Between a Toilet and a Hard Place: Is the Ceramic Avant-Garde a Contradiction in Terms?

Garth Clark

First Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Schein International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University

October 27, 1998

It is reasonable to expect that a paper on ceramic history will be a warm and nostalgic trip through glaze discoveries, quaint old pottery studios, accompanied by a picture gallery of charming, non-threatening pots that one can take home to mother. Ceramic history has tended to be a safe subject, without rancor, unpleasant images or disquieting points of view. Alas, this is not that kind of lecture and instead of being taken into the sedate Zen world of Bernard Leach we will spend much of our time in the land of another Englishman, Thomas Crapper. Crapper, the erstwhile 19th century father of the modern toilet, could never have imagined that his development of porcelain bathroom furniture would eventually lead to one of the great controversies in fine art and provide the arts with its most infamous ceramic object.

Image of Garth Clark
Garth Clark

The subject of this paper has great potential for misunderstanding so let me begin by refining the thesis and by explaining what this will not be about. Firstly, it is not about ceramics made within the disciplines of design, crafts, or the decorative arts. It is about the relationship between ceramics and the fine arts from 1900 to 1950. Secondly, it is not another art vs. craft debate although this is always a subtext. For the purpose of this talk, let’s accept as a given that a part of ceramics is fine art. Thirdly, this is not about whether an Avant-Garde movement exists within ceramics. Of course, it does. Every movement has its interior Avant-Garde element. This stature is easy enough to achieve in our field where one has only to be two steps to the left of Warren McKenzie to be considered a radical.

The question posed in this paper is whether or not the ceramics movement made a contribution to the history of Avant-Garde of the fine arts mainstream in the first half of the 20th century. If it did then why has this never been acknowledged and if it did not, what were the reasons for the failure to be a participant. Then we must ask what the findings tell us about the practice of ceramic art history and what this means for our future. The term ceramics here is used in a neutral form meaning fired clay. There are no restrictions on the type of ceramic object that could be selected; traditional, non-traditional, functional, vessel or sculptural.

The next question, and a good one, is why should we even bother to examine this issue? Does it matter to ceramics whether we are part of Modernist art history or not? The answer is, “yes,” it does matter. Modernism is the dominant fine arts theology in 20th century art. Even Post-Modernism depends upon its dialogue and opposition with Modernism for its existence. In the next decade our perceived relationship to Modernism will decide our status and whether the practice of ceramics is upgraded or downgraded within the visual arts. Moving up or down this cultural food chain will have practical implications. It will decide what (if any) resources we get to educate, research and exhibit, whether we can sell our art at prices that are competitive with other arts and whether we can get the art press to deal seriously with what we make and do. It will decide whether we become more visible or invisible.

It is no secret that the relationship between ceramics and Modernism has, outside of industrial design, been an unhappy one. Modernism rejected the crafts movement as bourgeois and decadent and no ceramists have made it into the inner circle of the fine arts. Ceramists were often sentimental and historical in their approach to art making, an attitude that was antithetical to Modernism orthodoxy. The emphasis on material and process over concept has further alienated us.

We in ceramics are more or less in the position of an adult child who has had a difficult and unresolved relationship with our tough, rejecting father who is now ailing and before he passes on we want him to acknowledge our existence and validity. In art, just as in life, resolving such an issue is a profound moment–touching, painful, exorcizing–and key to a healthy self-image in the future.

This question is particularly important now. Many of our writers are currently grappling with this issue and it will be one of the key subjects at the forthcoming Ceramic Millennium conference in Amsterdam in 1999. The reason for its currency today is that we are about to enter into an orgy of self examination, a modern ritual which happens when we reach a chronological milestone such as a new decade. Two years from now, we will enter not just a new decade but a new century and a new millennium. There is a palpable and urgent desire to resolve our differences with Modernism before we enter the promised land of a new era.

I have chosen to deal with the subject at its most rarified point of entry, the Avant-Garde. Avant-Garde is a military term that refers to the forces that go out beyond the front lines to scout and occupy new ground. The implications of Avant-Garde are risk taking, blazing new trails, exploring new or forbidden territory and often, engaging in a battle with the forces of status quo to gain a foothold for unfamiliar and often unpopular new forms, ideas or beliefs. The artists who have distinguished themselves in this field of battle such as Duchamp, Malevich, Bracque, and Picasso in his early years, are the aristocracy of Modernism and exert particular influence.

In the post-1950's period it is worth noting that what is called Avant-Garde has altered. Many theorists argue that the Avant-Garde no longer exists except as a mainstream style of art making, developed and kept alive for some 30-40 years now by a cabal of university trained artists, academics and curators. The style is characterized by its emphasis on conceptual issues, installation and by a profound, even awed, respect for what are often very small ideas. It feels very academic and, given the fact that it represents the status quo rather than the opposition, it seems fair to compare it to the power and predictability of the Beaux-Arts academies that controlled the arts in the late 19th century Europe.

In order to sort through the ceramic art in the first half of the 20th century in search of objects that could possibly have claim to admission into the Avant-Garde canon, I decided to locate the top five Avant-Garde works in ceramics between 1900 to 1950. After much soul searching I ended up with a list of nine objects by nine artists and finally rejected four objects and reduced this to the required five. It is important to understand that by rejecting work I am not saying that the pieces that did not make the cut were not good as art. It just means that they do not satisfy the definition of Avant-Garde art. One can be a great artist and not truly Avant-Garde and vice versa.

The first of the four artists I rejected is Tullio d’Albisola, a gifted ceramist working in Albisola Mare on the Italian Riviera as a Futurist artist in close association with the movement’s founder F. Tommasso Marinetti. Between 1928 and 1939, he created a body of magical table-top limited edition ceramic art pieces, together with a group of other artists know as the “Aeroceramisti,” precursors of later work in a similar vein and scale by Ken Price, Ron Nagle, Richard Shaw and others. Futurist ceramics was unquestionably a great moment of innovation for ceramic art, imaginative and exciting, but when tested against the broader art mainstream, the “Aeroceramica” ultimately reveals itself as a secondary, decorative response to Cubist and Futurist painting and sculpture that predates the ceramic work by up to 20 years.

Another contender from Italy is Lucio Fontana, architect of Concetto Spaziale, one of the century’s great painters, a light artist, jeweler and ceramist. Even though Fontana was one of the greatest artists to work in ceramics and his work in clay from 1928 to 1969 can be considered exceptional, progressive art, it is not necessarily Avant-Garde. Fontana’s work is magnificent, overwhelming in its conflicting emotions of baroque essence and reductive passion and I fear my decision may be premature but for the time being that is my judgment and I will hold to this.

The final two artists both come from Britain. William Staite Murray, an intimate of painter Ben Nicholson and sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, was a member of the exclusive Seven and Five Society and one of the few ceramists working out of a fine arts milieu. But his work now has a slightly dated quality and even the most Modernist of his pots, while handsome, cannot be considered radical. The same is true of his student Sam Haile, who taught briefly at Alfred University in the late 1930's leaving an indelible imprint on the American vessel sensibility. Initially a painter, he embraced Surrealism and his pots are thrilling adventures in vigorous form and surface drawing. Yet, good as they are, they cannot be considered pivotal to the Surrealist movement and so, do not qualify as being Avant-Garde.

That leaves me with five artists and their objects which I will present in reverse order of importance, a kind of mutant Miss Universe competition. Fifth is Kazimir Malevich and his teapot from c.1920. When the director of the Russian State Porcelain Factory complained that this lyrical collision of volumes and masses would not function well as a teapot Malevich declared this a non-issue as his object was not a teapot but the “idea” of a teapot. This was the first time that I know of when the vessel was so clearly released to become a vehicle for pure art inquiry. The object itself stands out as a perfect melding of sculpture and utility with neither side yielding much to the other.

Number four is Object (1936) the fur covered teacup by the Swiss Surrealist loner, Meret Oppenheim, one of the defining icons of this poetic, erotic, mystifying and dream-based movement. It still has the power to shock, creating a queezy feeling somewhere between lip and gut. Indeed the older it becomes and more aged and questionable the fur seems, the greater the unease it inspires. Object works because Oppenheim took the cup and turned it into a player in domestic theater. She exploited 2,000 years of oral connection and served up a disturbing conflict with utility. We respond to the cup, even today, because it provokes a perverse, macabre moment of intimacy, imagining our lips against wet, manky fur straining out a serving of Lapsong Suchong.

Number three is a pot by George E. Ohr or rather “pots” by Ohr. Taking just one piece and showing it as the most radical or significant of his works is premature. Scholarship in ceramics has not yet reached the level where a potter’s output is so clearly analyzed that we can identify their masterworks and this is an important point that we will return to later. Ohr is the only ceramist that I believe can hold his own as a primary artist of Avant-Garde sensibility on a par with others in the fine arts mainstream. He is also the only ceramist for whom there is a groundswell of support within the fine arts to be taken seriously as an innovator.

He first started potting in 1879, making mostly domestic ware, novelties and ceramic hardware. His significant work as an artist began around 1893 and continued to 1907, the radicalism seeming to have been provoked by a fire in 1894 that wiped out his first studio. It was a short but explosive period of production. Aside from ceramics, he also took on photography creating bizarre personas around his own face which proved to be as plastic as his clay and as hairy as Oppenheim’s cup. He was a performance artist before the term had been coined. He used language, irony and street theater in his work. His pots are marvels: sensual, erotic, energetic, abstract and, at times, sublime. They were about big issues to do with creation, deism, birth, nurturing and the individuality of the human soul.

He even took on a different gender in his work, metamorphosing from the muscled macho ex-blacksmith into a nurturing mother who gave birth at the wheel. Most of his remarks and writings on his role as potter are made in the maternal feminine form. For Ohr, the wheel was the locus of unreleased energy (just as it was later for Voulkos and others) and in his own words, when he first stumbled on the wheel he “felt it all over like a wild duck in water.” [1] He always knew that he was a great artist even though few shared his confidence pointing to his seemingly lunatic theatrical behavior to argue that he was merely a Southern cracker. Ohr was certainly not the first genius to take refuge in playing the clown. Duchamp and others have traveled this path as well. As Octavio Paz wrote, “truly wise men have no other mission than to make us laugh with their thoughts and make us think with their buffoonery.” [2]

In his own time Ohr was reviled by the Arts and Crafts establishment. His glazes were sometimes admired but his tortured forms were dismissed as antics of a crude Southern huckster. The turn of the century potter, educator and designer Frederick Hurten Rhead dismissed him as a hick “entirely without art training and lacking in taste.” [3] The fact that he so offended the establishment is a plus in my books. Truly Avant-Garde art is seditious, devious and the new always provokes fear. Its shatters the calm. It puts fur on teacups.

Robert Arneson argued with me that Ohr was not an important artist because he did not produce a school or students. I though this was a curiously reactionary view coming from an anti-establishment, nose-picking, fecally fascinated artist such as Arneson. But I later realized that what he was saying was that to be taken seriously as an Avant-Garde artist, one must have an impact in one’s time and sphere of influence. In other words, its not enough for the tree to fall in the woods, it must also be heard to fall.

There is truth to this but Ohr is a unique case and has to be judged by different rules from those proposed by Arneson because his work never went into general circulation so it could not have an impact in his own day. Most of his work was not exhibited publicly until 1969, 51 years after his death, when over 6,000 pots, the bulk of his œuvre was discovered by J.W. Carpenter, an antiques dealer, in the Ohr family barn in Biloxi, Mississippi.

His rehabilitation began through the fine arts world. Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Miani Johnson, Irving Blum and Charles Cowles, being among the first to recognize his talent. Only later, and with foot-dragging reluctance, the afficionados and scholars of the Arts and Crafts movement uneasily allowed this eccentric potter from the other side of the tracks, to say nothing of the wrong hemisphere of the United States, into their fin de siècle world of elegant, upper-middle class bohemianism.

Ohr’s radicalism has to be measured by events since 1969 when his work first started to become known. This is an odd circumstance but perhaps an even more demanding test than being rated in his own time. After all, if one can appear Avant-Garde over fifty years after one shuts down one’s kiln, that is a rare achievement. And this is the test that Ohr passed. The number of artists who admired, collected and were even influenced by his work is varied and impressive. Aside from Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns, it includes Betty Woodman, Ken Price, Ron Nagle, Kathy Butterly, Babs Haenen, Phillip Maberry and Michael Lucero.

Without doubt Ohr’s work (or “clay babies” and “mud fixings” as he called his creations) was the most radical pottery of his time. No other ceramist in America, Europe or Asia was pushing the plastic and emotional boundaries of vessel form, material and content so far beyond the limits of acceptable “good” or even “progressive” taste of the day. Nor can he be defused by his critics as a product of the inbred Southern folk art milieu making weird outsider art, as Ohr’s nickname of the “the mad potter of Biloxi” would suggest. Ohr clearly knew what he was doing, took pains to educate himself about his art and its history and consciously abandoned a status quo aesthetic of refined, elegant and static beauty (that he could easily have excelled at). Declaring himself to be the “second Palissy,” he set off, knowingly and ambitiously, down a lonely and, at times, humiliating road to find his own truth.

We have not, as he predicted, “built a temple to [his] genius” in the conventional sense but his work is becoming better understood and appreciated. The Whitney is including his work in their upcoming mega-survey of 20th century art. The critic Roberta Smith recently scolded the Whitney in the New York Times for leaving out such a significant artist in a previous, smaller survey. The Victoria and Albert Museum is preparing a definitive exhibition on Art Nouveau for the Millennium celebrations in year 2000 and Ohr will have his place there as well. So the support is growing and my choice of Ohr for elevation to the Avant-Garde canon is not made in isolation.

The second place is a controversial one in some ways. After much consideration it goes to “Casa Battló” (1904-1906) by Antonio Gaudí, the second and last of his apartment buildings. In terms of Avant-Garde use of ceramics in a work of art, this is one of the century’s enduring masterpieces. Gaudí’s approach to a structure as inherently plastic, organic and voluptuously decorative, was without peer in his time. In a curious way, it is as though Gaudí approached creating buildings as though they were plastic malleable pots. As Rainer Zerbst, one of the authorities on Gaudí’s work, writes, even the stone facade of this building was carved so that it would create “the impression of a molded clay sculpture.” [4]

It seems quite appropriate that Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, his great masterpiece, should be located in the same country as Gaudí’s buildings for there is no way that we could have Gehry’s architecture today without Gaudí first establishing a vocabulary for this kind of fluid asymmetrical architecture. I hesitated also because the buildings are after all only faced in ceramic but finally, the ceramics is more than skin, more than just clothing. Ceramics was a primary means of articulation for Gaudí and if stripped of the complex tile elements, their color, texture, historical association, textural contrast and other qualities, a Gaudí building would not be a Gaudí building.

Gaudí’s love of the ceramic medium and the core belief in its beauty and primacy as a decorative material is intrinsic to the success of the total vision. The reasons for choosing Casa Batlló instead of say Güell Park (my close second choice) are many including the complexity and diversity of ceramics in this building but as Zerbst writes, “There is probably no other building that better illustrates what is modern in Gaudí’s work and that does so with such a sensuous, almost symbolic manner.” [5] There is also no other architecture from this period of even the later Art Deco period where ceramics is used as a primary material that rivals Gaudí in terms of art and originality and that includes the work Hector Guimard, Jules Lavirotte, Charles Klein and others.

The first choice was preordained. There is only one ceramic object that has an uncontested place in the Avant-Garde Hall of Fame, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. I am sure that you all know this work but for the few who do not, let me briefly restate its history. Fountain was a standard Bedfordshire model porcelain urinal that Duchamp had selected randomly (not because its form was so comely and sexual) from J.L. Mott Iron Works, a plumbing store in New York City. He submitted it to be shown upside down at the Independents Salon in 1917 under the nom de plume, R. Mutt. Even though anyone who paid the entrance fee was supposed to have at least one artwork included in the salon, the committee rejected the Fountain on the basis that it was not art.

Duchamp, was on the committee, but the rest of the committee (apart from his cohort, the collector Walter Arensberg) had no idea that it was his work. He listened to them rail against his ready-made and then without admitting authorship, he and Arensberg resigned in protest and the Fountain became the cause célèbre of the Salon. Beatrice Wood, later to become the internationally known master of luster pottery, weighed into the fracas in 1917 writing in The Blind Man magazine that the reason for the Fountain’s rejection, that it was not art, was absurd because, “the only works of art that America has given us are her plumbing and her bridges.” [6] Fortunately, it ended up in the studio of Alfred Stieglitz two weeks later where Duchamp persuaded the amused photographer to record the piece on film.

There are several interesting facts about the most famous ceramic art object of the 20th century. Firstly, its life was short, maybe a couple of months at most, and during that time only a couple of dozen people saw the piece in the flesh, so to speak. Wood was one of this small cadre and while we often discussed the Fountain and its controversy, I learned little about the object itself. After all the point of the piece was its banality. Its power came from dislocation, moving it from the public men’s room to a public exhibition hall. It disappeared shortly after this photograph was taken. Stieglitz probably threw it out with his trash when he moved locations. Duchamp was indifferent to its fate. He did nothing to preserve his ready-mades once they were completed and most of the early works, the Bicycle Wheel and Bottle Rack suffered the same fate. He saw them as ephemeral, not concrete, allowing them their mortality.

Why did this object have the power to so disturb the art establishment of its day and remain as potent and unsettling an icon today? In 1917, part of the outrage was over this porcelain object’s indelicate function in our life. It had to be described carefully in the press as a bathroom fixture, calling it a urinal would have offended standards of decency at the time. Then there is the matter of the charged symbolic imagery. As Duchamp’s biographer Calvin Tomkins points out, the urinal has “female attributes that serves as a receptacle for male fluid, thus becomes–even more provocatively than Brancusi’s Portrait of Princess Bonaparte–a symbol of the sexual comedy that underlies all of Duchamp’s mature work.” [7]

Bodily functions aside, Fountain offended the arts community on just about every level. It was a found object and no conventional authorship was involved. Even the nom de plume “R.Mutt” seemed insulting as a mutt was slang for a mongrel dog. No skill or craftsmanship was attached to its creation. It was anti-art. It was truly subversive. The controversy over Fountain has continued ever since. Part of the debate is over the aesthetics of the form itself. In theory the “beauty” of a ready-made was immaterial as the work was selected for its conceptual relevance with “visual indifference.” Yet, in defending the piece, even in its day, Arensberg, in common with other supporters, was drawn to its visual strength referring to its “lovely form and chaste simplicity.” Some saw in this white shimmering object a seated porcelain Buddha while Duchamp’s biographer, Calvin Tomkins remarks that it takes little imagination to see the curving lines of a classic Madonna or even one of Brancusi’s polished erotic forms. [8]

Stieglitz was also taken by the purity of form. In his photograph he deliberately heightened both the object's sexual and aesthetic qualities through emphasizing the urinal’s fecund volume and the lyrical silhouette, casting veil like shadow over part of the piece. In 1964, Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, confronted Duchamp and demanded why, if he had selected his ready-mades with such aesthetic indifference, “do they all look so beautiful today?” “Nobody’s perfect,” Duchamp replied in vintage style. [9]

As the years pass the Fountain’s celebrity only increases, as enigmatic and ubiquitous an artwork now as the Mona Lisa. In recognition of its substantial influence I curated an exhibition in 1997 entitled “Homage to R. Mutt” to celebrate the 80th anniversary of this Fine Art Pissoir’s rude arrival upon the art scene. [10] I was astounded by the number of artists working on this subject and the many different materials into which it had been interpreted. The exhibition was only a sampling but included the work of Marek Cecula scatology series, Claes Oldenburg’s soft toilet, Robert Arneson’s first Funk John, Ron Barons American Standard and Alfred alumni, Kim Dickey’s Lady J’s, elegant erotic objects that gave women standing equality at the urinal. The Lady J’s raised a multiplicity of questions about ceramics, beauty, gender role playing, taboos and utility in the private realm of the bathroom.

Included in the show was Mike Bidlo’s 1995 homage to Duchamp, entitled, Origins of the World, a replica of the Fountain against a painting in the style of Georgia O’Keefe. Bidlo, a leading appropriationist artist, spent two years making over 1,000 drawings of the Fountain that recently exhibited at the Shifrazi Gallery in New York, one of the finest drawing exhibitions in years. All of this serves to illustrate the raw power of ideas, not just those temporal moments of protest but the truly innovative statements that shift our conceptual attitudes permanently and establish new ground.

Our exhibition was hugely popular but response on the part of the ceramics community was surprisingly ambivalent. As much as the Fountain symbolizes conceptual freedom it also raises cynicism, fears and insecurities because it has none of the individuality of handicraft, no magic touch from the potter’s hand and no palette of exotic glazes to give it the values that ceramics traditionally reveres. The additional rub is that the most famous ceramic object of the 20th century is not made by a ceramist. One could go on to examine this amazing object for hours but the time has come to move on and the closing words on this debate belong to Martin Smith, the British ceramist and head of the ceramics department of the Royal College of Art in London. Smith neatly summarized the Fountain fracas when he stated at a conference some years ago that what this urinal proves is that“craft is what we piss in, art is what we piss on.” [11]

What does this add up to? Of the five objects only one was by a ceramist. Even that single inclusion is still highly speculative on my part although support in fine art ranks for Ohr’s aesthetic deification is rising. There are no other contenders for inclusion out of the ceramics world that I can present with conviction. One choice is a building by an architect and not an object in the more conventional sense although I have always seen Gaudí’s buildings first as sculpture and secondly as architecture. Three of the five objects are products of industry and they bear none of William Morris’s virtues of social and aesthetic redemption through craftsmanship and the work ethic. Also absent is the reverence for quoting historical ceramics (mainly Asian), that guided the development of most ceramic art prior to 1950. Yet, all three objects evoke deep resonances, responses and arguments based on familiar and traditional utilitarian roles native to ceramic tradition that the ceramic world, transfixed by outdated conventions of beauty, resisted exploring in a more symbolic manner.

None of the three industrially made works express the ideal of “heart, hand and head in balance–the whole man” [12] that the potter Bernard Leach and the most influential single theorist during this era, proposed as the ideal of ceramic art. One of them is covered with fur so one cannot even see the ceramic surface although we know that it lies there below the hirsute coat. One has to agree that all that Duchamp and Oppenheim did with their found ceramics, with the slightest of modifications, was to contextualize them. But one must also acknowledge that this act proved to have greater impact on our culture’s understanding of art than material skill or pyrotechnic bombast, an important lesson.

What can we learn from this? And we should gain some practical knowledge from this kind of exercise. After all, if history is not studied in order to better understand today and to evolve strategies for tomorrow, it becomes little more than academic necrophilia. While the lessons are not necessarily new, they are worth repeating:

One. Ceramics, as a movement rather than a material, emerges from this study as an art of evolution and not revolution. Prior to 1950 the ceramic Avant-Garde does seem to be a contradiction in terms. It is not easy to be a revolutionary when one takes a year or more to perfect a new clay body or when one is maintaining a studio with five tons of complex equipment. As my professor at the Royal College of Art, Lord Queensberry once said, “you do not need to buy a 50 cubic foot kiln to make conceptual statement, get yourself a typewriter instead.” [13] (This statement was made in 1974 before the advent of the personal computer.) This rootedness to place, materials and equipment creates a cautious, conservative approach to art that does not prevent but certainly discourages the conceptual agility necessary to be a dealer in Avant-Garde currency.

Two. It is clear that ceramics’ long held anti-intellectualism and determined empiricism has exacted a heavy price and left us marginalized in a world of art that increasingly is about ideas and less and less about skill and materials. It is obvious now that the prize for creativity does not go to the potter with the best throwing skills, the most unique glazes or the biggest kiln. Nonetheless, the field does remain dominated by a what Donald Kuspit calls, “a nostalgic reprise and metaphor of nature, often in the form of special devotion to clay and glazing, even fetishizing of them, in an effort to make ceramic work a material epiphany.” [14]

Three. We find out from this exercise that our practice of art history is primitive and elementary, still rooted in material culture. We are nowhere near being on a par with the rest of the academic inquires into art and that includes photography, as new an entrant to the fine arts stakes as ceramics. This is one of the major stumbling blocks in gaining a place in mainstream art history and theory. What we bring to this table is usually too rudimentary and too poorly digested to be taken seriously. For instance, what are Peter Voulkos’s top ten works? He is ceramics’ greatest and best known artist but even for Voulkos this step in scholarly sophistication has not taken place. Two books have been written about him. Both are hagiographic rather than analytical. They are love letters not disciplined aesthetic inquiries. This tends to be the rule in what passes for scholarship in our field.

Four. Can we even list the top ten vessels in 20th century ceramics? No we cannot with any degree of scholarly agreement and while such lists are in some ways specious and artificial, the actual process by which they are arrived at–debate, research, scholarship and comparative analysis–is at the very core of a critical discipline. Our inability to deliver this kind of academic rigor combined with an almost pre-natal hostility to art theory, leaves ceramics inarticulate and unconvincing when we try to enter ceramics into the debate of defining the visual art mainstream.

Five. What is clear, is that even though ceramics has suffered discrimination in a bogus hierarchy of materials that the fine arts erected some centuries ago (which I am happy to report is fast eroding), this is of little consequence. Even if this attitude did not exist, our marginalization has to do with the fact that we achieved very little that could have earned us a place in the front lines of Modernist attack. As Clement Greenberg pointed out at the first International Ceramics Symposium in 1979, ceramics as a field is too transfixed with opinion and not concerned enough about achievement.

Six. What is clear is that nearly all ceramic art of the period from 1900 to 1950 belongs unequivocally in the disciplines of the decorative and applied arts. Had I approached this subject from a design point of view, the tenor of this talk would have been upbeat and filled with exceptional objects and primary contributions. Indeed this would make an excellent follow up paper. At least for the first half of this century, the notion of ceramics as a fine art activity is bogus and can be finally laid to rest. We did not participate except in the most superficial way (Ohr excepted) and the few ceramic works we can point to of mainstream significance were made by visitors to ceramics: Noguchi, Nevelson, Fontana and Archipenko--not by our rank and file.

Finally, I wish to close with two questions as to what we can do about this situation, firstly the action that needs to be taken within art history to make sure that we are properly and accurately represented and, secondly, what we can learn from this exercise and apply to plans for our future.

Let us take art history and examine the challenge. Obviously, we cannot claim a special place for ceramics in the Avant-Garde. We should be grateful to Duchamp, Gaudí, Oppenheim, Malevich and possibly Ohr for ensuring that there is at least some ceramic work in the canon. The focus should be moved from the obsessive search for fine arts legitimacy to real achievement, our considerable contribution to design and architecture. This aspect of ceramics is what bonds us to early Modernism and we should celebrate it more aggressively.

From 1950 the game changes. Even though we contributed negligibly to the Avant-Garde of this period as well, we did make a significant and rich contribution to fine art sculpture and object making. Not only do we have great artists to present (Voulkos, Arneson, Coper and others) but we have great artists who have, from time to time, entered into our world and made work in collaboration with ceramists that is significant art (Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Arman, Fontana, Caro, Cragg and others). Collectively we have a lot to offer. The challenge is documenting, arguing and presenting this fact to a skeptical art history world.

This must be communicated in academic parlance not in the touchy-feely patois of the crafts. We also need to convince art history to expand the vocabulary of art to include some language that is unique to ceramic art, particularly in as it relates to vessels. Then we have to make a more difficult argument, in the face of the Avant-Garde’s omnipotence, that being an art of evolution is not an automatic disqualifier. An art of interpretation rather than innovation has a vital role in the broad tapestry of the visual arts.

Wayne Higby located the territory that ceramics occupies in a 1979 address at the first International Ceramics Symposium where he quoted from “Halfway Down” a poem by A.A. Milne:


Our task is to get the fine arts to understand that “somewhere else” is a place worth visiting and taken seriously. Some progress is being made and more critics–Peter Schjeldahl, Donald Kuspit, Christopher Knight, Roberta Smith, Arthur Danto and others--are beginning to address the issue and incorporate ceramics into their vision. We have to provide education, encouragement and practical support to continue this trend.

I realize that I am suggesting nothing short of a complete overhaul of the antiquated and antiquarian apparatus of ceramic art history. We were once moving down this path in the early 1980's but by the end of the decade the ceramics world seemed either to lose will, become distracted or else fear the process which is by its nature tough, elitist and excluding. And just who is the magic “we” that will achieve this. It takes fewer people than you might imagine to effect change. Half a dozen impassioned scholars could turn this around. Ideally, new voices should come from the art history field at large and not just ceramics itself. We want the argument broadened not narrowed.

Getting this going has to be a collective effort. It can come from schools like this, from the International Ceramic Museum in Alfred that sponsored this talk, from other museums that support us, journals, schools, groups such as the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) and Ceramic Arts Foundation (CAF). Even individual artists, dealers and collectors who feel that time has come for a more ambitious placement of ceramic’s role in the journals of 20th century culture. David McFadden, chief curator of the American Craft Museum has already set off down this path, hosting a series of meetings to try and find out what might be a meaningful new definition for craft today that could lead to a more liberal notion of creative making.

Finally, what of the future? If read superficially this paper seems to be saying to young ceramists today, “you are doomed to play a secondary role for all time, sidelined as a bit player in the fine arts because that is the nature and the karma of ceramic art.” No, this is not the case at all. If this lecture has made anything clear at all it is that our fault lines are clearly evident and that we can overcome them. We may not even have a choice in the matter because there is a paradigm shift in ceramics of major seismic proportions, the most far reaching in a century, that is changing the character and landscape of ceramics.

There are several aspects to this shift, but I will focus on only two. The first is specialization. The notion of a single medium artist is under threat. Art education in Europe and to some extent in the United States is turning its back on material specialties as a means of training young artists. It is not just a backlash against craft. Leading schools like London’s Goldsmiths College are even rejecting the labels of the fine arts–painter, sculptor, photographer–in favor of a free-wheeling pluralism in which any and all media are part of the mix. If this trend continues, and it seems to be building momentum, then ceramists could well be an endangered species unless a new contemporary format can be evolved for those who work in clay.

One practical impact of this shift can already be felt. More and more artists from the fine arts are now choosing to work in ceramics, among other media. The results are mixed but this is less important in the short term than the fact that ceramists are now facing competition from a group that has better access to the marketing systems and media in the arts. I warned the ceramics community years ago that conservatism in the field could well result in us losing our own market to celebrity players and it now seems possible that this could happen.

The second issue is: “The crafts are dead! Long live the crafts.” If pressed for a date of demise I would have to place it around the mid-1980's. It is either an amusing or a depressing comment (depending upon your taste for irony) that none of those whose specialty is writing on the crafts have yet noticed this fact and posted obituary notices. This movement has lost its once grand, idealistic, socialist and aesthetic mission and in contemporary times its philosophy has been shriveled to mean “pretty materials and clever hands.”

Our intellectual rhetoric has moved from the lofty heights of Ruskin and Morris to the pablum of Martha Stewart’s glue-gun TV consumerism. For reasons too complex to discuss here, the nostalgia that was part of the movement’s social traction no longer works on a younger generation. The romance of Medieval craft guilds does not inspire a generation whose nostalgia is for the objects and aesthetics of early industrialization. The crafts have lost the high ground and what survives now is predominantly an industry for delivering gimcracks, novelties and bibelots to gift shops, crafts fairs and Renaissance parks.

Whether we like it or not a new intellectual raison d’être has to be developed. The death of crafts on the one hand and the impending death of specialization on the other, mean that we are facing a decade of enforced re-invention which we can resist and retreat deeper into our traditional laager or else we leap in enthusiastically and rewrite the rules so that we become more relevant within our culture. This is an opportunity but with painful consequences if we do not act. To make the navigation through the sea of change less perilous we would be wise to learn from art history and avoid the obvious pitfalls of the past. No matter what we do, ceramics itself will survive in one form or another. But ceramics art, as we have defined it, may not. Failure to take the initiative could mean that ceramists will never outgrow its traditional boundaries and we could end up forever trapped between a toilet and hard place.


Kazimir Malevich




Kazimir Malevich
teapot, ca. 1924

Meret Oppenheim



Meret Oppenheim
Object, 1936

George E. Ohr





George E. Ohr
Multi-handled Mug, ca. 1900

Antonio Gaudi





Antonio Gaudí
Casa Batlló, 1903-06

Antonio Gaudi two




Antonio Gaudí
Casa Batlló, 1903-06

Marcel Duchamp




Marcel Duchamp
Fountain, 1917
Photograph by Alfred Steiglitz

Marek Cecula


Marek Cecula
Scatology Series, 1993

Robert Arneson





Robert Arneson
Funk John, 1964

Ron Barons





Ron Barons
American Standard, 1997

Kim Dickey


Kim Dickey
Pissoir (Model #5), 1994

Mike Bilbo





Mike Bilbo
Origins of the World, 1995