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Book Review by Conor Wilson

Searching For Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter

Richard Jacobs
342 pages
Kestrel Books 2007


Searching for Beauty is comprised of forty sequential letters, written between July 2002 and April 2005 (roughly one a month, I calculate) by a collector of pottery, Richard Jacobs, to a maker of pottery, Christa Assad.

While the letters range widely over subjects as diverse as the pointless slaughter in Iraq and the deplorable state of rose-pruning skills amongst the young, the focus is on the contextualisation of contemporary pottery practice and its support structures.

Current models of practice are compared to historical models as well as other contemporary visual arts practices and set in a wider social context, with a particular emphasis on the supporting role played by the private collector.

It is, perhaps, an odd premise - old(ish) male collector writes long letters to silent, young female potter. In his introduction, David Jones writes:

The epistolary form he employs is reminiscent of Richardson’s Pamela , and is ideally suited to his style which takes in the panoramas of contemporary life through the conceit of writing personal and private letters.

While Pamela is constructed solely from the letters of the eponymous heroine, Richardson developed the format in subsequent novels to include the letters of several characters, thus affording the reader multiple viewpoints. About a third of the way into Searching for Beauty I began to long for another voice - some answers to the many questions posed to Assad, or some questions of her own. She appears fleetingly, in a few photographs and in her foreword to the book (in which, to be fair, she is thoroughly positive.) Her absence, for me, creates some awkward moments. For instance, prior to a moving personal account of the torture experienced by an Abu Ghraib prisoner, Jacobs says:

I want you to bear witness with me. Damn it Christa, if we are going to talk about pots and something called ‘beauty’ we need to understand that dark side of the human species, we need to somehow reconcile these irreconcilable things. Help me make sense of this. Isn’t that what friendship is all about? (Letter 29 p.201)

While the broadening of context is refreshing, I was prompted to consider the premise of the project. Are these letters to a friend? We do get a sense of a mutually beneficial relationship developing, but I’m not sure about friendship. Assad is voiceless and even her pots are absent, except through the occasional description by the author. What is certain, for me, is that the epistolary format creates an editing problem. At 342 pages, the book might have blossomed more vigorously after a little pruning of its own, but as the letters constitute a sequential record of this relationship, I suspect that they have been edited lightly, if at all.

While I think he has more in mind than self-rumination, Jacobs does not romanticise the ‘contract’ he has made with Assad:

all relationships are reciprocal, whatever the surface difference in age and situation. Without personal cynicism, the motivation for generosity always contains the self service of human need - even if in this case it could be the pleasurable excuse for self-rumination.

This is his great strength - he constantly questions his own opinions, his own prejudices. As my criticisms started to build I would regularly find, several pages, or several letters later, that he makes similar criticisms of himself. (p.275 and p.293)

In the early letters Jacobs sets out the themes that he will explore at length in the book - the value of craft in general and pottery in particular; the value of tradition, moderation, application and control in the creation of a ‘good life’; the importance of cooperation, conservation and the ‘local’; the importance of a broad education, intellectual engagement and the generalist, or amateur; the role of the collector; the importance of the everyday experience of beauty.

There is much to agree with here and these early letters contain some terrific passages:

You are embedded and enshrined in the artifact - including the unconscious orientation of your time and place, the world view grafted on you at birth, the parochial elements of the neighbourhood of your youth. You cannot ever erase all evidence in the pot of the world that made you. You can only add self-conscious elements that form the truly creative aspects. This dual struggle requires great energy - to create yourself and those self advertising artifacts that celebrate that self - all at the same time. You must surely learn to love yourself - forgive yourself - and go on. In fact perhaps the greatest triumph will occur when you find yourself in the pot, when the pot represents a personal identity that you could never understand any other way. (Letter 2, August 2002)

And from Letter 6, October 2002:

Hands allow us to make mistakes. Mistakes are the ultimate proof of our humanity...We will never achieve the seamless perfection of the machine. Art contains our insecurities and physical limits as well as our talents...We must reach definitions of excellence that forgive and complement the labor of our hands.

He asks pertinent questions about the value of making - and supporting the making of - pots at this particular juncture in history. His ‘outsider’ status allows him to pose questions that perhaps seem too obvious for many practitioners to ask of themselves:

I assume that each potter has her own ‘moves’. As with classical pianists, even with the same composition, the physical experience at the piano is quite different and the interpretation is never exactly the same. In the audience, I can observe the posture and facial expression, the movement of the hands and fingers as they slide up and down and hammer and caress the keys. I do not know if there is a classical potter’s hand, the ideal hand for the potter. Is a big hand more impressive? How about long fingers? What about the wear and tear on the hands? (Letter 6)

There are many such questions, usefully probing the nature of and the reasons for making by hand, but, while I did not perceive this negatively on the first reading, it contains the germ of my main argument with Jacobs. He frames the role of the potter as the interpreter of tradition, through the application of skill, while claiming for the collector/custodian the role of shaper of meaning - he seems to want a blank canvas, or a blank pot, on which to project his own meaning. He cannot resist seeking out a role in the creative process:

Christa, are you willing to share the aesthetic definition of your pottery with the perceiver or collector? Do you mind if their appraisal or response is vastly different from your original aesthetic intentions? Are you the final authority in the official definition of your own pottery or can you be overruled or replaced by the aesthetic version of the pot by the perceiver? Could it even be possible that you would accept and modify your own assessment of your pottery by the evaluation of the critic or perceiver? ... I do not want to let go of this business with aesthetic experience. It is what I do each day. I might have even more practice with this than most potters. (p.190)

I wonder if the invocation of the spirit of Barthes’s dead author is in the service of all readers, or just of this particularly sensitive one? Do his adversaries have as big a stake in the creation of meaning as he does? ‘Poets and dreamers’ excepted, he seems to distance himself from just about everyone - the Disney-loving consumers of popular culture; the power brokers of the art world (academics, critics, curators and gallerists); ‘vulgar’ contemporary artists; art circuit cliques. He starts Letter 39 with a complaint about his lack of standing with this last group:

I remain alone, no one approaches me during the day or evening proceedings. I just don’t think the way they do, I do not approach life or art the way they do. I cannot trust them with the power to sweeten or spoil my day. I will soon withdraw, protect myself and find comfort in the private world of my garden and the few rooms of my cottage.

But there is hope! By the end of the letter the ‘New Walden’ has been transformed into the HQ from which to launch a fresh assault on the forces of conformity:

Well, I do feel better. I can hold out. I am still a bit puzzled. A complete stranger and outsider, I have recently been published by The Studio Potter and welcomed as a major presenter at NCECA, the largest annual arts conference in the world. I have corresponded with potters in Britain, Canada and the U.S. who have expressed their positive response to my letters. But around my own immediate world, I am ignored by those members of little cliques at symposiums and lectures that do not welcome unknown strangers who ask unexpected questions. Well, in my splendid isolation I will continue this quest, continue to write letters to you. See Christa, what I want you to understand, what you must know by now - I just don’t think the way they do.

For her part, Assad does not seem to be opposed to this joint quest for meaning. As the letters multiply, Jacobs increasingly frames the project as a collaboration. Following a discussion of Peter Dormer’s introduction to a section of The Culture of Craft (1997), he writes about a joint exhibition of Assad’s pottery and his letters in the Oakland Museum of California Art and the NCECA presentation:

Both these venues offer us the opportunity to articulate our thoughts on matters important to potters and the greater public. I want to end this letter with a very pertinent quotation from Peter Dormer...It poses the challenge of what we are trying to accomplish in our collaboration. ‘The craftsperson cannot very easily explain the rightness of what she or he has achieved; other people have to recognise it. They have to see it. And because craftspeople cannot explain the reasons behind their work they are in an unhappy position in our society...’ If we can make a small contribution to this problem, to help the potter reflect on the ‘real meaning of what they are doing’ and thus to articulate and demonstrate the integrity and significance of their knowledge as exemplified in their work and lives, then indeed our mutual effort and our joint hopes in this regard have a basis for fulfilment. (Letter 36, p.282)

While I would not pretend that all, or even most, potters are contented craftsman philosophers, I think that most are aware of ‘the real meaning of what they are doing’. That is why they keep on doing it, despite possessing the somewhat embattled defensiveness characteristic of the individual who is only too aware that his/her need to make is greater than the market’s need for the product. I can only assume that Jacobs thinks that he can be part of a movement that will encourage more people to collect, a role to which he assigns many positive qualities:

The preservation and collection of art should be inspired and motivated by a generous and greater impulse than lust for the objects themselves. To love the aesthetic gifts of human civilization, you must first respect the dignity and humanity of all its members. It does not matter to me if this has not always been the case, I will not relinquish the principle. To conserve art by personal possession without also trying to conserve the culture of the greater community is an act of intrinsic self-centredness and selfishness. (p.233)

A curious mixture of self-awareness and arch rationalisation. I’m reminded of a friend, also American, whom I thought of until recently as a ‘collector’. I introduced him to another friend as such. His response went something like, ‘I don’t see myself as a collector. I just like buying stuff’. This from a highly sophisticated man, with a great eye and a serious collection of contemporary art, including ceramics. A recognition, I think, that the activity of collecting is shot through with ambiguity. This is where the letters are most interesting for me. The role of the collector has come very much to the fore in recent years, as evidenced by the growing literature on the subject and the positioning of key events such as SOFA in the States and Collect in the UK.

Jacobs’ self-assessment is in no way simplistic - he is aware of the conservatism of collectors in their need for ‘security and stability to maintain and preserve their precious hoard of loved objects’. He questions his desire to juxtapose ‘obsolete or passé aesthetic expressions’ with   ‘modern and experimental ones’, prompting a late-life crisis:

My preferred self-description would assure the profile of a progressive and dynamic person, embracing new experiences and ideas while still appreciating the past traditions that stabilize our lives. But this grumpy old man is not so sure of that self-serving advertisement. I need to pull a particular rabbit out of the hat - politically and socially progressive but culturally conservative in regard to much contemporary artistic production. I’m just not sure I can pull this off.

Ultimately though, despite his doubts, he assigns to himself a central role. In the last letter he reviews his notes on the joint exhibition in Oakland:

this integration of language and the material artifact of the pottery enhances both. They are not only compatible and complimentary, but they can enhance and empower each other; the perceiver - that is the collector - and the artist/craftsperson - the maker - are natural allies and collaborators. The collector sponsors and supports the arts and the maker gains the improved morale that comes from that attention and the material rewards of the purchased pottery. The collector obtains the privilege to live in his domestic environment with the objects that grace his daily life. The collector becomes temporary docent and protector of these examples of human civilization.

You can see that this might work on a small scale, but I can’t see how it could possibly be seen as a model for the future of ceramics. It just doesn’t work this way - there aren’t enough collectors to go around. Obviously, they are a crucial part of the art/craft world. Most artists would dearly love to have one or more collectors taking a keen interest in their production. I recently visited the Anthony Shaw collection in London and was surprised to discover the extent of the representation of Ewan Henderson and Gordon Baldwin - perhaps career-making levels of support. No one should deny the importance and influence, in certain cases, of collectors, but to attempt to codify the collector/maker relationship in the terms of a collaborative enterprise is a step too far.

A reading of Russell W Belk’s Collecting in a Consumer Society reveals Jacobs’ rationale for his collection to be very typical. Drawing together much of the current literature on the subject, Belk identifies four principal justifications given by collectors for collecting, or means by which they ‘assuage the guilt of self-indulgent acquisitiveness’:

  1. Blame it on human nature by invoking the collecting instinct or an acquisitive urge that is supposed to be basic and unavoidable.
  2. Cite the rational economic motive of investment.
  3. Similar to 1, but using the language of pathology, e.g. bibliomania.
  4. Portrayal of the collector as saviour of lost, neglected or endangered objects.

Belk does not see collecting as ‘bad’, just that, despite the various justifications, it can be usefully analysed alongside other aspects of consumer culture. There are all kinds of reasons why people collect, but they are not necessarily the ones that they admit to. Jacobs concedes that his collection gives him a, probably illusory, sense of control in an otherwise uncontrollable, chaotic world (p.183). At one point he even admits that the designation ‘collector’ offers the excuse for selfishness (p.153). However, while he uses the ‘pathological defence’ once or twice, he takes the ‘saviour defence’ to a higher level. In fact, he creates an interesting opposition between the investment and the saviour defences, thoroughly refuting the former with the latter and assigning to himself a noble purpose:

Collectors feel deeply indebted and grateful for the gifts of human civilization. That is why they are willing to take on the responsibility for taking care of a small portion of these cultural treasures for the brief measure of their lifetimes. Surely I am not the only one to experience beauty every day - all day? (Letter 37, p.285)

It is this mixture of humility and special status that starts to grate. Jacobs seems to me to be thoroughly engaged in the pursuit of influence, while simultaneously cloaking himself in the garb of humble amateur. He positions himself as a radical outsider, a scourge of the institutionalised academic, a cultural conservator, a utopian dreamer, an aesthete, while quietly getting on with high level consumption, if at a modest level, in the richest and most powerful nation in the world.   Or not so quietly. All this would make sense if it were not published and exhibited and generally used as a vehicle to promote a very partisan point of view within a discipline that might just be on the edge of attaining a mature catholicism.

I suspect that the positive response from Assad and others in the craft ‘community’ encourage an increasing intolerance of positions perceived as antithetical to ‘honest’ craft practices. This might seem harsh, but Jacobs is highly critical of a broad range of players in the complex and competitive business of the creation of culture - academics, curators, gallerists, artists and, last but not least, ceramicists who try to do ‘fine art’.

After a brief discussion of the ‘rebellious’, ‘defiant’ work of Robert Arneson and his followers in Letter 22, he asks:

Did those ceramicists who determined to continue functional pottery lack the social conscience or political commitment to activate their craft for progressive political causes or satirical attacks on the powerful? Christa, wouldn’t it be more fun to be a cultural outlaw, a bohemian eccentric with excessive habits and addictions, creator of outrageous objects that offend and shock the staid respectability of those who could afford to buy them? Are you cleaving to ceramic tradition out of conscious conviction or a natural conformity?

I want to help you reply to that last question. Pottery contributes to the ceremonial and practical rituals of family life. Daily life enhanced by these ceramic objects within the home environment can become sacred and profound human events ... Sanctuary is an idea as well as that place we call home. The communion of people around a dining table has always been one of the major sites of active culture, communication and human civilization. (p.148)

He comes back to this theme in Letter 32, comparing Arneson to a newer breed of inauthentic makers:

Vulgarity and obscenity have become the calculated strategies of ceramic careers dependent on urban galleries, designed and packaged to attract sensational attention and to sell at inflated prices. (p.238)

Jacobs is right to foreground the importance of the domestic space and the role of pottery within it, but wrong to privilege these above other ceramic practices. Yes, there’s lots of crap out there and I, for one, am no lover of the work of Robert Arneson, but surely we don’t have to block one road in order to notice the traffic on another. Jacobs says as much himself, many times in the letters. He follows William Morris in recognising and celebrating the importance of the buyer, who will locate the work, care for it and enjoy it in its proper place - the domestic interior. This highlights, he feels, the inherent weakness of the gallery and museum, which isolate objects, not giving them a proper human context and he derides the contemporary artist who does not consider the ‘eventual custodian’.

The gallery and museum are not really decent places to view art. Art specially designed for those places is essentially dishonest; sensational objects designed to attract attention by their vulgar novelty. (p.87)

I know a few potters who make a hard, but decent living. Most, irrespective of talent or application, find it almost impossible to live off their pottery alone. This is just one reason why we need galleries and museums - they are a crucial part of that process, known as subscription, through which market value is created. Curators, critics, academics, collectors and other artists are the other principal players in this process. This process is deeply embedded in the fine art world, which is one of the reasons that high prices can be achieved. While this is not necessarily an unalloyed good, the craft world needs more of it rather than less. Yes, there is bullshit spouted about pretentious rubbish, but surely it is better to suffer some of this than have an under-developed market that can only support a small percentage of the excellent work that is produced.

Jacobs criticises the kind of ceramicists who produce piles of burned earth for creating anti-art, but to build an argument for proper potters as a ‘better’ alternative seems pointless. The two groups are playing different games and they will live or die by their understanding of the rules of the particular game they are playing. Whether something is art or not has nothing to do with the material used. Surely that was established about a hundred years ago. Can anyone still have any doubt that some shit in a can can be art? Or a ceramic urinal, or a pile of bricks, or a piece of lard on a chair, or an unmade bed, for that matter? It doesn’t matter if you like it or not - that is irrelevant to its status as art. I am not usually a great one for the burned offerings either, but I don’t regard it as anti-art. Anti-skill maybe, but not anti-art. And whereas skill is an important factor in my own work, some of the most affecting work I have experienced has not involved obvious making skills on the part of the artist - installations by Mona Hatoum, Richard Wilson and Rebecca Horn. And they were all in museum/galleries.

In many ways this is a brave book - it is full of inconsistencies, but the nature of the project perhaps makes that inevitable - and at times I feel that my criticisms are too strong. Passages like this one in Letter 8 hit the mark beautifully:

In my experience on the academic campus, the romantic impulses of the artist conflicted with the dominant mode of the objective and detached knowledge of science. The danger that this powerful methodology will objectify the arts into dependable taxonomies of regulated fact are great. The presence of the arts on an academic campus is simply unnatural. The conversion of the artist and intellectual into academicians was a form of institutional domestication that Emerson, Morris and Thoreau would never have tolerated.

John Baldessari and Michael Craig-Martin come to precisely the same conclusion in a fascinating conversation printed in the Modern Painters special edition on education in the arts (September 2007). But Jacobs’s need to criticise the academics also tempts him into many over-defensive statements, as well as down the blind alley of the art/craft debate:

In my view, ceramics will never be elevated to a fine art because of further refinement of isolated specialist knowledge, but rather through the efforts to connect ceramics to the core of human existence and human civilisation. Who has tried to do that in the West? (p.194)

I would suggest that Philip Rawson has tried and, largely, succeeded in doing this, despite Jacobs’ criticisms of his work. (I’m not sure what Jacobs adds to his ideas except that perhaps he is more optimistic about the ability of contemporary potters to be culturally relevant.) And perhaps this connection to the core of human existence is the very reason that ceramics is not considered as fine art, but the real question is, why would ceramics need to be elevated to a fine art?

This question seems to point to a confusion at the heart of the book and, perhaps, at the heart of ceramics. Jacobs uses the terms ‘potter’, ‘craftsperson’, ‘ceramicist’, ‘ceramic artist’ and ‘artist’ interchangeably, depending on the context within which the work under discussion has been presented. There are no simple formulae here, but surely, after forty odd years of identity crisis, we can come to some agreement about the position of ceramics which does not make reference to the circular art/craft debate. I suggest that it can be seen as a loose conglomerate of material culture traditions - some living, some dead - based around a uniquely variable range of materials and processes.

The history of ceramics takes in the Song bowl, Etruscan sarcophagi, the sculpted terracotta of Waterhouse’s Natural History Museum, Oribe tea bowls, Wedgwood Jasperware, pre-Columbian stirrup pots, an Ikea dinner plate, Tatlin’s porcelain feeding bottles, Iznik tiles, Nok figurative sculpture, Tanagra figurines, Armitage Shanks sanitary ware, Giambologna’s bozzetti, Coper’s spade pots. The list could go on and on. Ceramics is not one thing. Clay is used within fine art, applied art, craft, design and industry, both high and low-tech. Most people who have studied on a ceramics course at university level position themselves as potters, designers, ceramicists, artists or ceramic artists. There are obviously blurred boundaries between these categories, but all are valid, apart, perhaps, from the last. (In my view, you can be a ceramicist and an artist, but not the chimerical ‘ceramic artist’. Is a painter a ‘paint artist’ or a sculptor a ‘stone artist’? )

In Letter 36 Jacobs writes:

Maybe pottery has to find that middle ground between art and craft, a moderate bridge that embodies a contemporary application of both skill and art. How many potters are ready for that challenge? How many can articulate that aesthetic possibility? (p.281)

Well, I think that many can articulate that possibility, but maybe we just have to accept that ‘pottery’ is many different things. There is no one tradition that has a clear place in western culture. What is usually referred to as ‘Ceramics’, a totally western concept, draws on pottery traditions from many parts of the world as well as from divers other sources, including sculpture and architecture. Pottery cannot contain clay.

Jacobs highlights some critical questions for the future of ceramics as a discrete discipline. His position, as I understand it, is that ceramicists should not engage and compete with fine artists and designers on their own terms, but should recognise and be more confident about the central position of ceramics (and pottery in particular) in any culture. The fact that he seems to have been so readily clutched to the bosom of certain sections of ‘the ceramics community’ suggests that his particular brand of inspirational traditionalism is what many ceramicists and educators within the field want to hear.

In many ways Jacobs is an effective advocate for pottery. At times he demonstrates real insight and his writing can be inspirational, but the elephant in the corner is that, for whatever reason, ceramics is not perceived to be culturally central and it has not been so for many, many years. Our minority recognition of the wonderful history and ongoing potential of ceramics as a medium and our desire for centrality is not, or at least has not been, enough. The vast majority of ceramicists struggle desperately to make a living and the trend in education, in the UK at least, is towards closure of ceramics facilities in schools and FE colleges and a much reduced share of degree- level funding.

This does not mean that ceramics is not a worthwhile enterprise. It undoubtedly is. I wholeheartedly recommend that young people go into ceramics, just as long as they are realistic and engaged. There are many skills to be learned that will equip a person for life - organisation, discipline, time-management, problem-solving, creative thinking, not to mention the particular skills of making by hand. There are even good careers to be had, as long as you are flexible and resourceful. Despite the various problems that we face, both within ceramics and at a wider socio-economic level, this is an exciting time to be involved with the arts. Craft skills and creativity are part of the solution, not the problem. Boundaries are blurring and dull hierarchies have all but collapsed. While the design world already boasts many ceramics-trained designers, fine artists are increasingly using clay and we might just be starting to see artists trained in ceramics making a genuine crossover into the fine art world. Craft is fashionable at last, but we need to ensure that we engage with the world around us and not merely hope for a return to a perceived golden age. Craft, like everything else these days, needs to be self-reflexive.

Jacobs’s model seems backward looking to me. Yes to pottery, yes to tradition, yes to collectors. But, surely, yes also to critical engagement and positioning. Whatever opportunities there are will be taken up by those who position themselves well and adept positioning does not necessarily lead to fashion-following or loss of integrity.


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by Moira Vincentelli

Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) & Zulu Ceramic Arts: Azolina MaMncube Ngema, One Woman’s Story

by Elizabeth Perrill

Barvas Ware: Women Potters of Barvas, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides.

by Kate Wilson

The Pottery of Northern Ghana

by Anna Craven

The Role and Status of Women in the Pottery-Making Traditions of the Western Balkans

by Richard Carlton

Coalpot and Canawi: Traditional Creole Pottery in the Contemporary Commonwealth Caribbean

by Patricia Fay

An Angolan Heritage: The Ceramics of Helga Gamboa

by Helga Gamboa

Dialogues with Tradition in the Ceramics of Eytan Gross

by Nurith Kenaan-Kedar

Sankofa exhibition at Manchester, review

by Angharad Thomas

Sankofa exhibition at Aberystwyth, review

by Kathy Talbot and Louise Chennell

Searching For Beauty, Richard Jacobs, book review

by Conor Wilson

Review of the event 'Richard Jacobs and Jeffrey Jones in conversation in Cardiff

by Natasha Mayo

Breaking the Mould, book review

by Alison Britton

Kiln Building, Jo Finch, book review

by Tom Barnett

Book Review by Conor Wilson • Issue 10