“Visitors can expect to experience the startling diversity of contemporary ceramic work being made right now from traditionally Southern work to cutting edge design.” Design and Crafted 14, Ceramics sale and exhibition
As you must know, I sometimes like to beat around the bush. I guess its what I do best, rambling on tangents and leaping to far flung conclusions with only thinly spread dots to step on. But occasionally I have a point that can be arrived at with minimum fuss. If there was an underlying question that the last post asked and which the preceding few hinted at it was this: Are there organizing principles of the kinds of pots we make? Are there pottery genres? Are there standards that apply to some pots but not others? Or is the best we can hope for that our audiences be ‘startled by the diversity’? Like deer in headlights?
Why would that conceptual unity be important or even interesting? Well, imagine we were talking about books. Ask a person what kind of books she reads and you may get some specific authors, but typically also genres. “I just adore Gothic Alien Crime Dramas”, or “Steam-Punk Romances float my boat”…… We can have very specialized tastes, or simply loose genre based or author affiliated ones. “Who is another author like Tom Clancy? I’ve read all his books and I need to expand my tastes.”
Music may even be more fully formed in most people’s minds. We listen to specific radio stations because they give us the genres we are interested in. Classical, Jazz, Opera, Hip Hop, Rap, Disco, Bluegrass, Country, Rock and Roll, Swing, Big Band, R & B, Motown, Oldies……. You can like more than one thing, but it would be unusual if you didn’t know what you liked.
My point is that most folks think of reading, music, and most other creative fields as oriented around either specific themes and author/artists or broad genres. “Point me to the Mystery section and I’ll find something I like.” What that also means is that if I am in the mood for Tragedy, Comedy won’t do. If my mind was set on Science Fiction, Romance is not going to serve. If I want Poetry I won’t be looking at the Travel section…… Do you ever find an avid reader who doesn’t know the difference between science fiction and Victorian murder mysteries? Are they ever startled by the stupendous diversity? Or are they simply better educated about what they like and do not like? And yet our pottery customers often seem quite ill informed. We the artists ourselves often seem confused about what we are showing them. As if being startled was a good thing…..
The weird thing is that in pottery ‘events’ we usually get shown everything at once. As much possible diversity as we can cram in. Unless its a single person show, the odds are that there will be a collection of potters showing work that is vastly dissimilar. Sometimes that’s because its a group of individual potters with their own brand of star power, but sometimes its also the default gathering of potters who make particular forms. A ‘Cup Show‘, for instance, may have as many unique interpretations of the cup as there are artists. Like listening to a soft rock version of ‘Hey Jude’, a Jazz version, and an operatic version. Like trying to figure out why even the first six alphabetical artists in last year’s AKAR Yunomi invitational (to pick a random number) are playing the ‘same song’…..
And that means the audience will have to sort through all the unpalatable versions to get to the ones that resonate. Its not just that the authors are sometimes unappealing, the work itself disagreeable, but the genre they are making work in is not even remotely connected to the stuff we are interested in. If the customer likes images of kittens and bunny rabbits it seems crazy to show them ‘undecorated’ soda fired pots. I personally have as little enthusiasm for highly decorated pots as I do Romance novels, Opera, and Horror films…. Is there an actual advantage to lumping it all together? Would a radio station ever play Opera, Bluegrass, and Rap back to back? Is it simply that in pottery we lack both the rhyme and the reason?
But just maybe we do this not from a categorical laziness or the poor definition of how we and others understand pottery. Maybe its not a lack of sophistication that blurs the boundaries between what different artists are doing, what they are aiming at. Perhaps we are doing this as a sign of solidarity. Perhaps the unity of pottery is more important than the diversity of expression. I won’t argue that the stuff which unites us isn’t important. I am deeply encouraged by the diversity of contemporary artists practicing their pottery making craft. And I am tremendously grateful that the clay community is defined more by its acceptance than its exclusion. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But is that feel-good attitude enough to carry Ceramics and the fields of Pottery forward?
What seems a bit peculiar is that pottery is so poorly understood as to not be promoted by the divisions that we and the public both find meaningful. We know what some of the differences are, but we don’t often use them to our advantage. Books, for instance, are marketed and even understood significantly according to the genres that they can be fit into. When you walk into a bookstore you know exactly the sections you are looking for. At a pottery show you mostly have no idea. Its so eclectic that the best themes we can come up with are often the generic formal terms like ‘cup’, ‘Yunomi’, etc. Or themes that focus on elements of the finished product, like ‘Birds of the Southeast’, or ‘The many shades of blue’. Or the family trees of great instructors. Or friendships of the potters themselves, ala ‘Cousins in clay‘, and ‘Soda chicks and Chet’. Are these groupings the most we can say about pots?
The pairings of work may be as alien as marketing Cookbooks and Fantasy side by side. It might be nice to provide a little something for everyone, but are we (pottery shows and the field in general) doing this intelligently and are we even spreading things more thinly than we need to? Should we aim for being all things to every potential customer, or something special for the limited few who ‘get it’, whatever our ‘it’ happens to be? If our efforts often go into displaying our diversity, have we done enough to educate the audience on the specifics?
Last post I talked about competition, and maybe one reason we have shows that aim for diversity is that putting two potters working in the same genre side by side also puts them in direct competition. We remove the competition by having only one of these, one of those, and only one of the other instead of all of basically the same. Are we afraid of this competition? Is showing our diversity a strategic move to appeal to as many diverse tastes as possible? Maybe it works on that level. But what we gain in an appreciation for diversity almost always loses something on the side of deeper sophistication.
Name three Impressionist painters. Name four Dada artists. Name five Horror films. Name six Action Adventure films. Name seven Mystery writers. Name eight Science Fiction authors…… What, if anything, is comparable in contemporary studio pottery to these divisions? English Slipware, Italian Majolica, Chinese Celedon, Bauhaus, Mingei, Appalachian Folk…… Are there more contemporary divisions? Or are we simply making it up as we go, uniquely among artists in creative fields? Does firing method embrace enough about what our pots are aiming at? Can you say “Cone six reduction” and have a clear understanding of what the pots are? Does “Wood fired” tell us everything important? Would that be like trying to identify music based on whether it uses a guitar? How about “Casual” and “Tight”? Is that like discriminating between East coast and West coast Jazz? “Decorative” and “Well Crafted”? “Production” and “One of a kind”?
I’m pretty confused myself. And I’m not saying that there are necessarily ‘true’ categories or that there shouldn’t be brave diversity within what we see as categories. I’m just wondering whether the vagueness of our descriptions and the multiplicity of what we show our audiences isn’t more confusing than it need be. Is the lack of clarity a blessing in disguise? Do we benefit from our audience failing to have any deep understand of our goals and aesthetic agendas? Are there, in fact, any genres in pottery to speak of? If there are not at least some things we can intelligently point to, that is what I would find startling.
Make beauty real!