The view from a pottery romantic

This is a comment I left on Richard Jacob’s excellent blog post that is still awaiting moderation. It is a topic that I flirt with in many of my own posts, so it shouldn’t be that unfamiliar to the folks who have heroically been reading all this blathering I do. The response itself is to Richard’s question:

Doesn’t all art, including ceramics, offer some kind of escape from an ordinary world in providing an object or experience that is somehow unexpected and delightful?” “Design is the domestication of the creative process, the self-imposed discipline to organize yourself according to preconceived plans, the taming of emotions in order to achieve an orderly process of making…. Is design the death of the human imagination or the rational need to control the creative process in order to make it productive?  What do you think?  I think your answer to this question will reveal if you are a realist or a romanticist.

So here’s my response (somewhat edited):

Hi there Richard!

Great post as always! I love so much of what you say here. Beautiful turns of phrase and thought provoking questions. You always seem to challenge your readers in very important ways.

Me? I’m an inveterate chaser of soap bubbles, a daydreamer, and most definitely a romantic. I like to think that our art is not simply a reflection of the way things are in the world but WHAT WE WANT THE WORLD TO BE LIKE (sorry for the all caps….). Our aesthetic decisions are our dream for what the world should be, that it should include this object and not something else that as easily could have been. We decide the shape of the world in our most minute decisions about what details we are introducing to it. We are refashioning the world from recycled parts and from the inspired adventures of our imagination. And as long as we are expressing more than a simple repetition of what has gone before, we are actively engaged in creating the world.

The problem is that all the wild untamed artistic liberty we all knew so well as children just gets drummed out of us as adults with adult concerns in an adult world. We no longer have space for the freedom to create. We consume others’ creativity in its place, and that’s why Hogwarts and its ilk are so fascinating. We are simply too busy for the difficult work of deciding the visual fate of the world. Its much easier to sit back and let others show us what they’ve come up with. Most of our relation to art and creativity today is as consumers rather than producers.

And I think this has been the case for a very long time. At one point in human history every person was in charge of bringing forth beauty into the world. Material culture was embellished and decorated as a personal responsibility. And as things got more complicated and roles became more specialized the job of safeguarding beauty was put in the hands of trained professional artists. These were the people whose job it was to keep a culture’s notions of beauty alive. Into their hands was entrusted this ancient task. And wealthy patrons and governments commissioned them, and making public the culture’s standards of beauty was given a secure financial foundation.

But ‘professional’ art these days is often more interested in defying a culture’s conventions and speaking only to an elite specially educated few. It is more interested in breaking rules. Instead of acting as a repository for the ideals of the culture at large, today’s art often strives for obscurity. It aims at more and more selective audiences. It is made for and espouses the ideals of an elite establishment. Is it any wonder we are so conflicted about art these days? Is it any wonder that the public funding of art education is seriously under threat at all levels?

Somehow artists in the last century were convinced that what they were doing was akin to the explorations of the sciences, that new art should have the purpose of helping us SEE the world in new ways, opening new doors. And it does this. And this actually IS important. But this is not the same task that artists were once entrusted with, and its not the only thing that should be supported by our institutions.

Not so many people are interested in art performing this esoteric dance. At least not to the exclusion of more culturally relevant things like beauty and utility. The sad truth is that today’s art has not proved its worth to society in the way that the sciences have. All these explorations are like stones dropped down a deep well: They cast only very limited waves. Breakthroughs in today’s art shake only the halls of Museums and Universities, and are talked about only by art critics, well endowed collectors, and the other denizens of the art establishment.

Science stays relevant because it has wide ranging practical applications. We see the benefits almost every day as new technology intertwines itself in our lives. New art merely for the sake of pushing boundaries is willfully and purposely outside the interests of the mainstream audience. It is as unfathomable as pure unapplied science is. And as long as the art establishment holds the reins we will be led down this ever lonelier path, and simple charming expressions of beauty (like is found in pottery) will continue to be pushed off the pedestals to shatter somewhere on the floor beneath the feet of high end gallery patrons and academics.

Institutional support for the arts has guided the direction that the arts have taken through dangling the greatest financial rewards at their feet. Very few artists get fat without the gravy train at the table set in high end galleries, museums, and academia. Potters especially seem to only feed on the scraps and table leavings that sometimes manage to fall that far down. And the vicious circle of support and pandering only drives contemporary art further from the means and desires of common people. By trying to be shockingly new is it any wonder that this work is the ‘alien’ part of our audience’s alienation to it?

This is not the future I am hoping for but we seem to be drawn more and more toward its realization. What do you think?

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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