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Century21Ceramics

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We are now in the fourth year of the new century and no clear delineation has appeared to separate new art from that of the previous century. It would be unreasonable to expect a clear change. Calendars are arbitrary construct with discrete divisions imposed on an analog world. Most events do not bend themselves to fit neatly in months years decades or centuries. Despite this some generalizations about ceramics over the last century can, however, be made.

In the first part of the century the mood in western clay appeared to be simple, "Clay is clay." Potters in the western world were often associated with design schools and movements. The Bauhaus was big and there was still some tangible connection with the old crafts. Potters made pots. Still accepting bogus distinctions from the rennaisance, clay was a "craft" not an "art".

By the fifties there was a growing sense of "clay is art" or maybe just "clay can be art", at least among clay enthusiasts. There were a few notable crossovers where painters made pots too. People like Miro, and Picasso worked in the now glorified mud. Clay was popular. During this period only relative price and art history texts stood between painters and clay. Volkous switched from utility to expression and so did other people destined to become famous sculptors. Robert Arneson and Deborah Butterfield made pots and switched. Unlike Volkous many of these late switchers felt that pots were beneath them. Volkous who had been a notable potter, either didn't agree or followed the old dictum, "If you don't have anything nice to say about craft, don't say anything at all". Given Peter Voulkos' loud nature, this seems unlikely. I don't think he ever ceased to like pots. His attachment to them through his forms was too profound to allow for dislike.

The end of the third quarter of the century was marked in 1977 by a watershed text by Harry Davis, " An Historical Review of Art Commerce and Craftsmanship"(1). He finally clarified what we had long understood, "That if you ignored status and price," the words craft and art had the same meaning , and therefore that, "Clay is art and art is craft." The last quarter century has seemed to bring a great frustration among clay users with the continuing disparity in price and prestige, and a frustration at the ineducability of the painting world. After all, they are trying to hang on to their economic might. The keynote address at NCECA in 2002 by James Elkins(2) expressed the growing feeling of, "Who needs em". Now that the century is over maybe the mood is, was, or should be, "Clay is not paint".

The lack of a one to one clay/painting relationship should be readily apparent. Although a few of us have made functional paintings, not much consideration is given them by painters. We call our functional paintings, "signs" and "oil cloths". This has been known to infuriate painters.

On a related note, painters have such a nice word for themselves, 'painters'. Potters have a similar word. Every time I utter "Ceramic Artist" I feel brittle. If you drop a ceramic artist do they crack? We need a new word and for lack of something better I propose 'clayer'. Its nice, short and easy to spell.

Forgive the art historians. When pottery fits conveniently into the history of the Eurocentric painting chronology they include it. Usually however clay just complicates the time line and its not paint. Where the main art historical stories of paint are primarily chronological, those in clay are often technological. Where these stories of paint delve into non-Western art, either they do so in the last 250 years, or they never get past Iran and Egypt. Even the great Moslem empire in India is usually left out. Its only when the Moslems get to Spain that they are seriously included. Ceramic history always has its Asian Centric moments, bumps into the Middle East particularly when dealing with glaze and seems incomplete with out good coverage of Central and South America. Either clayers have more worldwide importance than painters, or we are just more multiculturaly aware and sensitive.

Similarly clayers often have the broadest definition of art. "Well hey, if a functional drinking vessel is art, how about my kiln?", and if my kiln is art what about my brewsky? From this widening, a complete breakdown of the boundaries of the word 'art' descends. Painters find this all inclusive attitude even worse than just allowing clay into the club. Such a broad definition of art becomes meaningless and even worse, worthless to them. At least when we say clay and paint, we know what we mean.

Observation: Art's nose seems to be pointing a bit high in the air. Background: root of the word art: ars, meaning to put things together. This could be images, busts of Aristotle, or teapots that have been put together. It could be ideas, computer programs or Hondas. Definition: For me the prime definition of art is: Any artifact of intelligence.

Justification: The garbage man comes by your house. He had a bad night. He picks up your new, shining galvanized can (all right I am a traditionalist, its not plastic) turns it upside down into the truck, the garbage is stuck, nothing comes out. Did I mention that you're watching through the window and concerned about your new trash receptacle? You despise garbage men because they destroy your cans. The garbage man (could be garbage woman) had a bad night the night before, broke up with their partner, slams your brand new gleaming can on the side of the truck. Wham, Wham, Wham! They take their frustration (angst) out on your can. Finally the recalcitrant garbage slides from the can. What have you witnessed? Is it expressive movement? Is that not dance? And the artifact, your tortured can, is it not a recording of human emotion. What does artifact mean anyways?

The paint-centric world is caught up in a self inflationary stance. My prime definition is seen as the pin in a room of balloons. It is a threat to money and status. I'll paraphrase the common view, "art is art unless its clay, clay its craft," . Paint fails to see great secrets we clayers hold close: 1. Pot making is an incredibly formal pursuit; Proportion, Form, Movement, Gesture. 2. Abstract Expressionism in clay predates Pollack by at least 250 years. 3. It helps if you know how to manipulate your medium. In clay we can use my prime definition, we don't have a big stake in the old one. We have don't have mcuh status, and if entry level coffee cups astill go for under $10 we don't have much money either.

Ahrt! Just to Say this word I sometimes think I should put on the English country gentleman's costume, the sports coat and tie. Art needs to amble off of his marble pedestal and think about climbing onto the dinner table.

(1) Studio Potter Magazine:Volume 6, Number 1 December, 1977 An Historical Review of Art, Commerce and Craftsmanship - a lecture by Harry Davis (2) NCECA Journal 2002,Volume XXIII page 16 Two Ways of Looking at Ceramics by James Elkins

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