Critically Speaking

From the panel at NCECA 2008.

Perhaps we fear the word “critical”: the judgment that condemns. But I want to focus on another sense of the word—not one that forecloses a future, but that opens, digs to uncover meanings, interprets, illuminates. I’m particularly interested in thinking about ceramic history and how it influences our present and also in the histories and words of living clay artists.

David Smith sculptureAs a kid I loved David Smith’s welded steel sculptures and I still remember coming across David Smith by David Smith, a book that featured images of his work and reproduced journals, letters, and other writings. The immediacy of his words magnified my enthusiasm for and understanding of his work. I liked having a sense of his sacrifices, struggles, passions, and politics. I never forget seeing the letter he wrote to the Kennedy Administration refusing a Presidential medal of some sort and his handwritten scrawl at the bottom: “which doesn’t mean that I voted for Nixon,” as if he’d had a last minute worry they’d dismiss him as a Republican fanatic and not get his pacifist convictions.

Not surprisingly, my own critical activities started with interviews of potters I admire—Michael Simon and Karen Karnes for the Laitman Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution and Linda Sikora for Studio Potter. We have many wonderful potters with us—where do we go to find out more about their motivations and thinking, their particular visions? This is one direction that critical investigation can take: Asking the questions and providing the forum for artists to give their own answers. I think of the voices Studs Terkel’s works have brought forth, the uncanny eloquence of non-professional wordsmiths.

I next helped organize a written forum in Studio Potter of potters responding to Garth Clark’s disparaging essay about the state contemporary of functional pottery. What, I wondered, did potters themselves think of Clark’s description of them as “Bernard’s orphans”? The essay “Lyrical Functionalism” was my own effort in this conversation. Clark had compared potters to classical musicians playing a tired old canon; I wanted to find a metaphor more expressive of the vibrant work I saw among my contemporaries, and thought instead about poets’ words and clay, poetics rather than musicology.

In a different kind of critical project, I curated “Containing History” at the Albany Institute (NY), a show of contemporary potters influenced by historical sources that ran concurrently with a show of the early American potter, Paul Cushman, and highlights from the museum’s extensive ceramics collection. I found it an interesting challenge to think about each potter’s work and relation to history and to write the museum labels for the general public.

My current interest is in establishing a retrospective for Karen Karnes, a seminal figure whose work synthesizes the two major influences on American ceramics in the second half of the twentieth century: European design and Asian aesthetics. I hope to edit a monograph on Karnes that unfolds the many themes of her extraordinary life and work.

Finally, I always had an interest in early American saltware, and have been drawn lately to 18th- and 19th-century presentation pieces and quirky occasional wares that jug makers produced as special commissions or by whimsy. These objects have some of the expressively charged spirit that animates the best of contemporary studio pottery. No monograph exists that documents and analyses these works.

A potter dabbling at criticism is nothing new. The marginal place of pottery—and craft generally—has often meant leaving the (unpaid) job of explanation and analysis to practitioners, a notoriously risky business. At best, potters offer up lively, inspiring and even revelatory writing—narratives, interviews, and essays on studio practice and on pots themselves. Some classic examples of narratives that spring to mind are Hamada’s words in Leach’s Hamada book, George Ohr’s autobiographical sketch, “Some facts in the History of a Unique Personality” (which reads like something out of Huck Finn), and Cardew’s journals excerpted as Pioneer Potter.

As testimonies on why and how craftspeople work, I think of William Morris’s 1882 “The Lesser Arts of Life, Leach’s “Towards a Standard,” in The Potter’s Book, Cardew’s chapter “The Product,” in Pioneer Pottery, and more recently, Clary Illian’s A Potter’s Workbook (especially the last four chapters). The writing of potters about pots can be inspiring—like an architect’s view of a building, rich with special knowledge and sensitivity. Some memorable examples are Leach’s Potter’s Challenge, with its poem-like takes on examples from his canon; the dialogue between Higby and Mackenzie on excellent pots in the Nelson-Atkins Museum several decades ago in Ceramics Monthly; and more recently, Mark Hewitt on early American pots in The Potter’s Eye.

The potential weakness in this sort of criticism is the tendency for the writer to see ceramic history leading to his or her own work. And this shabbier aspect is connected to traditions that are by nature self-congratulatory rather than rigorous. I think, for example, of Paul Greenhalgh’s withering critique in Studio Potter in June 2005 about “archetypal ceramics presentations” and the program of this very conference. “Very rarely do people talk about ideas. Seldom do they present structured argument as to the meaning and position of their work, and rarely do they situate their work in the history of ceramics.”

But thinking deeply, doing historical research, reflecting, doing the sort of intellectual work Greenhalgh advocates—all this takes time. Which brings us to back to money. Since so much writing is unpaid, it begs the question of motivation; economic compensation at least clarifies the quid and quo. Self-promotion is often a compensatory wage. When writers are aren’t paid (or not paid much) the problem of endearment (and who is dearer than ourselves?) looms. How can we see clearly when our gaze is filtered through relational warmth or economic codependence and self-regard? Putting forward friends, loved ones, and business associates undermines our ambitions for serious, rigorous criticism. But I wouldn’t want to foreclose any good critical writing in the field—we are after all, a small enough community that we become inevitably interconnected on many levels. At the very least, these relationships should be disclosed. That’s part of the self-revelation involved in the attempt to write criticism; in a sense, it’s part of the intellectual work Greenhalgh describes—attempting to be honest and informed about your own influences, motivations, and historical context.

We are in a time of real generational change in the field. It is notable that there are three recently published or forthcoming books on craft theory, the new quarterly peer-reviewed Journal of Modern Craft, support for scholarship coming from the Center for Craft Creativity and Design, and many recent monographs coming out of museum shows produced by professional curators. Three key journals—Studio Potter, Ceramics Monthly, and American Craft—all have new editors who are all thinking actively about making their publications responsive to a changing field in which intellectual discourse may increasingly play a role. Finally, Ceramics in America, Rob Hunter’s monographic annual that focuses on the history of ceramics in colonial America and beyond, has the only extensive book reviewing in the field, a forum that we must have if critical dialogue is to thrive.

—2008