Articles & Reviews
Join in the debate
In the current Issue 10 of Interpreting Ceramics we are publishing a review of the book Searching for Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter by Richard Jacobs. The book has caused quite a stir and Conor Wilson's review examines at length many of the contentious issues discussed in the letters. Jacob's writing ranges freely over art, literature, philosophy and politics but the theme that Wilson especially picks up on (and in which he takes issue with the author) is that of the nature and positioning of ceramics as a contemporary practice. This is a theme explored previously in Issue 9 of this journal, where we published papers presented at the College Art Association in New York on 16 February 2007. At this event five emerging ceramicists gave presentations about their work. However, all five of the speakers went beyond a discussion of their own particular interests to consider the unpredictable and fluid boundaries that the field of ceramics offers to the contemporary artist.There is a further opportunity to make your own contribution to this debate. To do this, please go to the form to fill in at Registration and Feedback page. We are offering a 'moderated discussion' rather than a live debate, so your text will not appear immediately on the Interpreting Ceramics web site. We shall endeavour to publish as much as possible of the material that you submit but we reserve the right to edit where appropriate, for example, on the grounds of length of contribution.
Interpreting Ceramics ‘Join in the Debate’
A contribution from Richard Jacobs
I am the author of the book, Searching For Beauty: Letters from a Collector to a Studio Potter which was reviewed in issue 10 of Interpreting Ceramics. I happened to come across the review by Conor Wilson as I reviewed citations of the book on Google. I had the pleasure of meeting Jeffrey Jones, editor of this website, when he moderated a conversation when I was his guest at UWIC late last year. I found him a gracious and insightful host and thoroughly enjoyed our exchange and the presence and participation of those assembled at that event. I do use the computer for word processing and email but my expertise and proficiency ends there. I am a bit nervous about this novel mode of electronic communication, not knowing the etiquette or protocols of this mode of exchange.
I am also uneasy about the nature and character of my response. How can an author respond to a review of his book without being defensive or merely reactive? I obviously have a vested interest and am quite fond of both the author and the book. As I also indicated to Jeffrey Jones, I am not normally a combative or competitive person and do not wish to argue or attempt to score points in some kind of debate, nor be simply reactive in response. I am in an unusual position in this letter, at least for me, in reviewing a book review of my own book. I do not know if Mr. Wilson will feel further compelled to review my review of his review of my book.
I want to reply to some of Wilson’s commentary, attempt to expand and clarify some of what I consider are the essential attributes and character of my writing. I welcome exchange with people that care about the things that I care about. I appreciate that the diversity of views and perspectives from others will at best occasionally overlap mine but will also offer contrasting perspectives that emerge from a different way of processing and experiencing the world. I have never felt the need to repudiate or nullify the differing attitudes of others, only attempting to maintain the ability to protect and preserve what I value and cherish as the earned wisdom of my own lifetime. Most of all, this exposure to other viewpoints does provide me the opportunity to carefully consider and learn from others. I appreciate and welcome being the subject of any attention, even from strangers.
First, my response to some of Conor Wilson’s remarks. He mentioned at the beginning of his piece that he thought my relationship and letters to Christa Assad, the recipient of my letters, was based on an ‘odd’ premise. He was kind to describe me as ‘old (ish)’ and Christa as this ‘silent, young female potter’. Actually I am not ‘oldish’, I am old. I will be seventy-five in a few months, started writing the letters to Christa when I was sixty-nine and finished writing seventy-five letters to her when I was seventy-three. I met Christa when I visited her studio/gallery on Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco on holiday with my wife, talked to her for a few minutes, purchased one of her pots, then left. Shortly afterwards I wrote my first letter to her, indicating that I would like to send her a series of letters, based on the German romantic poet Rilke’s classic book, Letters to a Young Poet. I waited for her response and received a postcard saying she found the first letter interesting and welcomed further letters. Five years later, I had written seventy-five letters, over 700 pages of manuscript. The first forty letters are in this book; the last thirty-five will hopefully be published in the future. Rilke’s book also did not contain the return letters of the young poet to whom he wrote.
This form of literary genre is an old and honoured one – very prominent in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. To give another example, Edmund Burke’s classic essay on ‘Reflections on The Revolution in France’ was in the form of a letter ‘intended to have been sent to a gentlemen in Paris’ and starts off ‘Dear Sir’ and goes on for over 250 pages – a very long letter indeed. There is no evidence of a reply to Burke’s letter in the literature. Yet another example, John Ruskin wrote twenty-five letters to a Mr. Thomas Dixon, a working cork-cutter of Sunderland, starting in 1867 concerning what Ruskin thought were the essential issues of the day and that wisdom most useful to the masses of industrial workers of the day. They were published under the rubric of ‘Time And Tide’. I have not found any response from Mr. Dixon in the literature. My use of this device allowed me to speak in the first person, utilizing an informal mode of discourse. For an old retired academic previously forced into third person narratives detached by a supposed objectivity, this was a welcome and most compatible way of communicating my thoughts and feelings.
My book is not a correspondence between two people. The vast majority of books are written by a single author and contains the single voice of that author. My book is one of these. I indeed did mail, about once a month, the letters in an envelope to Christa and she did receive them. But the letters were written for the generic reader who might be interested in the arts; the questions posed to Christa were questions that I hoped would be valuable for any reader to consider. I sent letters to many potters and friends and they were circulated and passed on to many interested people. It was at this time that several people urged me to try to get the letters published. I am just finishing a book of thirty letters to William Morris. He died in 1896 – now that is really odd.
Conor Wilson appears a bit conflicted over the book. He writes about my great strength, ‘he constantly questions his own opinions, his own prejudices’ and shortly afterwards, he quotes me with the comment ‘yhere is much to agree with here and these early letters contain some terrific passages’. But alas, he dilutes his unbridled enthusiasm with further concerns. One concern is about my role as collector/custodian and my claim of being the shaper of meaning on which I project my own interpretation. There is an obvious concern on his part about this attitude of mine. This is indeed my position and attitude. I will go even further in expanding this perspective. I do not regard my role as an after-the-fact appendage, merely recipient of the artifacts of makers, nor a passive audience, simply a willing customer to receive their wares. I am an active agent in the making of meaning and enjoying a quality of life through aesthetic experiences. I hold these same rights of dignity and significance for all members of the public who engage and value art.
Makers are used to having the printed text serve as a supplementary explanation of the artifact, in the form of an exhibit catalog, language of museum curators or specialized journals of the trade. I am not interested in that role nor do I think the text or the written word, even when referencing the arts or crafts or ceramic art or pottery or whatever, is a secondary appliance adjunct to the artifact or maker. The engagement and critique of cultural studies extend beyond the promotional text that usually accompanies the artifact.
I want to make myself very clear on this point. My book is not ABOUT pottery or ceramics or ABOUT anything else. I would guess that less than ten per cent of my discussions directly reference pottery or ceramics. It is about itself – as every artwork is ultimately about itself. The book is about one person’s poetic engagement with artifacts, in particular pottery, although I reference theatre, literature, film, architecture, music, and paintings and gardens. In other words, it is about the aesthetics of personal engagement. I would like to point out here that the literature of aesthetics, from Edmund Burke to Terry Eagleton, is not about the maker, not about the artifact. Nor did makers write this literature. Philosophers and cultural critics as observers and participants in the culture of the day wrote it.
This vast and rich literature was conceived to aid the layperson’s engagement with art. This literature attempts to provide standards and guidelines as to the nature and possibilities of this engagement and how to distinguish qualities inherent in art that would enrich and enhance the experience and life of the observer. I do not seek out ‘a role in the creative process’ as a participant in aesthetic experiences; I and all other members of the public at large already have the central role in the creative process as I have defined it. The creative process of receiving and experiencing aesthetic experiences can be as profound and complex as any artifact that inspires it. For this to happen it requires the full employment of the critical intelligence and aesthetic sensibilities of the person. It is what constitutes the operational implementation of something we call human civilization and culture. That is what my book is about. This is what I have worked to develop in my own person my whole lifetime.
An important source for me is the American pragmatist philosopher, John Dewey, someone I quote extensively in the letters. His small book, Art as Experience can more fully explain what I am suggesting here. I think it is one of the most important books for any one that values the arts. Dewey writes not only of the individual encounter with art but the social solidarity of art as common experience of the general community:
I don’t know what Wilson means when he says ‘cloaking himself in the garb of humble amateur’ or ‘thoroughly engaged in the pursuit of influence’ means. The idea and role of the layperson, the citizen, and the generalist – is central to my entire intellectual life – as an academic, as elected public officer, as a writer and thinker. It is a democratic vision at the heart of what is best about American culture – it is in the tradition of Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Dewey, and contemporaries like Richard Rorty and Michael Harrington.
And I did write this book, a book in which I insist, as a pragmatist, as a relativist, that I have no authority, no final or complete theory, no final answers to my own questions, no answers for others. All my attempts to make sense of things, to make it through the day, to cope with the endemic issues of my lifetime, given my taste and temperament, given my limitations and abilities, this is the very best I can do. I do not think that constitutes a power grab or attempt to gain influence. As an educator, it was the empowerment of the learner, who should maintain the locus of authority in their individual appropriation and construction of meaning that made me a very controversial educator. I celebrate the dilettante, the amateur, and the generalist. I do not think of them as lesser creatures or a more humble class at all.
Conor Wilson points out what he considers ‘a confusion at the heart of the book’ and that is my use of terms such as potter, craftsperson, ceramicist, ceramic artist and artist interchangeably, depending on the context within which the work under discussion has been presented’. This is exactly correct and I am not confused at all. The application of these terms is dependent on their contextual placement. In Japan, a craftsperson can become a ‘national treasure’ while in Britain or the US they are relegated to the ‘decorative or applied arts’ or the supposedly lowly status of craft. The language reflects the values of the specific culture, and those who dominate that culture. Those who are anxious for their work to be called art might seek to pretend that art is really everything that one wants to call art and that the term has no meaning. It has a very real meaning for those craftspeople, including potters, who are punished and demeaned by the hierarchical ranking embedded in the use of these terms.
Craft as verb, that is the skills of the hand made artifact, has been abandoned by many now making what they call art. Craft as object has been attacked by segments of the ‘art’ community who are interested to reducing art to performance and to dematerialize the object to the point of extinction. It is craft that is under attack and potters among others suffer the result. Artists and those who covet that designation can afford to be very liberal and forgiving and even condescend to inform their lowly craftspeople colleagues that these terms don’t really matter. It sure in the hell matters to those struggling potters who are attempting to survive and preserve their craft and make a living.
Conor Wilson asserts that even a can of shit is art, having in mind no doubt that most successful Italian artist who has made a great deal of money selling autographed cans of his own shit. This statement on his part goes to the heart of what I think divides us and led to his often critical review of the book. I would be quite willing to have the virtues and values of my position dependent upon this particular difference in viewpoint. First of all, it ultimately denigrates the value and significance of Wilson’s own ceramic art. If a can of shit is art, then that easy entrance qualification would also safely include his work as well. Having viewed a few pieces of his work, I do not think he has to resort to this overly generous inclusion of canned shit as art to gain his own entrance. I think this position involves a profound misunderstanding of post-modern thinking regarding the arts. Every field in the arts, except the fine arts of painting and sculpture, has retained standards of critique and performance. The creative arenas of theater, dance, music, as well as literary critique, has exacting criteria and generally recognized principles and standards to recognize excellence. Difference in interpretation and response do not nullify these principles. We do not require absolute standards based on a single authority in order to achieve a cultural consensus regarding the significance of Shakespeare, Beethoven or Lawrence Oliver. No one in those fields would offer the equivalent of a can of shit as their equal. Innovation and experimentation in any creative field does not require the elimination of standards of excellence as a prerequisite for their appearance or appreciation.
I do think Conor Wilson and I have very different notions of the idea and reality of traditions. He writes in his review about ‘material culture traditions, some living, some dead’. I do not believe any tradition can ever be something called ‘dead’. Present practices owe their existence as modifications, extensions, and reform of past practices. Even repudiated or revised intellectual traditions of the past, I am thinking now of Freud and Marx, are still the central reference points of contemporary behavioral sciences and economics. The greatest tribute to a tradition is in the attempt to overthrow it. I would counter with the charge of fad as a possible definition and danger of current practice. What is hot today in the galleries might cool off and be out of fashion tomorrow. Indeed Wilson uses ‘fashion’ in a positive and hopeful sense. I do not think following fashion, as a central motivating factor, should ever be the central motivating factor in creative activities in the arts.
I noticed that Moira Vincentelli is involved with this project and has indeed an article in this same issue. Indeed almost all the remaining articles in this issue of Interpreting Ceramics deal with the role of potters in indigenous cultures. Could it be, to use Wilson’s complaint about my book, that Interpreting Ceramics is really ‘backward looking’ in its content? Surely it should be concentrating on the latest ceramic acquisitions of the Saatchi brothers. In her article, ‘Gender and Ceramics: Old Forms and New Markets’, Vincentelli discuss the concept of tradition without invidious or denigrating implications but rather as an active and important force in indigenous pottery and contemporary culture:
In her book, Women Potters: Transforming Traditions, Vincentelli further discusses the role of women potters in indigenous societies. The following passage from my book reinforces the continuing viability of pottery as I discuss the implications of Vincentelli’s work:
Are these indigenous women just out of the mainstream of whats happening now in the arts? Are they lacking ‘critical engagement and positioning’ as Conor Wilson uses those terms? Are they ‘backward looking’ as he charged my attitude and book? Should they abandon their potters wheels too? Are they going to be losers like the potters in Britain and the US because they didn’t get on the bandwagon and their stuff will never make it to those swank ‘art’ galleries? Are all traditionial societies by his definition ‘backward looking’?
Globalization was supposed to be another indicator of how the ‘undeveloped’ world would be developed on the same model as what has brought us so much environmental misery. I think the current financial crisis in world capitalism might give hesitation to what is considered inevitable and what is considered progress. The environmental paradigm cannot further sustain something called progress. Is it “backward looking” to want to conserve the natural environment? I don’t know what Wilson means by ‘positioning’ but I don’t like the sound of it. Does an artist maintain their personal integrity and integrity of their work if their primary concern is their successful positioning in the marketplace?
Are not environmentalists ‘inspired traditionalists” wanting to recover and conserve the natural world? Are not those who seek to conserve the built environment of important cultural and architectural sites inspired traditionalists? Or are we just backward looking? Can we save endangered species, the rain forests, languages and culture of indigenous peoples, and yes, maybe pottery too? When do we know when a tradition has died? And who decides what is viable and valuable among customs and ways of living? What needs to be conserved and what needs to be recovered and restored? I refer you to Mark Hewitt’s discussion of dynamic tradition in his book, The Potter’s Eye:
Any maker or artist knows that their work is embedded with the influences of past legacies. There is a variation of ‘triumphalism’ in the commentary about so called ‘avant-garde’ art, including those ceramic sculptors who have abandoned the potters wheel as a lost cause. The notion of progress, a central premise in western thought, was pretty well destroyed as a paradigm by World War I. This idea of inevitable human progress, hinged to the continuing development of technology, based on a sense of human history as a linear force moving forward in a single direction, has pretty well been discredited except in much of the current literature about the fine arts. What is hot and trendy in the art galleries of London and Manhattan is about the merchandizing of commercial commodities that might be making the same mistake as the American automobile industry where big gas guzzling cars and SUVs are manufactured and sold based on deceptive advertising that valued speed and power. These companies are now going bankrupt. Jed Perl, art critic for the New Republic and other periodicals, is author of Eyewitness: reports from an art world in crisis. In this book Perl indicts the contemporary art world, with a target previously unknown to me, the ‘deal makers’:
I assume that Conor Wilson would term this transaction as Perl described it as rather a career strategy based on ‘positioning’ oneself to take advantage of the current fashions of the art gallery scene. I would regard this as the evolvement of artists, including aspiring, ceramic artists, into the cultural clowns and popular celebrities of an economic system that has no principles except the rank exploitation of artistic talent as transformed into vulgar entertainment and sensational effects for enormous profit. I do not regard this as inevitable nor do I regard all artists who create today in this way. But all aspiring craftspeople and artists have to be self-conscious in the decisions they make about their life and future. I do think there is such as a thing as integrity and it can still exist and still can be found in both the artist and the artifact. I think I can recognize it when I see it.
I support and join with Donald Kuspit, that savage critic of much postmodern art. He deplores those who have announced the death of art by its replacement by ‘readymades’ and other variations of dumpster art. In his controversial book, The End of Art he lets loose in describing the attitude and approach of postmodern artists as interested. . .
So the irony of this whole scam is that too many post-modern artists seeking fame and fortune are not really rebeling against duly constituted authority and the rich and the powerful. It is indeed the rich and the powerful that buy their outrageous creations. In agreeing with Kuspit, I also agree with Wilson that ‘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’. I regard this highly qualified statement that includes ‘does not necessarily’ as evidence that Wilson has some of the same concerns I have.
I would not want Conor Wilson to begrudge the fact that I have indeed been welcomed and appreciated by potters and those who care about pottery. I am not sure I would describe it as he has – ‘so readily clutched to the bosom of certain sections of the ceramics community’. I do not know why he used the term ‘certain sections’; it sort of sounds like the kind of suspicious company that John McCain charged Barack Obama with in our recent American election. The book received very favorable reviews and was well received by potters and others. I know so many devoted and disciplined potters, met them over the years, met many on my recent lecture tour of Britain. They might not be ‘fashionable’ or ‘well-positioned’ right now but I will continue to be an advocate for the hand made ceramic vessel as an essential element of a quality of life that is sustainable and worth living. And yes, I will continue to hang around with potters despite their somewhat disreputable status.
I think I proclaimed at the beginning of this commentary that I was not combative and did not want to argue with Mr. Wilson. I am not sure I kept my promise. I think I did end up defending those things I care very much about as represented in the book. I want to end this discussion with positive commentary and agreement with Conor Wilson on many things. I went to his website to find out who he was and what he did and found out we actually have much in common. I too was a social worker in younger days, working with youth in Mexican-American barrios and black ghettos in Southern California as a part of President Johnson’s ‘War On Poverty” program in the 1960’s. I saw a few images of his work in his ‘portfolio’ file and found his objects just as described on his website – ‘highly finished, metaphorical objects’ that are obviously the result of a disciplined devotion and creative imagination. As someone devoted to William Morris, I was pleased to read that he agrees with William and I when he stated ‘The domestic space and ceramic object go hand in hand’. I was impressed that he has the capacity not only to be a superb maker of ceramic objects but combines that with the intellectual ability to provide instruction in Critical Theory and Historical and Contextual studies. His work is the subject of several books. I fully agree with one of his final statements in the review when he states ‘Craft skills and creativity are part of the solution, not the problem’.
Well, Mr. Wilson and I have our differences but we are talking and thinking about things that mean a great deal to us. I truly respect and support all the makers of the world that devote and dedicate themselves to art and craft and that certainly includes Conor Wilson. I think aesthetics are the politics of the soul and our feelings are naturally tender when conversing over this sensitive subject.
I look forward to any response to my book, the book review, and this response. If there is anyone that wants to contact me directly they are welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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