potters wedded to function

I read on Laurie Erdman’s blog yesterday that she is going to start exploring more sculptural forms that have less or nothing to do with function. I almost dropped my truck load of blathering in her comments, but realized she probably needs that space for more sane dollops of encouragement and not my rambling mass of confusion (I worry that I probably killed off the conversation on Ron’s blog about his discovery of the virtues of accepting that commission, so I didn’t want to do that to Laurie as well).

This is the paragraph that caught my attention: “Why haven’t I acted?  I think it is because I have been so wedded to the idea of functional and utilitarian pottery.  Can I really go non-functional?  Can I really go sculptural, since that is more what is in my mind’s eye?  I have hesitated.  I don’t think of myself as that kind of artist (whatever that means).  I am unsure of myself going down that road. Where will it lead? Yet I feel the pull.  And my mind’s eye certainly keeps going back there.”

So often what I write in this blog seems obvious and even self evident, and I can’t help but imagine that all my blathering gets boring once you’ve heard it enough. But sometimes we still talk as if these things were not so plain, and so I’m continually motivated to dust off my thinking cap and limber up my finger joints. Here’s what I would have put in her comments if sanity hadn’t for once prevailed:

I hope you are able to give yourself over to this new direction completely and without reservations. Being “wedded to the idea of functional and utilitarian pottery” isn’t a bad thing, but it isn’t the only thing either. Don’t think of “wedded” as like being in a monogamous relationship or marriage, but more like being in a family where you can have many brothers and sisters at the same time. Being committed to function, believing in the virtues and importance of utilitarian pots, doesn’t mean you have to only make this kind or even any kind of pot. Where did we get the idea that there was such a thing as infidelity in art? Not having affairs with our wildest dreams would be a strange shackle to put on any art. It is only at the extreme end of a continuum where pots are only about function and nothing else.

Usually most of us are also interested in things like beauty, so sometimes the shapes we create can be a balance between a certain kind of function and a certain kind of aesthetic quality. A perfect marriage of beauty AND function can be marvelous to behold, but I know I’ve also enjoyed looking at pitchers that don’t pour well, mugs that are uncomfortable to hold, and covered jars that don’t contain anything. And this just says that pots can be about more than only function and utility. I don’t think you are saying that making utilitarian pots is a mistake, just that you want to try something else. How can there be anything wrong with that?

So I guess what I’m suggesting is that you already ARE the kind of artist that has an eye for sculptural qualities. You aren’t solely focused on function and utility to the exclusion of all else. You give plenty of breathing room for ideas that stand and fall on their beauty, that aspire to The Beautiful, and for which functionality is sometimes irrelevant, something you don’t consciously consider, or that lies vaguely in the background.

I just think we have often been trained to look at what we do as ‘pure’ only if our eyes are firmly fixed on function. That seems like nonsense to me. Being a potter isn’t just one kind of thing, and any potter who is also an artist is someone for whom the idea of beauty can rise above its contingent circumstances. If function actually were all that mattered wouldn’t we be just as happy making ashtrays? Why would we care so much about decoration? And if beauty is only in service to function then it is only its slave. Are we comfortable making beauty this kind of prisoner? So I’m just saying that at most function and utility are only part of an equation.

And there is nothing wrong with testing yourself at the other end of the continuum, where sculptural issues are everything and function has no inherent place. Potters tend to shy away from this, I think, in part because we have been so under threat from the Art Establishment. At times it can seem that our only unique offering (Utility) is like a last bastion. Its as if were we to give up function we will have ‘betrayed the ideals of pottery’ and opened the gates to the ravening hordes. Hogwash! Unless we are throwing function under the bus there should be room for everything. Pottery is under no threat from our making something besides pots, just once, occasionally, or even for evermore. Potters should feel they have the right to explore in this direction, in any direction, if they want to. We aren’t poisoning the well or putting nails in the coffin by making work other than pots. Its only a lamentable part of the Art Establishment that thinks the only way forward is over the dead body of pots, and sometimes even beauty. They have put all their eggs in a basket that has no room for pots and barely enough room for beauty.

So unless you have decided that the world has too many pots in it already, that other potters are wasting their time, that pots don’t add anything of value to the world, then I’m not so worried. Even if it turns out that in the end you become a lapsed utilitarian, that won’t be so bad. There are others out here to take up the cause. You have to do the things that make you happy. And while I would say that the world needs more of your pots, its only up to you to put them there. Wanting other things just means you sometimes can’t do everything on your list.



About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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4 Responses to potters wedded to function

  1. Ron Philbeck says:

    Well said Carter. I like ‘lapsed utilitarian’!

  2. Tom Johnson says:

    Very good.

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