Ceramics: The End of the Story?
There can surely be no doubt that we have now passed from the twentieth to the twenty-first century and the arguments as to whether the twenty-first century began on 1 January 2000 or 1 January 2001 can be put aside. Whichever date we favour for this significant transition, we might at least all agree that the period of change from one century to another, from one millennium to another, has shown itself (somewhat predictably) to have been a fruitful time for a discussion of the ends of the things. It wasn't until I started to prepare this talk that I discovered that there was a name for this phenomenon: endism 1, and there is also a name for those of us who dwell deeply on finalities, passings, conclusions and the like. It seems that we are endists and that there are a lot of us about.
You need not look far for evidence of this. Try doing a search for 'endism' on the Internet and see what you get. Or consider the titles of the following books published in recent years: The End of Science 2, The End of Work 3, The End of Utopia 4, and perhaps most notably, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man 5. If all these big things really are over, what then are the prospects for the smaller concerns of life and the chances of survival of more localised forms of human activity such as studio ceramics? Is it time to surrender to this gloomy tendency, accept that what we call studio ceramics has run its course and proclaim the end of that as well? Before becoming too downhearted by what can appear to be the inherent pessimism of endist thought it might be useful to explore the phenomenon in general a little further before coming to any premature conclusions about the end of studio ceramics.
Firstly, let's put aside the more sensationalist manifestations of endism, those concerned with Doomsday scenarios and the hastening on of the end of the world as we know it. There's plenty of that available if you have a mind to look but I should think it is not to the taste of most of us here. However the prevalence of such apocalyptic thought does tell us something about the mood of the times. Paying attention to it can alert us to the heightened feelings which are engendered when there is the slightest suggestion that what we hold to be continuous, solid and reliable is threatened by closure. We should also note that for some people the prospect of the end of everything is exciting; although the end of everything in that instance usually means the end of everything that is not to such people's particular liking. That kind of endism can provide an opportunity for some to look forward to the victory of very partial worldviews. This is endism as triumphalism.
In The End of History, Francis Fukuyama's much-discussed article published in 1989 and his subsequent book published in 1992 6, the author talks of the triumph of the West, and the seemingly unstoppable success of the Western idea. He refers to the exhaustion of viable, systematic alternatives to Western, democratic liberalism and says that 'there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run' (original emphasis). 7 Now, I am here to talk about studio ceramics not political history and theory but Fukuyama's controversial thesis provides an important lesson for us. Fukuyama writes of the triumph of a particular political philosophy but he is hardly a triumphalist, trumpeting the victory of a particular ideology and the end of competing voices. Fukuyama is more concerned to articulate an awkward, dawning truth: that by all accounts, by all reasonable measures of what is going on in the world, Western, democratic liberalism now finds itself with no serious, ideological competitors. To put it simply, Western liberalism has won; it's the end of the story. History, in the sense of events, things happening in the world, will of course continue, but history, in the sense of a struggle for a dominant idea has ended.
In this paper I argue that such an insight can usefully, and I think reasonably be applied to the discourse surrounding studio ceramics and its position within the wider field of ceramics as a whole. I would ask you to consider if we are not justified now in asking the simple question: has studio ceramics won? And, if the answer is yes, is this in any sense good news?
So in framing the title of this paper as 'Studio Ceramics: The End of the Story?' I am therefore not so much concerned with writing the obituary of studio ceramics as with interpreting studio ceramics as an ideological phenomenon, which has at its core an implicit sense of historical destiny and convergence. Studio ceramics is therefore understood here as having taken on a particular responsibility both for articulating the potential of the medium of ceramics, and for nurturing and protecting ceramics as a discrete category of human activity. If, as Don Cupitt suggests, 'what people call history evolves over the weeks and years as the provisional outcome of a contest of stories' 8 then I would argue that we have good reason for recognising that studio ceramics has in the twentieth century been supremely successful not only in achieving a pre-eminent place for its own story, but also in achieving for itself the role of narrator of the ceramics story as a whole. Studio ceramics is the end of the story in the sense that it has come to see itself as the final chapter in the great book of ceramics.9
I must emphasise here that I make no claim and offer no evidence that the work produced under the aegis of studio ceramics is any sense better, technically or aesthetically, than any other kind of ceramics. But there is evidence that the ideology embedded in studio ceramics can now be understood as an unrivalled success. Before looking at some of this evidence I should say that my concerns here are with British studio ceramics although my arguments may also have relevance elsewhere. I should also point out that I shall be taking as examples people who make or have made pottery although I readily acknowledge that the term pottery by no means accounts for everything covered by the term ceramics. However I think it is fair to say that British studio ceramics has its practical and ideological roots anchored firmly in the twentieth century studio pottery movement. There may be some who would fight at all costs to preserve the nice distinctions between these two but I admit I find it difficult to separate them in many, if not most, circumstances. I must risk giving offence by sometimes conflating the two and talking, for instance, of the studio pottery/studio ceramics movement.
Ceramics: Telling the Story
Leaving aside the observation that most studio potters proved to be far more circumscribed in the wares that they made than that which Billington might have hoped for and encouraged, there is a sense here of the studio potter moving towards a privileged vantage point from which the whole field of ceramics can be accessed and interpreted. Billington was neither naive nor unique in her approach; C.F.Binns, Dora Lunn, Bernard Leach, Murray Fieldhouse, all of these writers felt it appropriate to provide some kind of historical survey in their pottery handbooks usually as a preface to the instructions which they provided to their aspiring colleagues, the new breed of individual potter.14 Leach may have been fussier than most in his choice of exemplary ceramic traditions, limiting himself to Raku, English slipware and Oriental stoneware and porcelain, but the range of ceramic styles and processes covered by the potter-authors referred to above is impressively diverse. The studio potter's inheritance was indeed a significant one, and one that brought with it a good deal of responsibility, as well as a range of possibilities. As the studio potter emerged as a distinct type, so the story of ceramics coalesced as a seemingly coherent field of endeavour with a distinct, historical trajectory.
As the history of twentieth century studio pottery/studio ceramics itself came to be written, its unique, privileged and seemingly conclusive position within the wider ceramics world became ever more apparent. Studio ceramics became, literally, the final chapter in an increasing number of publications which covered the history of ceramics in far more depth than any of the authors of the pottery handbooks had attempted. One of the most ambitious of these publications to have appeared in recent years is The Potter's Art by Garth Clark, which is subtitled A Complete History of Pottery in Britain. Clark's book, published in 1995, is divided up into four parts: The Peasant Potter, The Industrial Potter, The Artist Potter and then The Studio Potter as the last and longest chapter. In his introduction the author sets out the rationale for this, describing the book as consisting of four overlapping chronologies and he defends this approach by saying:
The metaphor of baton passing is a vivid and compelling one, but in its very success as a metaphor there is an uncomfortable reality laid bare at its foundation. This metaphor surely begs some important questions. If we, the studio ceramics community find ourselves carrying the ceramics baton, then where now should we run with it, and perhaps more pertinently, will there ever be any other kind of potter type to whom we can eventually hand it on? It seems as if the race is over but has anyone actually won? Are we really justified in consigning to history those non-studio potters who have played their part, handed on the baton and dutifully stepped aside? There is surely a case for looking more closely at these other ceramics stories and noting, at the very least, that their individual narratives have a life beyond their apportioned stages in the ceramics relay race. I shall briefly look in turn at the stories of these three other potter types as described by Garth Clark, with especial regard to the way that those stories have been positioned within the larger ceramics story. I shall begin by asking, what happened to the peasant potter?
The Peasant Potter
The Curtis family has been associated with Littlethorpe Pottery in North Yorkshire since about 1912 or 1913 when George Curtis started work there as a clayboy. He subsequently became manager and then owner of the pottery through marriage in 1939. George's son Roly Curtis continues to work the pottery although its continued existence as a going concern seems to hinge on plans to reposition it within a heritage context, somewhat in line with other potteries such as Wetheriggs in Cumbria. Littlethorpe has a good claim to be the most intact survivor of this kind of small local pottery, at least in terms of the preservation of the buildings and the continuity of methods of manufacture.17
As impressive as Littlethorpe, though in a slightly different sense, is Ewenny Pottery in South Wales. There are records of pottery making in this area since the fifteenth century and there is an oral tradition of a pottery on this site from 1610. For many years the Morgans family worked the pottery and in 1820 Evan Jenkins married into the Morgans and thus was established what surely must be the longest lasting pottery dynasty in Britain. Caitlin Jenkins, who now works at the pottery with her father Alun, is the seventh generation of the Jenkins family to have worked there.18 Unlike at Littlethorpe, the original pottery buildings at Ewenny, although they survive, are no longer used for pottery making but as a furniture workshop. A newish building provides working accommodation for the potters who continue to produce a range of thrown earthenware for sale through the attached showroom. Both Alun and Caitlin Jenkins have completed BA degrees in ceramics in Cardiff and so can be said to have trained as studio potters. However, Ewenny Pottery itself resists categorisation as a studio pottery and in terms of its market it still operates very much as a small, local pottery. For example, amongst the most striking aspects of Ewenny is that the potters continue to make a living almost entirely through passing trade. The pottery is situated on the road to the coast a few miles away and this must help, but it is not a well-established tourist area. There is some tourist trade but a livelihood is made easier here through what can only be described as local loyalty; people from a certain catchment area in South Wales buying pottery for their own use or as gifts, from a pottery which they more than likely remember from their childhood. This sense of the pottery being able to satisfy a need in the local community is one that many studio potters have aspired to but hardly, if ever, achieved.
Littlethorpe and Ewenny are both alike survivors against the odds, but that is not enough in itself to guarantee the acknowledgement of a studio ceramics community which has often, in real terms, been indifferent to the fate of such indigenous, long standing, local enterprises. Oliver Watson pointed out some years ago that 'it is surprising that Bernard Leach and Cardew did not try to seek out more thoroughly the remnants of the tradition whose passing they so deplored'.19 There are welcome signs of an awakening interest. Andrew McGarva's well-researched book Country Pottery is the first real attempt to cover the field since the Peter Brears book published nearly thirty years ago. But McGarva is selective; unlike Littlethorpe, Ewenny is not listed amongst the surviving potteries worthy of extended comment but then it does not fit his criteria. Ewenny is classed alongside Rye Pottery in Sussex as places which continue to produce 'pots of a decorative nature developing the 'art ware' style rather than country pots' (original emphasis).20 In referring to the large amount of this kind of pottery produced over the years by potteries such as Ewenny, McGarva makes his position clear:
But if ordinariness really is a criterion that should be taken seriously, where should we look for it now? Is the taste of the people who have bought the work of Ewenny Pottery over all these years not ordinary enough to count for anything? Applying a studio ceramics sensibility to small, local potteries inevitably results in an interpretation which gives undue weight to a highly refined taste which hardly connects at all with actual patterns of production and consumption which made and, in the case of Ewenny, continue to make such potteries viable. If the story of these small, local potteries continues to be told through a studio ceramics centred narrative how faithful can that story be to the experiences of the participants within that story?
The Industrial Potter
Others, however, did and it was during the middle years of the twentieth century that a contest of a rather undignified kind broke out between those in the ceramics world who on the one hand represented the factory and on the other hand represented the studio. Strong support for industry came from a perhaps unexpected source, namely, W. B. Honey, curator of ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Honey's predecessor at the museum, Bernard Rackham had been generally supportive of the emerging studio pottery movement in the 1920s through his articles in The Studio magazine but W. B. Honey in his book The Art of the Potter, published in 1946, showed himself to be far less convinced of their merits. One of the chapters of Honey's book is entitled 'Traditional and Modern Design in English Pottery' and it consists of the text of a paper which was presented to the National Council of the Pottery Industry on 26 March 1945. Honey compares a jug by Bernard Leach to work designed by Keith Murray for Wedgwood. Honey comments:
Honey's text gave encouragement to a pottery industry which in the early 1950s confidently believed in its power to see off this upstart called studio pottery. The pages of the industry trade magazines of this period provide interesting reading. They are suprisingly generous in their scope, including reviews of studio pottery books and exhibitions, but not so generous in their comments when studio potters or their supporters overstep the mark and make too grand a claim for their approach to pottery making. When they do then the full force of the pottery industry's wrath descends on their heads. A harsh but effective tactic by a reviewer in the November 1952 edition of Pottery and Glass was to dismiss studio pottery as a cult and to go on to claim that:
It is extraordinary that this extract continues to possess such resonance today, nearly half a century on, even though the reviewer was so strikingly wrong when he/she went on to sound the premature death knell of studio pottery by claiming that this 'fashionable artistic cult ... was knocked on the head in 1940, and has been lying on a cold slab in the morgue ever since, awaiting identification'.26
Indeed it is studio pottery/studio ceramics that has survived and prospered as the once mighty industry in Stoke-on-Trent has contracted to a fraction of its size half a century ago. But it is not just manufacturing capacity that has been lost; what has also disappeared is the capacity of the ceramics industry to fight an ideological battle. It is to the studio ceramics journals that we must now turn for discussion of ideas and for the airing of opinions rather than to the trade journals. There surely must still be some apologists for the industry who would point out the continuing importance of Stoke-on-Trent to the field of ceramics but we now have to look hard for measures of that importance in terms of a confident voicing of its position. The ceramics industry in Britain may well still have a voice, but if it does then it is one that is increasingly not being heard.
The Artist Potter
For example, the original representatives of this potter type, in spite of the fact that they were often associated with an Arts and Crafts ideology, were generally unhindered by any qualms about the division of labour. They would frequently employ others to complete parts of the manufacturing process which they were either unable or unwilling to complete themselves. The emphasis was clearly on Art rather than Craft and there was little if any investment in the idea of any particular skill having an intrinsic value within the overall ideology of making. For example the elevation of throwing to mystical heights would have to wait for the emergence of the studio potter a couple of decades later for its realisation.
It is extraordinary to reflect on the way that the completion of every task by the maker themselves has become endemic to the practice of studio ceramics. So much so, that when this code of practice is breached it can seem scandalous to the studio ceramics sensibility. Handing on responsibility for a part of the making is seen as something that artists might do but that studio ceramists should not. There are examples of contemporary fine artists who use clay but are not identified as studio ceramists, at least by themselves, and a strongly defining indicator of this distinction is the willingness of the artist to delegate key tasks. One of the most intriguing examples of this is Cecile Jonhson-Soliz who in strictly descriptive terms is both an artist and a potter.
For Johnson-Soliz craft skills are fundamental to her art; it is important that her work is as well made as it is well thought out. She has, however, no qualms about enlisting help when she needs it and she retains control of all the making processes. It is with considerable skill and sensitivity that she marshals the labour of herself and others as well as the conditions under which her work is shown. She is clear about her intentions and will hand on to others crucial tasks such as firing as long as she is confident that she will get the results she wants. There is no investment on her part in that attenuated self-sufficiency which has become a hallmark of studio ceramics and in abandoning such orthodoxies she creates considerable creative space for herself; space in which the appropriateness of the context in which her work is presented is as crucial as the quality of the artefacts themselves. Johnson-Soliz clearly makes pottery but has succeeded in avoiding classification as a maker of studio ceramics. There are other examples (Andrew Lord is one such) of fine artists who exclusively use clay as their medium, but who have taken great pains to avoid being called studio ceramists. However they have not escaped the often envious gaze of the studio ceramics community and such work is increasingly incorporated into the studio ceramics debate and into the studio ceramics consciousness. However much artists such as Cecile Johnson-Soliz and Andrew Lord would like to distance themselves from the ideology of studio ceramics, it is an ideology that has an increasing capacity for gathering such makers to itself.
To some extent, at least, the stories of the peasant potter, the industrial potter and the artist potter have been told by different kinds of narrators and have been heard by different kinds of audiences. For example, archaeologists and ethnographers are taking an increasing interest in country pottery, the design historian already pays a good deal of attention to industrial pottery, and even the art critic occasionally casts an eye on fine artists who use clay. It is, however, only studio ceramics as a category that enjoys the privilege and responsibility of being able to draw on the diversity of ceramics practice in order to inflect and enlarge not only its own area of practice but also the general discourse around ceramics over which it has a largely unacknowledged measure of control.
I have limited myself in this paper to a discussion of pottery making in Britain, but if there were time to extend my arguments to other branches of ceramics and to other countries then I believe that my argument would be strengthened further. For example, through coming into contact with some of the overseas students in my work at the Centre for Ceramics Studies in Cardiff, I have begun to realise that in very many parts of the world what might be called the studio ceramicisation of ceramic practice is accelerating. In many cultures it seems that the baton is being passed quickly now from peasant potter to studio potter without going through any intervening stages.
To go back to Garth Clarks metaphor of a relay race, I would argue that it is unimaginable, at least in the foreseeable future, that we as a studio ceramics community will have either the inclination or the opportunity to pass the baton on; there is no other kind of potter type on the horizon to whom the baton can conceivably be passed. Perhaps that metaphor itself is now obsolete, that kind of race is over, that kind of history making no longer holds good.
Of course people will continue to use clay to make pots and to make art and the diversity in the making heralded in the title of this conference will, I hope, be a continuing reality. But I also hope that when the story of ceramics is told in future years, the central role of studio ceramics in the narration of the story will be seen to have been discharged with fairness and with due regard for all the actors within that story.
In his article The End of History Francis Fukuyama wrote: the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. I suggest that similarly, the victory of studio ceramics can now be observed as having occurred in the realm of ideas or consciousness. I am left wondering whether the completion of that victory in the real or material world would be good news for all makers in clay, both within and beyond the studio.
1 A useful, short introduction
to the notion of endism is to be found in Stuart Sim, Derrida and the
End of History, Cambridge, Icon Books, 1999, pp.12-16. back
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