The issues I discussed in my last post are difficult for me to make absolute sense of. I feel there is something important in the discussion, but the conclusions I want to draw all seem to fly in the face of other beliefs I hold dear. It would be much easier if my cherished beliefs all lined up harmoniously and suffered no embarrassing contradiction or weak kneed inconsistencies. But I also know that things are not often as simple as we sometimes want them to be. I know some thinkers who just dismiss difficult thoughts when they don’t match what they already believe. I’d prefer to keep an open mind and see what different sides of truth obtain. I’m willing to be surprised. I’m willing to revise my stance. I’m willing to be wrong. I’m willing to appreciate the bigger picture…..
For instance, I have argued long and hard that ‘signature style’ and personal branding are contrary to artistic freedom and have more to do with successful marketing than anything necessary about creativity. (See this humorous take on the ridiculous pressure of branding for authors by the inimitable Chuck Wendig) If you want to do something radically different what else is there to stop you doing it? Protecting our brand simply comes at the cost of limiting our aspirations and confining our experiments. I see these as neither necessary nor inevitable, despite the obvious mythologizing that has been used to promote them.
So what on earth am I doing questioning potters’ lack of genres to work in? Why was my last post so adamant that the absence of clear genres in pottery has such negative consequences? Isn’t the idea of genres simply one more box that can be used to oppress artistic freedom and essentially put the extrinsic marketing cart before the intrinsic creative horse?
The thing to remember is that genres in other fields already exist. They are rough or even specific guidelines that orient what gets made and how an audience can be expected to interpret it. Its not a limit on what can be expressed within those criteria, and its not a boundary that artists can’t cross of their own free will. Its why you see musicians practicing Classical and Jazz at different times. I have a friend who is in both a power rock band and also a Klezmer band. Its why some authors can write science fiction and also fantasy and also mystery. The existence of genres doesn’t stop artists from finding what they need to express differently. Not in the same way that branding seems to hold us in our tracks. Genres are simply the modes of expression as commonly understood. Signature style is a deep furrow that if we plow often enough becomes a rut so deep we might not escape. Genre is the choice between what restaurants we want to get a meal at. Branding is a cage we build for ourselves…..
So what’s the deal with potters and genres? Why does it seem so fuzzy (to me, at least)?
Say you were a musician and you wanted to branch out. Say you wrote Classical composition but you also wanted to write a Rock ballad. Say you were a Rap artist and you wanted to try your hand at 70’s style Disco. Say you were a Heavy Metal artist and you wanted to try Ska or Reggae. Or what if you were an author and wanted to do something different. Say you were an historical fiction writer but you wanted to try your hand at poetry. Or maybe you were a travel writer and you wanted to compose a children’s’ book. Perhaps you are an international politics journalist but you want to be a food critic……
Now lets say you are a potter making wood fired pots and your kiln crashes or your wood supply dries up. You start making cone six electric fired pots instead, but what has changed? Is this a switch of genres? What if you were making exactly the same pots just firing them in an electric kiln rather than wood? Is that more like switching from Classical to Jazz or is it like playing in an orchestra rather than a quartet? The same style of music just different circumstances.
Do you see what I’m getting at?
I ran some of these ideas by one of my musician friends and he saw what I was getting at. He is also a musicologist and ethnographer. He helped point out that genres are a tool for framing that the audience uses to make sense of what is being presented. Say this were a discussion of language. Say you speak English. That is your frame of reference. You don’t understand by having heard it all before. What you are familiar with is not the exact construction of sentences, its the possibility for meaning. You know many of the words, the details, the grammar, but you’ve not necessarily heard them in this order or meaning these specific things together. You’ve never thought these specific thoughts before. Isn’t that fascinating?
When we lack awareness of genre what exactly are we missing? Well, its like we are trying to operate without a deeper context. The frame of reference is now gone, and we have to attempt understanding on the basis of the particulars themselves. We don’t necessarily know what counts as a good construction or a bad. And if we make sense of this one thing, its rules extend no further than that. If you have a sense of Jazz, you might not get all Jazz, you certainly won’t like all of it, but you have some idea what each Jazz artist is aiming at. They may not be playing exactly the same games, but they are playing games that are related enough that sometimes the comparisons are easy. They share a family resemblance. That is what genres entail.
Where are the guidelines for pots? Are there any? What makes a handle good or bad? Is there such a thing as ‘too heavy’? I’ve had to revise my opinions on weight after being confronted with a sturdy Joe Singewald bowl a few years ago, and that insight helped me appreciate Simon Levin’s bowl enough at the Design and Crafted exhibition last weekend that I had to give it a new home. (Joe’s pot on the left, Simon’s pot on the right)
The point is that genre at least orients us to making judgments about what we are seeing. Genre is the context that activates meaningful comparisons. What looks like a ‘bad’ handle may be exactly what the potter was aiming at after careful analysis and years of experimentation. To them it might be a handle far superior to any others being made elsewhere. And they are right. And maybe we are right too, to disagree with them. But we can’t adequately explain it if we don’t understand what they are doing, what they are aiming at. It would be like saying chess moves are ‘bad’ because we are framing things in terms of checkers…….
Obviously these three mugs represent three entirely different sets of standards. They are all cups, but how are they related? “Cylinders with handles”? Is that a description that helps us understand what each is aiming at, or is it simply vague enough to white wash the differences?
Without knowing what the artists are aiming at how do we judge? If you were to compare an impressionist painting with a cubist painting with a surrealist painting, each of a human figure, how would you know that one wasn’t as good as the other? If we want to say one handle is better than another shouldn’t we say one painting of a human figure is better than another? Is an impressionist figure better than a surrealist? Is a surrealist figure better than a cubist? Is a cubist figure better than an impressionist? Are these even good questions? Right?
Is it enough to say we are looking at ‘human figures’ to make sense of what each painting is trying to convey? Does that help us make sense of what each painter is aiming at any more than saying that the three previous images of mugs are ‘all cups’?
Don’t we know the cubist image for what it is by understanding something about cubism? Don’t we know what the impressionist image is aiming at by understanding something about impressionism? Don’t we know what the surrealist image is getting at by understanding something about surrealism? Aren’t the rules of interpretation spelled out for us significantly by understanding the rhyme and reason of genres?
So what is it we understand about pots that helps us know what the artists are trying to do? What is the rhyme and reason of what potters are aiming at? How does the public interpret what they are looking at? If each potter is simply making it up as they go, then there is nothing for audiences to fall back on to help them understand what’s going on. Maybe small pieces. “Oh, that’s a handle! Now I get it!” “Ooh! The pretty painted flowers!” “I’ll be damned if that’s not a cylinder.” “If I can’t put my ice cream in it I have no idea what its for.”……..
With a lack of genre understanding, have potters simply passed the buck too easily? Its hard to imagine that ignorance benefits the potters. Is there possibly some other interest that is benefited by Pottery’s lack of genre awareness?
I’ll leave you with those thoughts until next time…..
Make beauty real!