Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Idea of the New

By: Rob Barnard

“Everything made not is either a replica or variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time.” George Kubler

The problems facing contemporary ceramic art are the same problems that face contemporary art in general. There is one difference though and that is that contemporary fine art, regardless of its problems holds the predominant position among all the visual arts in Western culture. That is to say it is the most celebrated-it is collected by more people, commands higher prices and has more institutions devoted to reinforcing its role in culture. While ceramic art has history that is every bit as rich and has played just as important a role in the world’s cultures as painting and sculpture, modern ceramic art is not taken as seriously by contemporary culture as painting and sculpture. The desire by modern ceramics to be seen as an art form that is just as significant as painting and sculpture has been its driving goal since the end of the Second World War. Modern ceramic art wants, in other words, what fine arts has. There is, however, some confusion and tension within the field between, on the one hand, the goal of being accepted into fine arts as a separate but equal partner, and on the other the desire to hold on to the iconography of its history while still making work that speaks to what it means to be human in the twenty-first century. One of the major issues that define the debates in the ceramics field as to what type of ceramic expression is the most relevant in modern culture can be traced to a larger cultural issue. And that is the idea of the new. Part of the problem for both the fine arts and the ceramic arts is that the idea of the new presupposes that “progress” is linear-new styles and approaches eclipse previous ones until they themselves are replaced. This perception leaves room for only one type of ceramic art occupying a predominant position in culture at any given moment.

Human beings are fixated with the idea of the “new.” The idea of “newness” as a marketing tool runs across cultures. We are told we can find happiness in new relationships, and new environments. Inherent in the idea of the “new” is an escape from our present predicament to one that is more pleasurable and more secure. The United States is a country that was built on this premise. There is of course, a reason that this idea is powerful. It is at the core of out evolution as a species and is what gives human beings not only hope for their future, but also hope for the future of their offspring as well. So, what about the idea of the “new” – when it comes to ceramic art, how do we measure “newness”, what are its qualities? Is it a worthwhile pursuit even?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Historical Frame Work

Arts and Crafts Movement

In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, with the advent of industry, people migrated from farm to city for employment in factories. After centuries of working the land, humankind was suddenly yanked away from it, and lost touch with its cycles, its beauty, and its power. Englishmen William Morris (1834 – 1896) and John Ruskin (1819 – 1900) believed this to be a serious problem, one that art could help to remedy. Their ideas launched the Arts and Crafts Movement and took physical form in interior that referenced nature and shunned the ugliness of the industrial environment. Morris and Ruskin championed a return to hand-craftsmanship and to times past, which they saw as steps towards a new social agenda, one based on the hope that beautiful domestic interiors would foster responsible citizenry.

The Arts and Crafts Movement took hold in the U.S. just after the turn of the twentieth century. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959), who designed architecture and furnishings as a singular expression, is often associated with the Movement. Art potteries sprang up all around the country, and included Rookwood in Ohio, Newcomb in Louisiana, and Van Briggle in Colorado, to name just a few. At man of these art kilns decorators, who were often woman, hand-painted mass-produced blanks that had bee cast in molds. Thus, multiples were the literal underpinning of Arts and Crafts ceramics in the U.S., even if they were antithetical to the English Movement’s original theoretical agenda. In another ironic twist, the decorators often sat in rows, like factory workers

Post-World War II Studio Crafts Movement in the U.S.

Most of the American Arts and Crafts potteries went into decline between the World Wars, and the post-war Studio Craft Movement filled a void that potteries left behind. This coincided with the rise of ceramics departments in universities in the U.S. and with the consideration of clay as a legitimate material for the creation of fine art. This art-for-art’s sake demand suitable exhibition veues. Whereas the products of the Arts and Crafts potters and decorators were sold in local five-and-dime stores and in department stores, post-war ceramic artists regarded fine art galleries and museums as their venues for interface with the public and the art market. When the Museums of Modern Art presented Peter Voulkous’s (1924 – 2002) solo show in 1960, one of the most respected institutional gatekeepers in the world permitted entrĂ©e to contemporary ceramics.