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Speak for Yourself

Edmund De Waal




The author challenges ceramics practitioners to find their own voice and have the confidence to speak about their work. He is concerned about the interpretative vacuum that opens up when they do not do this, leaving open the possibility of disempowerment on their part. Silence is identified as a marker of authenticity for the potter and the failure to speak up can therefore be understood as a reluctance to put that authenticity at risk. Through reference to examples in Western studio pottery and oriental ceramics, the author concludes that much of this reverential silence is misplaced and only serves to close off opportunities for a richer understanding of material objects such as pots. The author ends with an appeal to ceramic artists to break the pact of silence.

Key Words: Silence, authenticity, studio pottery, Yanagi, Bernard Leach

Is it possible to address those silent and, to some, ineffable objects that we call ceramics, pots, ceramic art, art, and not fall into the trap of using those ever-helpful bits of short-hand (appropriateness, tactile values ...) that seem to arise when aficionados are gathered together? Is it possible to believe with passion that there is a great value to theory and still respond in engaging ways to objects? If theory is of value, why is not this more apparent to potters – and why are not more makers of ceramic art writing about their work? Why this great exercise in cultural ventriloquism on our/their parts? Does our critical language disempower the growth of their critical language?

Ceramics is an art whose practitioners have become peculiarly suited to silence. Their silence about their work and that of their peers has become a symbol for their seriousness as artists, in a way that is radically different from other arts. The truly authentic and serious potter is the one who unknowingly makes pots, whose artistic journey is unmapped, whose silence allows a critical space to open up into which the critic, the curator and collector can step, who allows what could be described as an interpretative vacuum.

A silence or a vacuum allows for aestheticising encounters: Rilke writes in a letter of the 'hours I was able to stand in Rome watching a rope-maker repeat in his craft one of the world's oldest gestures, just like that potter in the little village on the Nile – to stand by his wheel was so indescribably and mysteriouslessly fruitful to me'.1 Mysteriousness, indescribability, ineffability united with ancient craft: the heady mixture of the encounter between the over cerebral writer and the authentically silent. The makers' silence is fruitful, is necessary for the poet's creativity, the reminder of physicality, of repetition and of a gestural language is the spur for the interpreter. Imagine if the ropemaker had talked. If we examine this vocabulary of interpretation we have more than a list of words to investigate, there is also a way of putting these words to use. And we come up with an attitude and a methodology for approaching the writing on ceramics, what might be termed an ethnographic approach to potters and to the making of pottery.

It is ethnography of a very particular kind. It is based on the positioning of the, normally, Western writer-critic-ethnographer as both 'the man apart', the dispassionate onlooker able to observe the goings-on rationally and impartially, and also to be the intuitive, instinctual colleague of the craftsman, to crouch next to wheel or kiln and enact the pantomime of shared skills. This is the taxing position of the colonial encounter with authentic craft, the problem of 'being there'.

Authenticity is a condition seen in groups that have not yet experienced the rift that Ruskin defined between maker and object within industrial society. Authenticity occurs elsewhere, noticed only by the anxiously inauthentic. Thus in the most obvious of ways it is 'a form of cultural discrimination projected onto objects', and, of course, onto people.

The first marker for authenticity is that the maker of the object must not be self-aware. The process of making must be consuming, thereby allowing little of the destructive self-consciousness that has infected the West. Consider this characteristic piece of aesthetic ethnography by Soetsu Yanagi, the theoretician of the Japanese Folkcraft Movement and interlocutor of Bernard Leach, writing about the Kizaemon teabowl, a bowl that a poor man would use everyday:

...a typical thing for his use; costing next to nothing; made by a poor man; an article without the flavour of personality; used carelessly by its owner; bought without pride; something anyone could have bought anywhere and, everywhere. That is the nature of this bowl ... The plain and unagitated, the uncalculated, the harmless, the straightforward, the natural, the innocent, the humble, the modest: where does beauty lie if not in these qualities ... Only a commonplace practicality can guarantee health in something made. 2

Yanagi's Korean potter, healthily illiterate, naturally aesthetic, too busy to be self-conscious is a vivid example of 'homo orientalis ... by nature mystical and concerned with great ideas', 3 the peasant craftsman who underpins the creation of Leach's authentic Orient. That great list of descriptive words 'the harmless, the straightforward, the natural, the innocent, the humble ...' is a lexicon of Orientalist language. These words occur throughout ceramics criticism. A recent paean to the wonders of anagama firing in an American magazine was constructed around them. These words tell of the Rilkean moment of the encounter between the silent maker and the incisive critic. To call it patronising is too facile: listen to the language of Leach when writing on the feeling of glazes to the touch:

Unconsciously our fingers are invited to play over the contours, thereby experiencing pleasure through the most primitive and objective means. Children play with pebbles with a similar awakening of perception, and Orientals have lost touch with the fresh wonder of childhood less than we have. 4

Authenticity precedes the fall into self-consciousness, the fall into language that comes in childhood, particularly dangerous for the Korean bowl maker, or the young Japanese potters counselled by Leach who wanted to escape their traditional roles:

A young 'individual' potter protested that our advice to stick to good old traditions was cramping. Yanagi and I, each in our own way, replied: "Be modest, these results of wild experiment shows indigestion, launch out into new only as you can understand it and feel it, in any case only a few have this natural creative capacity in my country". 5

The quotation marks framing 'individual' say much about where authenticity is sited and where it is held to be absent in this encounter. For the second marker for authenticity is that of tradition. An easily identified and extensive tradition is a safeguard against the novel. Tradition means knowing your place. Experiment is transgressive. For the writer-ethnographer it means knowing their place. The infantalising of the maker, like their silence, is part of the equation.

The third trace for the authentic object is that it should be made in quantity, preferably for everyday local living. As we have seen this was a principal definition for Yanagi, as it was for Cardew in West Africa. Quantity protects the object from becoming a self-conscious art-object. The valuing or endowing of that object with aesthetic meaning is the province of the collector, not the original maker. It is important that the maker cannot talk of aesthetic value or see aesthetic value as clearly as the critic.

Finally the authenticity must be easily communicable. The 'stylised markers' are both easily identifiable as strange, exotic and 'other', but, crucially, their difference from us, however dramatic, does not finally count for much. When we read Cardew or Leach or Susan Peterson, in their limpid and assured prose, the summary, repeated flashing up of a few images of the authentically exotic in their encounters is always without the mediation of any surprise, astonishment, wonder or bewilderment at what they see. It is as if they had already been there. The Korean potter waiting for his Yanagi, the Nile potter waiting for Rilke, Hamada for Peterson. In some ways, they had: what they see fits in with what they want to see and with what they went to see.

This is our inheritance: a collapsing together of words, ethical positions and attitudes to ceramics centring on an idea that some pots are more 'real' than others. When we read the literature of ceramics, that great and unruly mass of tracts, pamphlets, catalogues, monographs, surveys, 'plain speaking' essays on 'How to Reduce', public quarrels about good practice in magazines, the innumerable murmuring of glaze recipes, this is the vocabulary that underpins the edifice. In the language of praxis, the discourse on technique that occupies the huge majority of the writing about ceramics, this is the foundation stone. For if, as I suggest, the language of authentic making necessitates silence on the part of makers, then how do artists who use clay, makers of pots, ceramists converse except through that low level noise that could, and should, be called potchat? What is that bastardised form 'The Artists' Statement' – 150 words to say where you were educated, who did not influence you, what prizes you won, and a gnomic reference to Morandi – but a failure to understand how language works. Statements that fail to add up. Makers mistake their reverential silence when confronted by the essence of their own objects, the involuntary lapsing into wonder about their own ceramics for the authentic ineffability of 'The pot speaks for itself'. Except that it does not, and others do. There is, after all, such a thing as a platitudinous silence. And it means that conversations about interpretation, curation and display go on elsewhere.

What can we do about this situation? Attacks on canonical works continue to give me great pleasure, as my work on the construction of A Potter's Book shows. But the mere additions of 'neo' 'post' 'anti' or 'meta' to an argument does not qualify as intelligent rethinking of agendas. The scattering of a little post-modern bird seed round ceramics is not going to change the status of theory within our discipline, let alone encourage the rara avis of art criticism to take an interest in pots. And the risk is that the gulf between the makers of ceramics and critics will widen. The commonplace that there is already one language for critics and another for makers will become even truer.

My contention is that we have to reground ceramics within the material cultures from which they come, that is in the materiality of their making and in their commoditisation as objects. Both of these aspects are crucial. If we can take the complexity of the making of objects more seriously, rather than regarding their creation as an essentialist outcome of various cultural factors, then we may find that there is more to talk about in these ineffable objects than we thought. For instance when we overhear anthropologists, ethnologists or other writers on material culture talking what do we learn about the ability of objects to change their meanings? Due to the widely appreciated collection of essays edited by Arjun Appadurai we are familiar with the proposition that things have 'social lives': that is, that the same object can be successively recontextualized and that its meanings are radically contingent.

All objects are 'entangled objects'; entangled in the values of the maker and in that maker's appropriation of ideas and images, as well as the values of those through whose lives it is successively animated. If we believe this then we have to find a critical language that is lithe enough to cope with objects that do not stand still, and which play with the metaphorical references to which any object is susceptible. And if we believe this then we have to find a critical language that can map the influences and relationships between objects, that 'map of misreading' 6 that has proved so suggestive and so useful within literary criticism. 'Misreading' is more than the 'passing on of images and ideas': it is the critical act of interpretation that allows one artist to make space for their own work. Makers of objects do 'misread' in this way; do make those critical decisions about where to work amongst the cloud of presences, do decide about difference or similarity with other objects. If we can learn from the new ethnography that any 'biography of an object' will reveal that objects' meanings, we can learn from some aspects of the new literary criticism that it is often the things that remain unsaid that are most revealing. It is those areas left blank, their terra incognito, that are so intriguing.

Within the contemporary sculpture of this century from Duchampian ready mades, through Pop art to the affectionate interventions of Richard Wentworth, there has been a substantial body of art where the imperative has been to explore how the language of objects can be employed. There has been no great anxiety on the part of critics in dealing with this sculpture. Because it has often been an artistic intervention on a ready made object, rather than its creation per se there has been no expectation of an authentic approach to materiality. If you believe, as I do, that in making something it is possible to enrich even further the possibilities for exploring ideas, then the critical lacunae around ceramics seems even more heart-rending. Where in ceramics is that synergy between criticism and making that has become so common in other arts?

I am a potter who writes not a writer who pots. My writing is a response to areas of difficulty or anxiety within my life as a potter; it is a way of making conceptual space for my work and conceptual space for the interpretation of my work. Writing is another way for me to creatively misread work from the past or the work of my contemporaries, and I stress 'creatively'. Here is Eliot quoted by Venturi, himself an 'architect who employs criticism rather than a critic who chooses architecture':

criticism is of capital importance in the work of creation itself. Probably, indeed, the larger part of the labour of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, and testing: this frightful toil is as much critical as creative. I maintain even that the criticism employed by a trained and skilled writer on his own work is the most vital, the highest kind of criticism...7

If we can believe this – believe that it is worthwhile to encourage ceramic artists to break the pact of silence – we will have strengthened the vigorous critical pluralism that we all espouse. Hence my slightly zealous attitude.

This article was originally published in Ceramic Review, 182, March/April 2000 and is an edited version of a paper 'No Ideas But In Things' presented at the Ceramic Millennium Conference, Amsterdam, July 1999.



(Click on the end note number to return to the appropriate place in the article)

1 Quoted in 'Rilke and Things' by Idris Parry from Obscure Objects of Desire: Reviewing the Crafts in the Twentieth Century, University of East Anglia conference papers edited by Tanya Harrod, London, Crafts Council, 1997 p.13.

2 Soetsu Yanagi, 'The Kizaemon Teabowl', from The Unknown Craftsman, Kodansha International, 1972.

3 Brian Spooner, 'Weavers and Dealers: The Authenticity of an Oriental Carpet', from The Social Life of Things, edited by Arjun Appadurai, Cambridge, 1986, p.211.

4 Bernard Leach, A Potter's Book, London, Faber and Faber, 1940, p.37.

5 Bernard Leach, A Potter in Japan, London, Faber and Faber, 1960 p.88.

6 Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading, 1974.

7 Robert Venturi, 'Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture', Museum of Modern Art Papers on Architecture, 1966, p.18.

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Speak for Yourself
Edmund De Waal

Keeping Quiet and Finding a Voice: Ceramics and the Art of Silence
Jeffrey Jones

Filling the Silence: Towards an Understanding of Claudi Casanovas’ Blocks
Geraint Roberts

'Between the Dog and the Wolf'
A review of the exhibition by Christie Brown at the Kingsgate Gallery

London, 2 -12 October 2003
Babette Martini

Review by Bronwyn Williams Ellis

The Armenian Ceramics of Jerusalem: Three Generations 1919-2003
by Nurith Kenaan-Kedar

Review by Steven Goldate

The Artful Teapot
by Garth Clark


Speak for Yourself • Issue 5