Ceramics and the Haptic Lapse

“‘... there are almost no potters left who earn their living by selling to the general public. They have become reliant on the gallery system, often paying for the privilege of exhibiting.’”

The following is an open letter to Craft Victoria, in response to a forum about the closure of the ceramics course at the Victorian College of the Arts.

I must say that finding out the VCA course was winding up didn't come as a great surprise. Although I notice that the newsletter referred to the course having 'offered a unique opportunity for students to interact with other art media', I am inclined towards a different point of view. As an ex-student and part-time teacher at the VCA, I think that in many ways it summed up the confusion of 'ceramics'. This is not to say there have not been good students and staff associated with the course. Rather, it is an observation regarding the general direction of the department, and indeed of many ceramics departments in recent times.

The questions that immediately occurred to me, regarding the events at Grant St., are why should we care, and what have we lost?

I recollect a recent conversation with someone who was in charge of putting together an elective program in ceramics. This once great department (which shall remain nameless but was not the VCA) was still full of sufficient equipment and materials to run a mid-sized factory, but it could no longer attract enough students or faculty support to offer a full time course of study. Where once students had competed to gain entrance to a full fee paying four year diploma, the three year subsidised degree had been cancelled due to lack of interest. Art school life had become a series of electives, the educational equivalent of channel surfing. The bothersome discipline of clay and wheel had long ago lost ground to the fidgets of undergraduate conceit, and no amount of spin could disguise the fact that the situation was terminal. With multi-skilling and the departure of the last of the tenured staff it was only a matter of time.

In response to my highly undiplomatic suggestion that many ceramics departments had brought this situation upon themselves, I was rather archly informed that they still offered a unit called 'The Vessel', by which I was to assume that they had the situation well in hand.

My thoughts turned to a formidable Melbourne artist and educator I had the privilege of knowing, who was once heard to mutter that it would be better if, and I quote, '...all the ceramists would just take their vessels and sail away', or words to that effect.

There is probably nothing intrinsically wrong with an environment where students wander in, fiddle with a lump of clay, paint it blue, stick a feather in the side and call it art. It happens in sculpture departments all the time. It does no permanent harm, or good, which is not to say that it is a wholly benign activity. The damage occurs when such things are confused with several thousand years of a venerable, and utterly different tradition, that of pottery.

How, you may ask, is this possible? Surely a lumpy feathered blue thing cannot be mistaken for a pot?

The problem is one of nomenclature.

Pottery is not sculpture, and it is only nominally ceramics.

Pottery refers to types of objects and materials, the place where these materials are manipulated and the objects are made, and the general disciplines associated with making them. People who work in this field are called potters.

Sculpture is a different activity entirely, well understood, albeit periodically contested, within a western paradigm of art history. It is also a widely used term describing certain types of non-functional objects. What a sculpture is made of is entirely irrelevant, insofar as it does not effect the categorisation of the object as sculpture. Sculptures are made from marble and ice, telephones and twigs, and the musings of seagulls in the rain, as long as they have a presence in German biennales. People who make sculptures are called sculptors, when they are not being called installation artists, thus explaining why their work only 'occupied the space' for a week.

Ceramics are a group of materials with defined chemical and physical properties. Ceramics are also objects made from these materials. A brick and a Ming vase, and our lumpy feathered blue thing, are examples of these objects. Ceramists, or ceramicists, base their work on these material choices, and if they have been to art school they 'define their practice' as making objects primarily or exclusively out of ceramic materials, otherwise known as clay. Ceramics is also a hobby, where overglaze decoration is applied to a bewildering variety of slip-moulded forms, designed to be fired at low temperatures. Sometimes these same techniques are utilised by 'ceramists', potters and sculptors, where the desire for irony or bright colours can be given full reign. A ceramist may make either pots or sculptures, but they generally like to call these objects 'ceramics'. I'm not sure why.

Lately, we have seen the arrival of a new group of practitioners, the 'designer-makers'.

'Hi, my name is Troy, and I'm a designer-maker with a ceramics based practice. I am currently developing a body of work which explores the gender politics of domestic objects, and locates the kitchen as a site of abjection.'

Troy is a completely understandable product of the average ceramics department, the logical outcome of a system which privileges Habermas over Hamada. For the ceramics and painting student alike, the teaching of art history, when it struggles back to a time before Andy, may dwell on 16th century Italy, but it won't be Majolica that is celebrated. This is because there is a hierarchy of art, an ever repeated narrative reified behind the massive stone columns, or more lately titanium scales, which fence off the paddocks where curators chew the cud of futures past. The temple trains its acolytes, and, unlikely as it seems, some of them begin life at places like the VCA. Fine art is money and power, the designer gym where Western culture flexes and preens, and the decorative arts are something you pass on the way to a wonderful new eatery. In this world pottery is way out of its league.

The ceramics student is left feeling like a second class citizen, because the rich history which he should be able to draw upon for sustenance and inspiration is not valued within the institution. Hell, mostly it's not even taught. Ask many ceramics lecturers who Ernest Chaplet or Auguste Delaherche are and they won't have a clue, but mention a French post structuralist philosopher with absolutely no interest in pottery at all...

That this is a loss not only to Troy, but also to the painting student, is not even considered.

In this situation, students find themselves in a real bind. It is difficult enough for staff to explain why students should be taught to make stoneware cereal bowls in an art school, and why such a skill, no matter how successfully mastered, is worth a university degree. It is even more embarrassing for the student who attempts to make the bowls, when surrounded by the uncompromising cool of grainy videos and multiple piercings.

The tragic fact is that the alternative has often seen students retreat into making bad sculpture under the tutelage of untrained staff. It is tragic because the sculpture department hate people muscling in on their turf, and it is self-defeating because you don't need two separate departments telling students how to make sculpture. When crunch time comes and one has to go, guess who it will be?

Calling these sculptures 'ceramics' fools no one, although there have been heroic attempts made to justify the field. A common argument for the continuing existence of ceramics departments is one of material specialisation, and it goes something like this.

Clay is just so difficult to use that lumpy blue feathered things, when made out of this material, are beyond the ken of sculpture departments, limited as they are to coping with relatively simple tasks like large scale bronze casting. If the department also has a small percentage of students who make stoneware cereal bowls, well, all the better, because everybody knows sculptors can't do that. It is absolutely no problem at assessment time to compare the cereal bowls with the blue lumpy feathered things, because they both sit on plinths, and, short of never turning up, no one fails anyway. It is purely academic.

For the historically minded, it is easy enough to trace the onset of this schizophrenic condition. It is often characterised as a battle between the Anglo-Oriental Brownies and West Coast Funkers, a muddy gang warfare played out on the margins of art, like a couple of spectators grappling on the sidelines whilst the match goes on somewhere else. The real situation is much more complex — and interesting — but the fact is the fundamental split within many ceramics departments must, to an outsider, look truly bizarre.

So, how is it that students still manage to do it? The subtleties of celadon are still with us, as each successive generation finds ways to learn the necessary skills. The bad sculptors are hanging in there as well, passing their treasured knowledge on to future generations.

The answer is that there are still some very good ceramics departments left, as well as limited opportunities for advanced training at places like the Jam Factory in Adelaide and Sturt at Mittagong. But we should not fool ourselves — even the best departments are under threat, and as each one closes the opportunities to acquire skills and knowledge decreases. I am not worried about the bad sculptors — there are sculpture departments to take care of that side of things. I am worried about the potters.

There surely is a point of critical mass, beyond which the whole enterprise loses viability. As it is there are almost no potters left who earn their living by selling to the general public. They have become reliant on the gallery system, often paying for the privilege of exhibiting. Without an art school background it is unlikely that they would even have the dubious opportunity of exhibiting in publicly funded spaces — they would not be 'in the loop'. For those that do, pottery has increasingly become a process of making simulacrums of useful objects. It is like a friend of mine who has a stack of Gwyn Piggott dinner plates, made when she was at the Jam Factory workshops in Adelaide. Believe me, they don't see the inside of a dishwasher any more.

This phenomena may explain the rise of porcelain, with its associations of rarity and value. We are asked to pay a thousand dollars for a group of objects arranged on a shelf, so they may be admired whilst we eat our dinner out of the ten dollar china from Freedom. There is a haptic lapse, and in a reversal of the common phrase popularised by Ali G, we 'talk to the face, 'cause the hand don't want to know.'

There is much more to be said, and I know what I have written is rather short on solutions — although removing ceramics departments from the university system entirely might not be a bad start — but at the end I am left with this question.

If the general public has, to a large extent, stopped buying hand-made pottery, and the courses are closing down one after another, is it at all possible that the ceramics fraternity — we — are at fault?

Bernard Leach (yes, the bad daddy who bothered De Waal so much) was once in America, where he was doing what Bernard did best, namely sharing his wisdom, or pontificating, depending on your bias. (Keep in mind that people queued up for this — it wasn't like he had Yanagi judo chop them into submission.) Anyway, he had seen the birth of the West Coast funk movement, when American art schools, fuelled up by the post-war economic miracle were full of confident, questioning iconoclasts. Leach was said to have looked around him in despair and asked 'Where has pottery failed these people?'

It still is a good question to ask. I have my answer — it's just a matter of doing it.