personal regime that might give them a few more years to live. Each chapter deals with a real patient that he had once treated. In one chapter Dan, a medical colleague, becomes seriously ill. Dan wanted to do everything possible to live. He talked to Groopman about his father, an Auschwitz survivor, and related that his father had told him that when a person in that concentration camp surrendered to despair, he would die. And that if he survived by becoming an angry animal who stole crusts of bread and bowls of soup from others, then he died inside as a human being. His father explained that just as there were these two types of death, there are also two types of life. One was trying to live a moral life as a moral person and the other was to help others do the same. These thoughts lead Groopman to the following ruminations.
“I searched my memory for the connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary, how there was an alchemy that transmuted the mundane into the sacred. It came to mind. Again, it was a story from the Holocaust, the story told by Prima Levi, the Jewish Italian chemist, who used the transmutability of the elements as a metaphor to explain the radical change in the substance of his life when enslaved by the Nazis. He wrote that it was the performing of the ordinary things that had sustained his sanity, his dignity, his humanity in hell’s inferno. The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims, asserting they were subhuman, without freedom or choice, and not deserving of life. Levi recounted how, when he was close to despair and considering giving in to death, he was instructed by a comrade in camp to wash his face every day. This ordinary and simple act restored dignity and structure to his person, because he exercised his will to do it, and it was a conscious choice. Levi also found that sustaining the life of the mind in the senseless world of the concentration camp gave him strength. With another friend, he regularly recited verses from Dante, as he had before his enslavement. He had chosen to introduce beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist. Levi believed the greatest form of resistance was to continue to act in the ordinary, normal ways that had marked one’s life before the deportation. It demonstrated a sense of control, an exercise of will, and signaled the potential to triumph over the forces that sought to destroy you. With restoration of dignity came a renewed capacity to hope.”
There is much to consider here. How can people even try to lead ordinary lives when confronted with extraordinary peril and degradation? The ability to wash one’s own face in such conditions is an act of defiance that also supports one’s dignity and humanity. As long as some modicum of choice exists or is willed to exist, then one is not totally without freedom. Yes, Groopman, I share your agonizing grief, “The Nazis systematically dehumanized their victims.” Can art do the same thing? If the purpose of that art is calculated to only offend, to shock, to alienate the engaged observer, to mock everything important to that person, can there not be serious dehumanizing effects on that person? I can fully support critical or contentious art that challenges conventions and the status quo. I cannot support art that deliberately seeks to dehumanize those human beings that unfortunately come in contact with the noxious artifact.
I am sure you must resonate with Groopman’s story about how Levi was able to sustain the life of the mind by reciting the poet Dante, by introducing “beauty in the form of poetry in a place where beauty was not meant to exist.” Should not art play a role in empowering people with the will and potential to triumph over the forces that seeks to destroy them? Does being modern require one not to care about what Groopman and Levi cared about? I fear that too often it is. What have we lost and when did we lose it? I fear that what we have lost in the arts has nothing to do with realism or abstraction, nothing to do with expression or skill, nothing to do with concept or completed artifact. What I fear we have lost in the arts is the determined urge to celebrate our humanity.
Sunday, August 12th, 2012
Hope might seem a strange emotion to attach to the making and engagement of pottery. Yet I believe that this basic emotion is the very foundation of an affirmative grasp of life and all that it offers, including pottery. For me, it is also an essential outcome of memorable aesthetic experiences. Hope contains the remedy for despair. Much contemporary and post-modern art prefers despair and its more sensational aspects to the softer if not sweeter elements of hope. It is not sophisticated nowadays for artists to offer hope. Hope requires a greater investment and risk than despair. Despair is usually defined as a symptom of bad things that have happened to you or could happen at any time. Despair eventually leads you to an ever more dire condition. In the extreme, it can finally drive you to not caring. The doors and windows of your soul can close and the lights go out. Great art can lead you both places at the same time and in both cases the rewards can be great. This is a very delicate balancing act. To engage the sublime darkness of the human sprit in some metaphorical or aesthetic guise as created by an artist or author, yet find some fragment of hope in the very same place and circumstance is to my mind the highest form of aesthetic engagement.
Hope vs. Despair
Hope is something you have to handcraft and make for yourself and then implement it despite all the dire issues of your own existence. Despair arrives with the concrete evidence of hurt that has been inflicted upon you. Hope is projection of a wished for future that has no real guarantee. Hope is the yet unrealized emotion of a personal belief system that can have little basis in fact. Hope is always unproven. It cannot depend on the facts of the matter for its justification. Despair might entail an honest and realistic assessment of the situation. Hope always begins as an exaggeration, an inventory of the potential of undependable possibilities. Another advantage of despair is that it is far more dependable than hope. How we cope with despair is often far more revealing of our character than the unfulfilled dreams or illusions that hope can depend upon.
Despair becomes clinical depression when it appears to lack a basis for its existence but you cannot avoid its intrusion just the same. The circumstances of your present despair might well be the result of your own past errors. Given the common distribution of our fallibilities, how can we prove to ourselves and others that we even deserve to have hope? Another advantage of despair, when one surrenders hope, the pressure is off and any further injury can be received with a benign if not resigned submission. In that sense, hope requires a resistance of the soul, a determination to surmount difficulties that might seem at the time insurmountable. Courage is an ingredient of hope. Despair is often inflicted on the innocent and that innocence can only intensify the despair. Hope has to be earned if it is to triumph.
Human culture must provide us hope. I will go further than that and personalize this statement. Art has been a central source of hope throughout my entire life. Art contains the reservoir of resources that can give us reasons to live and to get up in the morning. For the potter to approach the wheel, there has to be some element of hope that the outcome will be worth the effort. To create art one has to believe that what comes out of that effort will make a difference in the world. I want to further explore why so much contemporary art concentrates on the dismal and dire aspects of human existence. I want to start with a short essay that got my dander up in regard to my present mood. It is in an anthology edited by David Beech, “Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art”. It really set off my current funk about so much of what is happening in the arts today. It is a brief; one page essay by Robert Smithson titled “An Aesthetics of Disappointment”. Apparently Smithson went to an exhibit in 1966 in New York City and really disliked the show. The essay was a result.
Just a bit of background about Smithson. He was a seminal figure in the Land Art movement through the 1960s and 1970s, best known for ‘Spiral Jetty’, his 1979 “earthwork” in the Great Salt Lake, that was once covered by water but with the long drought in the West, is now visible and frequently visited. Apparently Smithson thought galleries and museum were ‘jails and tombs’, incapable of conveying the messy nature of reality. His ire was directed at an exhibit organized by an engineer that included artists involved in ‘experiments in art and technology’ I went to an website titled “Art Agenda” where April Lamm concluded that “For the most part the result of bringing 30 engineers together with 10 artists yielded performance kitsch at its worst.” Here is Smithson’s statement,
“Many are disappointed at the nullity of art. Many try to pump life or space into the confusion that surrounds art. An incurable optimism like a mad dog rushed into vacuum that the art suggests. A dread of voids and blanks brings on a horrible anticipation. Everybody wonders what art is, because there never seems to be any around. Many feel coldly repulsed by concrete unrealities, and demand some kind of proof or at least a few facts. Facts seem to ease the disappointment. But quickly those facts are exhausted and fall to the bottom of the mind. This mental relapse is incessant and tends to make our aesthetic view stale. Nothing is more faded than aesthetics. As a result, painting, sculpture and architecture are finished, but the art habit continues. The more transparent and vain the aesthetic, the less chance there is for reverting back to purity. Purity is a desperate nostalgia that exfoliates like a hideous need. Purity also suggests a need for the absolute with all its perpetual traps. Yet we are overburdened with countless absolutes and driven to inefficient habits. These futile and stupefying habits are thought to have meaning. Futility, one of the more durable things of this world, is nearer to the artistic experience than excitement. Yet the life-forcer is always around trying to incite a fake madness. The mind is important, but only when it is empty. The greater the emptiness the grander the art. Aesthetics have devolved into rare types of stupidity. Each kind of stupidity may be broken down into categories such as: bovine formalism, tired painting, eccentric concentrics or numb structures. All these categories and many others all petrify into a vast banality called the art world which is no world. A nice negativism seems to be spawning. A sweet nihilism is everywhere. Immobility and inertia are what many of the most gifted artists prefer. Vacant at the centre, dull at the edge, a few artists are on the true path of stultification.”
Thoughts on Smithson
I am not sure I understand exactly what are the specific elements of that exhibit that so offended Smithson. I am not sure it matters. I would extend his critical application to much of what goes for art today, probably including some of those aspects that he valued and would protect. He starts this essay and his collaboration with me within that very first sentence, “Many are disappointed at the nullity of art.” I frankly don’t know from the tone of his essay if he is agreeing or disagreeing with what he is stating. Is he being clever or satirical? Perhaps just furious and contemptuous? I don’t know and I don’t care. I find his next statement quite puzzling. If an incurable optimism is a mad dog, what kind of monster would represent nullity and futility? I also disagree with the face value of the statement. Where is this optimism he is talking about? I can’t find it in the cynical, aesthetic black holes of much of gallery art today. Yes, Smithson, many of us are very, very disappointed at the nullity of art. What a very good place to begin this discussion. I do wonder why his statement seems in style and content to serve that very same goal. Why would anyone, including the artist or poet, deliberately attempt through their art to disarm human beings of hope?
At some point, Smithson does annoy me. Is he being serious when he says that painting, sculpture, and architecture are finished? Maybe for him but not for me. His tone in this essay is part of the problem for me. Why is it so important to be so provocative? He utters absolutist statements like the one just stated, and then he criticizes the “desperate nostalgia” for the absolute in others. The artist as agent provocateur can be quite wearing on people’s nerves and became quite tedious. This can be true for writers who take the same pose too. Is art really now just a habit? He seems to insist that the only alternative to the present nullity is an unsatisfactory return to facts, the grounded absolutes of previous aesthetic dogma. I don’t agree. He makes two silly statements in a row – about the mind being important only when it is empty and the other about the greater the emptiness the grander the art. Is he just pulling my leg?
I think he must have learned this trick from Andy Warhol, a mentor of his at one time. Here again he is doing what he just earlier criticized in others – trying to “incite a fake madness” into a discussion where I would value his transparent honesty and informed point of view. Is he trying to prove by his own performance in this essay that “Aesthetics have devolved into rare types of stupidity?” I agree with his final thoughts about nihilism in the arts but I don’t think it is all that sweet. Yes, vacant at the centre, dull at the edge, but after a careful reading and re-reading, I share his general disappointment with the state of the arts but for very different reasons. I end up suspecting that it really serves his purpose to adopt a jaded, cynical disappointment that offers no hope beyond it. For me, he then becomes a part of the problem.
I have another anxiety in advancing my perspective on these matters. There was a whole range of conforming and conventional know-nothings out there who reject any innovation or experimentation in art beyond their fond memories of the covers of the ‘Saturday Evening Post’ by Norman Rockwell. Now their grandchildren collect the sentimental, mass-produced stuff by Thomas Kincaid. I do not equate great art with an illustrated realism nor limit my ceramic interests to the stark minimalism of the functional ceramic container as domestic appliance. Nor do I require or limit my received aesthetic messages to contain only good news or morale building opportunities. Hope needs rigor and complexity to makes a difference. It also needs the exuberance that comes from the expression of human feeling.
Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012
In a previous blog, regarding the emotion of sentimentality in relationship to pottery and the creative process, I offered George Ohr as a model of a male who displayed a variety of emotional elements in his personality and pottery. He was a true eccentric, bawdy and lustful in his ceramic brothel tokens and other aesthetic and personal vulgarities. Now, I would like to counter some of the stereotypes just discussed about women by offering you one of the great American woman potters, every bit as eccentric and notorious in her way as George Ohr. Of course I am talking about Beatrice Woods. I have been to her former home in Ojai, California, several times, now a museum and workshop for visiting potters. It is situated in a lovely landscape, up in the rolling hills just outside Ojai. There is also an exhibit there with plenty of photographs, text and of course her luster pottery, that tells the legendary exploits of this woman who lived to be over 100 years old, took many of the great artists of the 20thcentury as her lovers and friends, and had an independent and passionate spirit that lasted until the very last day of her very long life.
In his book, “Shards: Garth Clark on Ceramic Art”, Clark has a very touching essay on Woods, titled “A True and Romantic Pragmatist”. He featured her several times in his gallery over the years. I want to provide you two segments of that essay here,
“We were friends for twenty years, and I know why her lovers clung to her friendship even after the passion had passed. Wood has a way of bringing light and optimism into one’s life. Witty, positive and a fascinating raconteur, she was able to communicate her enthusiasm for life and for the present. While she may have enjoyed telling stories from her long life, she never lived in the past. She was an extraordinary friend. Almost every momentous event of my life during our friendship is punctuated with a letter from Beatrice, congratulating, encouraging, commiserating. I never knew where she found the time to write these elegant, warm, poetic notes. Many times I did not even know how she had found out about those moments.”
In the last passage in this essay, Clark mourns the recent passing of this vibrant and unique person,
“To say that I will miss her is strangely incorrect. There are some people whose passing cannot lessen their presence in one’s daily life. Certainly, I mourn that I cannot drop in at her studio and home in Ojai and enjoy her laughter, and lively discussions about art, sex and politics. I will miss the aromatic meals off her glittering plates. I will miss walking after her as she shuffled barefoot to her studio to show me the latest ‘horrors,’ as she jokingly referred to her newly fired work in the kiln. But death alone cannot take away a spirit as vital and contagious as that of Beatrice Wood. She lives on in the life of her many friends, and one must compliment God for the wisdom of allowing her to stay somewhat longer than the average mortal. Certainly she used that time wisely and played out a life that shimmered, glittered, sparkled and seduced every bit as much as the luster pots she made for the last sixty-five years.”
Clark has provided us not only a sensitive tribute to a dear friend recently deceased, but something about this woman and the way she choose to live her life. Her life was a work of art as well as her luster pottery. She dared to create herself and insist that others make room for her. She was born to wealth and privilege but shunned the life it offered and went her own way. She gave up the superficial respectability that her privileged origins provided, but she gained a greater and truer respect in developing her unique person-hood and pottery.
Our Way in the World
You might respond to my portrayals of both George Ohr and Beatrice Wood by saying they were rare characters, larger than life, and we can’t all be that spectacular in our behavior and character. I would agree with you. Each of us must find our own way of being in the world. But I hope we would both agree, however we are able to demonstrate it, that passion for life and passion for work are essential components for a rich and meaningful quality of life. I am a quiet, shy man in many respects; a short, bald-headed, bookish man that in retirement spends much of my time in the solitude of my home with my books and pottery. Yet a flame still burns and flickers in my soul and I greet each day and the morning sun with an increased tempo of anticipation, marshaling all the energy still at my command at this late time in my life, engaging the day and all the potential splendors and wonders that each day brings to me. I think what I have just said constitutes a summary and definition of a passionate life. How would you describe your life passions?
Searching for Beauty
I wrote a book about searching for beauty and many of the readers of this blog have devoted their lives to creating beauty with clay. This commitment to beauty, however one might define the qualities that make up beauty, also contains, according to some, the elements of the erotic and the quality that we call love. The study of the beautiful is contained in that field of scholarship called ‘Aesthetics”. However academics might wish to shape this discussion into formal theory and reduce it to analytical thought, this study of beauty is essentially a study of feelings. The following quote reinforces the commentary by Garth Clark in his tribute to Beatrice Woods. Here is the quote, in the book, “Beauty: Documents of Contemporary Art”, an anthology edited by Dave Beech, in an essay by Kathleen Marie Higgins titled “Whatever Happened to Beauty?” Higgins talks about the relationship of beauty to our emotions.
“When beauty transforms raw emotion in times of loss, does it necessarily make us more ‘philosophical’, in the colloquial sense of more stoical, more distanced from the wound we have suffered? Loss, besides provoking pangs of anger, regret, and sadness, has a deadening influence on the person engulfed by it. Loss is depressing. The bereaved often doubt that they can continue in a world devoid of a loved one. Enter beauty. Beauty makes the world seem worthwhile again. Plato described our stance towards beauty as erotic. We are drawn to beauty. Beauty incites ardor. It is the bridge to sense that reality is lovable. Plato, as much as Kant, would say that beauty makes us philosophical. But for Plato this means that beauty makes us fall in love with what is perfect. I want to suggest that beauty typically, perhaps especially in times of loss, urges not stillness but renewed love of life. Beautiful elegies reflect our sense that the only fitting remembrance for one who lives is to renew life, and that our own march forward into dying is itself an affirmation that life, in its basic character, is good.”
We are moving from discussion of that utilitarian passion that accompanies physical sexuality to a generic or cosmic sense of passion as the very stuff that allows an affirmation of life, that makes life good, that celebrates beauty; all this can be accomplished by a special intensity and rush of feelings that brings excitement and joy in our ordinary and daily attempts to cope and survive. Ceramic artists provide those concrete objects that can set off these celebrations of the spirit. I think we have now established beyond any shadow of a doubt that pottery are indeed containers of passion. It is the transfer of that passion to someone like me, who tries to bring his entire self to that engagement that sparks my own transformation to a heightened state of aesthetic arousal. I can only conclude, and perhaps you were not aware of this before, but for those of you that are represented in my pottery collection, we do indeed have a very intimate and passionate relationship. We need not alarm others by disclosing it. I will deny all rumors.
The Comforts of Home
I am in my pottery gallery right now, just finishing some iced tea. The air-conditioned interior resists the intrusion of a very warm afternoon. I am surrounded by pottery, surrounded by beauty. I would like to feel that I am not only a docent of the pottery in my home, but also the custodian of the passionate efforts that the makers invested in the creation of that pottery. I try to honor the potter in attempting to provide protection for the pottery. We are both invested, maker and collector, we both care very much. I am not embarrassed by proclaiming my feelings, by caring; by feeling both the joy of my close proximity to those things I love, but also, as indicated in the quotes by Clark and Higgins, the pain of possible loss, the fragile and often dangerous connection between passionate love and the universal status of our tenuous mortality and those uncontrollable disasters that can claim what is precious to us. We should not avoid loving in order to evade the pain and loss later on. If you should sometime in the future read in the newspapers that a violent earthquake hit Glendora, think of my destroyed pottery collection, and remind me of what I have just said.
We can hone the ability to express our feelings as we can further develop our skills in expressing our thoughts and creating the artifacts that reflect them. In writing this text, I am trying to express my feelings about my feelings. I think that is also an interesting idea. When caught in the moment of intense feeling, we are one with that sensation and situation. We are on intimate terms with that thing or person that stimulated our response. But later, after our removal from that intense moment, how do we make sense and learn from our passions? Can we develop the capacity to meditate on those moments that others might say we temporarily lost critical control of ourselves? Can we gain wisdom from our emotional experiences as well as from our thoughts?
We tend to know when we are trying to think something out and then make a mistake. It might be a mistake of fact or a conclusion unsupported by available evidence. I read and evaluated thousands of student papers through the years in which I would point out such errors. But how do we know when we have made a mistake of passion? We can’t check out the facts or google some information that might rectify and correct our thinking. Affairs of the heart are much more difficult to correct. And they might very well require a time for healing not necessary for more intellectual matters. Our emotions are much more tender than our thoughts. There is a safer distance involved in our opinions about things. We could disagree on what our foreign policy should be right now on what to do about Syria. I would not find that upsetting. But if someone thought my intense feelings about my pottery collection were silly and told me so I would be really upset. You do not display disrespect for another person when you happen to disagree with that person’s opinion about something, but you cannot be said to respect another person if you do not respect that person’s feelings. It is so much easier to ridicule a person’s emotions than a person’s thoughts.
I will continue this discussion in Part three regarding the role of passion in the creative process and pottery as a container of that quality.
Thursday, May 10th, 2012
After bringing up these unsavory attitudes toward sentimentality, I going to take the risk and confess that I too have critical reactions to excessively sentimental depictions in various artistic media. It is not for the same reasons as discussed above. A film I saw recently inspired my reveries about sentimentality. Judy and I went out to dinner and a movie with friends on New Year’s Eve. We went to a huge mall not too far from us located in an adjoining suburb, connected by the freeway that runs close to our house and goes through a string of suburbs on its way to Los Angeles. We saw the film, “War Horse”, directed by Steven Spielberg. I had concerns about going to see the film, concerns about Spielberg’s tendency to make conventional Hollywood films even out of the most unconventional themes. We are due to see the play soon in a month or two. It originated in Britain and was adapted from a novel. I anticipate a very different experience with the play. The film served the standard Spielberg formula, with intervals of two rather brutal and realistic World War I battle scenes sandwiched between sentimental slabs of overripe storytelling lit by rose-colored skies. The visual scenes of the English countryside with those charming huts with thatched roofs have been seen before on calendars, jigsaw puzzles and on the covers of boxed candy. It was this combination of the inherent vulgarity of war and the sloppy sentimentality of the remainder of the movie that triggered the contents of this letter.
John William’s lush music lathered the film with sweeping and rolling romantic crescendos that constantly tugged at my heartstrings. Spielberg somehow succeeds in manipulating the audience to care only about the survival of the boy and his horse despite the graphic horrors portrayed of the war, bodies of young men piled in the trenches, rats gnawing corpses, all representing the bloody and savage end of prior European civilization. There is a faint and latent message embedded in the film that perhaps if men only loved each other as much as they loved horses we would have no more wars. It contained almost all the elements I dislike and find all too common in Hollywood movies.
I will offer this review of the film by Andrew Pulver, who, in the Tuesday 20 December 2011 edition of “The Guardian”, had this to say about the “War Horse”,
“Following hard on the heels of the rousing, if charmless, ‘Adventures of Tintin’, Steven Spielberg has opted for a lachrymose, buttery treatment of the Michael Morpurgo book-then-play, which is still packing them out in the West End. The original novel is famous for its horse-viewpoint narration, while the stage version is celebrated for its puppetry; Spielberg has jettisoned both of these (relatively) adventurous devices, and tells it pretty straight. But straight doesn’t mean unvarnished. From the first swooping shots of a chocolate-boxy English countryside, this ‘War Horse’ is rooted in a buffed-up sanded-down version of rural England, where even alcohol-fuelled poverty is given a picturesque, storybook patina.”
I do appreciate that at least Pulver agrees with me on this film. I seem to have two choices in engaging the arts today. Most media in popular culture offers a variation of the sentimental to lure a big box office. The other box office strategy is the vulgarity of violence. The avant-garde in the fine arts regularly offers the vulgar, often under the cover of claiming satire, but most often merely adding to the towering modern and postmodern achievements of the vulgar. A few of the most highly successful artists in the fine arts today have managed to achieve a deadly combination of both. My aesthetic tastes and standards do not appreciate the domination of either possibility. I can tolerate elements of both present in the artifact or performance but only as counterpoints to some greater purpose or meaning. If I reject the sentimental and the vulgar as aesthetic standards, what is left for me? I do not find the vulgar offensive but rather banal when its need to shock becomes a desperate strategy.
I do often find the sentimental offensive, trying to deceive me into believing in the ultimate triumph of a happy ending that ignores the fact that we cannot escape death. Life teaches you that there are thorns even on something as beautiful as a rose bush. Sentimentality requires experiences that successfully turn past reality into today’s fiction. In this case the falsification of past life transforms present life into a romance. Sentimentality becomes the emotional cemetery for our lives, the buried memories that are awakened and sweetened with the help of stimuli created for that effect. Sentimentality wisely avoids the significant and focuses rather on those intimate experiences and relationships of personal lifetimes. To be sentimental one has to demand that your memories of the past promise to faithfully tell you loving falsehoods. Sentimentality lacks the resources to be profound. But it just might make life worth living for those of us who have known great suffering. Sentimentality often becomes a well-intentioned lie justified for the purposes of overall morale. The lie is in what is left out, the harsh and cruel aspects of the human condition. It a lie of omission, necessary for the sweet bits and pieces to triumph in the one sided presentation stacked to make you feel very, very good.
Well, I do seem to have rather definite feelings about the employment of sentimentality in the arts, don’t I? It appears that most people might well disagree with me. The film, “Warhorse” was nominated for best picture for an Oscar, although it did fail to achieve that goal. You might well think it is one of the greatest films you every saw. I need to argue a bit with myself about my critical attitude. To love is to feel sentimental. Not just at that moment of joyful revelation, but hopefully ever afterward. Children would not want parents who were not endearingly sentimental in their feelings toward them and demonstrative in displaying those feelings. Judy and I are going to have our 40th anniversary later this year in the fall. We have been planning a trip, maybe to Europe, to celebrate the occasion. I have a rich memory bank of our lives together, things we have experienced together over the years and now share in our fond recollections. These rich memories form a sentimental web that wraps around and bonds our present lives. Yes, yes, I also feel quite sentimental about my old Golden Retriever, Morris, and to remain completely candid for at least another sentence or two, even though it might weaken my argument, I absolutely adore my 19th century Royal Doulton pottery that has bright and pretty hand-painted flowers against deep blue backgrounds. Do you get the feeling that I am a bit conflicted about the whole subject?
That said, I am going to get back to critiquing sentimentality. I do get so emotional about emotions. I want to compare this sentiment with another quite popular element in our society and in our arts, and that is vulgarity. I have a deep aversion and prejudice of anything sentimental or vulgar that achieves great popular or commercial success solely because of those attributes. In our world today, too often vulgarity and sentimentality have ceased being authentic human emotions. Today the demonstration of the vulgar and the sentimental are commercial activities and these emotions and the behavior they inspire become contrived for profit in the marketplace. When something vulgar becomes successful or acceptable it stops being vulgar. When something sentimental becomes a success, it remains sentimental. Sentimentality can be bonding in forming a community of people. Vulgarity separates people and can be most divisive. The new or unusual cannot be vulgar on those grounds alone and should not alone be the cause of alienation. The greatest curse of sexism for both men and women is to charge that women are naturally sentimental and men are naturally vulgar.
Again I must retreat and reconsider my brash declarations of personal taste. Almost all great art, even including the French Impressionists, were once declared to be vulgar as compared with the traditions and practices at the time. Any innovation or change at first appears to be an insult and challenge to what went before it. Sentimentality has a generosity and kindness that can be therapeutic even though on occasion most unrealistic. Vulgarity can celebrate those essential animal lusts that are authentic sponsors of our passionate and excessive expressions. Sentimentality can be used to overly domesticate the unruly powers that make great art possible.
Some who might be amused or even perplexed that I collect pottery might charge that contemporary pottery is in itself a sentimental attempt to retrain an obsolete way of making things. Plastic is practical, modern and tough. It is only the nostalgia of yesterday – a key ingredient in sentimentality – that keeps us making and collecting something called pottery. Now, don’t get upset. You know I don’t believe that for a minute. But isn’t sentimentality a key element in ceramic traditions? Can we justify maintaining and continuing artistic legacies practiced over centuries based on such a defense of continuity and tradition? Is the only way to make pottery modern to take an abstract expressionistic approach and tear holes and punch dents in them just like you know who? (Initials P.V.) I do have some rather modern pottery in my gallery that I hesitate to pour liquids in because they might leak. Is leaking pottery just more modern and less sentimental than the old fashioned pottery that doesn’t leak? Many modernists would assert that to be sentimental is to be weak and that anything sentimental in a work of art diminishes its artistic value and rigor. But isn’t a love of humanity central to a love of the humanities? Should we be that judgmental of it’s appearance in our art and culture? Maybe I am just a softy after all.
I am not through yet with sentimentality. On to the third part…
Monday, April 2nd, 2012
The supposed difference between what is called fine arts and what is called craft, including pottery, is that the former can contain profound expressions of human thoughts and emotions while the latter, at best, can become efficient in their function as objects made with great skill and mastery of the medium. The corollary to that is that one can engage and experience human emotions while engaging painting or sculpture but cannot extract that while engaging crafted objects, and this would include pottery in particular. Do we want to challenge that idea? I don’t know about you, but I have a house full of pottery and I think one or more human emotions are embedded in some form or another in them. I can certainly locate these emotions in me as I engage and experience them. Is that because I am obviously abnormal in my obsessive love of pottery and should seek immediate therapy? Or is it because the containers themselves house one or more aesthetic elements that represent these basic emotions? Would potters, usually a modest and humble lot, claim one or more of these emotional properties present in their own pottery?
The answer to these questions is of course more obvious in ceramic sculpture, where clay is used in a figurative or even abstract construct. Here ceramic artists can claim to be a part of that long and prestigious history of sculpture as a fine art medium. I collect antique and contemporary tiles and here again a long history of visual portrayals of human activities and natural landscapes places them within a tradition of narrative that can contain visual images and symbols more easily interpreted and translated into metaphorical aspects of essential human emotions. What can a teapot tell you? How can a vase or bowl convey or arouse strong feelings? Should I even try to prove my point with a teacup and saucer of all things? Maybe I should stop this discussion right now and just give up.
The very idea of emotions has never enjoyed a good reputation in the Western World. Emotions were associated with irrational behavior while the triumph of reason in the Age of Enlightenment was considered the true emergence of mature civilization. This idea that emotions are more primitive, less intelligent, less dependent, and more dangerous and had to be controlled and governed by reason is embedded in our history and culture. Art was once considered by some to be an unstable activity that threatened the order by stimulating the emotions. Plato condemned flute music as conducive to licentiousness. I am not sure how he regarded potters back then but surely potters are at least as dangerous as flute players. I can verify that every time I walk into my pottery gallery something really intense happens with my emotions that might fully justify Plato’s concerns.
In an essay by Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins about “Emotions: An Overview” in the 2nd volume of the Oxford ‘Encyclopedia of Aesthetics’, they concluded this about the role of emotions in aesthetics,
“In contemporary aesthetics in the English-speaking world, the role of emotion is still a matter of considerable debate. Much of this debate turns on the nature of emotion, which, as this brief history suggests, is no simple matter. How we conceive of emotion depends not only on science but also on ethics, one’s conception of human nature and the good life. And to this short list we can add one’s conception of the arts and their role in the good life. Insofar as emotions are conceived as primitive, unintelligent reactions or forces, straining for release, then aesthetics will reflect the satisfications and dangers of such catharsis. On the other hand, insofar as one’s conceptions of the emotions become more complex and sophisticated, aesthetics will become more complex and sophisticated as well.”
Can craft have a sense of humor? Can there be a tragic element in pottery? Ever met a sensuous vase? Does something made of clay have to be called ‘ceramic art’ in order to possess these qualities? As with all questions I have asked you, I do not have a single or final answer. What do you think? I have always identified myself as a pottery collector. Pottery historically/traditionally has provided dependable service in the kitchen or dining room table. The function of pottery was to hold liquids and food in some essential form. Much of it continues in that noble role. I am very proud of that history and do not need to defend it here. But some people that work with clay, maybe even some who call themselves potters, do try to go beyond function, do try to integrate sentimental, tragic, sensuous or humorous elements in both the form and decoration of their work. Are some of you pottery purists who can’t accept that? I want to explore this with you, might even take a few blogs to try to sort this out. Are you with me?
Let’s approach the sentimental first. Of all these qualities, isn’t sentimentality the most often and common element present through the centuries in ceramics? Lots of pottery, from previous centuries especially, had hand-painted portrayals of sweet children or adorable animals or beautiful landscapes in ripe colors on porcelain pottery, surely enough to melt your heart. Does that give this kind of pottery a bad reputation today? In those industrial potteries in the 19th century women were restricted to painting or decorating pottery and not allowed to throw the pots themselves. Did this imply that not only was sentimentality inherent in the aesthetic taste of that time but also assumed that it was also an integral aspect of women’s nature and far easier for them to replicate on pottery?
It was of course other women in the domestic kitchens of that day that were using the pottery that their sisters in ceramic factories had decorated. Do we still think that sentimentality is thought more natural or normal for women than men? As a man, I resent the implication that a man can’t be as tender and sensitive as a woman. As an amateur gardener, I object to the fact that I have great trouble when I go shopping and find only gardening gloves and hats designed and sized for women. We now recognize that women can be and are great potters. We have made some progress in the last hundred years. Well, it works both ways. Men can be great gardeners too and why is that considered a women thing in our culture?
It is not fashionable for either men or women to be sentimental these days. For women, seeking full scope and definition of their human hood, sentimentality is a part of the old stereotype of them that held them back for so long. Some want to prove that they can be as tough and strong as any man. It is particularly important to display these qualities in the work world where they must compete with men. Many women, particularly if they are executives or elected to office, try very hard to avoid crying in public. Many men are insecure in demonstrating their feelings and emotions in public, assuming that this violation of traditional definitions of masculinity would result in damage to their manly image. Artistic activities of any kind were not always considered appropriate for ‘real men’ in the history of Anglo-Saxon societies. Perhaps men potters are considered more ‘macho’ because they can throw huge piles of clay on the wheel and are in better shape than those ‘sissy’ men artists that dab a canvas with a paintbrush. I felt this gender prejudice as a boy when I loved to paint and later as an art major in high school and as a young art major in college. Please tell me that it is long gone and buried.
I am looking around my pottery gallery right now as I sit at my desk and computer in the front of that big room and I do notice some blue vases, although offhand I can’t seem to find any pink ones. Should I assume that the blue ones were made by men or for them? Should I assume women made them if some vases have soft, pastel glazes? It gets kind of silly, doesn’t it? Yet we are talking about centuries of gender discrimination based on such ridiculous premises. Why should we assume that pottery was not impacted too? Do men and women potters escape from these limiting culture stereotypes today? Do women who purchase and collect pottery generally look for different things those men? I know many husband and wife teams of potters that work side by side in the same studio and display their work together in the same gallery. This was true in Seagrove, North Carolina where I visited late last year and was the subject of my previous three blogs here. What would they have to say about this issue of sentimentality?
I am really going to explore several rather provocative positions here. One is that the potter is no more innocent than any other maker or citizen of the republic. We are all products of a particular time and place and the orientation of the culture at that time and place is embedded in us too. If some influences are toxic or invidious, then they have to be consciously eradicated by a self-conscious purging of that cultural prejudice from our very being. Another is that the general culture impacts all of us and can contaminate, pollute, even corrupt the creative process (as well as inspire and inform it) at the potter’s wheel as well as any other site in the culture. In saying that, I would also balance that charge with full credit to the positive aesthetic and cultural influences that inspire great work and outstanding ceramics effects that are hopefully more dominant in our ceramic legacy and in your own work. As I have alluded to earlier, the chief accusation against sentimentality resides in the historic gender prejudice that it is a women’s trait and lacks the rigor and discipline of a masculine characteristic. I do not accept this idea, it is offensive to me, but it is an essential part of our history.
I am just getting warmed about the role of sentimentality and other emotions in aesthetics, craft and art. I will continue to explore the subject in the next blog.
Tuesday, November 1st, 2011
I have often stated that I have a passionate affection for pottery. It is indeed in the very title of this series of blogs. I must confess, and I know my wife, Judy, will be relieved, that I have never felt real passion for a potter. I know this will disappoint, if not devastate some of my potter friends. Don’t get me wrong. I am really very, very fond of a number of potters I have known for many years. It is a special delight to realize that beautiful pots often come from the same kind of person. I would like to feel that it would be unlikely that a truly beautiful ceramic object could come from a truly unlikable person but I might be a bit naive if I made that declaration. How do potters get along with other potters? Is there a natural rivalry and competition for my attention? Again I will remain within the romance of my illusions, not wanting to know those things that could disillusion me in this regard. Maybe it is a good thing that I don’t take the potter home with the pot. With all that energy it takes to make pots, they probably eat a bit more than the average person and they might find out where I hide my scotch
In my 30th letter from my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters From a Collector to a Studio Potter”, I discuss my relationship to pot and potter,
“Christa, do I communicate with the potter when I gaze onto the pot? After the point of purchase, the potter does not go home with the pot. Yet I do interact with the author of the text. I question the implied assertion, accept and slide inside the style, hoping to catch the rhythm and mannerisms of language and metaphor. I accompany the author’s journey and surface her argument, seeking knowledge and wisdom for my own purposes. I never surrender my independence, but provide a leap of faith that must eventually be rewarded. To answer my earlier question, I do think I engage the potter as vigorously as the author of the written text; seek to discover the creator’s intention, to locate those imaginative deviations that mark originality, to place the object in context. The potter, fresh in the miraculous creation of the pot, might immediately claim a unique status for that object unmatched in previous ceramic history. As collector and perceiver, I must humble the pot by placement in a communal context that attaches that object to my world. The company of other pottery in my collection does not represent a hierarchy, but does teach that no individual pot or potter has a monopoly on creativity or aesthetic accomplishment.
What is the difference in my relationship to pot and potter? As a friend, you are always welcome in my home. I would even extend that invitation to all the potters represented in my collection. As host, I would try to provide my potter friends with food, drink and exposure to my beloved collection, home and garden. Your pot, in contrast, would join my family. I would take responsibility for the care and safety of that object. Accepted and housed, the pottery cannot cause me pain or disappointment. People are more volatile and uncertain in their possible behavior. This does not diminish the value and need of love and respect for family and friends. The risk is greater. As a teacher, my rewards were in the engagement with students. Whatever the differing degrees of anxiety, I still seek out and enjoy friends and family, the pot and potter. The creation and appreciation of pottery is a manifestation of the complexity and virtue of human beings and human culture. These gifts of the human hand encourage my contact and appreciation of people. I do not have to make a choice. Revealed insecurities do not embarrass me. I consider myself self-sufficient, social interaction does not come from concerns about individual isolation. Reading and art do not require the company of others. The sources of my life preferences and habits can be traced to the origins of my existence. A virtue becomes operational when it successfully compensates for the more obvious inadequacy. It is the inadequacies that give me humanity, it is the virtues that give me grace. Whatever virtuous habits I do possess, including the love of reading and pottery, they reflect both the joys and pain of a long life. I have no reason for complaint.”
I must admit I do so enjoy reading what I have written in the past. I am especially impressed if the portion I re-read was published as text on a printed page from a book with my name on it. Is there an author who would not admit what I have just confessed? Yes, yes, I do occassionaly re-read a passage I have written from my book and am a bit embarrassed and wish I could do it over. Is it similar to how a potter feels about their own work? Surely there must be a surge of pride when you walk into a gallery and see you work on exhibit? Can ceramic artists gaze on their own work and not admire it? I fully understand the high demands and standards artists or writers make of themselves, never fully satisfied and always seeking to improve. I too feel that when I write and will indeed often go back and revise and try to improve a sentence or paragraph. Sometimes it’s a single word I change, sometime a complete sentence, sometimes I simply delete a paragraph and start over. As a collector I am constantly moving my pottery around, always seeking to improve the arrangement of ceramic objects. Sometimes after moving a single object from one shelf to another, or even just turning it around to the side formerly facing the wall, I marvel at what a difference it makes and wonder why I didn’t do it years ago.
In the quote above, I try to explore the idea that I place a single pot in the company of other pots in my home that are initially strangers to that pot. Do potter’s like that idea? That a collector sticks their pot alongside pots from many different potters? Could your pot get lost on that shelf with twenty or more other pots of mine? In a gallery like I have with several hundred other pots all around it? Have you ever been to a collector’s house and seen a pot of yours and your heart sank because you believe it was in the wrong space and with associated in close placement with the wrong pots? I feel that all my pots are equally presented and displayed. I honestly don’t play favorites but rather enjoy all my pots. Admittedly I will sometimes spend a bit more time with a few pots for a day or two, enjoying the discovery of features that I had not fully perceived before in those particular objects. But if a parent would never confess a favorite among their children, surely you would not expect that kind of confession from me. Some pots seem to attract attention because of their size or rather spectacular shape or glaze. Sometimes I am in the mood to fully appreciate that bravado display but there are other times that the subtle variations of a smaller or more refined pot brings other kinds of aesthetic rewards. No, I don’t play favorites and that is the end of that.
I like the idea of placing pots in close proximity that are very different in character and type. For instance, maybe an antique pot that displays a highly disciplined and traditional character sits next to a contemporary pot with maybe a more outlandish attitude; a pot from an indigenous potter showing its local or regional distinction sits next to a highly sophisticated pot no doubt from a potter with at least an MFA from Alfred or some other distinguished institution. I also place ceramic animals from various sources among my pots, plates, cups and other kinds of vessels. I mix them all up, wanting to feature a central claim that I have always made as a collector – that human creativity and genius is not limited to one group or nation or culture – but is inherent and embedded in all groups, nations and cultures. It is this amazing diversity and infinite variety in the ways that diverse personalties and groups express themselves that proves the glory of the hand-created ceramic artifact and comprises convincing evidence of the rich achievements of human culture. I must also claim that all my ceramic objects eventually become friends with each other, relate to each other by their shared space, and compliment each other by their very differences, all coexisting and cooperating in my domestic community of ceramic objects.
I discuss this very idea in this except from my 41st letter from my book,
“This process of haphazard appropriation is essential for my temperament. It was not by accident that my MA thesis was on collage, the collection of disparate and discarded elements at one place on a two dimensional surface. The meaning comes later, after the relationships among the newly situated elements become more obvious. Placement and context invite improbable and novel relationships and alliances. It is difficult to be self-conscious and knowledgeable about the patterns of placement of ideas within my own active mentality. Multiple influences impact me, yet are filtered through a resistant and stubborn persona that eventually takes credit for any summary or results. It is difficult to calibrate or assess their consequence in my behavior. Yet there is a continuity to my attitude toward a number of things. The placement of my pottery within my collection is overt and visible. I do create a visual and physical collage with my pottery, an original composition that occupies each room and all the items within that room.”
Can collectors claim a moral imperative in what they do? After all, isn’t collecting the very essence of a selfish act? I buy art and craft and it becomes my personal property and I take it home where I lock the doors of my home every night before I go to bed. My home is my private space, not a public one. All those artifacts, over 1,200 of them, are reserved for me, my family and invited friends to enjoy. How can I weave a convincing story that changes this reality to a noble one? In this next and last excerpt from my book, taken from my 44th letter, I talk about stewardship and what it means to me. I am totally sincere about this role and responsibility and will continue to argue that the protection and preservation of our cultural legacies is as important as the protection and preservation of our environment. At a time in our society when there is a profound gulf between the pursuit of individual private profit and the collective attainment of civic welfare, this might be a difficult argument to make credible.
“Stewardship is another concept from the environmental literature that has great meaning for this collector. I care about things -I care for things – a grove of oak trees, the pottery in every room of my house. Stewardship is always brief – a lifetime or less, an essentially transient obligation that must be ultimately transferred to others. What we seek to cherish and maintain is under constant threat and carries a finite term of existence due to the mortal limitations of nature or the incidental accidents of history. We seek to lengthen and prolong that existence, believing in their sacred and irreplaceable properties. Nature has inherent recovery systems and can renew itself if our abuse of nature can be discouraged and finally denied. Our cultural traditions and treasures are more fragile. Our devotion demands heroic resistance to those forces that would threaten the endangered subjects under our care. Here the collector can claim a moral function, similar to those who seek to protect the natural environment. It springs from an altruistic dedication that transcend self and self profit, inspired by a transcendent love for the highest attainments of the species, of human civilization.”
I plan to continue this discussion at least in the next few blogs. Summers are interior months for me. Perhaps an hour or two early in the morning in my garden, then a hasty retreat to my air-conditioned house. I read an article or two about global warming in one of my journals while on my exercise bike this morning. Summer is not a good time for me to read articles on global warming. I reach out to a few vases for reassurance and they are still cool to the touch. It seems we are living at a time right now when systems are breaking down – natural, cultural and economic systems. Collectors needs stability as much as investors do. The maintenance of various systems are now global and require intimate cooperation because we have somehow all become interdependent.
Maybe it’s the hot weather impacting my morale but right now I huddle with Judy and my pots within the refuge of our home, uncertain in a world that seems to be growing ever more uncertain around me. I cannot compare my time to the turmoil and tragedy of Edmund de Waal’s family as discussed in Part 2 blog in this series. That story took place in the context of the previous century. The tides of history do not always predict an easy time or guarantee everyone a happy ending. De Waal’s book did demonstrate one thing, collections have their own unique history. This history includes the succession of people who care for them. In contrast to his story of the Japanese netsuke, my pottery collection is still young in its rather brief history and certainly younger than this old collector and blog writer who finds so much joy in taking care of them.
Sunday, September 25th, 2011
I am quite aware that many potters are also collectors. Some potters also write in addition to creating ceramic art and collecting. British ceramic artist Edmund de Waal is one of the most distinguished of the potters/writers/collectors today. He has written several important books regarding ceramics, including “Bernard Leach” and “Twentieth Century Ceramics”. He has had many important exhibits and installations of his ceramic work, including the Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Britain. In the last few years he has assembled multiple ceramic vases of his in compositions that occupy large spaces in galleries and museums. As I continue this discussion about collecting, I would like to share with you a book of his that I am currently reading. The title of his latest book is “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss”.
Here de Waal tells the story of his descendents, a fabulously wealthy Jewish family in the 19th century, with huge mansions in several major cities of Europe, great masterpiece paintings on the walls of these vast palaces, villas in the most plush mountain and sea resorts, and scores of servants to attend to their every need. Among the treasures collected by members of the family was a group of antique wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. These objects were Japanese netsuke and they form the central spine of this book. Despite the devastation and chaos of World War I, Hitler and World II, this collection was handed down from generation to generation and finally to Edmund de Waal. While their world was being destroyed and many family members were tragically eliminated in the holocaust along with millions of other Jews in Europe, those 264 objects somehow survived intact.
In an article de Waal wrote in the Saturday Guardian 29.05.10, he explains more about his collection,
“I have 264 netsuke: street vendors, beggars and monks, rat catchers, dogs, lovers, a woman and an octopus, an elderly lady on an elderly horse, a witch trapped in a temple bell, a persimmon about to split, a hare with amber eyes. It is a very big collection of very small objects. I pick one up and turn it round in my fingers, weigh it in the palm of my hand. If it is wood, chestnut or elm, it is even lighter than the ivory. You see the patina more easily on these wooden ones; there is a faint shine on the spine of the brindled wolf and on the tumbling acrobats locked in their embrace. The ivory ones come in shades of cream, every colour, in fact but white. A few have inlaid eyes of amber or horn. Some of the older ones are slightly worn away: the haunch of the faun resting on leaves has lost its markings. There is a slight split, an almost imperceptible fault line on the cicada. Who dropped it? Where and when?”
This is truly a fine book by a great ceramic artist about his legendary family and that special collection whose responsibility for preservation and care he now assumes. Unlike de Waal, I do not come from a family of collectors. There was little or nothing of value to pass down. My grandfather on my father’s side was a shoe salesman, on my mother’s side her father was a bartender who became rather wealthy and owned several valuable properties in downtown Los Angeles that his sons lost during the Great Depression. I have two brothers and they do not collect anything but the usual household goods and appliances. So my obsession with collecting ceramics must be a unique trait that cannot be traced by genes or attitude back through my family ancestors. Indeed I may well be the first and last collector in my family. I know that someday this will be very bad news for all the potters now dependent upon me for their lavish lifestyle but that’s the way it is.
I want to offer you another quote about collecting from my book. This comes from my 22nd letter, November 24, 2003,
“Is there some relationship between my love of trees and pots? Both face the same challenge. In this very practical and pragmatic society, trees and pottery need to justify their existence and value to survive. Both are endangered species. I once tried to save a grove of Oak trees in my community by justifying their value; the lower temperatures by providing shade, the filtering and cleaning of air, reduced need for air conditioning, etc. I lost that struggle. The oak grove was destroyed. Pottery can pour beverages, hold food, receive liquids and hold flowers. So can plastic cups and plates from Wal-Mart. We must try to provide more convincing arguments. I love trees and pots for other reasons. I experience them. The sheer sensual beauty of a tree; the Jacaranda in my front garden where I sit on a bench in its soft shade, see and hear the movement of wind through the moving leaves, sway of branches, sunlight filtered through the tall trunk and branches. The creative form of the pot, elegant in its length and shape, cascades of colored glazes in subtle patterns, striking designs that represent natural or geometric origins. Why is that value not more convincing or conclusive in this society? What will happen to my trees and pottery after I am gone? Their destiny should not depend on my partisan or personal support, but their intrinsic significance to any worthy quality of existence.”
Like de Waal’s netsuke, some of my pottery has a very long and unknown history before I acquired them. How did that German Mettlach antique Griffin vase, quite beautiful with such detailed precision and vivid colors in the shape of the mythical animal, get that severe break at the base that was so clumsily repaired? I am sure that this visible repair was the only reason I won the rather low bid on ebay and obtained it. I had to pay a considerable shipping expense because I had purchased it from someone in Australia. How did that antique German vase get to Australia? Every object has a story to tell but most of them we will never know. I can see it right now from my desk in the pottery gallery, the neck of the vase also the neck of the griffin, his head at the very top with an open mouth and his wings in back, his paws clutching the side of the rounded belly in the front of the vase.
Or how about that British Royal Doulton biscuit jar with the silver plated lid and handle that dates from 1881-1892? I don’t think we use biscuit jars in Glendora anymore, if we ever did. I am not sure we eat that many biscuits anymore either, having several donut shops in the area. Times changes but these objects stand still – just like that Jacaranda tree I was talking about above. I am sure you don’t want this old man to lament the cruel changes that have occurred in his lifetime without his permission. Maybe that’s why I go into my pottery gallery so often and stay so long. Nothing changes except when I want it to – and then only the movement of a vase from one shelf to make room for yet another pot just purchased. That’s enough change for me right now. My pots and I are frozen in an unbreakable embrace, locked within my home and gallery, safe and secure in our timeless pursuit of a durable beauty. Surely, unlike de Waal’s family, no foreign army will invade me, no adversaries will seek to take my collection away from me. You see, we collectors have so much to worry about and such heavy responsibilities to protect and preserve those things we love and collect.
I want to provide you now with another excerpt from my book about collecting. This is from my 28th letter, dated June 7, 2004,
“What is not prerequisite for me is the technical knowledge involved in the construction of the piece. I do not need to know the firing temperature of the kiln or the chemical mixture of the glaze, nor have the skill to throw a pot to engage the finished artifact with great benefit. It is the aesthetic engagement that is new and unique on each occasion. Even approaching the same pot daily, it is never quite the same. I am never exactly in the same condition, what has happened to me just before and since the last time I encountered the pot. The pot changes with the light, reveals portions once shaded; seems to shine with greater intensity, modesty abandoned and brazen in its beauty; then, depending on the time of day, withdraws, once again sublime in its continuing mystery. Still the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself. This community of intent and appearance remains general, you still need to stop and look at the individual pot for an experience that cannot be predicted by known class, category, or type.”
How can I justify the acquisition of all that pottery over years without becoming an expert on how pottery is made? I wonder if potters really understand that I have an aesthetic interest in their pots, not a technical one? When I indicate I wish to purchase a pot, many potters in the past have tried to explain to me how they made it. I do attempt to remain polite, even nod my head, but these are things I simply do not wish to know. Does that ignorance of the essential knowledge of how a ceramic artifact is created limit me to a superficial level of understanding and appreciation? Do gourmets who love great cuisine have to know how it was prepared (or even able to prepare it themselves)? Does a connoisseur of really fine wines have to understand the complex procedures necessary for it to arrive in the wine goblet shortly before sipping? I want my experience with pottery to be a cultural event, not a lesson in the chemistry of the glaze or the process of hand and tool manipulation of clay on the potter’s wheel. Would my attitude annoy some potters? I hope not.
What do I mean in the quote above by “the pot belongs to families of relationships greater than itself?” This has to do with the complex issues that I have discussed in this blog and in my other writings over the years. They bring forth such issues as attempting to maintain a craft whose functional capacities as vessels have modern alternatives in materials such as plastic that threaten to replace them; a postmodern art market that seems to privilege the remnants of manufactured debris as assembled art rather than a hand-crafted artifact as object; and the onslaught of electronic means to design artifacts that do not require the direct manipulation of the human hand. All this takes place within dynamic cultures that are currently being shaped by the fluctuation in a globalized economy that values quantity over quality; in economies that prize the disposable product as the most dependable source of continued profit. All these contemporary issues are only the current manifestations of the long history of ceramics as a primary activity and legacy going back to the origins of human civilizations.
I assume that what I contribute to the discussion as formulated above is of value to potters. I have reason to be confident of that because over the years many potters have communicated their support and appreciation for my efforts. The placement and integration of ceramics as a significant contribution in the wider patterns of cultural and aesthetic meaning provide my chief interest and essential motivation. In a sense that is what collectors do in their actual behavior. I literally take ceramic objects and place and integrate them in my home in original compositions of forms and color. The arrangement of multiple objects within interior space requires a pattern of intention and design. I create and organize the rooms of my house with ceramic objects as the central resource. That is what a collector does.
I have more to say about these themes and will continue to explore them in the next blog…
Thursday, September 1st, 2011
I am going to take the next few blogs to explore my thoughts and feelings during the last 35 years of my life as a collector of pottery. I recently went through my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter” and pulled out all the references I could find that relate to collecting pottery. Actually this passionate obsession of mine that has resulted in nearly a thousand ceramic artifacts housed in my modest cottage was a central theme of the book. Are potters really interested in collectors? I mean besides the profit derived from the sale of pottery to them? I want you to love me for myself, not just the contents of my wallet or bank account. Do you care about what we do with your pot after we buy it? Do you act toward those who purchase your pottery like any store clerk would act in making a sale from behind the counter? Is it just another commercial transaction or can this contact between pottery and collector also bring a kind of communication and relationship that in itself can be rewarding and deeply felt? Can our mutual roles as advocates of pottery play a vital role in defending and preserving ceramic art?
I go to a lot of craft fairs and pottery exhibits, often seeing the same potters that I have seen before. Many of them remember me and some don’t. The ones that remember me tend to be the ones from whom I have purchased more than one pot over the years. Some potters have become friends over those same years. I even occasionally send a letter I have just finished writing to a potter as a personal gift. They make pots and I write letters, both creative acts that require different skills and talents. As I have often stated before, perhaps in one of these blogs, I believe that the aesthetic act of engaging the ceramic artifact is as complex and demanding as the creative act of making it. This is what I have spent most of my lifetime honing and developing. I am still seeking at this late date to further deepen and develop this capacity to fully experience the object before me.
I would like to feel that the maker and the collector are natural partners, even collaborators in working to assure that there is a future for ceramic art and that the creation of the ceramic artifact remains as one the core activities at the heart of human civilization. I have developed my voice in order to articulate these views as a writer. This accumulation of excerpts from several years of writing letters to a potter is my tribute to the work potters create and to the contributions they have made throughout centuries of ceramic achievements. Through a collector’s voice, these letters give testimony to pottery as passion and pottery as property. There is an irony here. I have epiphanies of joy as I experience them aesthetically and take delight in them. But I am also the custodian of these physical objects and so have developed a rigorous routine of caring for the pottery as material property. Long ago I decided to take responsibility for their care, trying to preserve my pottery for the next generation and after. I am the willing docent and curator for those ceramic treasures that find their way to my home. I take that role very seriously. To see me dusting my pottery, while not exactly poetry in motion, waving my long handled dusting wand and caressing each object and the shelf around it, forms a unique choreography and a most unusual dance for this old man totally unlike my behavior on any other occasion.
I am going to begin with my very first letter, dated July 31, 2002 and mailed to Christa Assad, the young potter I had recently met at her gallery/studio in San Francisco. This initial mailing occurred almost five years before the first forty letters to her were published as a book. Here it is,
“I have always been a risk taker, and at this point perhaps you might think this communication somewhat eccentric. Even intrusive in seeking some exchange beyond the commercial transaction that is the only evidence of our previous relationship. In your note you indicate appreciation for supporting your career. However modest that support, I do acknowledge that it is a function from which I derive much satisfaction. I do think your pot was worthy of my purchase – and I am pleased that you directly benefited – but again self-interest played an important part. I do not mean some calculated financial investment for future gain – indeed I frankly do not care if your career eventually inflates the value of that vase. Nor do I celebrate the acquisition of a commodity that increases the inventory of my private possessions. Your pot contributes daily to the enrichment of my domestic life. I house it in order to meet it each day. The true aesthetics of art do not reside in highly refined and esoteric discussions of critics and academics. The engagement of an artifact with human sensibilities is a pedestrian and ordinary event – I wash the dishes, take out the trash, and engage my pottery. They are all necessary actions and behavior to maintain my life and sanity.”
As you can see, I wanted to establish the fact that what I had purchased in her studio was not just another commodity to fill up some space on a shelf in my home. Rather these objects, housed in a domestic setting, were vital elements in a quality of life that had the transformative and compelling ability to enrich my very existence. At the same time, by placing them in my home, not a museum or gallery, they were my daily companions and their presence made them family members. The amazing grace of pottery is that its lacks a pretentious and inflated self-importance. Pottery is precious to me but remains the common accomplices of my ordinary, everyday life.
In my third letter, dated August 17, 2002, I talk a bit about my motivations in collecting pottery and the fact that I do not actually use most of them in my kitchen or dining room but rather place them throughout the house as objects of pure delight. I know a lot of potters who make functional pottery are disappointed that I don’t actually use them as intended. I do of course use some for their intended purpose as plates, mugs, and vases. But also in these letters I try to make the case that they have sufficient aesthetic value that they don’t need to justify their existence by having just a utilitarian role. Beautiful pottery well made and a delight to observe has every right to be celebrated on their own intrinsic merits as works of art and craft. Here is a brief excerpt from my third letter,
“What is the fate of the pot? You make them and I collect them. What responsibilities does the potter and the collector have to the pot? I do not pour from them, few rarely hold flowers. Containers without content – objects without objectives. They sit in rows on shelves, splendid and quiet friends who make little demands of me and reward me each day by their very existence. No rare trophy pieces here for investment purposes, rather an electric and inclusive collection that documents my great affection for hand made craft. I partially justify my collection by offering custodial protection. They are safe. I dust them weekly and bravely await the next California earthquake, knowing that museum wax secures them to the shelf. I have an alarm system and punch in the numbers on the small keyboard on the hallway wall each time I leave the premises. I do not know what this says about our culture, or the low state of the criminal mind, but I suspect that thieves would sooner swipe silverware and computers. I take caution anyway, assuming their might be the one criminal with good taste in the vicinity.
And, by God, I do enjoy them. I invite in neighborhood children and take them on tours of the cottage. Each pot has a story of acquisition, many in some far-off land. Each pot contains memories of associations with people and places that form the vita of my last twenty five years on earth. At some point, I don’t remember when, they replaced the camera snapshots that used to record my adventures in the world. Some are antiques, and like a true Californian, I join their youthful reverence at anything over twenty five years old. I assert to my young charges that indeed some are even older than me, and despite their incredulous response, share their wonder at these objects who preexisted before our time and who might survive after our demise. Like the California Redwood tree, ceramics has historic durability that is not typical in our disposable consumer culture.”
I am a modest and humble collector. I never had a vast personal fortune to spend on purchasing pottery. I am not a retired CEO of some big corporation. I was a school teacher, later a professor at a state university. For the last 15 years I have been retired, spending much of our discretionary income on pottery. We live primarily on my pension, social security, a bit of money stored away in a tax sheltered annuity accumulated when I was a professor. I have distinguished ancestors in the long history of legendary collectors. I must compete for glory with the Popes of the Holy Roman church, European kings of vast empires, the nobility and members of the landed aristocracy, wealthy robber barons of the 19th century, generals and their armies who looted countries under their occupation in various wars, and industrialists who used their vast fortunes from ownership of railroads, gold mines or oil to purchase vast warehouses of artistic riches to fill their vast mansions. Then there is me and my cottage in Glendora. I have indeed the ability and resources to occasionally invest in an antique teapot or a ceramic vessel from a contemporary potter and have done so with great pride.
Is collection a pathology? Some kind of sickness that results in an obsessive need to collect beyond any reasonable need to do so? How can I explain and defend this primary activity of mine over the years? Here is what I said in my 9th letter, dated November 30, 2002.
“I do not need to justify my motivation. I know a need from a want. I want pottery because I have an obligation to support human imagination and creativity in a world where human destruction and tragedy often appears to be triumphal. I need pottery because I am daily enhanced and enriched by the presence of pottery within the domestic chambers of my family life. Surely history proves that art is an endemic activity shared by all groups. I can only offer my own testimony and experience that the celebration and appreciation of art is as natural and necessary as its creation. Collecting cannot be explained, since it is not a rational pursuit and depends on an unlikely duality – obsession with beauty and a lust for private ownership of beautiful things. Bankruptcy becomes a distant danger if this obsession cannot be controlled. Who can tell you when you have enough French Impressionist paintings or sufficient pots? When is enough really enough? The finite shelf or wall space in your home cannot be the measurement of your appetite. That would represent a cruel limitation. Mortality is the great unspoken curse of the collector. The inevitable approach of that mortality sharpens the race, a monopoly of some category of art must be achieved before you falter and weaken, this is the great contest that energizes memorable collectors. It is simply good sportsmanship to donate the collection when your demise becomes evident and unavoidable. I must be realistic. There are no collectors genetic link in succeeding generations of family members. I will pass on to them the pots, but cannot provide them the passion for collecting them.”
I have a lot more to discuss with you about how we collectors make our way in the world and how we approach the maker and the artifact created by the maker. In the end, I can only speak from my own idiosyncratic view. I am afraid there is as much diversity and differences among collectors as among ceramic artists. Summer is a good time to appreciate one’s collection. It is too hot right now to go out in my garden. I stay inside and walk the corridors and rooms of my home. I have much to see and engage on the shelves of these rooms. I really do think a collector’s lot in these circumstances can be a very happy one.
Saturday, July 30th, 2011
It is apparent I do not privilege the new over the old. It is also apparent that I do not uncritically celebrate technological triumphalism posing as our salvation. Technology serves the reality that invents and owns it. Since it fortunately cannot exercise its own judgment, the disposal of its use is left to those who control the economy and can thus manipulate the technology. If that authority cannot be seriously questioned or challenged, than technology becomes the accomplices of arbitrary authority and can be used to exploit those workers that end up in the workplace as the accessories of some kind of machinery. The modern office building too often consist of floors of workers trapped in tiny cubicles in constant contact with computers that program their daily work chores. Has modern technology liberated us or has it simply replaced previous machinery with more efficient machinery? Are we really the masters of this new technology or are we in reality the servants of it?
By now you must realize that I am not neutral in this discussion. It is not only artists and craftspeople who must choose between these two ways of living, but all of us have a disposition that favors one or the other. As a pottery collector, I would like to think that you could observe a wide array of pottery in my home that does not favor just one aesthetic but is diverse and eclectic in the full range of possibilities. But in my heart of hearts I do so enjoy the eccentric if not excessive display of a highly refined but exuberant form of creative expression.
Is there an inherent rivalry and hostility between subjective and objective approaches to life and art? Would one try to find the poetic soul of a poet by taking an X-ray in order to find the location of their expression? I don’t think so. One could locate Kansas on a map but surely not the world of Oz. Was one more real for Dorothy than the other? All art requires some portion of imagination. The realist must subtract extraneous elements to reach the essence of the observed reality while romantics must add their own elaboration to reality, or even escape that reality and create a new world of their own. Both approaches require interpretations. No two realists, however devoted to depicting the actual reality, are going to come up with exactly the same reality in their work. Romantics do not have to worry about fidelity to reality but insist upon an individuality that encourages them to develop unique expressions and results.
How do we find out if the ‘common sense’ of the culture or the dominant definitions supplied by those in power really comprises reality? If reality is just the way things are done because that is the way things have always seemed to have been done, why should we trust those conventions as representations of an invariant reality? If the way most people think and make sense of things reflects the common intellectual habits of the general population, why should we mistake these customs of thought as though it constituted the only possibilities of an immutable reality? It is the sober, solid façade of how things just seem to be that provides inspiration for original and creative thinkers and artists to overthrow them. While physical reality and even mechanical reality might indeed be fixed in certain prearranged patterns of physical stability, cultural and social reality is created and revised by those people who do not defer to it but act upon it. Artists cannot be such cultural conformists that they create only the most banal and mediocre results.
One of the most influential art institutions in the early 20th century makes an interesting case study of the competing poles of realism and romanticism as the basis for curricula and instruction. I am referring to the Bauhaus; the German art school started in 1919 and closed in 1933 as Hitler seized total power in Germany. The very nature and definition of modernism in the 20th century was highly influenced by this institution, however brief its duration. In the first volume of the Oxford “Encyclopedia of Aesthetics”, in an essay by Detlef Mertins, the historical context of the founding of the Bauhaus by Walter Gropius was provided,
“Responding to the Enlightenment imperative to rethink art and architecture in relation to the authority of reason and sensation, modern aesthetics harbored a reformist agenda that required the simultaneous de-education and retraining of artists and audiences alike. By 1900, the powerful desire for a new and broadly generalizable art and architecture – nonmimetic, organic, and objective – had aligned itself with several aspects of modernization that has taken up aspects of the aesthetic project. The founding of the German Werkbund in 1907 gave momentum to Germany’s acceptance of industrialization for manufacturing in the decorative and applied arts, under way since the early 1890’s. It served to link the applied arts and architecture and redefined culture and society in relation to mechanical production. At the same time, scientist-aestheticians, offered scientific explanations of human perception and aesthetic experience that became a new foundation for the arts, reinforcing emerging preoccupations with abstraction, elementary form, color, contrast, rhythm, and geometric mediation. Assuming the authority of science for the project of aesthetic retraining would be the counterpart to the reform of subjectivity and everyday life made necessary by the psychological, physiological, and nervous trauma engendered by modernization and metropolitanization.”
As Mertin explains this pedagogical development, it included elements that belonged both to the German romantic legacy and to the ongoing modernization brought by the industrial revolution and continued technological advances. The constant counterpart of this uneasy relationship was reflected in the organization and conduct of the Bauhaus. A part of this emerging approach was influenced by such pedagogical pioneers as Heinrich Pestalozzi, Friedrich Frobel, and Maria Montessori, who placed great importance on bringing out children’s inherent gifts through a guided process of active learning through varies of student activities. Art education became a significant element of promoting inner discipline by providing greater outward freedom. Looking back now, it might seem improbable to us that this combination of emphasis on scientific objectivity and student creativity could ever be reconciled and integrated into a single educational program. It was indeed a merger of opposites that came together at the Bauhaus and one was destined to triumph over the other.
The conflict between the appointed pedagogue Johannes Itten and the director Walter Gropius demonstrated the split and conflict between realism and romanticism at the Bauhaus. Mertin describes this as follows,
“A split between Gropius and Itten emerged at the end of 1921 over differences in philosophy brought to the fore by Itten’s increasing influence. The quasi-religious aura around him had attracted a strong following among students, and the centrality of his teaching and workshop responsibilities began to rival that of the director. Itten focused exclusively on the self-discovery and empowerment of the students and eschewed the notion of art as a preliminary to the design of commodities. He had no commitment to craft training for the artist and took Gropius’s desire to bring actual projects into the workshops as damaging of the quietude and harmony necessary for creative expression. For Gropius, on the other hand, this was essential for re-grounding art and architecture, integrating theory and practice, and maintaining support from government sponsors. Itten’s teaching also lacked any systematic theory of structure, pictorial space, or composition. His mystic privileging of subjective expression led to criticism by influential outsiders who introduced the discourse of objectivity and collective societal expression then emerging among the European avant-garde, which became important to post-Expressionist art and architecture during the mid-1920s.”
How do we rescue the poetic metaphor and the creative impulses from association with those reactionary forces who would manipulate subjective feelings to destroy instead of create? Can the same emotional force that provides our love of beauty and art also lead to the glorification of the warrior and war, the hatred of the foreigner and alien? We know that art has been employed and still is employed to further totalitarian and violent regimes of suppression. What are the inherent virtues of objectivity when employed with intelligence and integrity? What are the inherent virtues of subjectivity when employed with intelligence and integrity? What are the dangers of both when employed by people without virtue and intelligence? I cannot continue this division of the two much longer. I am convinced that significant intellectual and artistic achievements contain integrated elements of both kinds of knowing and feeling. Likewise I am sure that scientists would also claim that their work consists of imaginative and intuitive leaps and insights as well as empirical methods and objective evidence.
The same site can sponsor realistic and romantic responses. Nature has been both the bountiful site of scientific discoveries and the stuff of romanticist images and soulful poems of wonder. God has been found in the glory of nature and yet biology and other scientific disciplines also lay claim to the same place. The emerging science of environmentalism exists side by side with literary hymns to the beauties of nature. We have the legacy of the creation myths and stores of origin that mark so many indigenous cultures coexisting with scientific research that has unearthed the empirical evidence of how that natural world works and have evolved. Do we have to disprove one in order to believe the other? Are poets simply unreliable and given to hyperbole and exaggeration in their depiction of nature or do scientists lack the grace and imagination to make lyric what they instead state in their dry, often turgid prose? Can you give me one example where the objective and subjective ways of making meaning work together in friendly partnership? Would you offer your own ceramic work as an example?
I do try to maintain the pretense that I can bridge most things, portable in my ability to move past boundaries, divisions and taxonomies in my cosmic interests in all things. I think I have unwittingly shrunk the parameters of that pretense a bit in this letter. I do have preferences and pick and choose on the basis of those preferences. I do have prejudices and resist those things that do not bring me pleasure. Just another example, I prefer the cello or violin to the human voice. Think what that means in terms of my musical taste. I know, I know, I don’t know what I am missing. I would like to think that what I don’t like is a result of my sophisticated taste in those things I do like; after all you can’t like everything. But I fear what I don’t like has more to do with my inherent limitations. It isn’t so much I don’t like mathematics or science; the truth is I can’t really comprehend the specialized complexity of science or mathematics. Is everything people don’t like really because they can’t comprehend it or do it? How can I be a romantic hero to myself if I am a romantic only because I can’t do realism? It is indeed fortunate for me that melancholy remains a perfectly acceptable state for the romantic.
I invite you to join me in my garden and walk with me to view my assembled pottery in the rooms of my cottage. My house and garden form the romance of my life. Its eccentric existence in an inherently unfriendly world requires a realistic assessment of those cultural forces that provide implicit support and those that threaten it. I am fully capable of providing that critique. Finally I know by now what makes me happy. I cannot dismiss the possibility that all I value might be as perishable as I am and could meet their decline and demise about the same time I do. I am resolved not to let that spoil things for me right now. At my age I am grateful for the hopeful prospect of reaching tomorrow.