Interpreting Ceramics | issue 14 | 2012

Conference Papers & Article

(*) (*)(*) (*) (*)  

'You can use clay, but you can't do ceramics'

Some Thoughts on Why Ceramics isn´t Sculpture


Conor Wilson

Contents | Home

What difference can a description make?

Michael Hose

'You can use clay, but you can't do ceramics'

Some Thoughts on Why Ceramics isn´t Sculpture

Conor WIlson

From Ceramics to the Bronze Age:

Commercializing Sculpture in the United Kingdom and on the Continent – A Juxtaposition
Part I

Isabel Hufschmidt

Order and Disorder:

Some Relationships between Ceramics, Sculpture and Museum Taxonomies

Michael Tooby

Hans Coper:

Sculpture in Architecture

Alun Graves

Why Clay?


Stephen Dixon

Not all Cows are Piebald:

Ceramics and Sculpture in South Africa

Wilma Cruise


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

My title is a piece of anecdotal evidence that, I believe, illustrates still powerful, discipline-specific differentiation between ceramics and sculpture. It was the answer given to a sculpture student by his tutor, when he inquired about making work with clay. In the run up to the final exhibition of the MA Ceramics and Glass programme at the RCA in 2011, two students expressed a desire to show, if not with Fine Art sculpture, then at least alongside it, as they felt that otherwise their work wouldn’t be seen by its target audience. This was not possible. At the time, I suggested that if they wanted to be sculptors, then they should be doing sculpture, not ceramics. However, with many students still embarking on ceramics programmes with the desire to be trained as sculptors, or artists, and with programmes explicitly or implicitly offering this route, the question of disciplines and shared concerns needs more attention.

A recent graduate of the RCA illustrates the point:

I am an artist, I am an artist, I am an artist. This mantra was given to me at the beginning of my MA in Ceramics & Glass at the RCA, by my formidable tutor, and glass artist, Tessa Clegg … I have never forgotten my given label.1

I came to the research with two conflicting ideas about the word ‘sculpture’. Firstly, the sense that Eduardo Chillida and Robert Morris represented two very different conceptions of the nature of sculpture practice, with Chillida’s work embodying the more traditional sculptural concerns of form, mass, volume, gravity and space, and Morris’s work embodying a shift of emphasis to process and site/audience.  It turns out, of course, to be more complicated than this, but both practices, however fashionable or unfashionable, play to my prejudices about the existence of ‘real’ sculpture.

The second idea, which won’t fit neatly with the first, is that the appellation of the term ‘sculpture’ has nothing to do with how, or even why, the work was made and everything to do with the presentation of that work to an audience. In other words, that sculpture is a socially determined category – if a work is presented as sculpture, by someone who has the authority to do so, and is produced by an individual who nominates himself or herself as a sculptor, then it will be received as sculpture.

While the research has led to an increase in my knowledge and provided moments of clarity, it has not resolved these conflicting ideas and I have tried to accept this, my guiding principle being John Keats’s theory of Negative Capability, ‘… that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’2 I am also aware, however, that cognitive dissonance – a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously - is thought to lead to a bias to seek consonance between these cognitions, potentially leading to irrational behaviour.3 The paper is an attempt at ‘dissonance reduction’, while trying to accept the Mysteries and doubts of a situation that is too complex to reduce to theories that offer clear answers for all and in all situations.

For me, the way to get the piece written has been to accept my limitations and write from my own experience. So, this is an exploratory text and is not designed to show (or pretend) that I have authoritative knowledge of any particular area. Anecdotal evidence will be admitted. I aim to synthesise personal experience with text-based research in an attempt to develop my sense that the social structures within which art is produced are all-important and that, in its adoption of the status of a discrete discipline, ceramics isolates itself from the mainstream of fine art practice and self-defines as ‘not sculpture’.

In order to be transparent about the point of view from which I am writing, it might be worth a brief excursion into ‘my own experience’. I began my training with a general foundation in art and design. All students learned a bit of everything, from sculpture, to pottery, to graphic design, but everyone seemed to drift, for one reason or another, towards a specialisation. I was drawn to working with clay, but was more inspired by painting and sculpture and the idea of political engagement, than by pottery or design. I chose to do a ceramics BA in Bristol, for what seemed like a positive reason – an opportunity to pursue an open-ended investigation into a material with a rich history and a wide range of contemporary applications; and, if I am honest, a less positive reason – a lack of confidence and a sense that the ceramics world was less confusing and challenging than the fine art world. In Bristol, we were taught to explore clay and related materials through a range of approaches and within a range of contexts that could be characterised as art, pottery and design. I went on to complete a ceramics MA in Cardiff, a programme with an equally broad, or vague, notion of ceramics as a medium through which to exert agency in the field of art and design. I am currently studying for a PhD by project in the Ceramics and Glass Department at the Royal College of Art and have practised and taught in art and design for the past twenty years, more recently in contextual and historical studies, but primarily within a ceramics context. I am also listed as a sculptor, next to Richard Wilson, on the website of the Cass Sculpture Foundation.

Talking to a young designer who has come to work in ceramics at the RCA reminds me of the strengths of ceramics provision in the art school or university environment. She argued that, as a product designer, she wouldn’t otherwise have access to such specialist knowledge and an open, material-based approach to problem solving. If such facilities didn’t exist, this function would have to be provided by industry, with its commercial imperatives and problems of alienated labour - we should remember that at one time, ceramics education only existed in some sort of industrial context. Tanya Harrod gives a clear summary of how it developed outside industry, from the mid-19th century, initially being geared to the training of designers for industry. The political and social ideals that emanated from the Arts and Crafts movement, coupled with the interest in the medium of fine artists, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, led to the new category of Studio Pottery and, subsequently, the material-specific discipline of ceramics.

New media and unfamiliar methods were, in some instances, part of a strategy to alter the ways in which art was consumed and, in Gauguin’s case, part of a strategy to make ends meet. For the young Bonnard, the Nabis’s experiments with painted screens and fans and with stained glass and enamels and ceramics were both emblematic and political: ‘Our generation (who) are always seeking links between art and life through objects of everyday use.’4

The ground of ceramics education seems to have been contested from early on, with leading figures having very different ideas about its purpose. Dora Billington, at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, promoted a ‘decorative eclecticism’ and ‘saw no conflict between industrial and studio pottery’.5 This approach was in opposition to the ‘kind of workshop atmosphere dominated by production skills (as opposed to design skills) which neo-Orientalists like Bernard Leach were able to create’.6 William Staite Murray, head of ceramics at the Royal College of Art from 1925, ‘...promoted the status of studio pottery as an area of experimental fine art by keeping technical instruction to the minimum’.7

Earlier in the paper Harrod sets up a question: ‘what is interesting is at that date, the role of a pottery instructor in an art school in England was an uncertain one as regards relations both with fine art and with industrial design. What was the point of learning ceramics in an art school?’8 She does not provide a direct answer to this question, but her final paragraph is quietly devastating in its invocation of an issue that is still very much with us:

it is striking that ceramic practice was constantly questioned in Britain and in the USA. After the Second World War there was an explosion in the number of courses and a huge increase in students. Some of the awkward, important questions – to do with context and relevance – ceased to be asked as men and women embraced a discipline which seemed to offer so much hope for personal fulfilment after the disciplines and limitations of the war years. Ceramics now stood for everything that was joyful and accessible.9

If ceramics was in rude health we wouldn’t have to worry at this issue (or my worrying, at least, would be differently directed), but the discipline within higher education has contracted dramatically and UK industry has not been innovative for many years, with only a small percentage of those trained in art and design schools finding work there. There are exciting possibilities suggested by a blurring of boundaries between art, craft and design practice and by combinations of new and traditional production processes, but these don’t yet seem to have made a major impact on teaching at graduate and postgraduate levels. Or rather, the result has been a drift towards multi-media craft, or material-based programmes, rather than significant change within ceramics programmes.

The issues are thrown into high relief by the vexed question of exhibiting. The constituency for the ‘unique art object’, in ceramic at least, is not broad.10 There is only a handful of high-end galleries in the UK showing this kind of work, with many young ceramicists/artists knocking on their doors in vain. There is an equally limited handful of institutions supporting more experimental, or ‘expanded’ practice. The artists who produce in this category tend to work from the economic safety of academia – Clare Twomey, Neil Brownsword and Keith Harrison, for instance.  Artists trained in ceramics who have achieved critical success in the art world, usually distance themselves from the mother discipline. Andrew Lord is a rare and special case who jumped ship early and managed to situate himself in the art world with sculpture about pottery, before expanding his practice to include other materials and processes. Edmund de Waal, now represented by the Alan Cristea Gallery, London, despairs of the ‘anti-intellectualism’ in ceramics.11 Rachel Kneebone, represented by White Cube, London, trained in ceramics, first in Bristol and then at the RCA. The Burger Collection website, however, states that she did an unnamed BA in Bristol and a sculpture MA at the RCA.12 The same fact-massaging appeared on the White Cube website until recently, though I see now that education details have been relegated to the CV page and ceramics has been reinstated for the BA, while the MA is unnamed, de-disciplined.13

So, what is a discipline? With its root in the Latin disciplina - instruction, teaching, learning, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

  1. Instruction imparted to disciples or scholars; teaching; learning; education – 1615
  2. A branch of instruction; a department of Knowledge.
  3. The training of scholars and subordinates to proper conduct and action by instructing and exercising them in the same; mental and moral training; also used fig.

While visual arts education is clearly shaped by all of the other social structures that pertain to the broader field – the funding body, museum, gallery, journal, auction house, fair, biennale, studio or production space and artist network - we can place it at the centre of the notion of discipline. Are Ceramics and Sculpture disciplines? It might be instructive to have a look at the words that the programmes use to describe themselves. The institution most associated with post-disciplinarity in the UK, Goldsmiths, offers a broad set of visual art activities, under the category of BA Fine Art. Some of these would not have appeared twenty years ago, but the list also includes traditional categories such as painting and sculpture:

The degree structure enables you to develop your work through exploring selected media and approaches, including: drawing, painting, constructed textiles, film, installation, performance, photography, printed textiles, printmaking, sculpture, stitch, fabric and video.14

Newcastle University offers something similar:

The (Fine Art BA) course gives you a specialised but flexible approach to the subject and is designed to help you establish your individual creative identity and discover the appropriate means to develop your visual ideas. A wide range of approaches, materials and processes are available, from the traditional to the experimental, giving you the opportunity to develop your work across a broad range of media: painting, new media, film, video, sculpture, photography, print, sound, performance and installation.15

Other schools offer more clearly defined sculpture programmes, but also very distinctly under the umbrella of Fine Art:

The undergraduate sculpture area embraces an expansive idea of sculpture towards the expression and exploration of ideas in space, using material or dematerialised processes… We consider production in its broadest sense, the contexts of space and place, audience, process, temporal and haptic encounter through the discussion of work, the contexts of art practice and relevant historical and contemporary models of thought. Field visits are made to galleries, studios, factories and sites. Technical support is provided in the use of wood, metal, plastic, ceramics, construction, casting, carving and moulding techniques, moving, still and 3D digital image, sound and printed media.16

The scope of Sculpture has widened, extending the conventional boundaries of object making to encompass both traditional and contemporary materials and media. The language of spatial and material practice taught by the department is based on construction, casting and fabrication and extends through to more time based art practices such as video, performance and installation… The core objectives of the Programme are to develop the practical and philosophical understanding of the subject of sculpture; to develop practical skills and the ability to mediate ideas through materials and process; and to develop the ability and confidence to critique and communicate about sculpture, both historical and contemporary.17

The Sculpture programme at the RCA enjoys a long history of involving itself in the discourse of form making: it was here in the twentieth century that Henry Moore first developed his working confidence. As social, political and economic circumstances have changed, so has the ebb and flow of the debate … It may, perhaps, be fairer to describe the ambition of the students as one that explores Spatial Intelligence in workman-like laboratory conditions. We welcome approaches from people of diverse backgrounds and experience, since the debate will continue to embrace performance, theatre, film and urbanism as much as any historical fine art practices.18

(All emphases are mine.)

None of the selected summaries uses the word discipline, but either ‘sculpture’ is presented as one of many options under the umbrella of Fine Art (it becomes, in effect, just another ‘media’ or ‘approach’) or Sculpture is presented as the umbrella environment that facilitates the exploration of ‘space’, or the ‘spatial’, through a broad range of approaches and media. There is a strong sense that sculpture is still regarded, if not as a discrete discipline, then as a ‘subject’, or a ‘debate’ within the wider field of art practice. There is a clear concern with ‘material’ and ‘process’, in relation to the broader issue of ‘production’.

Ceramics programmes also offer a broad range of approaches, but with a greater emphasis on material and process specialisation, as one would expect:

The Ceramics & Glass programme is a world leader in research and practice. However we do not see ceramics and glass merely as a fixed set of media. We prize and celebrate diversity and breadth. We embrace connections.

Our programme is a site for discursive practice, where cultural, social, personal, historical and aesthetic concerns intersect. We believe that the skills of making and thinking can develop in tandem, and that the made object is a vehicle for expression that can engage with the individual and society.

Our students' work covers a wide spectrum – from design for manufacture to the unique art object. All the strands contribute to each other and form a single discipline, at the core of which is material understanding.19

Ceramic Design is a unique course that offers a specialist design-led experience in the broad subject of ceramics. It takes the position that designing from a deep and sensitive knowledge of one material means that you are able to more effectively translate that experience into other materials and disciplines, either during or after the course.20

Students have the opportunity to work across a broad range of processes, exploring the full potential of ceramic applications. Work from recent graduates has included: domestic tableware, fine art, figurative sculpture, installation, performance, film, animation, product design and surface pattern. Students create their own route through the programme, working in both traditional materials and, where appropriate, digital media. Although a specialist ceramic programme, we welcome students keen to work with other materials including glass, textiles, metal and 'smart' materials.21

The BA Ceramics course at Camberwell, places practice and an understanding of ceramic materials and processes as key fundamental principles. It regards Ceramics as a discipline that provides a unique environment for the individual to challenge personal preconceptions and ideas. The programme provides an environment within which students are encouraged to question practically and theoretically their own subject knowledge. This is also informed by developing a dialogue and interaction with other contemporary art practices. The subject is now under going something of a re-examination within professional practice (and) there is clearly no easily arrived at consensus as to exactly what will be it's future direction. The ceramic artists of this generation will help determine that.22

(All emphases are mine.)

There are some overlapping concerns - ceramics programmes have been influenced by the same social changes as fine art programmes - but there is a clear distinction between the fine art/sculpture descriptions and the ceramics descriptions. Ceramics, as a specialist set of materials and processes, is offered as an arena from which many outcomes might emerge. Sculpture is offered as an umbrella concept under which many different media and approaches coexist. So, sculpture would appear to be an idea - material discipline and ceramics a material - idea discipline.

A recent public event at Studio Voltaire in London saw Richard Slee and Richard Wentworth, two prominent figures from the respective worlds of ceramics and sculpture, in conversation about a new work for the gallery by Slee. I took the opportunity to ask each to say something about ceramics and sculpture, in relation to the term ‘discipline’. Slee said that ‘Ceramics is a discipline, but not a subject’.23 With some feeling. He also said that the notion of a ‘ceramic sculptor’ was a nonsense. Wentworth looked around him and lighted on the painted concrete floor and the corbells projecting from the gallery wall. I think he was talking about the slippage that occurs between images and objects when one thing is translated into another and, by extension, the absurdity of fixed categories – ‘artists scratch around and suggest things’.24 Wentworth’s practice could be said to be a harbinger of a post-disciplinary condition - at the Royal Academy’s Modern British Sculpture (2011), his work was represented by Making Do and Getting By (1970-85), a witty series of projected slides of ‘found images’.

Wentworth clearly loved Slee’s Studio Voltaire installation and, being an excellent critic, breathed additional meaning into the work, for me at least. He found visual references to the cenotaph and to Moore and Hepworth; sly distinctions between cylindrical and eliptical holes. He found the work full of love. Sardonic, but not sarcastic – it pressed his ‘melancholic buttons’. ‘You are agonisingly good at surface’. He quized Slee about how a particular surface was achieved. Oh, beautiful irony! A sculptor asking a ceramicist about process. (For the non-ceramicists, the discipline has been criticised for obsessing about process for many years.) Slee was a little non-plussed. He gave some brief, almost embarassed, indications of technique and concluded with ‘it’s easy’.

Awkward questions remain. Is the work sculpture? It certainly looks like sculpture, successfully occupying the space of the gallery, both floor and walls. The delightful, deconstructivist trestle-plinths, made in collaboration with furniture maker, David Gates, extend the mix of material investigations begun with the huge saw blades attached to the ceramic handles. Wentworth was happy to ignore categories, but he tellingly said that ‘you’d never know that this was made by someone who trained in ceramic’. If Slee sees ceramic sculpture as a nonsense, then surely the work must be ceramics or sculpture. Can it, by some sleight of hand, be ceramics and sculpture, without being ceramic sculpture? And if ceramics is a discipline, but not a subject, then what is a discipline? Can it just be a free-floating set of materials and processes? Surely a questioning of its own existence is also a disciplinary sine qua non? If ceramics is a discipline, then must it not also to be its own subject, at least in part?

In Interdisciplinarity, Joe Moran quotes the Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton, who believes that many students

give accounts of literature which describe what is going on in them, perhaps with a few evaluative comments thrown in. To adapt a technical distinction from linguistics, they treat the poem as language but not as discourse … it would be hard to figure out, just by reading most of these content analyses, that they were supposed to be about poems or novels rather than about some real life happening. What gets left out is the literariness of the work … they treat the poem as though its author chose for some eccentric reason to write out his or her views on warfare or sexuality in lines which do not reach to the end of the page. Maybe the computer got stuck.25  

What discourse are ceramicists, who make work that could be sculpture, taking part in? Slee said that he wants to ‘get away from a ceramic language that just talks to itself … to broaden that language … although it is not a dead language’. He also said that ‘ceramic is just a material that I use’.26 Slee is one of the most interesting ceramicist/artists working in the UK today and he is wary of claiming the status of sculpture, but this seems to me to be having your cake and eating it. If it is just a material, then why is it the foundation of a practice? In the terms of modern, or ‘avant garde’ art, the vast majority of ceramics production, including that at the ‘higher’ or fine art end, is ahistorical, simply because it is based on an uncritical relationship with production through its employment of a relatively stable set of materials and processes. Industrial techniques, mixed media, found objects, non-ceramic finishes have all been explored, but the core is always a set of skills developed in response to the monolithic fact of clay. Many ceramicists make explicit reference to the ancient human relationship with clay - the original sculptural material, the elemental properties of earth and fire, etc. Even if this relationship is not explicit, by choosing to work in one material the artist is inevitably tied to her/his interpretation of the historical use of that material. I can’t think of a single sculptor, with any critical reputation, who specialises in a particular material.

As a sophisticated artist, Richard Slee is aware of this problem. His slick, postmodernist surfaces deny the romantic earthiness of clay. He has a horror of his own neo-romantic, or sentimental, tendencies. He aims to banish tasteful decay. He believes that the gestural is impossible in contemporary western art.27 In short, he is thoroughly self-critical. Slee has also been employing mixed media in his work for many years, but by being a ceramicist, you make ceramics your subject, whether you like it or not. Why would an artist choose to use clay to talk about contemporary concerns? There have to be reasons for using clay and surely the most pressing, for an artist, must be its history as a domestic, or functional, or artisanal material.

In an essay that locates the practice of Michael Asher within (or, more precisely, at the end of) the discourse of modernist sculpture, first published in 1980, the Marxist critic Benjamin Buchloh addresses the subject of sculptural materials. The enquiry could be summed up by the statement, ‘Asher and a whole generation of artists set out to prove that materials are not simply materials, but are proceduraly and contextually determined’.28

The artist Paul Noble produced a series of ceramic sculptures for an exhibition in the Gagosian Gallery, New York, in 2007. The following text is taken from the gallery website:

Noble received widespread international recognition for his vast and monumental drawing project, Nobson Newtown. Drawing image after image, story after story - at once architect and town planner, archaeologist and cartographer, social historian and activist, creator and destroyer- over the course of a decade Noble invented and described a melancholy urban vision somewhere between Le Doux's revolutionary utopias, Sim City, and the post-holocaust wastelands pictured in the daily media...

‘dot to dot’ comprises drawings, ceramic sculptures, rugs, sound, and various other installation elements, to form an atmosphere or environment that reflects on time, space, and change, both massive and infinitesimal. Noble has brought back Paul's Palace, a seminal drawing from 1996 (and the first of the original Nobson Newtown group) that depicts a house built on sand with the sea behind. In one corner of the picture lies a pile of discarded sculptures by the British monumentalist Henry Moore, joining the flotsam and jetsam scattered across the littoral zone. Paul's Palace is thus the genesis of Noble's exhaustive and playful exploration of Moore's entire sculptural oeuvre, where the original outlines of the monolithic sculptures are redrawn as one huge cat's cradle of line and mass in the wall-size drawing Monument monument, and as smaller assemblages in a suite of related works on paper. In counterpoint are several serene, large-scale drawings simply entitled Sea. These seemingly disparate interests come together in a series of exotic and colorful ceramic tabletop sculptures, Noble's own versions of gongshi or Chinese scholar's rocks. Whereas gongshi are naturally occurring rock forms, collected and admired for their intrinsic sculptural and spiritual properties, Noble's are unique combinations of press-molded, modular ceramic units derived from Moore's massive sculptural forms.29

While there are clear parallels between Noble and Slee, in the creation of idiosyncratic, but consistently realised worlds, there seems to be something very particular about Noble’s use of clay in this body of work. The lack of status of clay as a material, the domestic scale, the direct connection between artist and material, Moore’s use of ‘natural forms’ – all seem geared to a playful puncturing of the pomposity of high modernist monumentality. These are sculptures about sculpture and clay is used for a specific purpose within the framework of a wider project that employs a broad range of materials and processes. If we return to Buchloh’s treatment of material as a historically determined element of sculpture:

Sculptural materials, even before their iconic, formal, or procedural definitions, have to be considered as part of a symbolic system that is itself highly determined. For example, the ‘nobility’ of bronze in the late nineteenth-century work of Rodin was at least in part a result of his dependence on the class of bourgeoise amateurs … In contradistinction to Rodin, the truly radical modernity of Medardo Rosso’s sculptures resisted this incorporation into bronze in most of his works, and the sculptural production process itself was arrested and fragmented at the level of the wax and plaster model: materials that by their very nature quite explicitly reject any heroic or sublime connotations… [Rosso’s] reluctance to fulfill all the steps required by the traditional process of sculptural production, from modeling to casting, indicates an essential critical shift of attitude. It reveals the increasing doubts about artisanally produced sculpture, namely that the completion of an organic cycle of production, conceived and executed by one individual, had become obsolete.30

Buchloh has a dauntingly rigorous approach to the historicity of the sculptural discourse and sees the process of deskilling as a central element. Writing a quarter of a century later, about a series of terracotta works produced by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco in 2002 he says,

...a crucial work such as Casuelas (Beginnings) (2002) pronounces almost programmatically that Orozco knows all too well that any mobilization of artisanal materials and procedures in sculpture would be not only reactionary, but also grotesque. It would lack any credibility, as would any claim to return to a supposedly guaranteed artistic and social identity grounded in the fiction of the nation state. After all, this is work being done at the very moment when these fictions are rapidly withering, if not already extinct, under the pressures of a global elimination of locally and regionally constructed practices of identity formation.31

In the earlier text, Buchloh challenges what he regards as ahistorical misreadings of modernist sculpture, including those that emerged under the cover of postmodern eclecticism, posing the question, ‘how can one – under the conditions of a highly industrialised society – continue atavistic modes of production (modelling, carving, casting, cutting, welding) and apply them convincingly to semi-precious or so-called ‘natural’ materials (bronze, marble, wood)?’32 He goes on to outline what he proposes as a historical reading of the modernist project, which:

…would have to acknowledge that most of its seemingly stable paradigms, which had been valid to some extent until the late nineteenth century (i.e., the representation of individual, anthropomorphic whole or fragmented bodies in space, modeled of inert, but lasting, if not eternal, matter and imbued with illusionary moments of spurious life), had been – in analogy to the abolition of representation in painting – definitely abolished by 1913. Vladimir Tatlin’s corner-counter reliefs and subsequent Monument to the Third International and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades emerged logically from Synthetic Cubism, and they have constituted since then the extremes of sculptural reflection in Modernism: they recognize the dialectics of sculpture from now on to be operative either as a model for the artistic production of reality (e.g., sculpture’s transition toward architecture and design) or as an epistemic model that investigates the status and conditions of aesthetic object production (the readymade, the allegory, the fetish). Or, more precisely: architecture on the one hand and the epistemological model on the other are the two poles toward which relevant sculpture since 1913 has developed, each implying the eventual dissolution of ‘sculpture’ as a separate discourse and category.33

Buchloh sees this dissolution expressed most clearly in two interventions into the spaces of two museums in Chicago, made by Michael Asher in 1979:

[His] works operate with increasingly analytical precision on the threshold between symbolic space and actual space, continuously increasing the ambiguity between functional object and aesthetic object, as though to prove from within the analysis of sculpture itself that it has lost its material and historical legitimacy… The specificity of his installations identified all the elements that enter the conception, production and reception of a sculptural construct, resulting in a model case of historical analysis. This analytical model dismantles the new historicism of postmodernity, where regressions into a mythical language of the transhistorical validity of the monument merely cover up the problematic conditions of sculptural production and perceptual experience in the present.34

Joanna Drucker’s reading of the sculptural mainstream of 1980s postmodernism is more equivocal. On the one hand the sculpture produced made clear that the ‘aesthetic austerity that minimalism and conceptualism employed no longer served to provide an engaging formal basis for contemporary artists’.35 On the other hand, she sees the flirtation with consumerism of artists such as Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach and Cady Noland as having a ‘repressive quality in relation to the culture’s explicit attitude towards pleasure’and effectively continuing the self-identified intelluctual’s disdain for popular culture.36

Drucker suggests that none of these artists ‘was engaged with the transformation of matter into form, with any artisanal skill base, or with any addition of value through a process of facture’37 and that the critical paradigm that emerged at the time can’t explain the ‘affirmative’ work that began to appear in the late 1990s:

the artist’s capability, what I am terming the affirmative, positive capability of the art move, is in the still potent capacity to jar the familiar senses and cognitive channels long enough to produce a moment of dissonant sensation and insight. Not quite the avant-gardist’s dream of social revolution or cultural transformation, but the continuing blip on the radar screen of otherwise complacent, complicit, or confused (un)consciousness in the dazed consumer-overload state of current culture.38

The new concerns seem to coalesce around the notion of production:

sculptors are struggling to make their attitudes towards production so conspicuous that they differentiate their work from other consumable objects of mainstream material culture in formal as well as conceptual terms. Whether contemporary sculptors make a show of attending not at all to formal, material values or attending too much to these values, they seem united in their efforts to use this self-consciousness to make clear that theirs is an art product. This suggests that no matter what a sculptor’s work is about thematically, it is always trying to balance the values of production and the production of value(s). Paraphrased, this suggests a struggle to keep standards of making (fabrication, finish, the intrinsic worth of the stuff, and the finished quality of the reworked object) from becoming values that simply reinforce and reiterate the prevalent standards of the standard market for consumables in mainstream culture.39

While I imagine that Drucker and Buchloh would not find too much common ground in a chat about sculpture, there is no doubt that both are deeply concerned with production - if we return to Buchlo on Orozco, we see him grappling with the same facts of ‘sculpture’s possible return to artisanal production’. Orozco’s early terracotta works embody a dialectical tension between ‘programmatic deskilling and the potential resurection of artistic skills’, while:

the more recent terracotta works [Casuelas] at first glance appear to relapse into a set of potentially reactionary dispositifs of seemingly guaranteed, and therefore mythical, identities. The first myth would be that of an originary artisanal foundation of the production of all sculpture. The second one would be that of the locally, regionally, and historically specific sites, materials, and production procedures of the crafts of plasticity.40

I am in danger of over-simplifying Buchloh’s densely argued text, but he seems to be suggesting that there might be ways of approaching materials and artisanal production that are no longer ahistorical and might legitimately pose questions about relations between individual, state and capital. While Orozco’s terracottas are produced by an artisan potter in France and serve as the ground, or support structure, of the artistic intervention, ‘the manual modelling process inhabits a place of relative importance alongside all other practices defining his work, that of photography, drawing, the readymade and the found object, defined in a set of egalitarian relations without being privileged in any way over any other.’41 Buchloh concludes the essay with an admission of the paradoxical nature of the problem:

the task to reconsider what the current status of the historically central strategy of deskilling in all artistic practices (painting, drawing, sculpture, photography) might actually entail in the current situation. If deskilling initially had argued for a radical refusal of the privileged forms of experience embedded in acquired technologies of refinement and virtuosity (whether musical or sculptural, pictorial or photographic), the massive campaign of deskilling had of course also inevitably advocated an implicit acceptance of a dismantled, if not anomic, subject whose primary forms of experience were to be as closely intertwined with the commodity structure as with the ruling principles of purely legalo-administrative orders… One paradox of aesthetic deskilling has of course been the fact that while the historical desire for artistic skills has disappeared, the desire to implement skills as an opposition to the anomic destruction of the self has increased its urgency.42

So, what is sculpture? There is, of course, no definitive answer – it depends on a bewilderingly complex field of interpretation, both visual and textual. This field is the discourse, if that is not to state the obvious. And the field is very muddy. In the earlier text Buchloh writes about the response to the post-Minimal ‘situational aesthetics’ of work by sculptors such as Asher, Robert Morris and Dan Graham:

In such situations of radical epistemic shifts, critics and historians displace their attention to derivative, secondary or academicized forms of artistic production – these forms seem to reaffirm the validity of aesthetic categories and the corresponding critical concepts. By analogy, sculptors tend to make apodictic statements in such situations that shift the category of sculpture from the historical to the ontological level. See, for example, a recent statement by Richard Serra (October 10 [1979], p. 73), reaffirming the universal and transhistorical validity of sculptural notions: ‘I have always thought that the basic assumption of film could never be sculptural in any way and to beg the analogy between what is assumed to be sculptural in sculpture and what is assumed to be sculptural in film is not really to understand the potential of what sculpture is and always has been.’43

Buchloh identifies sequential phases of mythification of personal biography, construction techniques and production procedures built up around the constructivist sculpture of artists from Julio González to Picasso, to David Smith, to Anthony Caro. Artists of the Minimal and post-Minimal generation, such as Carl André and Richard Serra began to ‘decompose’ these myths, but:

It is symptomatic in this context that Serra referred to the technique of welding as ‘stitching’ during the 1960s and that he nevertheless readopted that very same technique in his later work in the 1970s, when he himself returned to the mythification of the constructivist legacy in order to pursue a problematic project of seemingly public monumental sculpture.44

In an essay written in 1997, inspired by a performance staged by Robert Morris in 1963, Edward Allington writes:

so much talk about sculpture is clouded with quite hopeless romantic notions and very dubious myths. The most destructive and pointless of these myths is the one that starts, ‘but that is not really sculpture, is it?’ This, and similar statements which never seem to specify their meaning, assume the notion that there is such a thing as ‘real sculpture’.45

As I suggested at the start of the paper, I am constantly torn between assessing individual works as ‘real’ sculpture and the belief that sculpture is wholly socially determined. Exploring the prominence of Brancusi as an influence within the applied arts field, Glenn Adamson concludes that the existence of a ‘craft world’ allows the individuals who practice within its borders to labour under the illusion that they are artists, through reference to outdated modes of modernist practice.46 This seems to me to be a forceful argument, but many artists (and critics, curators and gallerists) who have passed through the ‘fine art’ training system also make reference to outdated forms of modernist practice. The mud is deepened yet further by the all too human phenomenon of ageing artists, such as Serra, who thrust themselves into the front line as young men and women, then grow older and fall away, their cutting edge dulled by success, comfort, or, possibly, hubris. Very often, however, their influence over the system – through museum displays, the market, monographs and teaching – remains strong. And reality, of course, will not stay within the carefully constructed boundaries of theory. Art, at any one time, works at many different levels, with some artists searching for the new and the critical, others seeking justification in the past and many doing a combination of both.

Ceramics programmes have for many years accepted students who see themselves, loosely, as sculptors. Students are often encouraged to define themselves as artists, but they do not familiarise themselves enough with contemporary art practice. If you are going to become a sculptor, or call yourself a sculptor, then you need to be familiar with current debates around the idea of sculpture. The best way to do this, it seems to me, is to be taught by sculptors and to work with other sculpture students, but this has not been a high priority for ceramics programmes in the UK. This means that ‘sculptors’ graduating from ceramics courses don’t have a constituency for their work. It also results in the production of derivative work in ceramics, which can nevertheless achieve a high degree of success within the ceramics world, because academics, practitioners and even curators don’t know the sculpture practice that it is ‘influenced’ by.

There seem to be two criteria that need to be met for any work to be considered as sculpture:

  1. The work itself must display an engagement with the current debate around what constitutes sculpture.
  2. The work (or the producer/production) must be framed by the structures within which the character of sculpture is discussed – art schools, journals, museums, galleries, etc.

The producer can’t stand outside this debate, or outside these structures and unilaterally declare the work to be sculpture. Richard Slee has, rather heroically and despite his relocation from an applied arts context to a fine art one, resisted mythification thus far. But while we (or I) agonise over whether the work of such a sophisticated and self-critical artist should be regarded as sculpture, exceptionally lucky, (or canny, or cynical?) producers seem to be able to get away with fulfilling only the second criterion. As I suggested earlier, an element of Rachel Kneebone’s acceptance into the world of fine art, or sculpture, was her (or her gallery’s) disavowal of her ceramics background. The following is extracted from the text on the artist’s page on the White Cube website:

Rachel Kneebone’s finely sculpted porcelain works erupt with a bacchanal of contorted bodies, limbs and slumped phallic tendrils that emerge from amorphous properties of the material. Sharing the characteristics of Hellenistic sculpture, Kneebone retains the purity of the glazed white surface while the tonal chiaroscuro enhances the intricately modeled ruptures and crevices that inject this conventional material with a sensual physicality and unique energy.

Inspired by Ovid’s great poem ‘Metamorphosis’ where humans migrate into a myriad of forms, Kneebone depicts an erotic state of flux, suspended mid-transition, divulging part figurative and fragmentary motifs. Kneebone’s eclectic vision relishes in the angst of both Greek tragedies and Bernini, the hybrid creatures of Bosch, and the ‘erotic gaze’ of Batialle (sic) and Bellmer. A more direct comparison is with the eighteenth century Meissen porcelain tableaux, some of which were copied from idyllic pastoral paintings and odalisques by Watteau and Boucher. Yet Kneebone manages to decant all these influences into her own highly distinct rhetoric, celebrating forms of transgression, beauty and seduction.47

Have we come so far from Buchloh’s insistence on a rigorous historical discourse? Was this written by an art professional? Were they taking the piss? While Slee’s work looks like sculpture, Kneebone’s looks, to me, like ceramics, yet it is defined as sculpture by one of the most prominent fine art galleries in the country. It is also accepted as such by a significant public institution in the United States – the Brooklyn Museum, New York. Given the opportunity to speak for her work, in a publicity video for the exhibition ‘Regarding Rodin’, in which eight of her ‘large-scale porcelain sculptures’ are shown alongside ‘fifteen iconic works by nineteenth-century French master Auguste Rodin’, selected from the Museum's collection by the artist, Kneebone, says:

I think very much we share making permanent an emotion that is always fleeting and is also beyond language. So there’s nothing static about certain emotions, well, any emotion really, but still there’s the desire to communicate those sort of feelings and I think that, with Rodin, is a link. I see my work as really now, so although there are historical references, some of that is like a by-product of working with porcelain itself, I don’t actively pursue the historical. Generally before I start a piece I really only know the start point and then there’s the making process that things that arise through physically working with the material that shape the overall look, so I never really know exactly what making is going to look like until I’ve made it, but I always know what I’m looking at, what I’m questioning, or why I’m doing the piece – I have to have that push to make something, so that I don’t just make for the sake of making, there’s always an enquiry within the work.48

The ‘art world’ is an arena of activity, within which communities form. Communities are made up of individuals, all of whom are trying to achieve a necessary balance between competition and cooperation. Competition within communities is intense – who gets to be influential, to have a good career, to make a good living? Cooperation, however, is essential. How do you build a constituency for your practice if you do not get on and share ideas and goals with others? We all know the value attributed to the activity of networking. The situation is further complicated by the notion that cooperation is a ‘good thing’. Art could be seen to be analagous to politics in that the individual is trying, or pretending to try, to improve the situation of the group, while having to compete with other individuals within the group in order to ‘succeed’ and, therefore, to gain influence over those same individuals. Cooperation within communities easily extends to inter-community competition – this is part of how you define your group and, therefore, yourself. The formation of communities begins in the art college, which leads us back to ‘discipline’.

It seems to me that Sculpture is no longer considered as a discrete discipline. The discipline is, in reality, the much vaguer Fine Art, or just ‘art’. Are ceramicists artists, by default, as a result of being art school-trained? Are artists artists, by default? In an essay published in 1997, Bridget Riley writes:

To go back a little, it was very much part of the attitude of painters in the modern tradition that while one could and should talk and think about painting, drawing and sculpture one could not talk expressly about art itself. This attitude was widely held from the time of the great French nineteenth-century artists right down to the early 1950s when I was a student. To attempt to talk about art was regarded as trying to discuss the undiscussable. Amateurs might entertain themselves with this subject and theoreticians too, but it was seen as an academic preoccupation quite irrelevant to the much more serious concerns of practising artists. And these concerns were essentially to do with how to work - the establishing, building up and refining of an artist's metier.49

Is Riley being old fashioned, or have practising artists become too close to the academy? On one reading, she has lost the argument: in an inter or post-disciplinary world, the flexible categories of ‘art’ or ‘design’ spawn a host of possibilities. While Joe Moran is ultimately positive about interdisciplinary approaches, believing that ‘they can challenge ossified, outmoded systems of thought and produce new, innovative theories and methodologies which open up the existing disciplines to new perspectives’, he also draws attention to the problems associated with an easy acceptance of inter-disciplinarity. In The University in Ruins (1996) Bill Readings ‘suggests that the nebulous and malleable nature of the term, “interdisciplinary”, means that it can be easily appropriated in pursuit of the market-oriented university’s aims’.50 There are clearly major issues that need to be addressed here, but, for now, maybe a quotation from Hal Foster in the same text suggests a way forward:

Even two decades ago there were very restrictive disciplinary conventions: nothing but disciplinary cops! This is not the case now. Today so much work that purports to be interdisciplinary seems to be non-disciplinary to me. To be interdisciplinary you need to be disciplinary first – to be grounded in one discipline, preferably two, to know the historicity of these discourses before you test them against each other. Many young people now come to interdisciplinary work before they come to disciplinary work. As a result they often fall into an eclecticism that does little work on any one discipline; it is more entropic than transgressive.51 (My emphasis)

Perhaps for ceramics to lay any claim to a critical position within the discourse on sculpture, the ceramicist must be working at an interdisciplinary level and therefore be familiar with the histories of both ceramics and sculpture and their historical points of contact.

My conclusions are as follows:

There are no fundamental, or ontological, reasons why Richard Slee’s (or any other) installation of ceramics should not be classed as sculpture.

My reading of Buchloh and Drucker as examples of the discourse within sculpture suggest that epistemological distinctions might be drawn. The prominence of ‘production’ in that discourse suggests to me that, rather paradoxically, Slee’s work might be more ‘sculptural’ by being more about ceramics. Or, more precisely, about ceramics production and its relation to other forms of sculpture production.

There are significant social distinctions between ceramics and sculpture. If ceramicists are going to produce sculpture then they need to show in a sculpture context and be tested by the rules of that context. So ceramics students need to learn about sculpture, from sculptors as well as theorists, and have the opportunity to show in a sculpture context.

And returning to my own position, if I were starting my career again, particularly in the current climate of post-disciplinary openness, I would almost certainly choose the fine art route. However, as I find myself with a set of skills and material knowledge associated with a visual art specialisation (if not a discipline) my intention is to explore, even to celebrate, the particularities of that specialisation, but to align my enquiry with the interests of other visual arts disciplines and, if possible, to situate my work both within and beyond the uncertain boundaries of ceramics.

Top of the page | Download Word document | Next


To return to the article click the relevant note number

1 Dickson, R.  2011 ‘Can We Drop the Adjectives Please?’ abstract for paper delivered at the Making Futures conference, Plymouth Art College.  (accessed 20.04.12).
2 Letter to George and Thomas Keats (21 Dec 1817). In H. E. Rollins (ed.) 1958 Letters of John Keats Vol. 1, 193-4.
3 (accessed 01.05.12).
4 Tanya Harrod, ‘Studios, Academies and Workshops: Ceramic Education from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to World War II’ (1999) in  Garth Clark (ed.) 2006 Ceramic Millennium, Halifax The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, p.260.
5 Ibid, p.265.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid, p.266.
8 Ibid, p.264.
9 Ibid, p.275.
10 Royal College of Art. (accessed 20.04.12).
11 Edmund de Waal, in response to a question from author, Research Methods Course, RCA, 2011.
12 (accessed 20.04.12).
13 (accessed 16.05.12).
14 Goldsmiths University of London (accessed 20.04.12).
15 Newcastle University. (accessed 20.04.12).
16 Slade School of Fine Art. (accessed 20.04.12).
17 Glasgow School of Art. (accessed 20.04.12).
18 Royal College of Art. (accessed 20.04.12).
19 Royal College of Art. (accessed 20.04.12).
20 Central St. Martins. (accessed 20.04.12).
21 Cardiff School of Art and Design. (accessed 20.04.12).
22 Camberwell (now closed). (accessed 20.04.12).
23 Richard Slee, In Conversation: Richard Slee and Richard Wentworth, Studio Voltaire, London. 2 May 2012.
24 Richard Wentworth, In Conversation: Richard Slee and Richard Wentworth, Studio Voltaire, London. 2 May 2012.
25 Terry Eagleton quoted in Joe Moran, Interdisciplinarity, London, Routledge, 2010 p.172.
26 Richard Slee, In Conversation: Richard Slee and Richard Wentworth, Studio Voltaire, London. 2 May 2012.
27 Richard Slee, From Utility to Futility, Richard Slee exhibition, V&A Museum, artist’s talk, 2010.
28 Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Michael Asher and the Conclusion of Modern Sculpture’ (1983) in Jon Wood, David Hulks and Alex Potts (eds.) Modern Sculpture Reader, Leeds, Henry Moore Institute, 2007 p.366.
29 (accessed 21.05.12).
30 Buchloh in Woods, Modern Sculpture Reader, pp.359-360.
31 Benjamin Buchloh, ‘Gabriel Orozco: Sculpture as Recollection’, in Gabriel Orozco, London, Thames & Hudson, 2006, p.194.
32 Buchloh in Woods, Modern Sculpture Reader, p.358.
33 Ibid, pp.358-359.
34 Ibid, p.371.
35 Joanna Drucker, ‘Affectivity and Entropy: Production Aesthetics in Contemporary Sculpture’, in M. Anna Fariello and Paula Owen (eds.), Objects & Meaning: New Perspecives on Art and Craft, Lanham, Scarecrow Press, 2004 p.140.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid, p.141.
38 Ibid, pp.141-142.
39 Ibid, p.136.
40 Buchloh, ‘Gabriel Orozco’, p.190.
41 Ibid, p.206.
42 Ibid, pp.206-207.
43 Buchloh in Woods, Modern Sculpture Reader, p.375.
44 Ibid, p.363.
45 Edward Allington, ‘A Method for Sorting Cows’ (1997), in Jon Wood, David Hulks and Alex Potts (eds.), Modern Sculpture Reader, Leeds, Henry Moore Institute, 2007, p.464.
46 Glenn Adamson, Thinking Through Craft, Oxford and New York, Berg Publishers, 2007, pp.14-16.
47 (accessed 27.04.12).
48 (accessed 27.04.12).
49 Bridget Riley, ‘Painting Now’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 139, No. 1134, 1997, p.616, (accessed: 12/12/2010).
50 Moran, Interdisciplinarity, p.166.
51 Hal Foster, quoted in  Moran Interdisciplinarity, p.167.

Top of the page | Download Word document | Next


'You can use clay, but you can't do ceramics' • Issue 14

  Interpreting Ceramics logo