Interpreting Ceramics | issue 11 | 2009

Articles & Reviews

(*)(*) (*) (*)  

Book Review by Garth Clark
(followed by a response from the author and comments from our readers)

Confrontational Ceramics: Artist as Social Critic
(by Judith S. Schwartz)

256 pages
A & C Black Publishers Ltd, London, 2008.

Contents | Home

Ceramics in the West Midlands in the Late 18th Century: Production and Consumption through the Eyes of Katherine Plymley

by Jo Dahn

National Identity and the Problem of Style in the Post-War British Ceramic Industry

by Graham McLaren

Pushing the Boundaries of Ceramic Art Tradition in Nigeria: Notes on the ‘Suyascape’ Project

by Ozioma Onuzulike

Ceramics Without the Ceramics: Material Exploration in New Territories

by Jane Webb

Studio Pottery in Britain 1900-2000, book review

by Graham McLaren

Confrontational Ceramics: Artist as Social Critic book review by Garth
Clark, followed by a response by the author Judith S. Schwartz and
comments from our readers

Zelli Porcelain Award 2009, Competition review

by Peter Holmes

NB. A Word document is available to download at the end of each article.

Judith Schwartz makes many claims for her book Confrontational Ceramics: Artist as Social Critic. The more amusing and least convincing came from a letter she wrote to British Crafts magazine attacking David Whiting for a perfectly fair, and under the circumstances, even a kind review of her book.1 It was the sheer audacity of this missive, with its incorrect claims about ceramic history and her claims of literary achievement, that caused me to write this review, something I had previously deliberately avoided. It was a gauntlet that no self-respecting writer could ignore.
Central to her defense is the claim that her book has depth because she has ‘formed’ four important hypotheses. None are actually hypotheses, just declarative sentences, and, simplistic as they are, she manages to get most of them wrong. The first is that her book represents a ‘new’ movement that is a ‘clear departure from the past’. Which past? And how is this departure ‘clear’. Do not look to the text to explain. Schwartz issues edicts, not carefully argued concepts.

Social criticism has been the artist’s role for as long as there has been art and even if we narrow her ‘new’ claim down just to modern ceramics, it is unconvincing. The high point for confrontational ceramics arrived in the 1960s with Voulkos leading the charge for the vessel and Robert Arneson for the figure. This is something Schwartz should know better than most; she wrote her doctoral thesis on the West Coast clay revolution. ‘New’ is therefore a strange designation for a movement that reached the zenith of obnoxious expression half a century ago.

To make her ‘new’ claim appear viable (at least to the unschooled) Schwartz dismisses thirteen thousand years of ceramic history as ‘rare, ineffectual and flaccid’ until her discovery of the phenomena. Had she done her due diligence she would have found critical bounty in every culture and era, both effectual and potent, from the teapot that attacked Oscar Wilde’s bisexuality to Josiah Wedgwood’s ‘Am I not a Brother and a Man’ jasperware made to advance his cause, the abolition of slavery. But then, research is not her strong point.

The second non-hypothesis is her decision to divide the book into five generic chapters. This is certainly ‘new’ if bizarre. In my experience this is the first time that the table of contents has been claimed as a significant achievement. Then comes number three; her new movement is international and growing. While the international part is correct, the ‘growing’ part is not. Social criticism increased as an activity, not confrontationally as with the Funk artists, but through a more polite postmodern language from the 1970s into the early 1990s. Thereafter this overworked (and too often trivialized) subject began to lose traction. Today it is no longer a major focus, at least not amongst the leaders of the field. But in Schwartz’s defense, the latter group is not her constituency.
The fourth and last hypothesis is that it is necessary to understand the ‘physical and mental milieu’ of this work. Again, not a hypothesis but simply what art book writers are supposed to do. But here comes the twist. In an abdication of her authorial role, Schwartz gives this job to the artist. Artist statements, cut and pasted alongside their work, constitute the bulk of the text. Many statements have nothing to do with the artwork they are supposed to explain. Many are pompous and self-aggrandizing. Some even make it clear that they and their work have nothing to do with the book’s theme. Schwartz cites the sources for only a few, a pattern of poor scholarship that runs through the book. It is also irritating as Schwartz wrote a few statements but does not make her authorship clear so one is not sure if she or the artist is speaking. And there is no connective tissue to link the statements that could have made a garment of all of this haphazard knitting.
‘Hypothesis’ is not the only construct that escapes Schwartz’s comprehension. She has difficulty defining both ‘confrontational’ and ‘social criticism’. In the former case her choices are too prissy to address true shock-art head-on. There is hardly an artist in the book that could not have been shown with more contentious work. She prefers naughty to nasty and plain vanilla to acid. Even Linda Cordell’s elegant porcelain sculpture, two squirrels coyly doing what comes naturally, makes it to the book. Apparently intercourse among small mammals is, by Schwartz’s standards, edgy and offensive. Schwartz regularly confuses social criticism (in which one makes judgments) with observations of the human condition (in which one merely observes). So we find many works such as Michael Flynn’s sculpture of a couple happily brushing their teeth and Tony Hepburn’s tender homage to his wife, both subjects unrelated to the book’s theme.

Canon is not respected. Primary artists are few and far between. Minor artists, the milieu in which Schwartz is most comfortable, are the overwhelming majority, and are regularly given greater prominence than more accomplished artists. Nuola Creed’s Babes in Arms (2005) figures, no better than gift shop fodder (and available as such from the maker with your weapon of choice), are featured on both the front and back cover and in a double page spread inside. The most famous ceramist in the book, Grayson Perry, has one work illustrated, slightly larger than a postage stamp. His statement tells us nothing about his artwork but Schwartz’s filing of it under ‘War’ is instructive. It is not war, but police searching for the bodies of young, sexually abused girls.
In her letter to Crafts Schwartz suggeststhat the poor critical reception of her book is because primitive craft people cannot understand the sophistication of ‘a book about art, activist art’. The art book claim is surely a joke. The only fine artwork she cites is Picasso’s old war-horse, Guernica from 1937, which she saw at the age of seven; a charming anecdote but hardly the credentials needed to be a specialist in this subject. She writes all of four paragraphs on contemporary art that tell us nothing about the NEA Four, Mapplethorpe’s A Perfect Moment, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or the Brooklyn Museum’s Sensation show, beacons all in recent confrontational art. A scattering of work by fine artists can be found in the book. Yet, remarkably not one of these artists contributes work that is either confrontational or social criticism. It is not that there is a lack of contenders for shocking use of ceramics, beginning with Ai Weiwei’s shattering masterpiece, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995).
And speaking of omissions (a big subject in this book), the most controversial and confrontational work of social criticism in the second half of the 20th century to use ceramics as its metaphor, Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1974-1979), is absent. This is both inexplicable and unforgivable. As this work travelled to attendance-breaking crowds at museums across the US it caused a furor that involved art critics, feminists, sociologists, historians, a vendetta in the New York Times and, of course, an entertaining contingent of batty misogynists. It went on for nearly a decade. Then it all erupted again in 2007 when The Dinner Party was permanently installed in Schwartz’s hometown at the Brooklyn Museum. How could she have missed it?

The complete systemic failure of this book is puzzling. The subject matter could not be richer, both historically and contemporaneously. And Schwartz had been researching the subject for most of her adult life. But the crucial point is that writing cannot be outsourced. Authoring a complex book is an exhausting, frustrating, hair pulling, and insanity-inducing undertaking. It is only through a long process—writing and rewriting, building and testing one’s arguments, patient research and a goodly amount of brain-ache—that one creates carefully conceived theoretical constructs, definition, and context. The process is slow, often agonizingly so. There is no other route to master one’s subject as Schwartz’s self-defeating short cuts so ably demonstrate.

Schwartz contributes a grand total of twenty-five pages of text to what is supposed to be her Magnum Opus, hardly a book length text. Her prose is stilted and flat, authoritarian rather than authoritative. Her understanding of her own specialty is curiously one-dimensional. What she produced is an in-print version of those interminable PowerPoint lectures that are so ubiquitous in ceramics today, hundreds of images, superficially linked to a cute title. Had Schwartz possessed a sharper eye, kept to theme, drawn more from the top of the tree, presented a more complex understanding of ceramic as art (and not just as a material), and finally, had the courage to address unflinchingly the most outré of subjects, this might have been a fascinating picture book. But the choice of art is too coarse, unselective and bland to satisfy even this modest goal.

  1. See Judith S. Schwartz, ‘Social Commentary vs Crafts, Crafts, no.216, January/February 2009, p.29, and David Whiting, ‘Reviews’, Crafts, no.215, November/December 2008, pp.66-67. back to text

A Response to Garth Clark’s Review of Confrontational Ceramics
Judith S. Schwartz

I have read with astonishment the catalog of inaccuracies, distortions, error-filled over-generalizations, irrelevancies, fabrications and ad hominem attacks by Garth Clark (GC) in what is nothing more than a mean-spirited diatribe, superficially posing as a review of my book Confrontational Ceramics. 

I thought long and hard about responding. Many advised me not to bother, saying it would be a waste of time since the only voice GC seems to listen to is his own, remaining, perpetually, his own most enchanted listener. Nonetheless, I have decided to address his comments and set straight the most egregious ones.

I wrote a letter in response to David Whiting’s critique of my book that appeared in Crafts magazine. GC has seen fit to review largely this response instead of reviewing my book.  

GC states, in his critique (of the Whiting response), that I posit four hypotheses that he says I get all wrong (without explanation). He takes exception to the statement that the body of work I have shown in the book represents a movement that is a clear departure from the past. To this I respond: simply look at the book. I have presented 228 contemporary artists representing 30 countries who use the medium of clay to make confrontational statements about their world. Nothing of this sort has ever been published before. Most reading it are amazed to discover the existence of this new and vibrant body of art expression - in a medium that has traditionally been associated with more sedate endeavors. It is, for them a revelation.

Not content with denying the innovative nature of the book, GC attempts to dismiss it entirely by indicating that he is not convinced that there is a growing body of confrontational art in modern ceramics. Specifically, he says ‘the high point for confrontational ceramics arrived in the 1960s with Voulkos leading the charge for the vessel and Robert Arneson for the figure’, then adding ‘the movement reached obnoxious expression a half century ago’.

Let us consider Arneson as an example, since he mentioned him. Arneson’s work grew more confrontational as he moved from his satiric funk origins in the 60s to his powerful anti-war protests in the 80s.  Along the way, he influenced an entire generation of subsequent artists - from Richard Notkin, to Peter Gourfain, to Tip Tolen, to Mark Burns, and then to younger, newer, in-your-face artists such as Beth Cavener Stichter, Arthur Gonzales, Ehren Tool and Russell Biles – artists who choose clay precisely because it best serves their strong confrontational intent. And I am not even mentioning the many international artists in the book whose work is equally provocative. I would argue that these contemporary artists are as significant and powerful in their messages as Arneson. And to call this heritage an ‘obnoxious expression’ is appalling.

Later he chides me for not finding examples of confrontational ceramics in earlier works, citing a Wilde theme teapot and a piece of Wedgewood jasperware as examples. But nowhere does he mention the examples of 18th and 19th century English porcelain that I do show which are confrontational. GC accuses me of an omission when the only omission is his.  

He derides dividing the book into five chapter headings, suggesting that I claim my table of contents to be a significant achievement. This sort of fatuous statement is ludicrous. The five chapters represent an attempt to grapple with a huge international outpouring of confrontational ceramics. The final 228 artists selected for the book came from a corpus of over 800 and some organization was obviously required.

His observation that Confrontational Ceramics ‘is no longer a major focus, at least not amongst the leaders of the field’ again bears witness to his personal bias. Just the fact that this season alone, several major NY art galleries had shows featuring artists that were in my book, shows that confrontation in clay is alive and well. And more shows of the same genre are on the way.

If, by his use of the word ‘constituency’, he means that I pay attention to the work of artists that do not sell as much as to the work of those that do, I must confess I am guilty. I am a sinner. I am not a gallery owner. I do not write books designed for promoting the marketplace for gallery ceramics. And I do not offer these books to an unschooled public as examples of scholarship.

He has seen fit to define my ‘authorial role.’ He criticizes the text offered by the artists. His intent is clear: damn what the artists think or say about their work. We, the ‘experts’ know better. Again, I have sinned; I happen to value the artist’s voice. And particularly in an area where knowing ‘where the artists are coming from’ constitutes an integral component in understanding their work and the confrontational issues that are so important to them.

By the way, if he had read my book, as he purports to have, he would have known that instead of demeaning the size of the text, he would have seen that A & C Black, my publishers, created a website (cited in the book) which refers the interested reader to additional material. GC accuses my choices as being ‘too prissy to address shock-art head-on. Wrong again. I defy anyone looking at the book to call the images prissy.
But what I find most offensive in his pseudo-review of my book is his distinction between ‘primary’ and ‘minor’ artists. Again, his lack of a mature and kinder perspective is painfully obvious. I remember when Voulkos and Arneson were ‘minor artists. This elitist view of art has no place in the world in which I live. There are no ‘minor’ artists in my canon—this is merely gallerist terminology used to dismiss artists not in one’s stable. There can be no place for the snobbery of a ‘minor’ appellation when one is attempting to describe and report on an emerging movement.

GC is entitled not to like Nuala Creed’s Babes in Arms, which is the US distributor’s cover version of the book. The British publisher, A & C Black, used the cover I had selected, with Tip Toland’s Survivor (2005) on the front, and Adrianne Crane’s Artillery Field (2003) on the back. The US publisher was adamant about this selection. Unlike others, I do not self publish.

His remark that I suggest that ‘primitive craft people’ cannot understand the sophistication of a book about art, is shamefully untrue. I said that the intent of confrontational artists is to offend, to provoke - that they cannot to be evaluated using the criteria historically employed to consider works in clay. Nowhere do I talk about ‘primitive craft people’; that phrase is demeaning and is another example of distortion by innuendo.

I agree with GC that Judy Chicago’s omission was regrettable. However, it was not an oversight. We simply could not agree to terms that were acceptable to her and her exclusion from the book was not due to any want of effort or desire on my part.

I could go on, citing one example after another of GC’s impudence, but to what end? It bothers me greatly to engage in this sort of activity. I am, first and foremost, an educator. I teach at a university and introduce a wide variety of artists and non-artists to the field of ceramics. I am also privileged to work with the public as a spokesperson for the ceramics industry, am on boards of non-profit ceramics organizations supporting public appreciation of clay, and serve as an activist for ceramic education in primary and secondary schools. I curate critically acclaimed exhibitions and have been mentor to students from undergraduates to the doctoral-level, some of whom have gone on to wonderful and meaningful careers. The ceramic field is small and needs many voices to promote its history and developments. It is within this climate of bridge building, not the divisiveness expressed in the GC review, that I have functioned and will continue to function.

My purpose, in writing this book, is to identify and describe a rapidly expanding movement in the area of ceramic art, to act as a reporter, finding little-known artists as well as recognized ones. It is my intent to show their work, give them a voice, and make no critical judgment other than the task of trying to provide a structure for understanding. The movement is far too early for any scholarly review. It is also far too expansive and burgeoning and, like all emerging movements, time will shake out the survivors. 

Finally, I am reminded of the reaction of the conservative element in ceramics to the publication in 1961 of Rose Slivka’s ‘The New Ceramic Presence’. In that article, Slivka pointed out that a new movement in Ceramics was emerging. Arising on the west coast of the United States, it constituted nothing short of a revolution in ceramics. The conservative element was furious and reacted strongly. Rose Slivka was a close personal friend; I am comforted to think that in some small way I am continuing in her tradition.

A message from the editors to our Interpreting Ceramics readership:
Both Garth Clark’s review and Judith Schwartz’s response are hard-hitting in their tone and we would like to hear from you, our readers, as to whether you think such writing makes a valuable contribution to the field or whether it goes beyond legitimate academic critique. As an editorial team we feel that there are important issues that the texts raise, over and above the specific content relating to a particular book and its criticism. It is arguable that the ceramics world is not one that is on the whole comfortable with confrontation and controversy, and this could be due to many factors, not least the limited opportunities for publication in the field. We would be interested to know whether you think that publication on the Internet gives more opportunities and/or encouragement for no-holds-barred debate of this kind, and if so is that a good or a bad thing? We would like to hear your views and you can forward them to us at our email address, icrc@uwic.ac.uk or you can use the form on our Registration and Feedback page http://www.uwic.ac.uk/ICRC/feedback.asp

Comments from our readers

Diverse opinions can be a healthy way to stimulate and challenge debate.  However, it is the childish, confrontational and abusive style adopted by Garth which I find offensive and unnecessary. Is it a ruse to obtain attention - to imply his superiority?  A skilled writer surely does not need to resort to insult!
Dalene Robertson

The journal should be a place to discuss all aspects of ceramics practice. Controversial issues should be included as a matter of course.
Zoe Felix

I would like to comment on the recent book review by Garth Clark of Confrontational Ceramics: Artist as Social Critic by Judith Schwartz. Since I am one of the artist whose work Mr Clark comments on in this review, I would like to respond. ‘Nuola Creed’s Babes in Arms (2005) figures, no better than gift shop fodder (and available as such from the maker with your weapon of choice), are featured on both the front and back cover and in a double page spread inside.’ His comments about my work were biting, but his statement that I ‘make Babies with weapons to order’ is untrue.  It surprises me that the verbose Mr. Clark needs to stoop to fabricated to embellish his story. In my series Babes in Arms I have made number of babies toting various weapons of war, from guns and bombs to grenades and gas masks. This work is usually shown in grouping of 3 or 4 pieces at a time.  It has been exhibited widely in the US and can be viewed on my website www.nualacreed.com Mr Clark's dislike for my work is irrelevant, but his inaccuracies are not. I make work that I chose.
Thank you,
Nuala Creed

I found several articles to be interesting, although none perhaps as interesting as I would like!  The review of the Jones book was fair, contained several glaring mixed metaphors, and rightly emphasized the importance of this contextualized view of the studio pottery field.  I was surprised that the review did not mention A & C Black's unfortunate page design: we have much to thank this publisher for, and much to regret. Some of the other articles seemed ‘spun out’, perhaps for reasons related to academic careers? - their main ideas could have been presented more briefly. It was hard to see why Garth Clark needed to hit out so confrontationally, although I have not seen Schwartz's book.  I did enjoy the rough-and-tumble, however, and letting the book author respond to the review provided as much information as one would have wanted on this topic.  I wonder what the underlying issues really are?  Could it be that what Clark objects to in much of the confrontational pottery is how far it takes us from a more ‘ceramic aesthetic’ into other cultural realms, such as politics and advertising?  Another ineffable issue is whether the bulk of the most indigenous studio or art pottery in America is (Betty Woodman aside!) astoundingly poor.  The ‘confrontation’ is at least an attempt to embrace a more American aesthetic.
Nic Johnson

The 'review' and response provided entertaining reading, but not necessarily academic delight; there was too much personalisation and lack of objectivity. However, I think that there is room for this kind of polemic, to enliven journals, as long as it remains in a readers' letters section...
Richard Hickman

Is there a secret agenda? Has this been stage managed? Or are Garth Clark and David Whiting just very disappointed in the way this subject appears to have been reduced to little more than a coffee table book? It’s nice to see the injection of a bit of intelligent if slightly vitriolic opinion. This sort of banter makes a refreshingly piquant change in what is usually a very worthy but rather dry publication.  It's good to allow the acknowledgement and acceptance that contributors are human, not always wholly academic and polite, but real. Judith Schwartz is just a proud mother who is affronted because not everyone agrees with her estimation of her progeny or can see the sunlight. I'm greatly reminded of our crit sessions at college, no holds barred but all safely contained within the confines of a classroom, only this is so much more public and for that reason of course maybe all should have considered being a bit kinder to each other, but then again, they are all professionals and can hold their own. If it's made any of us think we should applaud them all. Some of Garth Clarks comments made me think, I don't particularly disagree with his criticisms but, why should canon be respected? What about all those others struggling to be heard.

I have been told by eminent people that pedigree is important and of course it is, but if you happen to be a ceramic mongrel what are you supposed to do? The other thing that made me think regarded his comment about writing that cannot be outsourced, I tried to respond to your speak for yourself edition and was rejected, no problem, but maybe so much energy goes into making that it's no wonder that artists, potters , whatever are not very expert at explaining their work (flaccid excuse!)  which again ties into the criticisms raised about confrontational ceramics. And of course we all care deeply about what we do, and its deadly serious but if we really confront ourselves, it's just clay. Maybe you should introduce a sister site for less academic (intense) subject matter and trains of thought?
Pam Dodds

I do appreciate having an online forum for ceramic discussion and healthy, lively debate. However, it is too bad that Mr. Clark's tone is so snarky. It makes me wonder why such a mean-spirited attack?  I prefer ideas over putdowns.
Deirdre Daw

Obviously there is a need for 'serious' critical reflection and reviews and Interpreting Ceramics is, I'm glad to say, an excellent container/disseminator that provides space in which debates can be aired. Writing reviews in the crafts, as in the arts generally, is filled with small-world dangers but these should not discourage debate. However, are GC and JS in debate or involved in a slanging match?  To paraphrase Masterchef, ceramics 'doesn't get tougher than this!' But perhaps the issue is about what kind of review is appropriate for Interpreting Ceramics?  Academic? Journalistic? Blog-free-speech? What level of intellectual engagement should Interpreting Ceramics reviews be aiming for? Just as there are many ways to say 'I love you', hate must have an equally distinguished breadth of references, the American versions of which we now have an inkling.
Linda Sandino

Top of the page | Download Word document | Next


© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated


Book Review by Garth Clark & A Response to Garth Clark’s Review • Issue 11

  Interpreting Ceramics logo