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Tuesday
Mar062012

Wrestling with Garth Post #3: Angry and Cheated?

“I have never understood why functional/workshop/traditional potters are always so angry, always so cheated by their culture.”  --Garth Clark

 

This accusation seems a little unfair to me.  I have gotten to know hundreds of functional potters over the years, and they don’t really seem any angrier than other groups of people.  And as to being cheated, most of us knew it would be a difficult ride when we decided to follow the potting muse.  Some of us have had to find other ways to make ends meet, but I think this is true for any group of people working in a creative vein (think of all the musicians and actors and dancers who wait tables and tend bar to continue pursuing the dream of an artistic life).

 

Is Anger Bad?

 

Lets ask a few fundamental questions before we get any further.  Have you ever enjoyed the company of a Dr. Jeckyl who didn’t occasionally strip down to his Hyde?  I think anger is a fundamental emotional quality that lurks in the personalities of all people.  It is a gauge of a person’s passion and conviction.  What is anger but an ability to feel outrage when boundaries are crossed and injustices are served.   To become angry is to acknowledge that there are principles worth fighting for.  Yes we have all met individuals who seem to have cut themselves off completely from their anger, who deny that they are even capable of such a base emotion, but these people tend to bore me, deluding themselves with lofty intellectual superiority complexes or half-baked spiritual depth which masks a denial of life’s pain (this is not the same as a mature person who has wrestled with pain and come to a spiritual epiphany which has resulted in an inner strength and calm).  Let me be clear that I am not advocating for living a life devoted to anger.  Rather I think anger can be used judiciously in arguments, and should be kept in check by the intellect.  When harnessed correctly, anger can translate into a motivating force in a person’s life or cleverly redirected into an intellectually delightful sense of humor.

 

It may seem presumptuous, but I hesitate very little in speculating that Garth is no stranger to wrath.  He has a wonderful sense of irony, and I can almost see his eyes twinkle as he probes for inflammatory reactions in his writing.  As he points out in his letter (see post #1) his job is “not to be a palliative but a goad.”  It seems to me that if a man is aware that his role is to goad people, it is unfair then to dismiss those people for getting angry.  But of course, if two opposing viewpoints entrench themselves in anger and hurt, it becomes impossible to have a meaningful conversation.  A goad must stir the pot until it begins to simmer, and the simmering pot must find a suitable expression for their thoughts without boiling over and making a mess.

 

Have we been Cheated?

 

I can say that even in the warm pottery climate of North Carolina, making and selling functional pottery for a living is a challenging existence.  The physical labor is difficult and the competition is strong and thick.   In order to make a living wage (this amount varies depending on how many expenses a given potter has), I work long hours.  And in order to make work that lives up to a standard I can be proud of, I am constantly thinking, experimenting and refining decorative techniques.  My lifestyle is not extravagant, but I do find myself getting into debt and then trying to pay that down after the next sale, particularly in this constricted economy.  And I admit that this is a source of stress and anxiety when raising two pre-teen children.  What do I get for my labor and stress if not financial security, and is there any defense that could withstand Garth’s scrutiny?

 

“Did you not know when you committed yourself to this calling that it would be a tough and misunderstood road?  Did you not realize that there is a touch of anachronism in your calling that would have consequences in how you are valued and defined?”  --Garth Clark

 

No potter (living or dead) ever told me that the potting life would be a cake walk, but in many ways I have felt fortunate to have enjoyed working in a fat economy up to this point.  But the economic tide that has floated us all during good times has receded under every boat in the harbor.  Potters have not been singled out for persecution by financial difficulties.  People in every trade are having a difficult time selling the fruits of their labor.  How then should we justify feeling cheated?

 

As to being misunderstood by my society, I think we in North Carolina are fortunate to enjoy a degree of understanding and level of interest which goes far beyond what our friends in other areas of the country do.  The “touch of anachronism” Garth refers to can actually be a boon in a state where the scholarship and collecting public has primarily focused on the history of the medium.  Many of my customers enjoy collecting pottery precisely because it tethers them to the cultural history of our region, and though some collectors are only pursuing prime examples of the older wares, many collect both antique (or vintage) and contemporary pottery.  It is my opinion that the dialogue between historical and contemporary ceramics has always been a fertile ground for creating engaging work (surely Garth will concede this point), and this conversation is certainly one of the interesting components of working in this region.  But potters here are free to bring any number of aesthetic agendas and be heard because customers and collectors have an appreciation of the material, techniques and hard work involved in the production of pottery.  Indeed, if you are a successful and respected potter in this state, the public smiles on you!  We are viewed as skilled artisans: both hardworking craftspeople and to the extent that we explore the principles of art and design, “artists.”  

 

 

Digression: [skip this if you find art/craft tedious]

 

There is no line in the sand which delineates art from craft.  People use the words casually and at times interchangeably, and this is certainly frustrating for those who struggle to maintain clarity on this point.  Art and craft can be viewed as a continuum or an ongoing intellectual debate, but the answer is still a work in progress and will always be up for cross-examination.  Most people acknowledge Andy Warhol was an artist, but in two hundred years will people still think of his work that way?  What about the remaining photographs of Duchamp’s “Fountain”-urinal.   In several essays in his book Shards, Garth struggles with the slow process of canonization of the ceramic art of the twentieth century, but canonization isn’t necessarily a lock that requires future generations to understand or appreciate the art in any more than an academic way.

 

Resolution:  The Payoff?

 

How does a potter who is at the mercy of the economy and the financial limitations of his/her field prevent the bitterness that Garth implies is an inherent part of the pottery package?  I am not the same person I was when I started down this road.  I wish I could laugh off Garth’s assertions entirely as I would have when I was twenty-five and bulletproof.  At forty-one my back and joints feel significantly older and I bear a few wrinkles from enduring the anxieties that come from raising children on an undulating cash flow, but I am not an angry crank who feels cheated by my culture or the idealism of my youth. Though I have come to respect Garth Clark as a writer and friendly acquaintance, I feel justified in resisting his dismissal. 

 

I am part of a craft movement and heritage that is very much alive and continuing to reinterpret and reinvent itself.  I have enjoyed the privilege of creating a body of work that has been sought and bought by a stimulated and discriminating clientele among an excellent group of peers.  Pottery has given me an outlet to channel my energy and explore my aesthetic thoughts and feelings, and that has been a reward in itself that is hard to calculate or quantify.  I can recognize the mental and physical demands of the life without anger and bitterness.  I would certainly grieve if I ever have to walk away from pottery, and I am learning that I must look for ways to work smarter if I want to stay in the game as I age.  I look forward to the opportunity of introducing Garth and his partner Mark del Vecchio to this community in October of this year, but we can only lead the horse to water; whether he wants a drink is entirely up to him.

 

 

With Liberty, Justice and/or Crucifiction for All


Let me close this post with some pictures of a pot from the recent firing which I think illustrates how a person might use anger creatively in the pottery medium.  So I've taken my frustration with the notion that this is both a secular and Christian nation, and added my frustration with the fact that justice tends to favor wealth and put it all together on a jug that makes me smile.  The second and third images are of the same side, but I needed two pictures rather than one with a bad glare spot that prevented reading.  I'm so angry at photography!

 

Enjoy

 

 

 

 

 

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Reader Comments (1)

Matt,

This is a wonderful discussion, and you are an eloquent and thoughtful writer. I am so glad that you are out there to add your voice to the conversation of how we appreciate what we are doing.

I'm trying to read these all in order before I respond, but I thought there was enough up to this point that I could safely give you my take on things.

You can tell from Garth's stance that the idea of the status quo has an overarching importance. He asks us to prove ourselves to the 21st century as if its institutional perspective is the only measure, and he disparages our tribal anachronism as if its 'out-datedness' is an automatic disqualification . And I suppose its easy to feel justified when there is so much confirming this bias. There is a whole establishment in place that rests on the ideals of 'Art' as this but not that, and in fact this is how Garth himself makes his living. So of course he is invested in defending this turf.

But 'is' and 'ought' are two very different things, and so it is only inevitable that real life inequities are felt in some corners. The world is simply not set up to encourage all endeavors equally, and how things fall out can sometimes be more a matter of existing prejudices than any rational merit. And especially with the high end gallery world occupying such a prominent position in how artists make their living it only stands to reason that some folks excluded from its opportunities would feel envy. Since Garth sits on one of those thrones he obviously has felt the anger of artists who believe they are not being dealt with equitably. Potters in particular are being asked to sit at the back of the bus. And only the rare exceptions seem to be fed from the scraps at the high table. Is this fair? Not that Garth owes potters anything, but is there any logic that justifies this other than the opinions of an orthodoxy serving their own best interests? If Garth's argument is that potters don't make 'Art', well isn't that a bit circular, since he's the one telling people this? Its just hard to make the same case if we drop all the scaffolding of institutional supports propping up one thing at the expense of holding another down....

But as you also point out, we potters DO have an audience that appreciates our work and the prices we put on it. QED. If Garth needs more of an argument than that, I'm not entirely sure what he's looking for. If need is measured by the workings of supply and demand, then it is quite obvious that fine art is itself in no better position, and that it continues to make itself less and less relevant to the population at large. We might even turn the question on Garth and ask how Fine Art intends to justify itself in a world that is increasingly turning its back on Art's inscrutable antics.

It may look to Garth as if Fine Art is justified, but that's only because he gets to look at the bank statement that tells him so. The audience that supports his position seems ever smaller, and perhaps that also means his argument is slimmer and slimmer as time goes on. From the vantage and advantages of the high table, Garth and his cronies are still living off the fat of the land. And this aristocratic beneficence simply doesn't always spill over to the peons and dogs fighting for scraps at the bottom end. I'm one of those dogs, and I sometimes resent it. I hate being told to sit at the back of the bus, or remain standing while the privileged class and limelight dwelling aristocracy get the benefits of reputation and institutionalized status. Call me envious and call me sometimes angry.

No one said it would be easy to live as a potter, but that doesn't mean we have to be happy when some folks gleefully put the heel of their boot on the back of our necks. I always get the feeling that Garth NEEDS pottery to be something he can walk on to justify breathing the rarefied air he enjoys. My question is, can't the world of Art easily include ALL these things? Does one form of creative expression have to be punished in order to elevate something else? Does Art always serve a community's needs at the expense of something else being shunted to the side? Why (except for elitist concerns) does Art insist that only the most narrow and exclusive definition will do? Simply because a gallery can sell it better that way?

If Garth was fighting for scraps outside a dumpster and not eating prawn sandwiches and sipping champagne he might be a little less inclined to trample honest folk trying to make an honest living. That was unfair, but of course its entirely self fulfilling to imagine that the things one is surrounded by are the only things that are important. Well, of course they are! But can we not also be open minded and see that there is a wider truth than the one that comforts us? Just who does it serve that potters are so often kicked to the curb?

My potter's 'G' spot would simply be a world where potters were not slighted by an establishment that asks it to 'justify' what it is that potters do. Do potters really need this official institutional credentialling to be deemed valuable citizens of the art community?

Now on to read the rest of your essays!

April 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarter Gillies

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