But is the glass half empty or half full? It is what it is, but what is it? Who is disappointed and who revels? Here’s a rant from the preface to Paul Mathieu’s book “The Art of the Future“:
“For millennia, ceramics’ role was primarily functional, practical. More recently, through the (pernicious…) influence of Modernism, it has become for its individual practitioners the focus for personal expression, often of a therapeutic nature and largely disconnected from the larger culture. It may be time to reassess the role of ceramics now and in the future, and a reexamination of its archival nature and potential may offer a renewed sense of meaning and provide further possibilities for inquiry. Historically, hand made pots and other ceramic objects played a seminal, essential role in the real life of real people and communities. Today, most hand made ceramics is the product of amateurism, of hobbyists and dilettantes, of the therapeutic activities of leisure. Even ceramics made by professionals tend to have as a main purpose the fulfilling of impulsive consumerism in a gift economy…. Maybe our culture is getting the ceramics and the art it deserves, after all. A rampant symptom of this amateurism within the ceramics community itself, is the bizarre phenomenon of the “workshop” where the making of ceramics is experienced as entertainment, as if it was a cooking show, with recipes, tricks, tools and a “chef”, a “master” who demonstrates how it is done, despite the fact that this experience is not possibly transferable. When the field takes its cultural role seriously, such futile activity will hopefully cease or cease to be at the center of its activities. I am not holding my breath.” Paul Mathieu
And I thought I was pessimistic…..
Actually, as with so many things that worry me I try to see both sides of the issue. And part of me is in sympathy with this rant. I’d love for our creative field to have the environment where aspiring to the heights of professionalism was truly nurtured and encouraged. And that can only really happen if there is support from institutions and support from the community. Unfortunately, many institutions in positions of authority in the field have put their weight behind a particular narrow view of ceramic worth, and you find things like pot making isolated in university teaching spaces and often discouraged. Fine art galleries won’t touch most potter’s work with a ten foot pole, and specialized ‘craft’ oriented galleries are under pressure to promote only the work that sells. While some individual artists flourish under these conditions it may be hard to argue that the future of the field as a whole is in the best institutional hands possible…..
This, then, is how the community helps support the modern ‘professional’ arm of the ceramic arts: by buying pots and sculpture from galleries. Galleries ostensibly reflect the cream of the crop, the high water marks of ceramic industry. And the gatekeepers do their best to insure professional standards. They don’t advertise merely average pots, or even above average pots. No, they represent themselves as offering only the very best, the elite. But they are also in the business of selling work, and so what they also try to insure is that things will sell. Professional work of high standards but limited commercial value may not always be smart business options. And so the question can often become more about how the work appeals to the gallery shoppers than whether the actual work meets those implied standards independent of its commercial viability. It is sometimes a conflict of interest whether galleries are good for the field or merely good for their own bottom line…..
One avenue (I won’t really go much into the others here) whereby pots in galleries reach consumers is that the work of famous potters is collectible. And this means that part of what the audience is sold on is the reputation of artists. It often becomes less about the work itself than who did it. A culture of celebrity asks for its personalities before it asks for their credentials. One can even be famous for the simple reason of being famous (Paris Hilton anyone?).
Sometimes our admiration is earned, but not always. When we become fixated on the rock stars the magician has already waved his wand, dazzled us with misdirection, and the illusion has been performed. If we weren’t paying close attention we may have missed it. Its the sleight of hand in a bait and switch. We end up watching bad movies simply because we want to see the actors, read books by particular authors simply because once upon a time they may have written something good. We have brand loyalty. And to the pushers of art, brands are money in the bank. Sort of….
Here’s Paul Mathieu ranting again:
“Various biographies of important artists also exist but again these tend to focus on lifestyles and on rather useless and unnecessary background data, as if the author was filling up the text with superficial information in order to hide the fact that they have nothing substantial to write about. The result is almost always hagiography where we are lead to believe in the importance of the person more than on the contribution of the work, which remains largely unexplained. All recent monographs on ceramic artists I can think of are of this type and they are all basically useless, beyond gossip. They actually provide a great disservice, not only to the artists themselves, but to ceramics itself, as a field”
The issue, then, is that the public is often seriously unprepared to deal with the work itself. If the publicly available high water mark of professional ceramics is already influenced by issues of commercial viability and celebrity then the consumer is being educated along specific lines, perhaps less about the work and more about the market. The public often has yet to be exposed to independent issues of quality and craftsmanship in many fields of the arts.
Which isn’t a bad thing, always, but it fails to act as support for the honest labor of hard working professionals who fly under the radar. It puts pressure on artists in ways that have nothing to do with quality. And as Mathieu described, this often means that the work of professionals ends up being commercially driven. Turning tricks in an effort to get ‘discovered’. Or, once they’ve made it, balancing on the high wire of past performances. Because, to stray too far off that line would risk a plummet back to the ground, a fall from whatever rarefied airs they now inhabit. This pressure either encourages moon shots or trains us to obedience, ossification, and stultification…..
The upshot for the field is that people looking at ceramic work have few reliable standards to go by. They simply don’t look at work as an issue of quality, the standards that professionals are supposed to aspire to. If something sells, well, that’s confirmation that it has an audience. Pots don’t really need to be good in the marketplace, they just need to sell. Good enough rather than really good. And these days the ceramic marketplace is awash with amateur efforts. The overall picture of the field, then, is as Mathieu described, diluted with beginner and hobbyist ambitions, and the public often simply can’t tell the difference. That’s the downside…..
So, all that is undoubtedly true, but what about the flip side? “What about a defense of amateurism?” you ask. I did promise that I like to look at both sides of the issue….
(The batter steps up to the plate, the pitch is thrown, the batter swings, and there’s contact! The ball takes off from the bat in an outward arc….)
As a person who actively teaches amateurs I am incredibly proud that my students are dedicated to having this creative activity in their lives. I know that 99.9% of them will never entertain notions of doing this thing as a profession, and most of them would never be willing to undergo the commitment and sacrifice required to become masters of the craft. They simply don’t have the time or the lifestyles needed to become as good as their potential.
But that’s okay. In fact, that’s wonderful! My job is to be there for my students, and only secondarily to be there for the field of ceramics. Almost all of them simply don’t need to be taught as if they would eventually become master potters. Mathieu was right that many pots are made from the simple hobbyist perspective of its therapeutic value. And (unlike Mathieu, perhaps) that’s not something I would scoff at.
The best I can do is to teach students to appreciate how hard it is to do these things well. They need to enjoy what they are doing, but if I’m lucky they will also acquire the sophistication to see what else is possible. There are standards of excellence available to them if they were to apply themselves. They can become fans not only of what they themselves are doing but of what other potters are doing (and this, importantly, is why workshops are so prevalent). That’s my hope. That they will be able to look at pots out in the world and see the difference between work that is half baked and work that is consummately crafted. Its an ongoing struggle I am engaged in as a teacher.
Sure, ‘The (pompous sounding) Field of Ceramics’ can be construed to suffer when the market is flooded with amateur work, and that the public therefor has no easy way of discriminating beyond their immediate unformed sense of taste (some of my professional friends have this stigma against the always popular blue glazed pots that seem to sell no matter how poorly crafted they are, for instance). But that doesn’t also mean that its not still important for folks to aspire. It is a mistake in my mind to only value the endpoint and not the journey that got us there. We don’t become professional overnight. To move from our amateur beginnings to more serious mastery of our craft we can’t help but start at square one. (It would be like saying that since adults are so much wiser and more experienced we should simply dispense with childhood.) And unless there is support for the people who are amateurs now, there will be no new professional artists moving through the ranks. Being an amateur can’t just be a dead end. It can’t be disparaged and despised…. If there is such a thing as the cream of the industry, then it surely only rests on the enthusiasm and unbridled exuberance of the amateurs of the field.
And if that wasn’t a good enough argument, if we are only getting the ceramics we deserve right now, then I would unconditionally say that we are doing the right thing! There are more talented pot makers making excellent work right now than at any other time in history! Sure there’s a lot of crap. But look around you. There is also some of the most interesting expressive work the planet has seen. These new artists are explorers in ways undreamt of by previous generations of potters. Some of it just blows my mind. As a true fan of ceramic talent and creativity I am not discouraged by the standards that are being set in the field these days. And here are some of the reasons why (And if you like these you can follow my board of favorite pots on Pinterest here):
I hope you agree that the future of ceramics is in good hands, as long as there are artists like these willing to explore the depths and variety of what it means to be both functional and beautiful!
Something to think about at least….
Make beauty real!