Ceramics: Art and Perception

Material Traces of Past Performances: Reclaiming Authenticity in Contemporary Studio Pottery

In recent decades, it has become fashionable to exhibit crafts and amateur art, and for artists to utilize the term amateur as a rhetorical device by which to criticize the art world’s dominant hierarchies;1 thus, art spaces that cater to such practices emphasize issues of labor rather than skill.2 This tendency combines with other manifestations of contemporary art that advocate the affirmation of collectivity and the denunciation of the individual − strategies designed to criticize the neo-liberal world order.3 Claire Bishop coined the term ‘the ethical turn’, meaning the approach whereby art and aesthetics are criticized as being merely visual, superfluous, and academic, and therefore less important than the proposition of an improved ‘model’ for societal relationships. Hence, artists develop social situations as dematerialized, anti-market, politically engaged projects. In such a discourse, many politicized artists and curators often reject the word ‘quality’ as one that serves the interests of the market and the powerful elite.4

This dominant anti-market discourse is the background, but art and craft objects are popular commodities − primarily as souvenirs of tourist experiences − and as such are perceived to be romantic symbols of simpler times and people, thus evoking pleasant associations. ‘Craftsmanship’ is therefore understood as a symbolic gesture to values such as ‘lifestyle’, ‘integrity’, and ‘authenticity’, and craft objects are seen as products of ‘exotic’ or ‘different’ people.5 This popularity of craft objects as souvenirs makes it hard to establish their credibility as products of a critical and ‘authentic’ contemporary artistic medium.6 Paradoxically, the atmosphere of ‘anti-object’ and ‘anti-quality’ 7, means the more craft is present in contemporary art, the more ‘studio craft’ and its commercial dimensions becomes the target of ideological attacks. Whereas, the making and trading in crafts by economically established Western craftspeople is perceived as something symbolic of privileged societies.8

Some clarification of terminology is needed in order to establish the arguments that inform this essay. I use the term ‘ceramics’ here to describe fired clay, that is, clay that has been vitrified. Thus, when I talk about studio ceramics, or studio pottery, I mean ceramics-making or pottery-making in the context of craft. The term in this context refers to handmade objects that are composed of particular materials that the maker has mastered through a long training.

Furthermore, in order to clarify my present context, it seems important to note that in contemporary art and design discourses, the word ‘craft’ is often applied to objects with a different meaning. In such cases, the term is used in connection with mass produced objects, or artworks created via amateur executions of craft practices by contemporary artists, to give them a sense of authenticity and seemingly social engagement. This is true even though, unlike craftspeople, designers and artists do not have to have mastery of materials in the sense of hand-making, and neither is tied to a particular material Meanwhile, there are contemporary craftspeople, such as studio potters, who have embarked on practices that engage methods of observation and exploration. Their practices are similar to those of contemporary artists, but their work is not interpreted in the same way, so they do not figure in contemporary art discourse, which is an indication of an asymmetrical situation in the It is an important insight to address, since craftspeople do not see themselves as production potters, their intention being to participate in a more critical discourse. This is one of many examples relevant to the argument that, more often than not, there is a gap between the ideas and significance embedded in the making of craft and the way craft objects are perceived and understood by others. Accordingly, in this essay I create a context that brings further dimensions of contemporary pottery projects to the fore and explores the wider relevance of this work in contemporary material cultural studies.

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