“I am waiting for a twenty-first century raison d’être for studio pottery and still have not heard it from anyone.”
“There is no longer a need for handmade pots and there has not been one for the greater part of a century.”
“One needs a plausible contemporary explanation for why you make pots today if you want to enjoy a reasoned debate.”
I have cherry-picked the above statements from three separate paragraphs of Garth’s “G-spot” letter printed in the first post, because they are essentially the same point made with slightly different contexts. I will address the contexts in a forthcoming posts but for now, isolating them demonstrates that for Garth, this issue of the present time and a craftsman’s decision to make functional pottery are naturally at odds with one another. The subtext of this assumption seems to be that industry has eliminated the need for handmade pottery, and it is therefore irrational to continue making it in the twenty-first century. Obviously by repeating this point three times in a rather brief letter, it follows that this matter is close to the heart of Garth’s misunderstanding of contemporary functional pottery.
Aside: Major Digression Pondering Garth’s Sincerity on this Question
Curiously, I think Garth already understands contemporary functional pottery rather well. As evidence, let me cite several essays from his book Shards. In “The Fire’s Path” he clearly respects Michael Cardew’s body of work and allows Michael through judiciously chosen quotations to elucidate his own devotion to and philosophy of making pottery for which Garth seems to have great sympathy and earnest understanding. In another essay, “Betty Woodman: Storm in a Teacup, Anecdotal Discussion of Function,” Garth chronicles his own journey from skepticism to appreciation of a set of teacups the potter gave him as a gift, even going so far as to praise them for their “generosity of spirit” (this phrase is one I associate with “the anti-Garth,” Bernard Leach).
A third essay, “Murray and Leach: A Study in Contrasts” is perhaps his most revealing as it shows the career trajectories of these two early 20th century British potters defining the ever widening gulf between “Art” pottery or ceramic art and “craft” pottery or functional/traditional/classical (pick one!) pottery. I won’t thoroughly deconstruct this essay here, but I will say that although it is obvious that Garth’s sympathy is with Murray, I was slightly surprised and encouraged to read Garth doling out praise and understanding for many of Leach’s observations about the craft of pottery in its post-industrial context. Many of these sentiments are then echoed in a later essay called “The Future of Functional Pottery Part Two: Bernard’s Orphans, Searching for Neo in Classical.” His beef with the Leach phenomenon is not so much with the man, his work or his basic ideas but that together with his writings and relentless lecturing, his vision became something of a cult among functional potters. In Garth’s estimation many potters have allowed Leach’s teachings to go untested. His rhetoric or doctrine presented a tidy formula, which has discouraged independent thinking among the faithful. I can certainly admit to seeing a kernel of truth here, but I think when looking at individual potters and their work, it becomes obvious that this viewpoint is an oversimplification.
Particularly galling to Garth is Leach’s hypocritical stance on keeping pottery prices low and the way this stance has been stubbornly embraced by those it hurts most: potters. This is an interesting point that certainly has some merit, but I will hold off to write a full-length blog post on this rather tricky and deeply personal aspect of making and selling pottery. I think the cult of Leach and particularly Leach’s socialist/idealist notion of pricing has put Garth off to the point that he pretends not to understand functional pottery at all in the age of machines.
But what if Garth Sincerely Doesn’t get it?
For the remainder of this post let us assume that Garth’s question is sincere: Why should potters make pots by hand in a post-industrial era? The question seems so tainted with bias it is difficult to know how to provide an answer. I guess the idea is that industry has “solved” the problem of providing cheap or disposable wares for the market and therefore, making pots by hand is obsolete. But has industry or can industry ever “solve” the problem of humanity’s psychological need to appreciate natural materials and channel creativity into the making of useful or useless objects? Isn’t the very impulse for making craft or art being critiqued?
I wonder if Garth reserves this question for people who work in clay or whether he applies similar logic to craftsmen who work with wood to create furniture by hand? For instance the economies of scale that favor production of cheap “green” tableware must also favor the production of particleboard and plastic laminate tables. Does Garth question the man or woman who prefers to use real wood and build quality heirloom furniture or those who buy it? I doubt it. Garth may prefer a sleek modern steel table designed by an architect and assembled in a factory in a limited run which costs five times as much, but this doesn’t negate the choice of some consumers who choose a hand-made wooden table or the craftsman who derives satisfaction from building it. As the old saying goes: “there is simply no accounting for taste!”
For that matter why should anyone cook food or go to restaurants where chefs creatively explore the relationships of different flavors using the highest quality freshest ingredients in exciting new ways or those humbler establishments that serve up “comfort” or “soul” food that remind us of eating with our grandparents? We could simply open a can of Warhol’s favorite Campbell’s tomato or beef noodle soup and heat it in the microwave. Industry has met our needs cheaply and efficiently (and we’re the communists?).
My dog Mia
My family had a dog in 2011 that didn’t last a full year. She was hit by a truck in the road in front of our house a week before Christmas. We had adopted her last January, paid for her spaying and shots, bought food for her and treats and toys and trained her. We scolded her for eating food off our plates when our backs were turned or chewing up good shoes or getting into the trash or rolling in dead animals, but when she was killed we were devastated. This was an animal that gave us no eggs, milk, or meat, consumed our resources and damaged or destroyed our property. She was neither a hunting dog nor a flock tender, and she licked visitors whether they were menacing or kind. From a rational point of view, I should have drowned her in shallow water. Most of our pet animals don’t serve the same function they did 150 years ago, but we cling to them because their role as non-judgmental companions is still intact. They love us unconditionally and provide us with a completely unreasonable amount of joy. Love and perhaps some other abstract virtues (which are closely related to love) are in fact the only attributes of pets that make any sense, but as we all know, love is beyond rational thinking. I propose that the same may be true of making craft or art.
A “plausible contemporary explanation” is what Garth requires of pottery if we who make it or buy it want to enjoy a “reasoned debate.” This seems fair enough on the surface, but can ceramic art provide the same? What explanation of its virtues doesn’t depend on a subjective appreciation of it? If there are people who like ceramic art and other people who like to make it, the system works. There is a supply and a demand. The same holds true for pottery. I enjoy making pots, and my customers are willing to buy them to put in their homes. I like to make useful pots, but I am at least as comfortable making useless jugs, jars and crocks that do nothing more than refer to their own history. It doesn’t bother me that the traditional shapes are no longer used in traditional ways. They are simply objects that speak of their materials, the firing, some cultural trace memory (which seems to offer some of my customers a source of sentimental psychological comfort which I take a measure of pride in) and frequently some stylized imagery which attempts to convey the beauty of the natural world which has offered me so much consolation throughout my life. They are my dogs, my “mud babies:” physical embodiments of my affection for the imperfect world we inhabit.
Returning to the Fountain
This may not be the “plausible contemporary explanation” Garth is seeking. I have tried to be honest, but ultimately there is nothing rational about what I am doing. I make no apology for that. Let us return to Garth’s idea (discussed briefly in the first blog “Critique of a Critic”) that Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” is one of the most important pieces of ceramic art of the twentieth century. The actual urinal was not art at all. It was an industrial prop used by an artist to express the concept that art is not rational. We can explore the object with our minds in an artistic mode, but if it were in a men’s room, most of us would just piss on it. In my opinion, there are logical and rational thoughts involved in the production (or in Duchamp’s case selection) of the art or craft, but the inspiration that guides a creative person is frequently sub-rational. Is it ego or love or god or spirit or grief or some combination of these and/or many others? I really couldn’t say.