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


Post # 20: An Open Letter from Garth Clark 

Where is the Workshop Potter’s “G” Spot”?


Yes Matt, the accent is worth my weight in gold. I spoke to a combined Super-Mud and NCECA audience of 5,000 at Penn State University in 1979. When I finished Ken Ferguson was waiting for me at the foot of the stage. We had struck a good friendship earlier, once he realized he could not bully me. (My relationship with Cardew, another bully, though often fractious, was based on the same understanding.) 


Ken said, “Good work Clark, your accent never slipped once” then he pushed a gift into my hands, a large blue and grey salt glazed charger that read “Adam and Eve and the First Pot according to Garth Clark.” I love that plate. It was one of a group of works I could not part with when our collection went to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.


My partner Mark once asked me to change the voice on a GPS because the computer generated “speaker” had a plummy English accent that sounded patronizing. So the problem might be that you listened to my paper and did not read it, and my pompous sounding accent annoyed you. Try reading the paper. Written words are all equal on paper regardless of the writer’s height, gender, weight, and, I was going to say, education too, but that is not true. A good education, whether institutional or self-made, does come with a word sharpener.  


Ivory tower speakers bore me and do not write for that audience. Donald Kuspit is the perfect example of what I abhor; he talks like a rusty, malfunctioning, footnote machine (yes, even conversationally). We had a major spat at the Ceramics Conference in Santa Fe last year and he publically denounced me as “anti-intellectual”. He was correct insofar as his brand of masturbatory Academese is concerned. He grumbled loudly throughout the conference and walked out on Roberta Smith’s talk, which was excellent, intoning, “Vagaries, vagaries.” 


I am sorry you are upset at being lumped in with other voices in functional pottery. Perhaps the nuances of your position slipped by me but the evident chip on your shoulder, the dénouement of “ceramics” and worse the demon “ceramic art” all are familiar. I am waiting for a 21st century raison d’être for studio pottery and have still not yet heard it from anyone. 


And as for my response not being entirely friendly, your friend is correct. Nor was your first broadside to me. But I was not offended. Spirited debate at its best is like wrestling partners who are fiercely competitive. Firstly, one must wrestle to win but graciously concede defeat if one does not. Secondly, one might get a little hurt in the process. That’s how one learns. But without the rough and tumble it’s just not fun nor is there any rigor in the argument if one is too timid to offend. 


To conclude: I have never understood why functional /workshop/traditional potters are always so angry, always seem so cheated by their culture. They have deliberately chosen to live and work in an arena that is marginal. There is no longer a need for handmade pots and there has not been one for the greater part of a century. Industrial potteries often have a smaller carbon footprint than studio potters and so studio pottery is not even green. 

Did you not know when you committed yourself to this calling that it would be tough and misunderstood road? Did you not realize that that there is a touch of anachronism in your calling and that would have consequences in how you are valued and defined? An overly defensive stance does not work, it makes one sound more like a crank, a muttering luddite. One needs a plausible contemporary explanation for why you make pots today if you want to enjoy a reasoned debate. 


I am going to leave you with a challenge. I have never discovered the workshop potters “g” spot. What makes them happy? Can you write a description of an idealized, perfect world for pottery? What do you want from the market, criticism, history, museums, galleries, and culture? How do you define respect? From where do you want it to come? From critics, museums, the general public? What is missing? What defines satisfaction with your place in society? 


And finally, I am honored that a working potter would feel strongly enough to take on my ideas and give his time to this debate. I am actively thinking about things we have discussed, both on and off the record, and will not walk away unmoved or unchanged. I  respect what you do and the overall genre to which you belong but my “job” is not to be a palliative but a goad. I will be back in a month or two. I have two books on the edge of deadline, four essays to write, five lectures coming up and an auction to sell. 


I might even be up for a real life debate in NC this January so long as firearms are checked at the door.