Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter
Posts Tagged ‘reading’
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.
Tuesday, July 5th, 2011
Realism vs. Romanticism
Who do you trust and depend upon the most in your own ceramic work – your head or your heart? Can you separate these two things and choose one over the other as the dominant force in your ceramic work? What exactly do they mean in terms of your life and your ceramic art? These ideas are embedded in the essence and history of Western art. We can trace the dual legacies of romanticism and realism in that history and find many of the competing strands of their perspectives. We would, of course, associate the head with realism and the heart with romanticism. Let me make it clear that this has more significance and meaning then just as an art technique or attitude toward creating art. These ideas impact the very way you live in the world and make sense of it. Observers of your ceramic art might place your work within one or the other of these categories. Where would you put your work? Maybe some of us would like to think that we bridge those differences and are capable of both kinds of behavior and both ways of being in the world. You might claim that you can access both head and heart in your crafting of the ceramic object.
Others of you might be far more partisan and claim that one of these approaches is vastly superior to the other. Romantics might claim that it is the lyrical expression of feeling, the vivid personal passion that inspires their creative process and achieves great art. Passionate love, including erotic and sensuous love, is the very engine of the human personality. Much of 19th century literature and art in Western Europe would claim that view. Isn’t it evident in the differences between the delights of poetry and the flat prose of a newspaper? The poet can celebrate the beauty and joys of life and nature. But on the other hand I would prefer journalists who write for newspapers or TV news to get their facts straight and not go off in fanciful fiction. For journalists, their integrity is dependent upon their rigorous presentation of what they know to be objectively true. For most poets, that approach would completely stifle their creative process. Maybe romantics belong in certain creative arenas and realists belong in fields that depend upon accuracy and precision in their fidelity to reporting what they see and experience. I think I would prefer a brain surgeon to be a realist instead of a romanticist if I was about to undergo brain surgery.
The HeArt of Technology
Romanticism was a hostile reaction first to the growing secularism that came out of the Enlightenment that so highly valued objective rationality, later it reacted to the growth of science and its application in various technologies that sponsored the industrial revolution. Technology has been the traditional enemy of the romantic. The machine for the romantic has been perceived as the adversary of the artist. In what ways has technology served your creative work? Could you explain and convince others that the human hand can do things with clay that a machine could never do? The industrial potteries of the 19th century were organized on the factory model and made multiple copies of the same artifact based on assembly line procedures. Today ceramic designers, many who never actually touch the clay themselves, work for corporate entities that mass produce and manufacture ceramic domestic ware. Isn’t the individual studio potter by nature and circumstances a romantic? Some people would say that romanticism is obsolete and out of place in our modern world? What do you think?
Of course my own lifestyle is completely dependent upon a variety of technologies to provide creature comforts and ease my way in the world. I would not surrender any of them for the alternative that existed before their invention. I suppose I could get along without the microwave, although I did warm up leftover Chinese food for lunch today and often use it for that purpose. I certainly could not do without this computer and its word-processing ability. I do have a hybrid car that runs jointly on a battery and gas with resulting low mileage. I would probably surrender it to a totally electric car if there were adequate facilities to recharge them. At this very moment the air conditioning is off but summer is coming and I cannot bear the onslaught of a natural environment if it would cause me to sweat. I do use a mop and broom, both having long and honorable ancestors going back centuries. But I also highly value my vacuum cleaner, cord plugged into the wall, sucking up leaves and dog hairs on the tile and carpet. We have several wall plugs in every room, allowing me to view television, watch my foreign films, listen to the stereo, enjoy my huge classical music CD collection. I do try to limit the electric lights at night just to the rooms of the house we are occupying but I do require considerable illumination in the room when I read at night.
In my 8th letter to Christa Assad, in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter, I said the following about the relationship of technology to culture and quoted from a book by Nicols Fox,
“Both the American and English intellectual traditions question the devastating development of technology that represented the industrial revolution. Here Thoreau and Emerson join Ruskin and Morris in deploring the impact of industrial technology on the lives of artisans, workers and the environment. In a wonderful new book, ‘Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives’, Nicols Fox explores the broad dimensions of this thinking,
‘As a theme, resistance to technology appears in Romantic and Victorian literature, in transcendentalism, in the Arts and Crafts movement, the agrarian movement, the environmental movement. It is present today in the writers who cling to their typewriters, the fine cabinetmakers who cherish their old tools; the hand-weavers and basket-makers, and potters and needlework enthusiasts, who keep to their craft against all logic; the herbalists and organic growers who are convinced that what they do is important and brook no argument – all those who cling consciously in whatever manner or degree to the old ways.’
What is the state of this issue among potters today? I can’t remember if the wheels in your studio are plugged in or get their power from your feet. Does it make a difference? Is there some organic integrity with feet powered wheels or are they obsolete now? I do remember that you have electric kilns. Is your arrangement a compromise out of expediency or can you justify the use of power appliances in your craft? Does it matter in the kind of pottery you create? The wood turner uses a lathe and it is still considered a craft. Has some accepted authority determined and defined what represents a hand crafted object? At some point, does the extensive use of electric appliances disqualify a craft product and turn it into a manufactured product?
Is it simply the inevitable conservatism of old age that motivates tentative and uncertain reservations about technology? John Ruskin and William Morris failed in attempts to find a utopian paradise based on medieval practices. The sound of the train invading the countryside appalled Henry Thoreau. I hide in my secret garden, seeking to escape the hum of the nearby freeway. As in politics, where my vote usually guarantees the candidates defeat, I must be careful not to be a sore loser in the cultural battles of my time.
I am not sure what to label myself without offending friends, becoming foolish, or revealing my lack of sophistication. How can one confess affinity with nineteenth century romanticism without suffering ridicule? In a chapter entitled ‘Romantic Inclinations’, Nicols Fox describes this impulse,
‘Romantic was a way of seeing, a certain cast of light that could transform anything. In this new illumination, the imagination could play with the unfamiliarity of familiar things, accentuating the strangeness of the half-visible. This sensation of newness, of possibility, of transformation defined the word. This was the mind at playful work, allowed to range and create and interact with the ever-changing nature of reality. The Romantic’s priorities were with the exercise of imagination, with excess, with the mystical and, at times, the irrational. The natural world was a powerful and important place where God dwelt; human emotion, intuitions and yearnings were not simply valid, but vital, and could be trusted.’ ”
What part of what Fox is talking about would you be willing to give up? There is a puritan tradition in the American Arts & Crafts movement that showed up again in the streamlined designs of Art Deco and today in the highly designed forms of mass produced ceramic domestic ware. It is severely simple, devoid of decoration, shorn of any graphic or illustrated pictorial surface, pure in its subtraction of extraneous elements. Minimalism in painting and other arts strongly display this influence. This approach sends shivers into the heart of the romanticist. This approach is simply not enough, it is not nearly enough to satisfy the robust aesthetic appetites of the romantic. Take another look at your ceramic artifacts. How would they fit here?
Wednesday, June 1st, 2011
The morning drizzle and overcast skies has ended and a more robust spring sun is now becoming felt in my garden. The blooms on my plants, the burst of flowers on my rose bushes, the overall spectacular display of spring color has won favor with my neighbors and confirmed my status as a maestro of the garden. I must at least make insincere attempts at modesty but the evidence in my front garden provides a local celebrity that I cannot deny. How do potters and ceramic artists handle the compliments of those who praise their work? Surely, given the hours of devotion to your craft, you may acknowledge and enjoy the rewards of having your work valued and celebrated by others. I know that in some cultures potters and other craftspeople have not historically placed their personal mark on the object. These cultures do not celebrate the individual maker but rather regard both the crafts-person and the crafted object within the body of the community and not separate from it. I need to confess right now that my name is prominently featured on the cover of my book. No one can completely escape the influence of the culture in which they born. That is certainly true for me too.
I want to return to the Octavio Paz in this two-part blog. He is a maker of thoughts and feelings through the disciplined and creative use of words. I would like to think that all makers, those who use clay, glass or some kind of stone would identify with those who use words, such as poets and writers. In the last blog I showed you that Octavio certainly feel a strong identification and sensitivity toward craft and pottery in particular. What kind of books do potters read? I know it is silly to attempt that kind of generalization and the tastes in text would vary as greatly as any other pool of people. I do have a curiosity about potters reading fiction and poetry as well as non-fiction. I find most ceramic magazines have a rather factual and conventional prose that is essentially descriptive in nature and usually follows a general formula. I don’t remember seeing much poetry or fiction in these periodicals. Do potters enjoy creativity in the printed word as much as creativity in their pottery? Octavio Paz was a world-class poet and a marvelous essayist of the highest order.
In the book he is best know for and now considered a classic, “The Labyrinth of Solitude”, Paz attempts to explain the soul and character of Mexico as he sees and experiences it. He also tries to explore the profound differences between ‘North American’ culture (that’s us) and Mexico. Here is a sample of his comments,
“The North Americans are credulous and we are believers; they love fairy tales and detective stories and we love myths and legends. The Mexican tells lies because he delights in fantasy, or because he is desperate, or because he want to rise above the sordid facts of his life; the North American does not tell lies, but he substitutes social truth for the real truth, which is always disagreeable. We get drunk in order to confess; they get drunk in order to forget. They are optimists and we are nihilists – except that our nihilism is not intellectual but instinctive, and therefore irrefutable. We are suspicious and they are trusting. We are sorrowful and sarcastic and they are happy and full of jokes. North Americans want to understand and we want to contemplate. They are activists and we are quietists; we enjoy our wounds and they enjoy their inventions. They believe in hygiene, health, work and contentment, perhaps they have never experienced true joy, which is intoxication, a whirlwind. In the hubbub of a fiesta night our voices explode into brilliant lights, and life and death mingle together, while their vitality becomes a fixed smile that denies old age and death but that changes life to motionless stone.”
Of course Paz is using dramatic, metaphorical language in an attempt to capture elements of those essences at the heart of both cultures. He is not speaking as an objective anthropologist but seeking a deeper truth and insight that does not seek a balanced or factual blandness. He is speaking as a poet and it does not matter that you might have said different things in a different way. All art contains exaggeration because that is what the imagination does in creating art. This exaggeration may either impose an exaggerated simplicity or an exaggerated elaboration, but art does not merely document reality or prove what already exists around us. That is what science does. The important thing here, in this one brief sample of his more extended thoughts about North Americans and Mexicans in his book, is that Paz sees memorable differences in the way each culture forms and shapes those humans that inhabit them.
As Paz demonstrates, this has nothing to do with being negative or positive about culture – all human societies are incomplete and fallible, imperfect and yet capable of contributing great beauty and acts of great generosity, magnificent in some realms of activity and offering the world unique achievements, yet capable of being mean spirited and self-absorbed when gripped in collective fear or insecurity. Octavio might agree with me that much of the virtue of a culture might reside in the very same things that foreigners might regard as the most perplexing or puzzling. Can Octavio’s generalizations about culture show profound insight while other people’s generalizations might just show prejudice and ethnocentrism? How can you tell the difference?
Are these cultural differences evident in those artifacts that each culture creates and displays to the world beyond it? Does the pot you make really display just your own individual creativity and unique talent or does it also represent the culture that nurtured your very person-hood? I think Paz would agree with me that North Americans might characteristically want to take all the credit, insist that they are self-made and complete in themselves. We are supposed to be highly individualistic as a people and culture. I am afraid that is what I must honestly claim for myself. I don’t think my ego could not sustain a finding that I am mostly a reflection of my culture. How can they not look at my garden and read my blog and book and see it is all me? I can deny Octavio, insist that he never personally met me nor did he ever visit Glendora as far as I know or he would not have said the things he said about North Americans. Would you want someone to look at your pottery or ceramic art and claim that they can detect the culture of your country in its form and character? Is having a specific and unique culture a good thing or not? With globalization and the electronic revolution, maybe all regional cultures indigenous to geography and specific history will soon be extinct. Do people on Facebook have cultural identities? Does Facebook itself have a culture that will some day replace all others?
I want to end this blog with a very different view from a very different culture from that of the North Americans and Mexico, that of Japan. This view is expressed by one of that country’s greatest novelists, born in the late 19th century, Junichiro Tanizaki, in a small book about aesthetics called “In Praise of Shadows”. In this excerpt from the book, Tanizaki is making a case for the subtle and sublime virtues of Japanese culture as expressed when experiencing the toilet. Now North Americans don’t even call a toilet a toilet, (as the British do), rather we call it a restroom although I doubt if people go there for a rest. I will not attempt here to discuss why we disguise the name of the toilet with such a euphemism. It does say something about how we regard our bodies and their functions. I offer this quotation because I think it helps point out what most people find difficult to isolate and identify, and that is that their culture is embedded and expressed, not just in great art, pottery and literature, but in every waking moment and in every single activity and aspect of their daily lives. Here is what Tanizaki has to say in his poetic celebration of the experience of the traditional Japanese toilet.
“Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and, I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, ‘a physiological delight’ he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves. As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kanto region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones. And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the song of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of seasons. Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature. Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste.”
Tanizaki goes on a bit long describing the virtues of the Japanese toilet but I think you get the idea. His book, ‘In Praise of Shadows’, was written in 1933. Traditional buildings and traditional ways of life were then being replaced by Western ways of construction and doing things. I doubt if you could find many Japanese toilets in Japan nowadays as described by Tanizaki. I doubt if many Japanese, except for its very oldest citizens, has time to sit on the toilet and mediate or hope to achieve a spiritual repose at that site. As for the title of the book, today one cannot easily praise shadows when ceilings contain rows of florescent lighting. No culture can remain frozen and static, whatever its virtues. But the ultimate wisdom gained from a long life is that all apparent gains through technology in providing ease and comfort in our lives also brings loss – the decline and death of traditional culture occurs with the same finality and termination as our own.
The important question for each generation is to decide what is worth preserving and what should be discarded for the new and novel. It is not just the decline of the Japanese toilet in question, my friends. The future of craft and the future of pottery in particular are open to the same forces and possible fate. How can we defend what we think is essential to human culture and a decent quality of life, and yet let go of those things, however memorable to us, that cannot be sustained in the tidal wave of constant change? I cannot recommend where you sit when you consider this question. I don’t think I have quite the same enthusiasm for American toilets as Tanizaki did for Japanese ones. Whether the space is located in the house or on a bench in the garden, we all need to have a quiet space for contemplation and reflection. Tanizaki and I will meet you there.
Monday, March 28th, 2011
Our Changing Knowledge
When we went to school as youth we were given something called the curriculum. This was a twelve-year sequence of what school authorities thought every child and young person should know by the time they graduate from high school. After that, if you went on to college, the first two years were largely filled with a series of courses called ‘general education’. There were introductory or survey courses in subjects that those in charge of the institution thought were sufficiently important that all students, regardless of their individual interests, had to take before they started taking the courses in their chosen major. Have you ever questioned those imposed courses and their lessons? Are there some things all people need to know? Are there things a potter should know that have nothing to do with pottery? I want to dare to suggest that it is that very knowledge that has nothing to do with pottery that might well be among the most important things you bring to the potters’ wheel.
What are some of the things that everyone really needs to know? Here we need to be practical and realistic. I am just trying to make the point that these things should not squeeze out all the great stuff you want to know about that give you pleasure and joy. I think it is reasonable for us to know something about how our government works and the important issues facing us as citizens and voters. Knowing more about our history would give you an informed context for what is happening today. I would add to that knowing as much as you can about what is happening in the world so we can understand how the actions of foreign countries impact our country and economy. We also need to understand how to be smart consumers and how to take care of our family finances. There is a whole new area of knowledge that did not really exist when I was born – to know how to preserve and protect our environment and do one’s part to reduce our collective footprint on the earth. Another area of new knowledge that happened during my lifetime – we should be able to utilize the various electronic and computer appliances for our own betterment and development. To be able to think critically about these issues some basic knowledge about science would help. I would certainly include exposure to the great art and literature that constitutes your legacy of the world’s civilization and achievements. You can probably add a few more fundamental areas of human knowledge to this list that I missed but I think I will stop here.
Thanks to computers, a huge avalanche of knowledge is available, far too much knowledge for any one of us to digest or take in. Most of this huge mound of information is best stored in the computer, not in your head. We have to decide for ourselves what is worth knowing and why. We are not going to make the same decision and the same choice. Each of us have our own passions in terms of what we want to experience and what we want to know more about. I don’t know of any neighbors, and I have lived in this neighborhood for over thirty years, who are interested in pottery. To be fair, I am sure they know things I do not know or want to know. Come to think of it, I do know just one person, a woman whose children go the same elementary school where my grandchildren go, who takes pottery classes from a nearby adult education program. I do not make judgments about what others prefer and choose for their own self-enrichment and satisfaction. I could not live without my books and pottery, but I also need to weed my garden and do my spring planting. From years of gardening, I think I know something about that activity, at least in a Southern California garden. And there are great films, plays and concerts – the list could go on and on and there is never time to do it all but I will not surrender any of it.
One of the most important skills involved in learning is to know where to look for what you want to know. The computer does not solve this problem. In fact it makes it worse because it offers so many more choices and citations than you could possibly go through or explore. What is even more complicated is when you seek diverse perspectives or investigate some controversial issue than has multiple points of view. Here you can follow your own prejudices and end up with a bunch of expert opinions that happily agree with you. But the integrity of forming a critical intelligence that transcends your own current position demands that you confront diverse judgments that challenge prior assumptions. The act of learning requires this ability to revise and reverse your own thinking about something as well as add to it. Most of us have our egos invested in what we think we believe at the moment and it is often difficult to admit that we have changed our minds. I believe that, rather than being embarrassed by this capacity, one should feel great satisfaction when an expanded and informed viewpoint allows you to revise previous opinions and attitudes. It is a sure sign of intellectual growth.
I will go further than that and say that a sure sign of intellectual development is when you start from certainty and end up in doubt. Most people think that the normal and appropriate sequence in learning is just the reverse. I believe that to be mistaken. A highly informed perspective does not resolve an issue but complicates it. To think you had the easy and obvious answer to some problem and than find out that there are multiple ways of perceiving and experiencing ideas just as there are with ceramic artifacts. We wouldn’t just take one person’s opinion about the value and meaning of a particular potter’s work. We fully realize that each person experiences art and craft differently. Some people are surprised to know that the same diversity of judgment exists in intellectual work too. To seek the single right answer that will forever be true is a fool’s folly. To find and assess several valid and valuable responses to any issue or idea is to live with multiple possibilities, even including those that contradict each other. The great American philosopher of the 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in his essay on “Self-Reliance” that,
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”
The danger in intellectual as well as artistic work is to have a smug presumption that you have the solution, the right answer and thus terminate further interest and activity in the area of that supposed right answer. As Emerson declared, a person that is convinced he/she already knows the right answer “has simply nothing to do.”
Knowledge of the Past
One valuable test of my thinking on this idea would be to obtain old textbooks from fifty years ago – the ones used in elementary, secondary and the university level. It doesn’t matter the subject – science, the arts, the social sciences, history, whatever. You will be amused (or maybe shocked) that they are full of what was once thought objective knowledge that has long been revised or revoked by continuing scientific experiments or increased cultural awareness. I don’t even have to bring up how girls and women were portrayed in children’s literature and textbooks back then, much less the absence of people of color and others. All human knowledge and all human culture are dynamic, expanding, overthrowing and revising all that went before. Thus all human learners must display the same traits of being dynamic and active in their critical assessments and rigorous investigations. The same discipline and focus that you might bring to the potter’s wheel is also suitable for the open book and the printed page.
In saying this, I want to emphasize the joy and pleasure of making sense of things, of the revelations and epiphanies possible in engaging ideas as well as art. It might sound silly, but as I sit at my computer and do this blog, I often delight myself with self-discoveries and the joy of just thinking about things. I also goof up and delete stuff after re-reading it. To delete your own stuff is hard. It is sort like when you look at some half-finished pot on the wheel and decide it is not going to work and smash the clay and start over. It’s OK to start over. My dear wife, Judy, who has the task of proofing all my writing, will often not only correct the grammar or spelling, but also say that she simply can’t comprehend what I wrote or what it meant. I love Judy very much, despite her comments, and my writing is always improved by her critical scrutiny. We learn by making reasonable approximations and errors. We need not strive to totally eliminate errors, only how to learn from them. Mistakes and errors can lead us to improved choices. Some of our greatest masterpieces in art, music and literature were first believed to be mistakes by critics of the time who rejected them. Think of a George Ohr pot as another example of a changed perception that took a long time in coming.
Our Beloved Teachers
The best teachers helped you learn by encouraging you to use your curiosity and intrinsic motivation to find out things that you want to know. All knowledge is eventually personal knowledge. The best retention and application of what is learned happens when the learner is invested in the learning and do it for themselves. School too often makes work out of what should be naturally stimulating and rewarding. Knowledge is not just knowing a lot of stuff – it is being able to make sense of what you learn and develop your own perspective and point of view and apply that knowledge to make your life more interesting and meaningful.
As a student, I never was satisfied with most of the stuff in the textbooks and those things that teachers made you study and they talked about in class. I loved history and art projects and eventually became an art major in high school. But most of my learning as a child and youth did not happen in a classroom. In the evening, after dinner, I would paint and draw at the kitchen table until I had to go to bed. There was a small public library branch at the end of my dead-end street in West Los Angeles where I spent countless hours of my childhood. No one there told me what I had to read and what I had to know. I explored both fiction and non-fiction, read just about every book in that small branch library and started to order books from the central library in downtown Los Angeles. I was so proud one day when a librarian from the central library visited our sixth grade elementary class and asked ‘is Dick Jacobs here?’. I stood in front of my classmates and she told us that I had ordered many fine books and she congratulated me on my devotion to reading. For a very shy and introverted little boy, that was an unforgettable and very special day.
What were the worlds that you explored in your own childhood and youth? I don’t mean the school lessons and the homework assignments but your own private exploration of those things that excited and thrilled you. There is a special romance in allowing your own interests and curiosity to motivate your discoveries of the marvels of a great big wonderful world formerly unknown to you. You might even be able to remember that day and that memorable moment of excitement and pleasure when you knew that your engagement with some activity or special book would help organize your future lifetime. In my home I arrange my pottery and books with equal devotion. I have shelves from floor to ceiling with both books and pottery in my gallery, and books and pottery can be found in just about every other room, too.
Tuesday, February 1st, 2011
The word reading can be used in a metaphorical sense that is not limited to the more obvious act of reading the printed text. To ‘read’ people is to observe them very closely and to make an assessment of their nature and character by what you observe. To ‘read’ a pot involves the prior knowledge of what to look for in terms of the mastery of the craft visible to the eye in the object itself and beyond that, the cultural and aesthetic messages embedded in the ceramic character of that object. Then of course there is the conventional definition that involves the reading of a book. The act and art of reading involves sharing a physical space with some other being or object and being able to perceive the essential features of that other element. For most people, it involves visual acuity and a sensitive insight of what features being observed are vital elements, and what features are irrelevant or trivial in making an evaluation of what you are perceiving. It is an active process, not a passive one.
I am making the case that what I am talking about here is not a casual activity nor is it so rare that only a few special people have the natural genius to develop the act and art of insightful observation. Observation is not the same thing as perception. In reading the printed text, one can be quite literate and have mastered the mechanical chore of identifying the words correctly but be completely lost as to their intended meaning and personal significance. In the physical act of recognizing the other, one can have excellent eyesight, observe the other in bright light that reveals all features, and still miss those features that are the very essence of the perfectly observed object. Even the basic physical act of seeing, as recorded through the mechanisms of eye and brain involves something more than that. It involves judgment, it involves choice, and this judgment and choice are those flashes of recorded visual memory that observers decide are sufficiently memorable to consciously note their significance and to try to make sense of what they have just seen in light of everything else they know.
The first act then is to see, to really clearly focus and visually concentrate on the object. This is the act of reading as used in this sense. The second series of behaviors on the part of the observer involves the art of reading that object. This art is always contextual, and it involves the identification and integration of the your single experience of the object with all those exterior elements that can explain and give meaning to it. This is an intellectual and aesthetic effort that places the object within the field of personal knowledge. It is the assigned or assessed relationship of the formerly isolated object with everything else that the observer knows and has experienced that can be summarized as the art of the experience known as perception. This ability is a dynamic one and it can be further developed as the observer matures and becomes more complicated in his or her knowledge and experience.
I am not claiming that this ability has some sort of universal rules that all of us should follow, that if followed, will cause all of us to reach universal agreement on what we have seen and what it means. All of us are prejudiced in both behavior and making sense of our behavior, in our assessment and evaluation of what it means to be in the world and what it means to engage the ‘other’, be it a person or object. I do not intend this to be a criticism. We all have preferences and we often profoundly differ in what we value. I do have concerns when this natural resistance to those things we do not favor censors out those elements that we at first find distributing or unfavorable. In intellectual work this is called cognitive dissonance. We simply filter out, often even without making conscious decisions, those elements that might offend our sensitivities. This can severely limit or restrict those things that we might well enjoy if we could expand and extend our understanding and appreciation of elements that might be foreign to our origins or personal experience.
Again this perspective and posture of the individual person is contextual. We all exist within a cultural orientation and placement. That orientation also contains a perspective that is grafted on us with our birth and forms a cultural cocoon within which we exist during our life times. This involves a normal kind of natural ethnocentrism that cannot be confronted or challenged unless one is willing to question it. For instance, the innocence of our origins is only directly challenged when we travel to another culture. There we discover the startling revelation that not everybody lives like we live, not everybody values what we value, and that there are other ways of living in the world. We can of course go home, resolved to never travel so far again that we cross the boundaries of our own placement, and hideout in our own culture, safe and secure behind the gates and walls of our native site.
The great challenge, in reading that book, or visiting that foreign country, or in viewing that ceramic art that appears to be unlike the teacups in your mothers closet, is that you might discover and even learn to value what was formerly unknown to you. This profound moment of revelation can not only spur personal development and growth, it can increase the acute sensitivity of being open to the world, to observe and experience the marvelous array of what the world has to offer and celebrate the pleasures derived from being an active and engaged observer of all it’s abundant treasures.
I fear that far too many people only read those things that reinforce what they already know. I frankly think this attitude can hinder the life long adventure of seeking and experiencing those things that extend your frame of reference beyond the immediate vicinity of your permanent residence. In saying this, I do not mean to infer that one must give up one’s own preferences and meekly accept everything experienced as equally legitimate. We must make choices, we simple don’t have room in our heads and hearts to import all that the world has to offer. But in making those choices, we do not need the excuse or rationale that what we decide to reject thus has no value for others. We do not need to trash that which we do not accept for ourselves.
I do become agitated when I believe that what I do not value is in danger of crowding out or eliminating what I do value. But I still can be an advocate for the preservation of what I believe are valuable cultural legacies in the world without seeking to erase all other impulses in the arts. Tolerance is never exercised with those things you already value. It is only tested when you confront those things that challenge what you value. The engagement of great art or great ideas should never be a completely pleasant or agreeable experience. You only know for sure you are really learning when you recognize that what you previously knew and valued has been dislodged or disturbed by new aesthetic and intellectual experiences.
In my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter” I wrote in response to John Ruskin in his book, “Sesame and Lilies”, concerning reading and the importance of the reader. Ruskin insists that readers should be active performers, with important roles as interpreters and co-authors of which they extract from the book and use for their own purposes. Here is my response to Ruskin and his ideas,
“Could it be that the observation and perception of reading and pottery require some of the same behavior? The pot is solid, has weight, and exists external to the perceiver. Although the book is a temporal object, the solitary auditing of the content is an internal process. Still, both require an ‘open and imaginative spirit’ on the part of the perceiver and reader. Surely pottery can meet Ruskin’s injunction for the author and book, that it be true and useful, unique in source and shape. Ruskin demands active participation; Nord supports Ruskin in urging the co-construction of meaning by creator and participant. How do we prepare for this kind of work? What kind of work has the potter and author left for the participant/colleague? I fear that most people do not have the energy and time to construct their own meaning. They were not given permission by assignments in school to develop that capacity. They do not know that the significance and authority of the book and pot are not dependent upon your submission to them. They do not know that, co-equal with the pot and book; your life is a primary source, as unique and complex as book and pot. All my books and pots comprise the raw resources for the construction of self. That attitude breeds respect, even love, surely not contempt, for I need them and they make all the difference in my life.”
I do not collect pots and books as trophies to enlarge my personal ego or show them off to guests as supposed proof of my exquisite taste and superior intelligence, nor do I use them as props for purposes of interior decoration. I collect and engage pots and books because they empower me; because they give me hope that the human species has redeeming virtues despite contrary evidence; because they grace my existence and daily life with beauty and meaning; and because they enhance my better nature and encourage behavior from me that displays a kind of generosity beyond self-interest.
I wish to start this new year with these hopeful thoughts and wish you the very best in your own journey through 2011.
Thursday, December 16th, 2010
I have spent a lifetime as an avid reader. Do young people still read? Do they have time left to read when they are not playing electronic games on their cell phones or other electronic devices? One of my daughters-in-law has a Kindle e-book, which she loves to use as her reading device. I cannot make that leap in my own life. I have a stack of books on the armrest on my big wooden chair in the living room where I do most of my reading. I read about a dozen books at the same time, along with numerous periodicals and journals. I read my journals on my exercise bike in the patio, where I spend a full hour every morning of the week. I like the physical heft and look of a book. I enjoy the physical behaviors required of the reader, holding the book in a comfortable position, sitting in my favorite chair, just turning the next page, or flipping back pages to an earlier chapter to remind me of some detail I had missed or forgotten, all the small maneuvers that holding a real book entails. I value the appearance of a book, the design of the jacket, the style of the printed text, the visual attraction of illustrations and images, all the embellishments of books as revered objects. Is this because I am old and thus old- fashioned? Is reading a real book just a habit soon obsolete? Is the published book just another failed technology doomed to disappear?
I am a collector of objects. Among the objects I collect are pottery and books. I subscribe to many ceramic periodicals that have truly beautiful images of pottery but I know that there is nothing so satisfying as engaging a real three dimensional pot right in front of you. It is just not the same experience. I take the same attitude with books. I spend a lot of time at my computer writing blogs and books. I also do a bit of reading at the computer, mainly received email messages or viewing websites of interest. But I could never accept the computer as my chief reading instrument. It is too big to hold. I love books and one central way I can demonstrate my affection and fondness for what they contain and the pleasure they give me is by holding them. When I visit potters in their studios or galleries, I can observe the same need on their part to take physical possession of the ceramic object, to hold it and feel its surface and to gauge with their hands the thinness of the walls and the thickness of the foot, to run their fingers over the glaze, to feel the smoothness or roughness of the surface. People who love objects need to touch the objects of their devotion. I need to hold and touch pots and books. One of the great compromises I have had to make in my own pottery gallery was the need to apply earthquake putty to the bottom of my pots. Given the real dangers of California earthquakes, it is sadly necessary. But sometimes I just can’t help it. Occasionally I will walk over to a shelf, slowly twist the pot, lifting it carefully and taking full possession of this beloved object and cradle it in my hands.
We know that the making of books is an ancient craft that is still flourishing. There is a complex aesthetics involved in the choice of paper, type of binding, font, and many other elements of design, lay out, and the making of the book as a hand/ crafted object. We also know that there are small, independent printers who seek to perpetuate the publication of these kinds of books. They might be marginal compared to the big publishing companies that can run thousands of copies of best sellers but they seek quality and beauty in the finished product. Many great artists have also illustrated such books. I do not want to see this art and craft go the way of so many small, independent booksellers who could not compete with the franchise bookstores. Is there still room in our globalized world for this kind of hand created quality? When I go to the Huntington Library in nearby San Marino I see many famous original books, opened with often yellowed pages of great age, secured in glass cases, ranging from the beginning of printing press with the Gutenberg Bible to the modern books of California authors such as Jack London, as well as contemporary authors. These books form the cultural icons of our rich legacy of the printed word. I somehow cannot see some day in the future when I visit the Huntington Library and find in the same glass cases e-books displaying the same texts on small screens. Surely you would agree it would not be the same kind of quality experience.
Aside from the book as an aesthetic artifact created by master craftspeople, we also need to discuss what we use them for. Books have a vital function in human civilization. People read them and obtain knowledge and wisdom that is not available anywhere else. I want to talk about the act of reading. This involves the behavior of the reader and the approach to the printed page that would extract the greatest value for those who devote countless hours of their lives to the company of books. We will continue in this discussion to draw analogous examples with pottery. How do you approach the engagement of a pot? What is the nature of the active observer seeking to maximize pleasure and meaning when in the company of ceramic art? We can ask the same questions about books.
Too often both ‘art appreciation’ and ‘reading instruction’ lessons in educational institutions render both kinds of engagements passive events for the observer and reader. Youth are instructed to memorize information about the name of the artist, period, art style, technique, and other data of that nature. Similarly, children taught to read go through the mechanical details of the grammar of language and the retention of the content obtained from the printed word as a duty of memorization, subject to testing. Can you teach the joy and great pleasure of living with art and craft as icons of beauty and the noble offspring of human imagination and creativity? Can you teach youth how to live with books as friends that open the windows of the world to you? That seems all too rarely to come from a lesson in a classroom. What can it come from and how do you help people develop that capacity? The actual lived experience of engaging the pot or book is not the same thing as the information about the pot and the book. Do you know what I am talking about?
I will offer you now a quote that I think will reinforce what I am talking about. It is a quote I employed in my book, “Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter”. This excerpt in my book is from one of the finest books written about ceramics, in fact that is the title of the book, “Ceramics” by Philip Rawson. In the Foreword to this book, Wayne Higby, an important American potter, speaks of Rawson’s ideas about how to experience pottery,
“He recommends looking at the forms of pottery not just to classify them, but to read them as symbols analogous to sense experience. This recommendation has far-reaching implications since, in our society, critical awareness is primarily achieved by acquiring factual knowledge rather than by developing the resources of intuitive feeling. The emphasis on factual knowledge has isolated art from the general flow of Western culture by reserving it for a relatively small group of ‘informed’ individuals. The very fact that pottery is accessible to everyone by virtue of its immediate connection with human experience has disqualified it in the past as a major art form. Rawson introduces this accessibility factor as an important aesthetic consideration and implies that the power of pottery as art lies in its ability to communicate to a wide audience by expressing human sensuous life. He asks the reader to become more aware of emotional responses to pottery in order to give depth and clarity to learned perception.”
There is a lot to think about in this quote. How do we learn to experience ‘human sensuous life’ with pots and books without getting caught in the all too familiar trap first learned in school, when we were taught to reduce everything to ‘factual knowledge’ rather than the encouragement of the development of ‘intuitive feeling’? Here the tail wags the dog. If you can’t test intuitive feeling on a standardized exam, and the easy lure of testing factual information is all too available, than the emotional and intuitive dimensions of human feelings and experiences are simply ignored. Even more than that, the implication of this abandonment is that human feelings (the very core of a complex aesthetic) are really a trivial and superficial realm of human experience. I would add another critical wrinkle to this conversation, since I am a man commenting on the thoughts of two other men, Rawson and Higby. Traditionally in Western society it was believed that women, given their highly emotional and fragile state, existed as emotional creatures but us men were capable of transforming the world into tough, durable facts. So I am rather proud as a man to be in the company of these two other modern men in conceding that the richness and complexity of the subjective emotions are as important as the objective world of factual knowledge. The aesthetic significance of human culture is dependent on this awareness. I am going to continue this discussion in future blogs. I do wish to conclude this blog wishing all of you the very best of the holiday season and a happy New Year.