In and Out of the Flame: The New Wheel Order

In and Out of the Flame: The New Wheel Order

What I refer to as “the new wheel order” is a restoration and expansion of the notion of function in ceramic art. It involves the consideration of optical warmth as well as optical worth and regards function beyond mere utility. It asks the question, “when does meaning occur”? By meaning I infer the actual experience of art.

Does this experience happen at the museum or gallery or in the kitchen? Albert Barnes wrestled the issue of art as experience throughout his career and long friendship with John Dewey. He tried to bring his extraordinary art collection to the public in a manner that philosopher Martin Buber would have referred to as an “I –Thou encounter”. In approaching such an encounter, we as potters are advancing near the truth. Cezanne said, “Truth lies not in verisimilitude but in how things are”. And if one is to have or affect/effect an “authentic encounter” through one’s work, the intent of the maker is essential. In point of fact, why a person works is so fundamental to the outcome of his labor that we must all look at our intentions and motivations honestly in order that our work will remain at the very least fresh and of ourselves. If a man’s character is his destiny, then the character of his work is his voice and bruising the air for a living is not a worthy exercise.

Twenty years ago, there was a consensus among potters about why they were making pots. A conversation between two potters at that time was likely to range from nature to God and back again with forays into poetry and the essence of being; using pots as indexes in and out of these ideas. The notion of creating a life outside the mainstream culture was a consoling and motivating force in the decision to become a potter.

Like Robert Frost, we came to the fork in the road and chose the path least traveled. Pots were discussed in terms of their warmth, strength, charm and usefulness. The spiritual quality of the potter’s life was equally as important, perhaps more so, as the work produced. We were walking, like Dylan Thomas, “through parables of sunlight and the legends of green chapels”.

Then pots became “vessels” and vessels became “cylindrical clay units of primarily potential use”, and potters became ceramicists. Why we were working shifted like an agrarian theocracy to an industrial society. As with any migration, physical or metaphysical, values change. Rather than “learning in the direction of light”, as Joseph Campbell advised, many potters began to lean in the direction of the light bulb— the light bulb of recognition from the fine arts establishment. Changing only slightly the title of Tom Wolf’s vitriolic attack on modern art from “The Painted Word” to “The Potted Word” you will see in large part what this “light bulb” has illuminated: The First National Symposium of Criticism in the Craft Arts.

While this event at New York University may have proven interesting, it’s very existence can also support William Butler Yeats’ words, “the weak lay hand on what the strong has done, till that be tumbled that was lifted high, and discord follow upon unison, and all things at one common level lie”.

While pluralism is not necessarily a bad thing, bringing in a trainload of art critics to analyze the crafts might well prove as profitable as ushering a herd of accountants into Chartres Cathedral to comment on the Stations of the Cross.

The reasons people offer for working with clay have changed radically.

Usefulness is often not even a consideration. A simple mixing bowl with an aggressive painterly surface is apt to be described as a curvilinear object with rectilinear marginalia whose content and sub content invoke an inchoate latent content.

Potter and writer Rob Barnard spoke to a gathering of craft majors at Virginia Commonwealth University on the importance of function in ceramic art. The irony inherent in such a discourse seemed to be lost on most listeners. Even Mr. Barnard somewhat dismayed at one point without losing his sense of humor said, “Look go ahead and wrap this building n Saran Wrap and we’ll call it art if you like; all I’m saying is that cups are art too”. Similarly, imagine a priest lecturing monks on the value of prayer.

A brief comparison between Octavio Paz’s introduction to “In Praise of Hands”, published in 1974, and the commentary in the catalog for “The Eloquent Object”, 1987, by Marcia and Tom Manhart will afford considerable insight into the changing reasons why craftsmen work. The Mexican poet-politician begins:

“Firmly planted. Not fallen from on high: sprung up from below. Ocher, the color of burnt honey. The color of a sun buried a thousand years ago and dug up only yesterday. Fresh green and orange stripes running across its still warm body. Circles, Greek frets: scattered traces of a lost alphabet? The belly of a woman heavy with child, the neck of a bird…A vessel of baked clay.”

Potter and teacher Manhart says:

New techniques, new materials, and combination’s of them have driven artist-craftsmen to search for new vocabularies—to produce not functions but ideas and images. These artists have freed themselves from conformity to the consumer’s conventional expectations of utility or decoration…clay no longer needs to form a vessel, a device for holding, storing, pouring”.

In reviewing these two essays and the works of the respective exhibitions, it would be clear even to a complete stranger that there has been a changing of the guard at many of the gates to the republic of crafts. For some, being freed from conformity to search for new vocabulary has led them to say, “Bravo, vive la revolution! Give us more words”! Others conclude that in art as in love some things are best left unsaid. My friend Mike Lormand says of the crafts, “We do art the old-fashioned way—we make it”.

Craftsmen today are indeed free to make what they wish. While many museums and powerful galleries still look at contemporary crafts through gauze of prejudice, the wound and wounded are quite healthy. Any illness from this point forward will have to be self-inflicted and the perfect blunt instrument is confusion about why we work.

Only the art world is capable of producing Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons. Misogyny and masturbation have never been within the province of the crafts. There are certain forms of perfidy and malfeasance that arrive by invitation only. If the crafts continue to tilt in the direction of intellectual rhetoric and marketing savvy, it will not be long before us self-indulgent, vainglorious works supplanting those of superior skill and content. And we will all find ourselves agreeing with Somerset Maugham when he said, “Art for art’s sake makes about as much sense as gin for gin’s sake”.

The wisdom of the heart, particularly in the crafts, must never be supplanted by the ruminations of the mind. A craftsman seeks meaning not accrued meaning. Craftsmanship is a tended, unintended meditation from which content emerges spontaneously. When the spirit and the hand are focused by making something as well as it can be made, the individual maker is “in the world but not of it”. Talk about your work later, but don’t confuse the pump with the water. An artistry born of rigorous craftsmanship can never be the opposite. A man or a woman who has chosen ceramic art as his or her direction in life, stands amidst a house in which there are many mansions; just know your address. If your address is one of bucolic splendor and you wood fire your work in a large noborigama or if you are an urban potter, firing your pieces in modest electric kilns—it makes no difference. The truth lies in and out of the flame.