Interpreting Ceramics | issue 12 | 2010
Articles & Reviews
Interdisciplinary Mind, Deft Hand
Annabeth Rosen, University of California at Davis
Teaching art has no measure; it is incalculable, un-testable, and often uncontrollable. For teachers and students in an art department this poses challenging questions and instigates discussions that are many and complicated and have no static framework.
Some of these questions are about evaluation and the need for critical discussion. Is it important to train students to verbally articulate ideas that are best expressed visually? What about programs where theoretical ideas and critical theory replace the need to make objects? Are there skills that are still considered fundamental?
What about the expansion of an ever re-evaluated art history and cultural theory, prior to and after new technologies? How does one teach specific skills and depth of understanding within the context of the continually changing definition of Art?
How and when does one include the practical and the professional aspect of art practice--discussing cultural politics and pressures of art world etiquette and careerism? How does one consider commodification and commercialization of art, and how art schools contribute or yield to marketing practices?
Is there something more to art education than exploiting the idiosyncratic nature of an individual? And does the idea of art school itself pose the problematic academization of art and the hegemony of the institution; is there nothing less academic than making art?
And on it goes. Both teachers and students are constantly considering these questions and many more. I have often wondered if art school is the poison or the antidote to feeding the cultural practice and discourse in the visual arts.
Teaching studio art takes place on an individual level. Perhaps it has moved into teaching what students need to know and when they need it, as opposed to a particular curriculum with an agreed upon translatable body of knowledge, taught in a more traditional way.
Teachers can make few generalities and it is erroneous to make assumptions about intentions, experience and skill. Education happens from the inside out; there is no mold, nor rule guided by set points laid out along a line. Teachers must be as creative and diligent in the students' studios as they are in their own. Learning is organic; you work and learn and whatever shape this takes in the end is education.
Even if this sounds vague, this individualized focus is an essential component of teaching studio art. But this approach can present a challenge in a researched based, science-centric university system. To counter, universities have imposed ‘learning outcome’ reports, to validate and prove education takes place in art departments. At my institution (University of California at Davis) a contract of sorts is drawn up that states in very specific language:
The ‘proof’ is the work in exhibition. The assessment can be another series of ambiguous questions. Teaching in the 21st century with its new technologies and its hardware, software and networks, may be parallel to teaching a hundred years ago when all students learned perspective, anatomy, and figure modeling.
When I was a student, we were taught Itten and Albers, glaze calc and how many Btu (s) of heat it took to reach 2300?ƒ in 24 cubic feet. But all we really wanted was to feel the passion of creating something, without talking about what it was or where it came from. Now, I often find my students expediently want to know how to do everything from a technically proficient platform. They want to mimic or to satisfy some external idea of what art is, as understood solely in the form of a magazine picture or a website or an institutional requirement.
As a student, Art History consisted mainly of ceramic history: Jomon, Sung, Tsanakalae, Mimbres, and then Maija Grotell, Daniel Rhodes and Peter Voulkos. But knowing the full history of art is imperative. Artwork that came before our time and all that is currently being made provides a collective cultural context and sense of organization. In a natural progression, new generations want what came before them and teachers teach what they best responded to when they were students. It is current art students who will soon be faculty and who will form the foundations for a new method of teaching, a system that incorporates a new methodology.
With energy thus parsed, studio work is dependent upon proprietary decisions made considering an ever-increasing bank of technological advances, skills to learn, books to read, ideas to discuss, and university and community resources to tap.
All student work is experimental by nature. Students are in discovery mode in the studio, with new things being revealed and learned each working day. It is better that they work through and figure it out themselves; then they own it forever, knowing it on a sub-cellular level.
Talking about it is another matter. Much of the discussion in critique is focused on unconscious reasoning, based in the emotional over logical or scientific experimentation. Given that both educated and intuitive knowledge are essential, how does one articulate, validate and decipher ‘feelings’ in critique into aesthetic and intellectual pursuits? And then, how to balance the conceptual and the technical and how to instigate thoughtful and earnest discussion? Critique can favor those who have good verbal skills and sometimes act as compensation for creative ones, and good artists without the ability to articulate their ideas are often at a disadvantage.
In studying ceramics there is the seduction of the material itself, which includes the thrill of leaning to make something, something knowable and recognizable, a real thing in the real world. Making something that you need and use holds an incomparable sense of satisfaction. There is, wrapped up in the history of the medium, the most primitive and most sophisticated aesthetic and the idea of working in a group. When people first started making objects, the work was a community effort. Artists/artisans may not have worked in soul-searching isolation as the term artist has come to be epitomized. Ceramics maintains and demands this working togetherness - moving tons of material around a studio, into and out kilns, days-long kiln firings and, for some, making pots for shared use.
That may explain, at least in part, why ceramics has been excluded from critical discussion in the contemporary art world. The ceramic artist reacts defensively to the question of content (‘I don't know, I just dance around the wheel and the pot forms itself’) and an audience of artists and critics respond accordingly. In studio art programs there was resistance to discussing the content, symbolism and metaphor in the work. The work had meaning inherent in its use.
That resistance is fading, having to do with the evolution of the artists in the field today. They are a generation of sculptors who, when they first started working in clay, had the idea of becoming potters. Now through their experience and exposure to art in school, they have developed different ambitions for their work. Ceramic artists are actively seeking engagement in serious critical discussion.
‘Interdisciplinary’ is a term used to described work that does not easily fit into prescribed academic categories. Interdisciplinary artwork refers to study of a combination of traditional mediums and new electronic media, and critical theory, philosophy, cultural studies, art history, media theory, writing and criticism, and science and technology. Interdisciplinary study also has come to include international study and resources. Ceramics has always had a direct link to Asia and Europe as our entire history was developed in other parts of the world, long before the industrial revolution made the US one of the centers for ceramic technology and art.
One of the limitations of interdisciplinary-based practice is the superficial and unsatisfactory result due to the dilution of research. At UC Davis there is a new group called Consilience -- it represents the marriage of science and art and a few very interesting discussions have arisen throughout the year. Some of the lectures are provocative and poignant, and sometimes they are less than effective or convincing. Scientists in the audience think this is not science and the artists think this is a superficial approach to a subject with more serious consequences. The work doesn't hold up by comparison. Unlike artists who work cross/inter/disciplinary in arts media, those who incorporate more far-reaching and disparate fields of study rarely can put sufficient energy into both.
On the other hand, a limitation of discipline-based education is when programs focus too closely on the technical wizardry available, narrowed through the discipline centric history. After all, what you choose depends upon what is available to choose from. When the technology of HOW something is made surpasses the excitement of what the thing IS, when there is no longer tension in the balance between the two, then the work--more often than not-- becomes uninteresting and insubstantial.
In programs that emphasize interdisciplinary studies, will students gain a depth of understanding and the ‘hand’ knowledge acquired from practiced concentration and repeated accumulated working efforts? An artist's deliberately sensitized touch, the tally of touches, contributes to one's knowledge of ceramics (both as current practice and in history) as inestimable art and as life-long, learned skill.
Art is interdisciplinary by nature. An artist working in clay must know about geology, inorganic pigment chemistry, thermodynamics, engineering and how to get the heavy wet muck to remain upright--withstanding the forces of the universe. Ceramics is sculpture and painting both; as an artist nothing could be more challenging. And studying a single discipline over a multi-medium and project-based approach can lead the curious-minded student anywhere.
I studied with Jun Kaneko and he posed a question about this ditch digger one day: ‘what could a ditch digger know save for back breaking labor?’. He said a ditch digger knows about the entire universe; geology, botany, mineralogy, entomology, climatology, physiognomy, astronomy, cosmology, and so on, depending on the questions they ask. One can learn about the world by making one of everything, or one can make the same thing throughout an entire lifetime, each time asking a different question so as to learn about everything in the world.
Ceramics seems to be an increasingly absurd medieval practice, especially in comparison with and under the influence of new technologies. But if art is the physical manifestation of the phenomenon of thought (whatever we name that curiosity that propels us to work) then there is no material that more immediately or acutely reflects the hand--and not only what is known but also what is unknown.
I heard this on the radio today: ‘You don't change when you see the light, you change when you feel the heat’ – most apropos for those of us working with clay. Influences from cultural sources, the art world and university pressures, whether they are economic or pedagogic, will inevitably generate change. We keep asking, ‘how do we reconcile traditional handmade methods of working with state-of-the-art image production?’. But this is happening now, even if we are unsure how to identify and articulate this while being in the middle of a new convergence. Presently we have one foot on each road.
For those of us in the medium, traveling in ceramics has always held - not only the ordinary and sublime wonder of making things - but also the wonder of philosophy, metaphysics and alchemy. Interdisciplinary indeed.
© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated
Interdisciplinary Mind, Deft Hand Issue 12