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


post #2. Words and Favorites

Semantics as a topic generally bores me, but in this discussion, I think it will be half the battle.  I have been exchanging emails with Garth for the last couple of days (yes well before I activated the blog), and it occurs to me that we are going to have to agree on some language to actually get anywhere with this debate.

First off, Garth likes the word "crafters" over "craftsmen and women" or "craftspeople," because it is less cumbersome.  But where I live, "crafters" has a pejorative connotation, as in macrame; or the ceramic equivalent would be the folks who purchase slip-cast bisqued ornaments or figurines to paint with underglaze and fire to sell at unjuried craft fairs.  This stuff has its place, but it is not the same as craft any more than craft is the same as Art.  I always picture the word crafters spelled "krafters" with all the cheesy thoughts that may conjure.  However, if Garth was completely unaware of this connotation, I will simply mention it and reiterate my preference for the word "Craftsmen" with implied inclusivity or "Craftspeople" if the pc police are in the building.  I am also quite willing to use "crafters" with the assumption we are speaking of people who are at least aspiring to be more than hobbyists.  (FYI Garth, I know that in the early part of the Arts and Crafts movement, the dilettantes who painted the work of others were glorified hobbyists).  Also, I must concede that when Garth says the word "crafters" with his slightly americanized South African accent, he lends it credibility.  But that is all minutia.

Garth's entire talk about the death of the craft movement hardly mentions the word "pottery," and his field is "Ceramics".  I had always thought in my mind that ceramic art was the "art" side of the equation and ceramic "craft" must mean pottery.  But Clark lists among the greatest ceramic "crafters" of the 20th century Ken Price, Peter Voulkos, and Robert Arneson as well as an Italian painter named Luciano Fontana.  The enormous problem I have with this is that I consider all of these folks, "Ceramic Artists".  Even if they all made some pottery, (in an email Garth calls them "potters") when their names hit my mind the images conjured are not pottery but images of "Ceramic Art" or in the case of Arneson, (whose work I like best of this group) "Ceramic Sculpture".  So perhaps I was offended listening to his address about the "death of craft" unnecessarily; after all the ceramic artists he calls "crafters", like Voulkos and Arneson are literally dead, and I don't really know about the others.  Just the same, I think there is a curious double standard in referring to Ceramic Artists as "potters" or even "crafters" while never mentioning any of what I think of as true potters.

If I were to list the greatest ceramic "crafters" of the 20th century, most of them would be potters: David Leach, Michael Cardew, Shoji Hamada, Tatsuo Shimaoka, etc.  The Americans I would include that he might readily admit are Toshiko Takeazu(spelling?) and George Ohr.  Now that Garth resides in New Mexico, we could probably agree on including Lucy Lewis and Maria Martinez (who were extraordinarily gifted American Indian potters and decorators) (come to think of it maybe Maria's husband or son did her decorating).  But he would undoubtedly refuse my regional favorites: George Donkel, A.R. Cole, Ben Owen Sr. and M. L. Owens, because they were pure potters, never once questioning the value of craft or pretending it was Art.  The irony of this is that the quality of not pretending or claiming to create art is exactly what he identifies as the sin of the craft movement: not knowing that it isn't the same thing as art.  

I think it was Ben Owen Sr. of Seagrove who once famously quipped that "Jaques Busbee could sell a pot worth 25 cents for five dollars!"  It was folks like Busbee (an entrepeneur credited with helping to revive the flagging pottery industry in the seagrove area) and potter Walter Stephen in the Asheville area that began to recognize that with more fashionable shapes and new glazes and decorative strategies, small pots could sell well enough to economically replace the cheaper larger and now unneccesary jugs, crocks and jars.  The Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century in England had finally become popular in the carolinas, and the hustlers like Stephen and Busbee saw the advantage of adding the word "art" in front of pottery.  These art marketing leaders brought ideas that had already been in play for 50 years in England to the isolated communities of North Carolina just as industrial goods arrived.  They helped the Old North State transition from utilitarian wares to tourist "art pottery" which was not at all the same thing as "Ceramic Art".  But I don't want to go on ad nauseum about NC pottery history, there are people who can do it a lot better justice than me.

As I have notedGarth seems to be completely smitten with the "Modernist" crafters, (Voulkos, et al.) which is why I think he will probably accept Takeazu.  She was a modernist in many ways, but I like her work better because it seems quieter and more sensual than what the macho drunks and drug addicts that fascinate Clark produced.

But what about George Ohr?  Termed the "Mad Potter of Biloxi (Mississippi)" I am sure Garth will agree that he was a very important potter who made ceramic art.  Ohr seems to be one of those rare individuals who existed completely outside his own timeframe (which was late 19th and early 20th centuries).  His glazes were unprecedented, and the vessles he made had complex but incredibly graceful lines, which were complimented by wacky (almost Dr. Seussian) handles that somehow fit the shapes and glazes ("no two alike" he proudly claimed) perfectly.  They were much more refined and employed a more traditional formal vocabulary than the modernists, so although he was ahead of his time and not strictly a traditionalist, his work has nothing to do with Garth's favorites.  In  a very earthy and touching way that perhaps was a vestige of his time, he called these pots his "mud babies".  One can only imagine the disdain Clark would have for a contemporary crafter who emplyed this term.  I think that might be for Clark what he refers to in his address as an example of craft's pathetic fondness for "saccharine cuteness" or "cloying whimsy".  Where is the heart?

Garth, could I trouble you to refer to your modernist favorites as "Ceramicists" or "Modernists" so that they aren't lumped in with people who are much better suited to being called potters or to my mind even crafters.  Or in your address you could have just used the word "potters" occassionally if you wanted to include people who actually made pottery (as distinguished from artists who worked in clay, sometimes even with the aid of a potter's wheel).  Or maybe that was a deliberate omission on your part.  Of course the pottery part of craft or craft movement never died; that idea is laughable.  But how would you get around the idea that pottery is a valuable component of Ceramic Craft and therefore the "Craft Movement."  

Is your whole argument based on just what was happening in the American Crafts Council in New York City?  Is it possible that by spending most of your professional life in large metropolitan areas around extremely wealthy patrons who wanted to buy "Art" and not really craft, that you missed the entire point that you so laughably assert in the title of your address?  

To me, it seems utterly absurd to imply that craft or even the craft movement could have died.  But let me tell you about western North Carolina.  Do you know how many craft galleries have opened in the Asheville area alone since 1995?  I choose that date because it is the very year Garth identifies as the moment when craft finally succumbed to its self-inflicted wounds.  Do you know John Cram, the art and craft entrepeneur of Asheville, NC?  Because prior to '95, he and perhaps one or two others were the only game in town as far as craft was concerned.  Since '95, he may have tripled or quadrupled or possibly increased his Craft business floor space by ten-fold while being challenged by 50 or more new galleries.  Does that make it sound like craft was dead or even dying in western North Carolina?  I'll make a note to send him a link to this debate, and perhaps he can clarify that for us.  But you are (supposedly) the expert, what could I possibly know that you don't?

Thanks for tuning in once again

I will be including a few photos in the next post.


p.s.  I'm still ready to accept your apology Garth.  I'll make an apology to you now.  I am sorry that I was beeing slightly insicere when disparaging your modernists.  I am not particularly interested in making that type of work myself, but when I spend time with it I find myself really enjoying some of it.  I do think you have a fixation with modernist ceramics and you judge most ceramic craft and art in comparison to them rather than on their own merits, and this leads me to believe you are a deeply biased critic who cannot speak for something as complex as a craft movement.  Also, though it is a fact that some of these same modernists had drug and alcohol problems, that is nothing to sneer about.  I apologize for making light of them for that.  I do think that these substance abuse problems lent them a certain (rather cliche) Rock and Roll "bad boy" or beatnik vibe that has been very appealing to young people, which troubles me.