Leaving the Toilet Behind Us

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Whether you’re stuck between a toilet and a hard place or just trying to house-train your art, I am sure you have your work cut out for you if you are a ceramist. That seems to be the theme in this week’s readings, anyway. There is a certain desire the “art world” seeks to have fulfilled when it comes to ceramics (the art world being that network of people who define “appropriate art genres,” according to Tanya Harrod in House-trained Objects). Garth Clark in Between a Toilet and a Hard Place is sure that ceramists are far too traditional and in danger of falling of the face of the art world; he also seems convinced that craft in general is long dead, the memory of which is kept alive only through the negligence of such a fact from craft people everywhere.

Garth Clark raises some great questions concerning ceramics specifically in regards to the Avant-Garde movement of mainstream art in the first half of the 20th century. He wonders if it played a part in this movement and if it did, why haven’t we heard about it? If it did not, what made it fail? And the question we all secretly ask ourselves when we read these articles:  does it matter if it did or not? Well let us put that question to rest right now. Of course it matters! According to Clark, Modernism dictates everything we do in our art practice.

I love what he says when he likens craft and modernism to a father and son relationship. I will quote you the whole excerpt:

“We in ceramics are more or less in the position of an adult child who has had a difficult and unresolved relationship with our tough, rejecting father who is now ailing and before he passes on we want him to acknowledge our existence and validity In art, just as in life, resolving such an issue is a profound moment–touching, painful, exorcizing–and key to a healthy self-image in the future…There is a palpable and urgent desire to resolve our difference with Modernism before we enter the promised land of a new era.”

Clark wrote this essay in 1998. I had to remind myself that occasionally as I read through. If I could ask him anything today, I would ask him, “How is that relationship resolution going? Is the promised land of the 2000s all you ever hoped and dreamed for us?” I hardly think we have figured out the Modernism vs. Craft settlement. Of course, such a puzzle seems like it should have to take some time to solve, and he only gave us a couple of years to do it. By definition, if something is going to be Avant-Garde it should be a daunting risk. It seems by the end of his essay that Garth Clark finds that the answer to his initial question is no, ceramics did not contribute to Avant-Garde.

His conclusion is that craft is dead, and those who love it haven’t noticed, dwindling “in contemporary times…to mean ‘pretty materials and clever hands.” That definitely sounds like a contradiction to the term Avant-Garde to me. His essay ends with a call to action, to break out of tradition and become relevant to today’s world. This is simultaneously similar and also quite the opposite of what Glenn Adamson says in some of his writings! Adamson pleas with craft artists to stop catlicking and babying craft because he is sure that craft will make it without our help. We should allow it to flourish naturally in “benign neglect.” Clark’s concern ten years or more before is that we are going to die out. Garth Clark is the guy Adamson is trying to get you not to be!

I think that here in 2014, we are on the road to accomplishing what Garth Clark envisioned, in our own way. I think craft may be an endangered species, and may even have been close to fading away at one point a decade ago, but it is not dead. We are an endangered species kept alive by those sympathetic to our hearts and the things which come forth from them. There are enough people sympathetic to our cause that I do not foresee our extinction in the very near future. If anything, we are now thriving. Much has changed since 1999, most assuredly. We are not a generation infatuated with industrialization anymore. I can only speak for myself, but on the contrary, Mr. Clark, my sweetest inspiration comes from the “romance of Medieval craft guilds.” Industrialization is the farthest thing from exciting to me. In parting I would say that I greatly appreciate the positive outlook he holds, the belief that he has for the future of ceramists, and that his view is unclouded by unrealistic thoughts, hopes, and recommendations. I would like to think that ceramics is on the up and up, and that we are no longer so very stuck between a toilet and hard place.

Thoughts on Clay

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I see myself as a ceramicist. I do not label myself strictly as a potter or strictly as a sculptor. I value the utilitarianism of pottery more than I value whatever function sculpture has. I have always seen sculpture as a frivolous sort of art form; call me ignorant or whatever you might accuse someone who lacks the understanding of the great purpose of sculpture. Still, when I create a sculpture, I feel more the artist than when I do pottery. I note that I place a difference on the artistic level of these two types of ceramic processes. Yet I feel such a stronger conceptual connection to pottery–something I feel should be happening in any form of art.

Pottery–usable, functional pottery–is a language I can understand. I care deeply about the form of an object–the way it rests in your hand (or the way in which your hand rests upon it), the breath of a vessel, the comfortable touch between your lips to a rim or your hand to a handle or lid. I put avid consideration to most any object I make. I want to make something that will be used and appreciated in the household. I consider this kind of thought to be essential during the ongoing process of making something if I am going to end up with the perfect product at the end of my final firing. This is a feature in my making process which makes my ware acceptable to be released to the public. It is the means, but it is simultaneously what makes the result, as Greenberg assures us is the key to art (Status of Clay).

And yet, it seems I throw all of that out the window when I sit down to create a sculpture. I allow the clay to crack or slump, I don’t connect all the seams properly, and I let the clay do whatever it wants to do. It decides the shape it will take. All my careful thought that I put towards pottery is nowhere to be seen in my sculptures, at least not while I am making them. The difference is I do not know how to explain sculpture. I don’t know how to sell it to someone. I don’t mean money, I mean conceptually. The language of sculpture is still at large to me. I can list everything I want out of pottery, everything that should be seen in the end result of one of my pieces, but I can’t begin to explain sculpture to you. And yet I feel more artsy when I am working on one. I see it as a higher art form than pottery, and so maybe that is why I have a harder time justifying it to others. I would specify that I mean my sculpture, but if I am honest with myself I admit that I find no justification for any sculpture. More than that, I lack a concept behind sculpture that people can believe in. Here I do mean to talk about my own art. As I stated before, I get this feeling that there should always be a concept behind what I am making. If I don’t have that, then I almost feel like I skipped a part. 

Why does Greenberg classify ceramicists (potters, he means) and sculptors separately? To be a ceramicist, I imagine one would have to create objects out of clay which are most often then fired in heat. In my opinion, there is no differentiation, no separation of the two. For all I disagree with Greenberg, there is one thing I do agree with him on. He says in Status of Clay, “I don’t believe these complaints to be all that justified or, to be more exact, necessary. So much of the best art of the past got along without written, publicized criticism.” The complaints he refers to are those which bring up the lack of ceramic contemporary criticism.  Boy howdy, do I tip my hat to that. Why are we so worried about what others think and have to say about our work? Why does public recognition make our art more real? The answer is because that is how the art world operates. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to witness it, does it make any sound? Likewise, if I make something and no one publicly applauds it, I am to assume that it is nothing to write home about. We rely on attention to succeed in the art world, otherwise, we are the tree that falls unnoticed. I am liable to think I don’t care.

See, I am a bit of a hypocrite. I want people to enjoy my art with me and I post it online, yet I am not clamoring to be in the position of being critically acclaimed. I admittedly recognize that I see sculpture as a higher form of art, yet I put more weight to utilitarian ceramics. 90% of the time, I will buy a cup (or any other usable object) from a ceramicist before I will ever buy a sculpture, and usually the only time I buy sculpture is because I believe in the person who made it and what they do. It is a contradiction; I put more artistic value to sculpture and more personal value to pottery. The “less artistic” work is more important and certainly more approachable to me. I don’t have answers to all the questions about ceramics and art, but I can say that all the hubbub about it leaves my head spinning in circles. I am sure that I should be avidly searching these things out and finding the answers (FOR ART’S SAKE!) but for now, love what you love and do what you want to do. In the meantime, I think I can agree with Clement Greenberg’s final statements in Status of Clay. If you need me, I will be busy making whatever I want over in the studio, regardless of if an art critic wants to talk about it or not.

In Which I Ponder the Idea of Being a Smothering Mother

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Glenn Adamson, Director of the Museum of Arts and Design, holds an interesting position on the idea of studio craft. He has spent years championing craft but is now ready to retire the mission. He questions the crusade for craft, taking instead the position that promotion of studio craft has run its course. Note that I specify the promotion of studio craft, and not the category of craft itself. On the contrary, Adamson makes it quite clear that he loves craft. It is the idea that it needs special pleading and encouraging that he disdains.

Alongside his writings, I watched part of a recorded lecture he gave on his Goodbye to All That. You can find it on Youtube easily; at the beginning of the lecture he related studio craft to Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. As many of us recall, Charlie Brown finds a pathetic and weak attempt of a Christmas tree, brings it to Linus, and says something about how “it needs him.” Like Charlie Brown, we try to help craft along, build it up, so that it can be pretty and special like fine art is. Yet what Adamson insists is that craft no longer needs our help; it is “real in,” he says, just like Lucy’s doctor character from Peanuts.

Throughout Adamson’s writings in Goodbye to All That, Thinking Through Craft, and Invention of Craft, he attempts to make us see that craft does not need our goading or babysitting. “On one hand,” he writes in Goodbye to All That, “craft has never been more popular. On the other hand, we retain the deep conviction that it needs saving.” Glenn Adamson repeats throughout his publications that it is time to drop this idea, and asks us to allow it to flourish on its own, using the terms “benign neglect” to help us see just how much we are to release our grip. The main argument, or rather encouragement, he is making here is this:  say goodbye to the idea that craft is a campaign we need to promote in order to stay afloat, much less succeed. Then, we may be able to witness studio craft bloom into its next phase or era (I like to imagine this metaphor as a teenager matures into an adult–wiser, more cultured, and altogether better-looking.)

Yet I have a comment to counter Adamson’s craft wisdom, which I think is a very important consideration to take in. Let’s keep things on a smaller, national scale, as that is all I can relate to. I just imagine the nation’s crafters reading these books and articles and responding with a nervous terror. Promoting our craft is all we know. I think we are scared to stop promoting craft; it is a livelihood that (let’s face it) is often looked down upon. We are used to trying to prove the worth of what we do to others, and therefore we are still under the impression that it is a neglected and “subordinate” career. We are scared to trust that the public will sustain this movement after we stop promoting it.

I suppose we can ask ourselves if we are a smothering mother, or if craft is a needy child. We can assess those questions in terms of our own practices. Personally, I never realized that there was a real market for craft until this past year. The more exhibitions I attended and the more I saw the handmade become popular, the more I realized that there is a place in this world for craft. No, it has not shone as a star in art history, but perhaps now is the time that craft makes history. Studio craft is more popular than ever before, and is also made accessible to all through the DIY movement. This concept makes me less nervous to attempt to make a living in the craft world. Still, the thought of ignoring the urge to promote a thing I love, a thing I want to succeed in, and want others to see the merit in as well…it’s a hard bite to swallow.