Earlier this week the Arts section of the New York Times had a headline which read, Still a Little Sloppy, but That’s the Point. I was moved by this line, so apt and so fully conscious of what can happen when somebody actually makes some art. That headline is the kind of description and summation which signals a host of skills we hope for in our critics; observation, context, understanding, synthesis, evaluation, conclusion and, at last, pithy expression.
Then my mind jumped to several messages I’ve been receiving almost daily now from NCECA about a new basis for criticism in ceramics and a conference out west to launch the effort. Lots of prominent people in attendance, many of whom have done good work in our field. It may be a seminal event, not unlike that confab on big ideas in Aspen every summer. But I think the odds are against it.
First, as I read history, no one since Wittgenstein has come forward with a unique context and language for common human experiences like squeezing and firing clay. And while our production is ongoing and belongs to a case that could change, it’s not very likely. The primary reason for that is found in the old saying, “God creates, man arranges.” Too much of the time, we, makers and critics, forget what a truly modest thing it is we do. We arrange and we re-arrange. But to hear some potters tell it, lighting and firing a kiln is like proving the Second Law of Classical Thermodynamics…and it is, for the umpteenth millionth time. And according to one critic, some potter’s huge jars are nearly unprecedented in size, technique and vigorous decoration. Maybe, if you ignore a couple million Greek and Minoan leftovers.
Secondly, we have presently in place an almost unlimited number of reasonable critical perspectives – reasonable, meaning they employ some measure of knowledge about ceramics. Such knowledge includes its history, broad applications in the arts and sciences, potential for function and expression, subtlety, and finally, the nearly magical capacity of the material to emerge from a kiln and simultaneously recall its ephemeral, plastic state and yet insist on its igneous permanence. In fact, these perspectives, taken together, are how criticism works in most of the humanities. And, to me, it all works well enough. Our shortage is in better ceramic artists, not better critics.
And finally, I’m a little bothered by the argument that ceramics is a special case and requires a unique context. I suppose this is not exactly parallel, but beware of the prospective mate who claims to be a special person and that practically no one understands the very special considerations due them. If you go along with that, you’ll eventually find yourself at the bottom of a human shard pile with folks who breathe in empathy and expel self-pity. I’d hate to see ceramics go there. We’re in enough hell as it is, having accepted the idea that everyday decorative objects are a legitimate form of ceramic art. That’s a very low bar, even for arranging, and makes me crave something that’s more…well, just a little sloppy.