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


Post #6 Garth Clark Responds

{Author's note:  what follows is Garth's response to my criticisms up to now.  If you are thinking of leaving a comment, please be polite.  I do not want to alienate Garth from this debate.  Rather my intention is to keep a dialogue running until we have come to understand one another with less judgement.  Also know that I will examine his response carefully in my next post.  Thank you, Matt}


Dear Matt, 


I have enjoyed our contact by email and I do find your rant intriguing. The sheer pluck and vitality that you project is charming. I do not doubt that the passion behind your words is authentic but we have a few problems before we can engage in a real debate. You have little knowledge of my career and writings. It makes it difficult to respond and have a substantive debate. Imagine if I saw just one pot of yours and from that single object decided that you disliked art, were narrow, smug, and that that pot was only made for profit and had no deeper motivation. In essence that is what you have done in my case. I am only responding because underneath your presumptions about my work I sense a desire to engage, to play with ideas, and to be counted. Good. 


Your comments suggesting that I would not like Ohr shows just how superficial your understanding is of my work. Ohr is my god. (Or at least one of them. Cardew is another but for different reasons.) I consider my writing about Ohr to be one of my greatest achievements. My book even won the prestigious Art Book of the Year Award. I was the first to write about him and bring him into the greater ceramic world. And no, I did not come to Ohr for $$$. I did not have gallery then and when I wrote the first museum catalog of his work was paid a princely $300. When the book came out the gallery stopped selling his work for five years so that scholarship and commerce would not be confused. Didn’t help, I was still accused of being interested in Ohr only for profit and it was at that point that I realized that I had to write for myself and not to expect fulsome praise, at least not from the ceramics community. 


I am a little disappointed by what you say. It’s the same line that has been coming out of the traditional pottery world since Leach began pontificating on pottery and giving ceramic art the evil eye.  You are what? Fourth or fifth generation removed?  And yet you are still loyally parroting dogma from nearly a century ago; envy and/or dislike of “art” ceramics, clinging to the past, uneasy with your own times. I have heard it all before and it never changes. It’s a bit like trying to debate with someone from the Tea Party. Opinions and ideas are hard wired that one gets nowhere, there is no compromise on the right, no middle ground, its everything or nothing.  From someone of your age I expected a younger and fresher and more open voice, and that hopefully might be where you are heading.


Discussion is further complicated by your use of language. You say in the beginning of your screed you want to clarify vocabulary but nothing in your writing is merely a word. “Pottery” is accusatory. “Ceramic” is a detonator. “Ceramic Art” is a vehicle for contempt. “Modernism” is a nine-letter four-letter word.  Your vocabulary is as loaded as a Beretta with a hair trigger. 


You complain that I did not use “potter” often enough in my “Envy” paper. Could you let me know how many times per hundred words I should have used that term? I used “ceramist” more often because I was speaking to a broad audience and those who used clay in their work did not necessarily make pots. They made tiles, sculpture and even building facades. I am surprised that you think of “ceramist” as a dark and conspiratorial term. It is in fact more neutral than potter. It is ancient, coming from the Greek term Keramos which means “burnt earth”. That is all: anything made of clay and fired is ceramic, a technical term without any presumption of stature or hierarchy. Why it gets your knickers in such a twist I have no idea. 


And again, because you have little knowledge of my writing, you do not know my history with the word “potter”. I made a lot of enemies in the US when I came here because I insisted on using it in place of the euphemisms that had become popular. I do not mind “vessel” as a synonym but if you read my writings, more than most in the field, I love “pot” and “potter”. Among my first books were “Michael Cardew: An Intimate Account of a Potter”, “Potters of Southern Africa” and “American Potters”. I further angered the ceramics community by saying that Voulkos was not a sculptor (he tried this medium and failed) but a potter. And Pete, I might add, agreed.  


I have just walked out of a very prestigious project with Scripps College and the Getty Museum because I insisted on focusing on the fact that the art of Voulkos, Ken Price and John Mason grew out of their decade not just as potters, but as “functional” potters.  Scripps wanted to extract all pots and show the three as sculptors with the pottery buried from sight. I am at work on a paper, “Pot is a Pot is a Pot (with apologies to Gertrude Stein)” that argues that pottery is the only true art discipline in ceramics. For the rest, sculpture for instance, ceramics is merely a material choice like bronze or wood. So if you want to hang a pottery-hating noose around anyone’s neck, better find another victim or you will be hanging an innocent man.  


And what is this constant whining about “ceramic art”. I get the feeling that you think that this world has stolen something valuable from you. What is it; sales, prestige, credibility, the future? They do not spend hours, days and weeks fretting about traditional pottery. Their world is completely different from yours. There is no competition between you and them.  The collectors who buy “art” have little interest in traditional pottery because they are looking for art of their own time that is aggressively contemporary. Whether a work by Ken Price sells for $30,000 or $30 million is not going to have any impact on your business or daily life. 


Ceramics is not one thing but many things and each has its own discrete market. Maybe it is because many of the top ceramists today (Voulkos, Price and yes even Ohr) have a background as functional potters. But that is changing. The younger makers of ceramic art do not take that route and go straight from school to gallery. Most can’t throw. Most do not use pots as their vehicle. 


And as for my tastes, does it surprise you that a writer whose area of specialty is “modern history and contemporary criticism” would find artists who sailed on this ship appealing? It’s my field. It would be a little odd if I did not, a bit like a scholar of encaustic painting who hates wax. Your suggestion is that there is something wrong and sinister about this. I write what interests me. I suppose you have the same approach to your pots. You can choose to ignore my writing. I can do the same (or not) with your pots. 


Lastly, you ask how a movement can die when there are live crafters today? A movement and the discipline are two different things. The one is temporal, the other is not. For instance everyone understands that Modernism has died but art goes on. The Modern Crafts Movement is the same. Crafts goes on but its Movement has lost its edge and I would argue, its intellectual teeth. We have no Ruskin or Morris today. 


Craft shops may proliferate in North Carolina but you know there are another 49 states and in those the field is shrinking.  And in claiming the greatness for NC crafts (I partly agree with) you should have added that a recent study showed that the average earnings of a crafter in NC was just above $25,000. The family poverty level is $22,350. Booming it is not.


Bear in mind that I am not a pottery historian and critic but a ceramics one. That means that I write about many aspects of fired clay. Probably about eighty percent of what I have done involves pottery but probably not in ways that you would approve of. I find the vessel an endlessly fascinating format. At the moment I am on an art jag and have just finished a book on Lucio (not Luciano) Fontana who is in my opinion the greatest ceramic artist of the 20th century. The next book is Ai Weiwei whose blend of Chinese ceramic tradition and conceptualism is mesmerizing. After that its an anthology about the most famous and influential ceramic “vessel” in the last century, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. 


Then I am out. Any writing I do in the future will not be about ceramics. I have other interests, photography and dance being foremost. My departure is not the result of pique (although writing in other disciplines is more satisfying and I find the audience more sympathetic, less petty, and criticism is based on what I do and not who I am). Its just as Ken Ferguson said when I asked why he stopped making functional wares: “Its because I have reached a point where I cannot make better, only more.” Same here. 


I have taken you seriously. You do the same. Read more of my work and in a year you are welcome to attack again. Believe me, there are many things in my work to criticize. You could have a field day if you really put your mind to it. 


Fondest Wishes,