Critique of a Critic: Rising to Garth Clark's Bait


Post #1: Introduction

A potter friend of mine recently told me that he had been reading Garth Clark's essay called "Bernard's Orphans" and suggested that I check it out.  I looked online and couldn't find the essay (so I am now trying to order his book Shards), but stumbled onto an address he gave in Portland, Oregon provocatively titled:  "How Art Envy Killed the Craft Movement" which I have just finished listening to a podcast of (the address itself was given over two years ago).  For those who would like to listen to a podcast of this address, I think this link submitted by Mark Skudlarek will get you there:

Quick disclosure for those who aren't aware: Clark (a South African native) is one of the preeminent scholars in the field of American Craft.  He earned an MFA at London's Royal College of Art, has taught ceramic art history, curated a huge number of ceramics exhibitions all over the world, holds two honorary doctorates and has published scads of articles and several books concerning the field of Ceramics.  I feel I've missed several important accomplishments, but you get the idea that this is a seriously credentialed individual.  Oh yes, he also has run galleries with partner Mark del Vecchio that sell "Ceramics" in LA from 1981 and also in NYC since '83 until their recent relocation to Santa Fe, where they are perhaps semi-retired but keeping a hand in the game with a Web-based gallery (I could have that last bit "semi-retired" slightly wrong).

To be fair to Garth, he is specifically speaking of the "Craft Movement" and carefully reassures the audience that Craft and "Crafters" still exist, but it is difficult to escape the fact that his tone frequently lumps them together as a monolithic entity.  Indeed the problem with much of his address is that he insinuates much more than he is willing to say.  I find this irritating, but let's get to the beef.

My beef with Garth Clark is that he is playing the intellectual provocateur who feels he has earned the right to frame the debate at all.  He does not have that right.  I also find his tone to be self-satisfied (perhaps he has earned that much) and condescending.  He pretends not to live in a glass house while he criticizes and implies that hardworking and sincere craftspeople don't know what they are about.  He has fattened his bank account on Ceramic Artists (which is fully his right) and has generously turned to piss on the potters who he cannot make as good a profit margin on.  He has called us insecure, self-loathing and envious of the status and wealth that "art" has afforded people like him.  We "overdosed" on nostalgia and communist rhetoric, therefore we are the losers in a socially Darwinian Art paradigm.  

All of this is rather tasteless, and I feel a little tacky even responding to him because it is on some level exactly what he wants.  And then I will be obligated to acknowledge that there are grains of truth in some of his accusations, and I outright agree 100% with some of his central points.  However that will come later in this Blog, for now in this introductory entry I would like to say to him only this:  Go take a strong drink from Marcel Duchamp's Fountain.   Maybe he was the greatest 20th century "Ceramic Artist" as you quipped in an interview with before giving the address.  By sticking a urinal in an art gallery he claimed that the artist makes the decision about what art is, not critics.  Like Michelangelo's David (not Verochio's little sprite), Duchamp didn't blink and the Goliath/critics rolled over for him to chop their heads off.  


Critics have opinions which they are at all times free to express.  But they must take that responsibility seriously, and if they bludgeon those people they profess to care about the honest thing to do is apologize.  So before this blog goes much further, I declare my opinion that Garth Clark has crossed some slippery boundaries and owes lots of sincere craftspeople a public apology.

A critic is not the meal that sustains us but the dessert that puts that meal into perspective.  

Uh-oh, I think Garth Clark has craft envy.  And by the way, I give Sigmeund Freud a lot of respect for some of his early pyschoanylitic models, but most contemporary men and women laugh at his theory about Envy.

I agree with Hamada and Renoir (and I guess Garth Clark) in saying that both art and craft would be better served by each recognizing the true strengths of each and knowing which world one belongs to.  However (and round and round we go) I think there are good arguments that Hamada and Renoir were both essentially very talented craftsmen who achieved technical mastery to the extent that they were welcomed into the art world.

Thank you for tuning in,

--Matt Jones

p.s.  I'm ready to accept your apology, Garth.