Peter Voulkos and the demise of functional pottery

“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.

Voulkos platter made with embedded pebbles to explode out during the firing

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?

“Wielding clay is magic. The minute you touch it, it moves, so you’ve got to move with it. It’s like a ritual. I always work standing up, so I can move my body around. I don’t sit and make dainty things.” –from “Breaking Ground Still Fires Him Up”, by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, L.A. Times, November 14, 1999

“Wielding clay is magic. The minute you touch it, it moves, so you’ve got to move with it. It’s like a ritual. I always work standing up, so I can move my body around. I don’t sit and make dainty things.”
–from “Breaking Ground Still Fires Him Up”, by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, L.A. Times, November 14, 1999

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?

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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7 Responses to Peter Voulkos and the demise of functional pottery

  1. john bauman says:

    The major inconsistency is the notion that art could be defined as it is with its notions of function/non-function, and yet simultaneously make claims to value in a measured economic way.

    • Yeah, doesn’t that seem preposterous? But the establishment has been smoking opium and crack for such a long time that it will take some serious effort to drag them (kicking and screaming) into the fresh clean air and wean them from their delusions. My worry is that in their addled state of addiction they are spoiling things for the rest of us. When they urinate on function I feel the drops on my head. When they kick us out of shows and institutions I feel the weight of their oppression, the bruises from their boot treads.

      I don’t like being told to sit at the back of the bus. Especially if the reasons are quite absurd. So I don’t feel like going meekly. I won’t content myself to live on their scraps. And I won’t teach my children their libelous fairy tales. The world as they imagine it is unsavory and corrupt. Maybe it looks better if you are on the inside and are smoking your own pipe. But on the outside we can see that their teeth are rotten, they haven’t washed themselves in months, and they are no longer very good at communicating with the outside world.

      No wonder we are cutting the budget of arts education. Why would we fund the creation of more addicts?

      (Okay, I hope you all know that I’m exaggerating to make a point. Think of it as like poetry. I’m trying to make a case by throwing up images that are related and which can be interpreted to make certain points. Nothing I just said is literal, but just because its not literal doesn’t mean its not true in some sense. Right? Then again its maybe just my looney tune obsession of howling at the moon. It could be that all the time I spent in the ivory tower exposed me to more fumes than was good for me. I am quite possibly bonkers! Heh, heh….)

  2. I’ll try this again, and this time, where you’d perhaps like better to see it? I’ll also be more careful to spell out what leap I intended in my last well-intentioned comment. I see you naming educators as the initiator of this phenomenon but believe this tendency originally was put forth and promulgated by agents, marketers, and promoters. They see the world very different than the artist, any artist– and have become the oracle that dictates many idiocies for the sake of their potential income. They do view the shelf life of a functional pot as ephemeral, and will sell still-life pots, though fully functional, as art pieces when and if they can. If they can’t market functional pots as art, they ignore it. I think their actions, based solely upon this market driven idea, have been echoed by the education system in general. They in turn are pressured by administrators, who are pressured by the need to increase matriculation, to ensure the eventual goal of what they deem ‘success.’ If they must churn out art graduates, then they must also have a teaching component, or a marketing/business component, and the new boy to the block, graphic/web design. It is not enough today for an artist to simply employ or excel in a ‘craft,’ but essential that education produce potentially successful money makers who contribute to society, or at the very least, can exact patronage. So once again, the tail (in my opinion) wags the dog. I see this changing, as potters gain through productivity and longevity the recognition they deserve. I believe it will continue to change. How long did it take us (your standard issue American) to see the beauty and value in Oriental pots? Those have been produced for centuries, yet their value (though fully presently existing all these centuries) is a relatively new (monetary market) concept. A large portion of the ‘blame’ for not recognizing the simple pot as art lies with the market. It is our responsibility as potters to educate them, show them the value, and the art in the pot. This, in my humble estimation, is the quickest way — and admittedly, it will seem painfully slow– to bring the beast to heel.

    • In a sense this is exactly what I’m talking about. And I think you are more than right that this is another example of dog wagging tails. I completely agree that “A large portion of the ‘blame’ for not recognizing the simple pot as art lies with the market.” And as Steven alluded to in those comments, part of this has to do with how the whole academic enterprise aims its focus on the upper crust of the marketplace. More dog wagging tails….

      So this is what I usually mean when I refer to ‘the establishment’. It is a systematic self reinforcing of values. And sadly, through engrained prejudices things like pots are left out of legitimate consideration. Beauty and function don’t get the recognition they do in other cultures, or the status they held within our own not too long ago.

      I see your point that a few ‘still-life pots’ get snuck onto pedestals, but isn’t this the exception that ‘proves’ the rule? That pots are categorically rejected? Because, lets face it, one thing can fit on a pedestal just as easily as another. Its not a physical difficulty but a philosophical one. And so, if pots were officially accepted as ‘still-lifes’, that humble pot you just fired in your kiln SHOULD have as much access to an ‘art’ pedestal as a Voulkos exploded platter. Right?

      But they are not. Plenty of pots wind up on pedestals but are not thought of as ‘art’. There has to be a different qualification from simply looking like a still-life. The ones that make it into the rarefied air are the exceptions because they are not valued as pots. In the minds of the curators they are NOT pots. And this transformation can be as easy as putting a several thousand dollar price tag on it. The object didn’t change. What changed was our perspective that this is something that can be made use of. And the difficulty with things that look like pots is that they carry the visual taint of their functional deformity. They are stigmatized by it. They are compromised because they look like something you could use. Why else would Ceramics departments feel so threatened by useful pots, but welcome with open arms a ‘vessel’ that merely references one?

      Maybe we are saying the same thing, just with different words?

  3. Pingback: The blog year that was | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  4. Of course, once you are famous, (and especially, perhaps) when you are dead the art market value of even functional work goes up.

    “GUEST: It’s by Peter Voulkos, and I think it’s one of his early pieces. I inherited it from my parents. My father was a collector. My father was the director of the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and hired Peter Voulkos as a teacher of ceramics.

    APPRAISER: And do you know when, about?

    GUEST: It was about 1956.

    APPRAISER: And he worked in several places as a studio potter and as a teacher also, at Archie Bray and other schools, other foundations. He’s known for his works in stoneware, sometimes wood-fired, sometimes gas-fired.

    GUEST: Uh-huh.

    APPRAISER: And this is an atypical piece of his, as far as I’m concerned. What we often see are heavy and aggressively produced pieces.

    GUEST: Yes.

    APPRAISER: Did you know him?

    GUEST: Yes, I met him. I don’t really remember him very well, but I did meet him.

    APPRAISER: He was kind of a bigger-than-life personality. He was a tall fellow, right? And very strong. And he started making these platters and these kiln shaped stackpots, they’re called, and he would punch them, and he would cut them and gut them. I mean, he was extremely physical in the making of his pieces. And something like this is so delicate. It is very Asian in feel.

    GUEST: Mm-hmm.

    APPRAISER: And it has this beautiful kind of floral decoration. And you could see how finely thrown it is. Mr. Voulkos won all sorts of awards from all over the world.

    GUEST: Really?

    APPRAISER: It’s glazed inside. It’s very, very nice. It has a little bit of chipping here on the edge, so that will affect the value. And it has a small firing line inside here. But these are quite minor. I’m going to show a signature here on the bottom. There is no date. He ended up dating many pieces, but this one is not. This is early on. It’s probably from the ’50s. He died in 2002; he was almost 80 years old. And so something like this, I would put at auction a very reasonable value of $2,500 to $3,500. And that is a low auction estimate, which is how we do well with auctions now, is to price things very conservatively.

    GUEST: Wonderful. He got fired by my father. My father came in and saw a big four-letter word written across one of his pieces.”

    Watch Appraisal: Peter Voulkos Coffee Pot, ca. 1955 on PBS. See more from Antiques Roadshow.

  5. Pingback: Peter Voulkos ‘Destroying Function’ | Bleddyn Lewis

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