“There is a perception in the modern craft world that anyone interested in useful craft is some sort of neo-conservative romantic who wishes culture would revert to a pre-industrial lifestyle. He or she is considered to be out of touch with modern sensibilities and thought to be either unable or unwilling to address contemporary concerns. Critics of useful craft, however, have never really articulated what these concerns are, but instead have adopted a formula that says if an object is useful it belongs to the past and is therefore unsuitable to convey modern feelings. This presumption about useful craft’s inefficacy in modern culture is not based on any kind of intellectual or philosophical examination of the possibilities this form of expression offers. Its rejection by the modern craft establishment has more to do with the fact that useful craft runs contrary to all the values manifested in the postmodernist, avant-garde, market-oriented climate of the fine arts world, a world after which modern craft has mindlessly modeled itself.” Rob Barnard, Published in Ceramics: Art and Perception, No. 5, 1991, 3-8.
Of course Pete’s not to blame for any systematic demise. That would be a ridiculous overstatement (but linking his name just sounded too good to pass up as the title for what I want to talk about). Still, I sometimes think I can almost hear the aftershocks of his pots exploding in kilns….
The writing simply was on the wall well before Voulkos started artistically ‘improving’ (functionally impairing) the walls of his pots: If a ‘pot’ still can function, then it could never be ‘art’, but blow out a section of the wall, and now it becomes a conceptual statement about things: ‘Art’. Perversely this means that a vessel stating something about pottery can be art, but not a pot itself. You see, it is this mysterious attribute of being useful that disqualifies any and every object from being art. In fact, the mere condition of being useless makes things more valuable as art. And so you see the transition of Voulkos the middling talented potter to Voulkos the world famous artistic exploder of pots.
Where else but in art can a thing be more valuable if it doesn’t work? Where else in life is the pure contemplation of an object more revealing than also getting a hands on viscerally interactive exposure to it? How absolutely absurd this seems. Its as if the value of Mathematics is lowered every time you take it to the store and calculate your change. Your watch doesn’t work anymore? Don’t throw it in the trash: It may quite possibly count as an artistic statement on the subjectivity of time. That used car in the auto dealership parking lot won’t start? Well, the price just went up! And if this sounds crazy, its only because the world of art has somehow turned our normal expectations on their head. Or rather, it has put them all IN our heads (does anyone remember the Ceramics Monthly article from Jack Troy a year or so ago where he decries the understanding of art that happens entirely above the shoulders?).
(Edit 2/07/12: I just ran across this video from Hennesy Youngman that nicely lampoons this nonfunctional stance. Enjoy!)
So how could this have happened? Why on earth would it be more important for art to be useless? What peculiar system of values wants things to only interact at a nonfunctioning distance? Is this a logical necessity? Does Art demand this? Did we always feel this way? Does it serve all the people who have aesthetic interests? In every culture and with every background? Or, is this position contingent, arbitrary, capricious, irrelevant, and mostly an accident of history?
And yet, despite the serious irrationality of this dogma, it is the unquestioned default position. In fact, many potters themselves accept that what they do is not art. Potters make these dainty hand held things, not ‘monuments of significance’. And who can blame them if it is accepted that ‘art’ has to mean this sometimes baffling conceptualism? (And I’m not knocking the many fine contributions this art has made to our world, just that this is the only function of art.) But does it have to mean this?
So how on earth did we get here? Who were those people that first accepted that this was the definition of ‘art’ that we would be going with, and which we’ve been saddled with ever since as a consequence? As I mentioned in the post on Steven’s notion of the transitive nature of functional pots, there is a Studio Potter issue (June 1985) that deals with this. The article by Nicholas Wolterstorff is especially fascinating. This is how I summarize it in one of my comments on that last post:
“You can see that this move toward abstraction was symptomatic of a ‘gentleman’s’ world view which placed value in detachment from the visceral engagement with the world. And as admirable as it may be in limited circumstances, enforcing it as the new model of Western Art just poisons the well. It simply doesn’t speak for the aesthetic needs and desires of all people. Fine Art ends up being little more than an expression of upper crust Victorian sensibilities (I’m sure tracing a long path through privileged history to get there). An accident of culture, and not a rational necessity. The need for conceptualism in high brow Fine Art just seems like the audience preference of people who don’t like to sweat.”
Please note that I’m not saying that detached contemplation isn’t valuable, just that engaged use isn’t not valuable. Right?