Not doing a great job following through with my intentions to post on the things that make ceramics and pottery in particular things worth saving in schools, but I suppose I have a few too many irons in the fire right now….. Here is something I wanted to share, passed on by Pete as we were discussing the neglect for the visceral and tangible in modern appreciation for the arts. This was published in the May/June 2004 edition of Clay Times originally, so credit goes to those folks too 🙂
“Transcending the Naked Truth”
On occasion, I’ve taught a college drawing class that uses nude models. To the ordinary public, this sounds pretty racy, but no one in the academic art world gives it much thought. Why is that? Why isn’t my wife jealous, and why aren’t parents, administrators, and the general public outraged at this seeming lapse of moral judgment?
One visit to a college drawing class would tell you why- drawing a live model is boring. No one, not even the hormone-laden young people in the class, finds it the least bit exciting. Students skip out on drawing classes just as often as any other course. The sight of the model dropping her robe tends to be treated with yawns and groans, as students now have to stop talking, get out their drawing materials and get to work. (As an aside, I’ve sometimes wondered what it does for the models ego, especially on their first day of work, to have the sight of their body “in all its glory” greeted by yawning indifference).
Now, lets introduce some excitement into that bored, lethargic group. What if I allowed a student to TOUCH the model, or if I did so myself? Nothing intimate, mind you, just ordinary public touching (back, shoulder, knee, etc). What would happen then? Well, no one would be yawning. For one thing, the model would probably walk out. Everyone would know that we had crossed an unspoken boundary. Touching the model is taboo- its just too “personal”, too “private”. Doing so would probably get me called into the department Chair’s office for a little discussion about my professional judgment. Looking is one thing, and quite acceptable, but touching is another thing altogether.
Now, lets take my little scenario a bit further- what if I allowed a student to KISS the model? Well, I won’t go into detail, but it would certainly be the talk of the department. I would likely find myself sitting in the Deans office, and perhaps find the episode discussed in the pages of the student newspaper.
Why is that? Why is there such a big difference between seeing a naked body and touching it? Why is there an equally big difference between touching those “public”, more innocent parts of the body, and a more intimate form of touching, like giving a kiss?
It’s because of the nature of sight, and how we experience it. Sight, among all our senses, is easiest to intellectualize. During a drawing class, there’s a vast, emotional gulf between the students and the model. We look at the model, but she or he is just a complex, difficult-to-draw object. Our interaction is purely rational, logical- and controllable.
As humans, we easily build barriers between the things we see, and our feelings. On the other hand, it’s very hard to rationalize touch- especially intimate touch. Touch makes a much more direct, much more POWERFUL connection with our non-rational selves. It is a connection that is more difficult to control, more difficult to rationalize away.
Our hands are amazing things, capable of “seeing” in ways that our eyes can only imagine. Textures that are only suggested to our eyes are readily discernable to our hands, and we can easily feel minute differences among surfaces that appear to look alike. Our sense of touch is not just sensitive, it is also capable of a much greater degree of acuity than most people realize. You need only witness the speed and accuracy with which a blind person reads brail to have this made apparent. In short, this sense we call “touch” is sensitive, acute, and capable of making direct, powerful connections to both our rational selves, and our deeper, subconscious selves.
Why then, has the art world made the conscience decision to forgo touch? I’m not talking about touching in drawing classes, but with the art itself. Why would we, as artists, willingly give up such a powerful tool for expression and communication? The answer to that is long and complex, beginning with the Greek philosophers, and continuing through Kant to Hegel, and finally to today’s art theorists. Regardless of how we got here, the result is that touch is all but banned from the appreciation of anything deemed “fine art”.
Touch, you see, is connected to use- what we potters tend to call function. And function is intimately bound up with that messy, complex, emotional process we call “life”.
Anyone who frequents art museums knows that when you approach a work of art, you assume “the pose”- you place your hands safely behind your back, or in your pockets. This puts the museum guards as ease, and puts the viewer in the proper, rational frame of mind to assume the “disinterested gaze”, the phrase art theorists use to describe the proper attitude with which one should approach art (the disinterested gaze, or what Hegel terms “desireless seeing” precludes function, or for that matter, any inclusion of the object into any life event or process).
As a result of this theory, during the 20th century, the fine arts world made a concerted effort to distance itself from life, a movement that reached it’s apex during the postwar modernist movement championed by critics like Clement Greenberg. “Art for art’s sake” was the battle cry. Artists like David Smith and Jackson Pollack created large, powerful, works that were purely formal- involved solely with their abstract, visual elements, like color, line, form, space, etc. This work lives in museums and sculpture gardens- it rarely references life, and even more rarely takes part in it. We are welcome to visit that world (usually with only a small admission fee) and I often do. I enjoy the time I spend there, and then I go home.
Postmodernism (which is not really one movement, but a complex, pluralist group of art movements), both evolved out of modernism, and as a reaction against it. It put life back into art, but not art into life. Postmodern artists tend to view life from the vantage point of the outsider- the critic, if you will. The postmodern viewpoint is cool, ironic, and detached, usually offering a sarcastic commentary on modern life. It blurs the distinction between high and low culture, and holds nothing sacred. Postmodern art peeps in our windows and rummages in our closets. It talks about life, but it is not part of it.
As Linda Weintraub wrote in “Art on the Edge”: “Visual beauty, sensual enjoyment, emotional release, self-expression, and accurate representation are rarely the goals that motivate acclaimed artists at the end of the twentieth century.”.
Throughout human history, art has consisted of ordinary, everyday objects that have been elevated- made special- for any number of reasons. Some celebrated
social occasions, such as births, weddings, and deaths. Others aided in our very human search for spiritual meaning and significance. Objects were made to meet the desire to own “luxury” goods that raised the owner’s status. And sometimes, objects were made because the maker simply had the desire to create beauty, and others acquired those objects because they wanted to experience that beauty. Art was part of life and life’s events and processes, and the appreciation of art was not only visual, but tactile and experiential. You didn’t just look at art, you touched it and used it- you experienced it. That experience was much more complete, complex, and holistic than our experience of art today.
The detached, “outsider” approach so common to Post-Modernism has some advantages- it certainly allows the artist independence. On the other hand, it can tend to alienate the very audience it wishes to reach. Besides, in life it is the insider who holds the power, not the outsider. Whether we are talking about politics, religion, finance or just about any important aspect of modern life, you have to be an insider in order to be heard, let alone influence things or make a positive change.
This is where we come in. Pottery doesn’t just reference life, it takes part in it. It doesn’t peep in the windows, it isn’t a guest in the living room- it’s a trusted member of the family. I won’t go into great detail here about the many roles pottery can fill, since I did so in a column just last year, but suffice to say that pottery plays a part in just about every minor event in life, and most of the major ones as well. And, unlike the “acclaimed artists” mentioned above, artists working in clay in the early 21st century are usually very involved with “Visual beauty, sensual enjoyment, emotional release,” and “self-expression”.
Ironically, our position as “trusted member of the family” actually puts the potter in a much better position to take part in social commentary than the titular “fine” artist. One is far more apt to be open to criticism- or, indeed, any message- from a trusted friend than from a screaming stranger one meets on the street.
What prompted this column was a phrase that I have often seen during my career, and notice again while rereading the 1987 book “The Eloquent Object” . The essays (in several places) extol the way these “craft artists” have been able to “transcend function”. In fact, if you read just about any serious writing about
“craft”, you will often see works praised with this very phrase. So, just what do we mean by “transcend”? Here’s what the dictionary says:
1 a : to rise above or go beyond the limits of b : to triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of : OVERCOME
The implication is obvious. “Function” is merely an impediment to creative expression- a limitation that we must overcome, or even better, abandon.
Yes, of course function acts as a limitation on our actions as artists, but it is just one of many to which we might agree any time we choose to make art. If I decide to make a painting, get out my oils and brushes, and buy a canvas, I have already chosen a number of very strict limitations on my artistic actions, none of which need prevent me from making great art.
When we choose to “transcend” function, we are deciding how we want our art to be experienced. Do you want people to view your art with their hands behind their backs? Well, as one who loves seeing my work in galleries and museums, my answer is yes, sometimes. Like most of us, I get a kick from seeing my work on a pedestal or in a glass case. Ultimately, however, I want the “viewer” to experience all that my art has to say, and the gallery experience reveals only a small part of what I’m expressing. By making my work functional- that is, involving it intimately in life’s events and processes, I can reveal much more to the viewer than through vision alone.
As I mentioned in my column last year, function involves far more than just the kitchen. But even within those narrow confines, the potential exists for deep, profound expression. The lowly cup involves sight, touch, intimate touch (after all, we actually put the cup to our mouths,) and use. This “use” means we also experience the peripheral effects of warmth, fragrance, and flavor. There is great potential here for communication on many levels, conscious and unconscious, and by extension, there is much potential for expression.
So, does this ability to involve multiple senses mean that all pottery is great art? Of course not. Sound and smell are equally powerful links to our emotions, but
not all smells are pleasant, nor all sounds sonorous. The ability to incorporate touch and use into our art simply means that we have the opportunity to have our art communicate with the “viewer” on multiple, potentially powerful levels. If we use that ability ably and knowingly, then our art can resonate more deeply than it might if we only involved the visual and the rational aspects of human cognition.
As artists, we can freely choose to “transcend” function. However, when we do so, it should be with the knowledge that we lose as much as we gain.
And that’s the naked truth.