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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.  


References (5)

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Reader Comments (8)

I have not finished listening to Garth's eulogy but immediately I am pressed by the realization that craft is dead only in the eye of the critic... entirely... because of how critics , art galleries and the media have always presented craft and art. Craft itself does not and never did have Art envy. As a craftsperson for over forty years I have always been proud of my field. I have, however never been pleased with the opportunities available for promotion of my field and I blame it on critics and the media. It has only been recently with venues that claim "Fine Craft", such as the Smithsonian show, has Craft been at the same playing field with Art. Even there, it is a cliquish rut to try and get into and the craftwork in those shows are often very artsy!
Check out David Rago's book American Art Pottery.
Maggie Jones

September 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermaggie jones

Great post Matt. I must now find the podcast and give it a listen. I laughed out loud when you summarized his stance on craft artists. "We "overdosed" on nostalgia and communist rhetoric, therefore we are the losers in a socially Darwinian Art paradigm." I think Clark might have overdosed on capitalism. His tendency to support artists he is financially vested puts his criticism in perspective. I don’t disagree with a gallery owner making financially based decisions but I do think it clouds aesthetic understanding.

My serious sticking point with Clark's statement is his stance on nostalgia. The nostalgia he condescends is just one tool in the contemporary ceramic artist’s tool box. Artists use nostalgia as a spring board into innovation. Critics that proclaim that any aspect of an artist's tool box is obsolete usually do so because they are not artists themselves. As outsiders/observers critics have a passive role in the creative process. They can only see the artist’s tool box as a means to an end that creates a final product. This product is their main concern not the process that rendered the object. For the artist all of the tools function on a practical level to fuel individual idea creation. This might best be described by saying that critics “can’t see the trees for the forest” where as artists are tending to each tree to make the whole forest healthier.

Garth might be well served to look for the use of nostalgia throughout art history. It is a well used tool because it continually provides fuel for the current era. To discount its value is foolish.

I look forward to reading your future posts.

October 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBen Carter

After attending the Asheville panel discussion with Garth Clark, the purpose of the State tour seemed to allude its title. There was very little discussion other than education, potentially responding to Penland's representation but as far as the current state of ceramics goes, the issue seemed to be skirted. Sure, the realm of traditional anything is in threat now a days and the anomaly of Western North Carolina extends far beyond mere pottery into weaving, quilting and other craft based activities that contribute to the rich and unique culture found in the Western N.C.

The main point made at the Asheville talk seemed to be how great, "magical" and "special" the talk at the Mint in Charlotte seemed to be. As this is easy to imagine, especially after hearing how articulate and the command of a podium that Mr. Clark possessed, the Asheville discussion referenced more a get together of a fraternal order of those who attended the first two discussions and the interest of the Future of Traditional Pottery was allowed to lay in waste, in Asheville at least.

Sure, the dynamics of the individuals on the panel were easy to recognize as cordial, honest and respectful. In Asheville, the main point that was taken away from this attendee is that Clark and del Vecchio expected to come to NC and find a bunch of back woods potters (turners and burners as some call themselves) still making face jugs. Instead they found dedicated intelligent professionals who cared for the preservation of a dying art form. Like hand woven cotton knickerbockers, pots exist in a realm of antiquated neurosis (in as healthy as a way as possible). The function of an object leads to its formal limitation and when something is tired and repetitive, it is better to acknowledge it as such rather than living in an opposing illusion.

In response to the post above: Mr. Clark perfectly has the right to frame the discussion if he raises it. Just like anybody else. The fault lies in the thin-skinned hyper sensitive recipient of an opinion whose knee jerk reaction is to take offense and not take the point. To be an artist of any sort requires a conviction behind one's own efforts. The job of a critic is to be critical, it is in the title. For a hot shot critic to make keen observations about a movement is no different than a potter "throwing elbows" at the county craft fair thereby using others as a profiting springboard, something that art is not solely about, as was proclaimed in the panel discussion yesterday.

To help ease the sharp rhetoric just offered it is pertinent to mention that I fully respect the preservation of tradition. I find it not only positive but necessary in many ways. The idea of nostalgia, as was mentioned in posts above seems to miss the mark. Nostalgia is the romanticization of the past, a sentimentality that inflates qualities of a by gone era that are either inaccurate or exclusive of negativities. The preservation of a process and product so rooted in history is the active acknowledgement of where we came from and traditions worth holding on to. If the pot is simply this acknowledgement, so be it. Stand behind it fully and be prepared when that role in society or in the art world is questioned. The preservation of history, its objects and processes is always relevant to present circumstances as it reveals pre-existing chronology approaching the current moment. The be in the role of preservationist is to be mindful of the human condition on levels that technology may never find. There was a conviction sensed in the panel discussion in Asheville that pointed towards the interest in the craft, no doubt. There is a sense that in this blog the sensitivity to the world of craft of honest and critical observations immediately is met as an onslaught, is somewhat counter-productive to whatever the response.

This is meant with all due respect. This discussion presented throughout the State over this past week was a necessary one with its many facets. The opportunity to probe the depths of the topics was unfortunately lost in Asheville where the nucleus of ceramics in NC arguably resides.

October 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterattendee

I think I realized after the Asheville stop on your discussion tour how much fun Garth Clark has being a scathing critic to an often uninformed, and hot tempered group. The group I am referring to: American potters.
First off a few things about Garth. I was puzzled by his use of Duchamp as a reference. His urinal has nothing to do with ceramics but everything to do with concept. I was not puzzled by his name dropping of Beatrice Wood, Lucio Fontana, and a few other faves from him and Mark's gallery days. I agree with the post above and he does present his view of ceramic history from his eyes. Well, guess what? Thats his job as a scholar and a critic. Why should Garth be a potter then as so many say? That is not his talent, nor his obligation. He is one of the brightest minds this field has and so many dismiss him because how he ran his business and his point of view. I believe he has earned that right. He certainly has spent years working on this field's behalf and if he challenged it all the better because the last thing the field of ceramics needs is a pat on the back and a jolly job well done. I believe he is the soft kick in the rear, the voice crying from the wilderness to stubborn crowd, and the one saying nostalgia is a disease. And he is in my opinion 100 percent correct , even though he is flawed like us all.Garth in the end knows exactly what he is doing and his main aim is to promote interests to sway history in his favor that results in a paycheck for him and Mark. They have however earned that mantel. The greatest thing you did for him Matt, is that you did not battle his intellect but hit him square in the heart with what you guys are doing in Seagrove. You showed him the passion, community, and tradition and like the scrooge his heart expanded and burst into pure joy.
Second, and I will probably be the first to say it, and get hate mail because of it, Peter Voulkos was a brilliant drunkard. There its out there. His work is so singular, you cant teach from it, and like most of the panelists use it as a reference .Like Picasso, his work shows a man's tumultous inner struggle with mortality and the world itself. He transcended this art vs. craft bs and you should too. I sincerely wish the canonization of this man would stop because while yes he was a force in ceramics, he was no Santa Claus. You only have to ask a few folks on that one.
Third, the craft world is already involved with the design and has been for many years now. It is odd when we live in an age where so many things are made by machines that handmade means very special. Whether its mugs, beer, clothes, leather boots, or food the handmade label is above all. I do not think utilitarian pottery is art and should not disguise itself as so. it is fine craft and there should be pride in saying it. Why is this field so sensitive? Last I recalled ceramics history is rich and spans thousands of years. It has informed and fascinated artists of other media, wars were fought over it, but it is one of the few mediums that has served the dual role as an object of use and an object of beauty through out time that has led to a crisis in identity now that the design world has so deftly appropriated studio craft into its factories.
Fourth, I cannot recall why there was an attack on a liberal arts education. Garth was saying there was a death knell on ceramic programs across the country. That is his opinion only.You need these programs for education not just for ceramic artists, but also for people who can take a class and appreciate the form and what it is we do. This is important to educate the public on ceramic's role in society. Apprenticeships were brought up, but is it only because Mark Hewitt offers them and is the product of one? This is hardly a solution in this modern age and presents the very same skewed point of view that people fuss at Garth for. Any reference to Bernard leach and his pottery should be dismissed as heresy at this point for this modern age. For Christ's sake he was in the country of Josiah Wedgwood , who did more for ceramics appreciation on a world scale than any of Leach's pieces or books ever did. They also,for you naysayers,offered residencies to studio potters who were very grateful for the opportunity, like those today at Kohler.
Fifth, Nostalgia is a disease and tradition can be a crutch. Just walk down the streets of Gatlinburg and you would see my point. It is great that you are making art and fine craft in Seagrove and it is unique and special. Also, realize there are other places that are unique and special so ya'll can stop patting yourselves on the back and try and study what Garth is really saying.The sad thing is if not properly looked after and evolving with the times any place can become past tense. Happens all the time and the world is impartial.
Sixth, a mug is a mug is a mug.
Seventh, I have been worn down by this field and its colleagues that I have spent my adult life a part of. I have never encountered a more self entitled, opportunistic, shameless, backstabbing group of artists in my life except for glass artists who are just completely sold on being the next Dale Chihuly. Craft shows have evolved to implosion because of this and I can tell you one thing, Painters could care less, so why do you care about the envy argument. You thought you were going to be the one to change two thousand years of popular opinion? You thought you were going to be the one featured. Who they were going to cancel a NASCAR race to shoot live and talk about how you finally crossed over and entered the art world?
Finally, as much as I like working in clay, I also like to paint. Most artists I know work in more than one media. They also dont play the numbers game like potters, and they certainly don't have inferiority complexes about it. I have seen this for many years: the craft shows are dinosaurs, the art vs.craft debate needs to be shelved, and we don't need to look at others to find a measure to strive for. I can tell you for every bad piece of ceramic out in the world, there is a bad painting, and a bad sculpture to go along with it as well. Just ask those who collected Thomas Kinkade.

October 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel White

I am haunting Matt's blog to look for some answers. My own handwoven cotton knickers have been in a twist for two days since reading Garth Clark's essay in the Summer/Fall 2012 issue of Studio Potter. I am one of the many inventive youthful makers that Clark seems to have overlooked when preparing his essay Live In/Live Out. I am just one of MANY. Maybe Clark doesn't know about the peer reviewed website ArtAxis? Of course it is a website that promotes makers based on a motive of good will and not profit. I think that fits into the category of "community" obviously it would not interest him. If he had perused it before setting his quill to paper he may have noticed fantastic makers who are redefining form, and pushing concept. He would also see the membership numbers growing. My point is this, Clark has made a great literary contribution to ceramics, but Clark is out of touch and the future of ceramics does not depend on his opinion. I see Clark's challenge to studio potters as an opportunity for "mug and jug" makers across the US to unite. We can go the route of fine art and use models of performance art and relational aesthetics (to name a few) if we want to go the "intellectual" route that is. We will survive by building on models put in place by potters who have established successful ways to relate to their audience (Minnesota tours, 16 hands tour etc.).

As Attendee above so beautifully states:

"The preservation of a process and product so rooted in history is the active acknowledgement of where we came from and traditions worth holding on to. If the pot is simply this acknowledgement, so be it. Stand behind it fully and be prepared when that role in society or in the art world is questioned."

I wholeheartedly agree.

October 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDandee

I enjoyed reading the post above and was delighted to hear feedback on this young person's thoughts on the matter. I decided to thoughtfully digest what was written and research the sources that the author provided. Sadly, this is exactly the kinds of problems that has plagued this field. One only has to look at the cover of the summer/fall 2012 issue of Studio Potter to see how cheap gimmicks and circus theatrics are common place when promoting ceramics. This may be fun and silly but does nothing to help convince anyone that this is an art.
I cannot tell you how many times I've seen magazine covers and advertisements of this nature all to get a belly laugh out of its audience. Laughter is great don't get me wrong, its just you don't want that to be the only reaction you get from people.
Art Axis has promise , but its mainly used for self promotion and job opportunities , so I hardly think it can be used as a reference point.
What is disturbing is the fact that so many makers out there have a hard time coming to peace with making good money and "intellectualism". This may be the only business I've seen where its considered bad to turn a good dollar for your efforts, and if you make really good money at it, people raise eyebrows. This is a for profit business, Money is not bad, and for those who do well, I hope you continue to do well. The more the merrier. A humble approach to art and money will soon make you a pauper. Thats the game of life,
The same goes for the comment about intellectualism. This is not a fool's game here. There are thousands of years of worldwide ceramics history that any new person into the field should consider their homework to get some understanding of because those who don't understand their history are doomed to repeat it one wheel thrown piece at at a time. Its important to study history in order to help you make something completely your own, and not pieces of those around you. Performance art could be said of the gentleman on the Studio Potter cover you speak of.
You mentioned that the future of studio pottery relies on tried and true models put in place already. I would like to say I cannot support an approach that relies just on existing avenues and doesn't include the search for new ones.
While Garth is guided by a certain era of ceramics , he does not hide it nor makes excuses. That is his chosen focus, and sorry to disappoint you but he is far from out of touch. He wrote the critical essay you speak of back in 2009 and called exactly what was going to happen. The future of ceramics doesn't rely on anyone's opinion, but his opinion is one I will listen to even if I disagree because he backs it up with experience and a refined world view of art that spans beyond any cultural regions or mediums.
In the end you can stand behind a traditional piece or you can stand in front of it. You can either rely on tradition to tell its story or you can rely on yourself. Innovation is just as important as tradition. One shines a blazing light through the day and the other is like a lamplight during a reflective evening. We need both for the great balance of any human endeavor.

October 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel White

Daniel White and "attendee,"

Thanks for the thoughtful comments here. You have made many good points. Truthfully, I share many of your opinions. I have enormous respect for Garth Clark and a good friendship at this point. I would like to say that you are responding to a blog post that was written over a year ago and was written to be deliberately sharp so as to goad Garth, who has many times referred to himself as a goad. I was writing as a critic, and my critical opinion is just as valid as anyone else's, and I would say that by putting the whole thing in motion I was acting with conviction. (How much conviction does it take to post comments and not even leave a name?) The good news is it worked. Garth took an interest and we began a correspondence (actually I had exchanged several emails with him before I even published this first post) which culminated in the tour around the state a few weeks ago. I am glad both of you were present at the Asheville event. I am not suggesting that either of you read the entire blog or the second blog "Wrestling with Garth," but if you had, it would have become obvious that I grew quite a bit as a result of my conversations with Garth and that my anger subsided and transitioned into an affectionate admiration. This does not mean that I agree with his viewpoint entirely, but I understand where he is coming from.

The difficulty I see as I reflect on this year-long discussion is that within the ceramic medium, there are many different agendas or poles. One is concerned with clay as art, and this tends to include top tier ceramic sculpture and sculptural vessels that are meant to function aesthetically like Peter Voulkos's work. BTW, why shouldn't his work be canonized? Everyone knows he wasn't a jolly old elf, but neither was Van Gogh or Picasso or practically any other artist whose work has become part of the western canon. A person's substance abuse and/or relationship disorders don't disqualify their work from critical adoration. A second pole within ceramics is pottery which can be broken down into functional and decorative pottery. These activities have grown out of necessity, and now that they are no longer "necessary," have developed boutique markets for people who simply like to use or decorate with hand-made objects. Some of these objects have an intentional reverence for history and can be considered nostalgiac without necessarily being written off. Pottery is more closely related to the academic field of folklore than art, but the makers often have strong aesthetic sensibilities, and can rightly claim to be "artists" if they choose, though they will not be considered "fine artists."

Neither of these poles is the whole story, and it is difficult to understand either pole while orbiting the other one.

I am very comfortable with the way things played out, and Garth has clearly been deeply moved by what he has observed here. I apologize if the panel discussion didn't live up to its title, which was Garth's suggestion, and a bit of a carry-over from the Charlotte event. That event will eventually be available as a podcast or transcript.

Thanks for your thoughts,

November 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Jones

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July 24, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterpottery vietnam

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