I have realized that my proposed project of assembling resources to make the case for ceramics has been weighing me down. It has stalled with my hope that more people would involve themselves in the discussion and offer their own insights and links that they feel are important. I’ve had three nice responses to date, and I want to talk about each of their good ideas, but I recognize that I am also probably taking my own role in this far too seriously.
So let me just throw out a video that came across my inbox this morning, shared by the fabulous Bridget Fairbank of BPracticalpottery. When Travis (below) talks about tradition and respect, and making a connection with history you can sense that these too are under threat. You get the sense that this way of working with clay and looking out at the world is fraught with the struggle to fit in with modern times, as if history and culture were moving on and some things simply had to be left behind. Too often we dismiss the past in our easy fixation with the future and present. Personally I am far more excited by the contemporary iterations of the craft than too many of its historical permutations, but that is not an argument. We dismiss our roots far too casually, and when you look at places like Jugtown (in the video) you have a rare glimpse into the way things once were. Mostly.
The idea of tradition itself is such a dirty word almost that we often fail to see value in these things. Not that we can’t question their approach and the specific things they place value in. We can always explore alternatives and make innovations. That’s what humans do. But rather when we belittle the details of tradition we sometimes also pretend that tradition itself is what holds us back. We confuse the discrete details that no longer fit our world view with the idea that anything that isn’t forward looking is a disability of mere quaintness.
So how this tradition based perspective makes the case for ceramics is that industries like Jugtown, places like Seagrove, folks like the Hewells and Meaders, these all offer something that has mostly disappeared from our way of life. Ceramics industry is historical in nature, and that is not a slight. Fired ceramic wares are not too much younger in human cultural evolution than the first paintings in caves, technology-wise. And yet we have no such retrograde stigma for the Picassos and Jasper Johns. We disparage Ceramics when it suits us by pretending that out lack of fondness for ‘things traditional’ lumps all ceramics artists in one pile.
The issue folks have with tradition is too simpleminded. Promoting the new does not signal the necessary death of the old. Its not one survivor at the expense of everything else. But also, our focus on the heritage of the technology itself as a disqualification is blindly hypocritical. People have been fermenting beverages for as long as they understood the process, and yet the alcohol industry is beyond huge. And appreciated. Put that in your contemporary pipe and smoke it.
I was once told that the covered jars I was then making were anachronistic, as if I should have been making sculpture rather than some traditional merely functional vessel. The disrespect of function within Ceramics departments is itself symptomatic of the trouble we are facing. But worse, we are diminishing one thing to better make the case for the other. We are seeking acceptance in claiming to be ‘more modern’ by disassociating clay from its use in making functional type vessels. Many departments have this attitude towards pots. We laid down and took the beating when the whole craft vs art debate raged through campuses, because we felt we somehow had to kill tradition in order to make nice with contemporary practices. To this I call “Bullshit”.
Here is the video that sparked these thoughts: