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Peter Schjeldahl was born in Fargo, North Dakota in 1942. He attended Carleton College and the New School. He worked as a newspaper reporter in Minnesota, Iowa, and New Jersey. After a year in Paris, 1964-1965, he settled in New York and began writing art criticism for Art News. Between 1967 and 1981, he published six books of poetry. He was a regular art critic for The Sunday New York Times (1969-1975), The Village Voice (1966, 1980-1982, 1990-1998), and 7 Days (1988-1990). He joined The New Yorker in 1998. His five books of criticism include The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings, 1991, University of California Press. For four years, until 2001, he taught a seminar for studio seniors in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Frank Jewett Mather Award for excellence in art criticism from the College Art Association.

About the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Series
Peter Schjeldahl speaking with graduate students prior to his lecture
Peter Schjeldahl spoke with graduate students prior to his lecture
Schjeldahl with Del Harrow
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Schjeldahl with Linda Swanson
Peter Schjeldahl spoke with graduate students prior to his lecture
Schjeldahl with Linda Swanson
About the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Series
Schjeldahl with Peter Morgan
Peter Schjeldahl spoke with graduate students prior to his lecture
Schjeldahl with Peter Morgan
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Peter Schjeldahl lecturing
Peter Schjeldahl, Seventh Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Ceramic History Lecturer
lecturing on November 4, 2004
Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art
About the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Series
Peter Schjeldahl lecturing
Peter Schjeldahl, Seventh Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Ceramic History Lecturer
lecturing on November 4, 2004
Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art
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Peter Schjeldahl lecturing
Peter Schjeldahl, Seventh Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Ceramic History Lecturer
lecturing on November 4, 2004
Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art
About the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Series
Peter Schjeldahl talks with students at the reception following his lecture
Peter Schjeldahl, Seventh Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Ceramic History Lecturer
talks with students at the reception following his lecture.
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lowing his lecture
Peter Schjeldahl, Seventh Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Ceramic History Lecturer
talks with students at the reception following his lecture.
About the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Series
lowing his lecture
Peter Schjeldahl, Seventh Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Ceramic History Lecturer
talks with students at the reception following his lecture.
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Marginal Powers: Ceramics and the Art World
Peter Schjeldahl

Seventh Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture
Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art
at Alfred University
November 4, 2004


Good evening. (salutes) Reporting for duty! That’s probably not very funny in light of political developments yesterday. But once you think of something like that, you’ve got to do it.

I’m going to give a lecture of sorts. I’ve never understood lecturing, maybe because I’m a college dropout, and I slept through the few lectures I ever went to. It’s somewhere between writing and talking, both of which I understand. Lecturing may combine a sloppy way of writing with a kind of tight-ass way of talking. Actually, I’ve ended up writing out quite a lot of this lecture. I think the sound of “the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture” intimidated me. I felt that I really ought to try to deliver. I was even going to wear a necktie but I hadn’t seen any around here until this moment when Joe has shown up with one and out-dressed me. By the way, you’ll see there is no screen – I’m not going to use slides. I tried to dress nice so you’ll have something to look at. You can get me started on slides if you want to hear a rant. I consider them a blight on visual culture. Also, I don’t think you look and listen with equal efficiency at the same time.

The Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture. The first one was in 1998. I went back and re-read Garth Clark’s very elegant original one, “Between a Toilet and a Hard Place: Is the Ceramic Avant Guard a Contradiction in Terms?” That’s a lecture all by itself, that title. I also went to talk to Garth, who is an old friend, this last week, to get his take on things now.

Here at Alfred today, I had a good time going around to studios. I’ve been impressed by the level of seriousness about making things, which should not be rare in an art school but is. I found it extremely refreshing. It reminds me that the original word for art in Greek is, which Aristotle defines as the value proper to making. Now it’s anybody’s guess what the word “art” designates. I’m old enough to remember when art meant painting. If you meant painting you could say art. If you meant sculpture you had to say sculpture. If you meant photography you had to say photography. Now art is a big dotted-line zone containing anything that somebody is willing to call art.

As a life-long art critic, I am an amateur in ceramics. I like it but haven’t written a great deal about it. One student this morning asked, “Why not?” That’s a very good question, which I told him to ask again when we get to questions. By the way, that’s my favorite part. That’s where I get to find out if what I’ve been talking about remotely interests any of you, and I can stop making like a lecturer.

I will share some thoughts about ceramics as a creative medium with a special place and special problems in culture today. But also because the bulk of my audience is students, I will presume to talk aesthetic and ethical philosophy to young artists, pursuing a hobbyhorse of mine. I will discuss how someone becomes a true artist in addition to being a real artist. You are all real artists already, I presume. I know that in the bulletin for this lecture there was a statement; a list of questions that I reluctantly supplied. [1] The questions are about what the crisis in ceramics is, or if there is a crisis. What interests me is the kind of tone I fall into when I talk about ceramics, even just conversationally. It seems to be universal among proponents of ceramics; certainly Garth Clark’s marvelous book, Shards, is full of it. It is a particularly militant tone, as if ceramics were a political cause or crusade. Of course, there is a history of crusading in modern decorative arts going back to William Morris and the arts and crafts movement, which in retrospect can look rather weak, as a Luddite or conservative reaction to modernization, although it produced great stuff. It’s part of a modern critical tendency that keeps dying out and coming back. It was enunciated by Matthew Arnold, the good poet and great critic who said the concern of all culture is the question how to live; by which I understand that what we love and how we love it say what we are, and they commit us to making the world more congenial to our love. There is a kind of soft political force behind our artistic passions. I will leave that thought hanging and come back to it.

First I will address the art of ceramics – what it is, and what uses it has and doesn’t have in the present day. I like the word “use,” as a close synonym, in art, for “meaning.” I’m a pragmatist, believing that ideas have no value in themselves, but only in what results from them. The same is true of art. With regard to ceramics, I’ll frame my remarks with what I call my zone theory of aesthetic experience. It seems to me that we experience three zones of contemplative perception, from the horizon to our bodies. One is background distance, where our eyes are set on infinity. It is the zone of landscape; it is the zone of architecture. It is enveloping; we don’t so much look at it as take it in. (One of the revolutionary moments in modern painting was when Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman and the other New York School painters introduced panoramic scale into unitary painting, so that you don’t look at it, you take it in. If you try to actively look at a Pollock it’s like leaning against a wall that isn’t there; you fall through it.) The middle distance is the favored zone of our visual culture. It stretches roughly from the end of arm’s length to the onset of the background. It is where our eyesight works most efficiently. That is, where something is close enough so that we can see it in detail and far enough away so that we can see it whole. Most everything that is deemed art in this culture is placed, arranged, or performed within that zone. Then there is the near at hand, from arm’s length in. This zone is completely disfavored in our culture, almost to the point of numbness. It’s where eyesight begins to give way to touch, where eyesight blurs and fingers take over. This is true even when things appropriate to this zone, like ceramics, are shown under Plexiglas. That’s frustrating because the things were made to be touched; but we imagine the touching. You see where people stand when they look at things in a show of ceramics – they stand up here. If the objects were sculpture, even of the same size, say by Brancusi, people would be a step back.

About a year ago I reviewed a show of Ken Price pieces at the Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, one of the biggest and best contemporary galleries in New York. Matthew Marks is a very ambitious guy who has corralled some of the best artists in the world and does extremely well by them. Ken Price was a surprise for a lot of people; I think he was a surprise to Matthew. The gossip was that Elsworth Kelly and Brice Marden, the great abstract painters, were instrumental in arranging the show because they love Price’s work. I’m hoping you know what the objects were – lobed, eccentric stoneware which he painted in many lumpy layers of acrylic and sanded down to a very smooth, parti-colored surface. They’re extraordinary. I think he’s a great artist, however you want to define artist. I happened to be talking to Matthew Marks about Price, and he was sitting at his desk in this tremendously elegant office. Behind his desk was an Elsworth Kelly abstraction – a gorgeous, knock-out painting. On his desk he had a scattering of objects, mostly sort of plastic souvenirs of one kind or another; there was a snow globe. I was saying that Ken Price is a ceramist and Matthew said absolutely not, no, no, he’s an artist, he’s a sculptor. I said, I know why you can say that, because I’m looking at you at your desk in this great office with this fabulous art, and everything within your arm’s reach is crap.

It is not felonious to have crap on your desk. It’s better than child molesting, okay? In fact, I think most of us enjoy trashy, kitschy stuff. If art is love, then kitschy stuff is casual sex. It’s like no commitment, and your heart doesn’t get involved, but it’s fun—though a steady diet of it is pretty creepy. But why should the near-at-hand, in our culture, be so overrun and even identified with junkiness that even people of superior taste, who would hate that in a building or a painting, think nothing of it? There are many reasons, having to do with how the stratum of society that consumes art has developed in modern times. One is the effect of modern aesthetic ideology, conceiving of art in formal visual terms alone; touch is banished from consideration. Then there’s the even more abstract ideologies of conceptualism and critical theory, which displace meaning from the object altogether to its intellectual context. Think also of utopian and industrial tendencies in modern design—the Platonic pencil sharpener, or whatever, enshrined in the Museum of Modern Art. Such glamorized functionalism robs ceramics, among other so-called minor arts, of a share in the question not only of how to live, but why. Why is life a good idea, rather than a pointless ordeal? What makes something worth doing well, or even badly, at all? Artists, by the way, should not have to worry about this. It ought to be a social given; that’s what culture is for, to give us an operative sense day to day of knowing why we get out of bed and go to work. It’s a big burden on artists to have to grapple with that, but that’s our situation. Our culture is in trouble to which the word “decadence” applies, meaning, to me, a loss of first principles and fundamental beliefs, so we end up wandering in a forest of causeless effects and insignificant signs. As pertains to ceramics; there is no traction, anywhere in common talk, for the question of how to live bodily in private/personal space. Finally, perhaps I should add a fourth zone to my spatial taxonomy: cyberspace. Today we jump from middle space to no space, to operations of the brain that can seem continuous with digital circuitry.

I’m going to address the question that was asked of me. Why don’t I write about pots more, given that I say that I like them? Actually, with the same student, we were talking about something that Garth Clark said to me, about there being a crisis in the market for ceramics now. There used to be a high, fancy gallery market; a low, craft-fair kind of lumpen market; and a middle market, which didn’t aspire to higher art, but whose audience included philosophically sophisticated, aesthetically sensitive people. Today the middle market has withered, and, with it, reasons and occasions for serious criticism. I’m a journalist for general audiences; my target is the middle audience for art. I won’t say middlebrow, but perhaps it’s that, too. Of course, really smart people and really dumb people get to read me, too, and I try to anticipate both. The point is that criticism is a service industry, which can’t set up a franchise outlet where market research proves there’s insufficient demand. It can’t make up from scratch a discourse about personal space where there isn’t any. I can address this issue, as I am doing right now, and as I did when I wrote the Ken Price piece. But you need somebody to talk to.

Actually, there is a prominent discourse of personal space, but it is entirely commercial and entirely subject to fashion – clothes, cosmetics, jewelry, perfumes. Has there been a fashion in ceramics since the 1950’s, since Boomerang Modern? I don’t know; maybe I’ve forgotten. Now, not being in fashion in some circles counts as being pure and virtuous. But in the history of the world nothing we now regard as great and memorable art was not in fashion in its time. Lacking such discourse and fashion, I feel forced back precisely on first principles and fundamental beliefs about what art is and what it is for.

I’m going to introduce some paragraphs from notes for a lecture I’ve given a couple of times this year, which I’ve titled What Art Is For Now. It’s a trick title. You can insert a comma and move it around. What Art Is, For Now. What Art Is For, Now. Cute. It’s a serious idea for me because I didn’t start loving art because I became a critic. Loving art—because art changed my life—put me in a position to be trapped in criticism or to come into it by accident, the way everybody used to. When I dropped out of college in Minnesota in the early sixties, I was a newspaper reporter; and I was always a poet. New York brought those things together and I started writing art criticism. I went to Paris in 1964; I had already been in New York some and met the poets. I thought, by the way, at that point I thought I was a surrealist poet and surrealism was in Paris. I was at least 20 years too late for surrealism or for Paris being the center of anything; but I was from Minnesota and that was about the information lag at that point. So I went to Paris, thinking I spoke some French, by the way, and the French immediately explained to me that I did not speak French. I had this miserable year as a starving poet, in the course of which I hitchhiked to Italy and ended up, one day, in a little town called Monterchi where there is (there was, it’s been moved since then) in a little cemetery chapel, about the size of a tool shed, occupying the back wall, a fresco of the pregnant Madonna, by Piero della Francesca. Madonna del Parto shows a pensive, young girl, hugely pregnant in a bell-shaped tent with mirror-image angels sweeping aside the flaps of the tent. One of them is in green and the other is in purple. Her belly echoes the shape of the tent. The picture is like a secret within a secret within a secret. It has the marvelous color and light of Piero. Something happened. As near as I can remember, it was like I died and came back to life the next minute as somebody different, somebody who was going to have something to do with that, whatever that was, which I did not understand at all. Later that year I had another epiphany. In gray, gloomy Paris I went into the Sonnabend Gallery and saw a show of Andy Warhol’s 1964 flower paintings. Absolutely mechanical reproductions of this little photograph of pansies on a huge scale, in these utterly synthetic Day-Glo colors, and it was like somebody kicked open the door of a blast furnace and I thought, wrong city! Through such events, I came to recognize myself as an aesthete—a moldly old word, but accurate. (Maybe we need a new twelve-step program: “My name is Peter, and I’m an aesthete.”) I hope some people will identify, and that most people, even, will know what I’m talking about. I think that any good art does change our lives, if only for a minute, if only a little bit.

I won’t say what the process was by which I became an art critic, but I very soon noticed a conflict in it, with my love of art. As a critic I am responsible to my readers; I am responsible to be judicious; to be intellectually honest; to argue against my own position at times. Out of this dilemma of mine, which I guess I can live with, I derive a sense of doubleness in the character of art itself. I came across a theoretical framework for spelling out the doubleness this summer while reading John Keegan, the British military historian who I think is one of the best writers in the world about anything. Military thinkers since the Prussian Karl von Clausewitz in the early 19th century have used the terms “true war” and “real war,” true war being the theoretically ideal form by which overwhelming military force is applied rationally to a clearly understood end. Clausewitz is supposed to have said that, ideally, war is the continuation of politics by other means. That’s true war. Real war is the unpredictable, horrible mess that comes about whenever people make a point of killing each other.

The nomenclature I’m borrowing might be considered overly exciting, to put it mildly. I’m not doing this to shock, or not only to shock; a bit of shock now and then is an excellent tonic for sleepy brain cells. What I like about the terms for war here is how they point out by analogy the extreme seriousness of art and by vivid contrast art’s absolute frivolity. Art is play. The only person I know of in art history who was shot in the line of duty was Chris Burden, the important conceptual artist, in California, who in the early 1970’s was drilled in the arm as an art work. But by the way, that was a mistake. His friend claimed to be a crack shot and was supposed to graze him, but he missed. It was a .22, big deal. Anyway, art is safe. It lets imagination roam carefree in realms that in life would disgust or terrify us. It lets us take extreme positions in battles whose worst effect are somebody’s hurt feelings, which rarely require medical attention.

True art, the ideal and passion of the aesthete, might be termed the pursuit of happiness by other means. True art is as ruthlessly focused on transcendence as true war is on destruction. True art invests personal experience with practically totalitarian authority. Its strength, by which I mean its service to life, is in unifying sophisticated heights of cultural understanding with primitive depths of instinctual being. Think of William Blake, Walt Whitman and D.H. Lawrence. Think of Picasso and Pollock. Real art, the regular subject of the professional art critic, is whatever the hell is out there at any given moment that is termed by somebody, art. (What is art? That’s easy. Art is a word.) Real art is as circumstantial and muddled as everything else in daily life. Clausewitz famously spoke of the fog of war. The fog of art never ends. The strength of real art, when espoused by artists on principle, is in vivifying the economic, social and political character of all human endeavors, including the creative. The weaknesses of real art include a constant slippage of creativity into secondary, frittery considerations. Efforts to sustain real-art impulses in practical forms are always sterile. Think of social realism and politically themed installation art.

Can the true and the real in art be reconciled? They can. What we think of as great art may be defined by precisely such reconciliations. Great art works are at once aesthetically perfect and alert to familiar experience—for their own time, of course. Museums have been called mausoleums of dead art. Actually, they are warehouses of obscure arguments. All art argues. Art is rhetorical. Ceramics argues. Old arguments can be reawakened. The kind of art historian I like and the kind of critic I try to be gives you enough sense of what old art was like for the people of its time, that you can get in on that. Great art works are lawyers for our humanity in the court of existence, where the verdict and sentence are always death. These lawyers assure us that appeals of our case will continue indefinitely, even after we’re technically gone.

O.K., we’ve got some high-toned generalizations which I now must down to earth in ceramics by transposing them to that inner zone, the ambit of embraces; the near-at-hand. It’s neglected and lonely in here. It is a sphere of ignorance for most people, including most art people. I’m talking to rare people who value the part of the world that comes within their reach. I’m talking to a self-selected elite. We should not be afraid of that word, by the way, and we needn’t be if we keep in mind something said by a friend of mine, the art critic of the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Knight. He pointed out that in a democracy, anybody gets to be an elitist. All it takes is dissatisfaction with popular culture, as not enough for us. This doesn’t make us better; it just makes us hungrier.

How do you stop being obsessed by history and start making some? In 1998, Garth Clark strategized for ceramics by describing its episodic role within so-called modernism. He named the five top ceramic objects in modern art. He listed them in ascending order as 5) Kazimir Malevich supremacist Teapot, 1923); 4) Meret Oppenheim’s fur teacup; 3) George Ohr’s pots circa 1893-1907; 2) Anthonio Gaudi’s Casa Battlo in Barcelona; 1) Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the urinal signed R. Mutt, 1917. Those are all marvelous things in their separate ways and important to stories of modern art that go under the heading modernism. But I must differ from Garth’s approach. For one thing, I happen to hate the word “modernism,” which gives an illusive sense that we understand what’s been going on for 150 years. It really only works when you have backed up far enough so that you can’t see inconvenient details. It reduces art to illustrations of an idea. It’s a theory that has come after the fact and presumes to dictate future facts, and has spawned probably the most grotesque historical abstraction in history, “post-modernism,” which presumes that we understand what modern meant and we’re after that. If you look up modern in the dictionary one of its meanings is now. So we’re post-now, which is when, exactly? If you read a critic who uses the word postmodernism in the first sentence of an essay and you buy it, you’ll buy anything after that. He’ll be able to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge in the next sentence. We are in a period of over-education and under-sophistication. Part of the impoverishment of the near-at-hand today is that it is a zone in which not only eyesight blurs but analytical intelligence bogs down; things in here aren’t neatly distanced and framed, to be thought about in an efficient manner. Education today assures the comfort of analysis. This puts education in opposition to the finest form of learning: sophistication. Sophistication is knowledge that you acquire in the course of needing it; it’s knowledge for a purpose. Education is: they screw off the top of your head and pour stuff in. The stuff there for a rainy day. But then never rains; or it doesn’t rain, it sleets. All these history lessons are security blankets for people who want to think in circles about things that don’t matter. We need history—you cannot know too much of it—but we need to understand that history exists now, in relation to immediate concerns. Everything is always now. If it has an immediate use, that’s a meaning. If it doesn’t, the hell with it.

About being an artist, a true artist – what is an artist? An artist is an unusually gifted man or woman with an attitude problem. They’re unhappy. Artists are unhappy people because they want something to be in the world that isn’t there. An artist comes into the world that is already full of things, from Starbucks coffee cups to galaxies and says, okay, all these things may be fine, but not enough, the world needs this – okay, now it’s really fine…until tomorrow morning when you wake up and there is something else missing. Or, alternatively, something is being done wrong, and you must set it right. You’re setting out to do all this in a world that has never heard of your existence. You are taking a big chance, betting that enough people in the world will recognize what you’re doing as somehow necessary. Odds are that you’re wrong, in which case you may end up teaching hobbycraft at Dripwater State. But you will be a winner in life. You will know something about yourself that 99.99% of the people in the world will never find out about themselves. So no whining, okay?

Now I want to hear from you. So, thanks.

NOTES

1 "There are many possible ways to describe the dilemma of creative ceramics in present American culture. Here are four that come to mind.
2 American culture is so corrupt, lacking any sense of relation between true art and real life, that it is numb to the philosophically rich, emotionally healing strengths of contemporary ceramics. A crusade is required.
3 The study and practice of ceramics have become either too academic or too self-indulgent, or both, to nurture real betterment in and for the field. Try harder.
4 There is no solution because there is no problem; everything about ceramics now is peachy. Chill.”

“As a ceramics amateur, I aim to discover, through engaging the professionals, what hypothesis is most accurate and, perhaps, inspiring." – Peter Schjeldahl


copyright 2004, The Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University

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