Social Complexity and the Historiography of Ceramic

Paul Greenhalgh

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

October 14, 2001

There are complex and fascinating questions surrounding what I would call the historiography of ceramics. I thought I would start by describing some of these in the style of one of my intellectual heroes, Oscar Wilde. In the Preface of his novel A Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) he produced a list of short statements that instantly became identified as his philosophy of modern life. In his Art and Decoration of 1894 his introductory Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young brought this list of statements to perfection. My favorites fall into two categories. The first constitute an ethical analysis of (late Victorian) society. In many ways they are a recipe for modernity. They are also funny:

image of Paul Greenhalgn
 Paul Greenhalgn

The second category constitutes, for me, a summing up of what a modern decorative art could and should constitute. Wilde was one of the most important writers on the decorative arts of the fin de siecle period. His cryptic messages have underlying theoretical strength that expose the fundamental importance of decoration. In some respects, he pushed it into the social world by humanizing it. He made decoration synonymous with decorum, with the world of social behavior:

Underneath these acerbic utterings lies an acute understanding of what is at stake in the struggle for the modern. Key concepts like individualism, progress, artifice and amorality constantly recur in Wilde's fiction and non-fictional works. He has much to teach us about tonight's themes and indeed, I was aiming to start by using his methods in the context of ceramic. So here are my 'Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of Modern Ceramists'. My first ones relate to historiography, or perhaps they are more accurately described as being 'On the condition of Ceramic':

Next, my Phrases and Philosophies on Ceramic Historiography. By historiography, by the way, I mean the fabric of history. Historiography implies the pattern or form of history, not its individual facts. It is the structure that the facts fit into. It is the forest, not the individual trees. Often, of course, people cannot see the forest for the trees.

The key to the future of ceramic practice is bound up in its relationship to the two most important concepts in Western culture: history and modernity.

Modernity is not a simple matter in relation to ceramics. If we sit down and list the total number of things that influence the appearance of a piece of ceramic we realize that we are dealing with a plural discourse. That is to say, the number of sources and influences coming to bear on the perception of ceramic, both from the production and the consumption end, mean that it is a priori open to multifarious interpretation; it will never have singular or pure meanings. It will always have boundaries that leak, it will impinge on other spheres and will be impinged upon as a matter of course. It is part of its condition. Virtually without effort we can list sixteen factors which contribute to the visual condition of any ceramic object:

  1. The maker's personal background (her or his personality, family heritage, sexual preferences, physiology)
  2. The maker's social background (her or his ethnicity, nation, religion, geographic region)
  3. The technical proficiency of the maker (her or his ability to exploit the material)
  4. The consumer's personal background (her or his personality, family heritage, sexual preferences, physiology)
  5. The consumer's social background (her or his ethnicity, nation, religion, geographic region)
  6. The role of the object (it's function)
  7. The history of the specific individual objects (where it has been, who bought it, how it was used)
  8. The class of the object within the genre of ceramics (it's status in relation to other ceramic idioms and objects)
  9. The technical state of the medium (the contemporary condition of the technology and chemistry of ceramic)
  10. The condition of the marketplace
  11. Current general political and social trends
  12. The history of ceramics
  13. The material itself
  14. The history of other genres that relate to ceramics
  15. Current general styles and trends
  16. The social hierarchy of the arts

All of these factors impinge on the maker and her or his audience every time they contemplate a ceramic object. While the factors pertain to all genres in the visual arts, in a number of other genres they are less numerous and more restricted in scope. This in itself has much to do with power. Those practices close to the political and economic epi-centres of society have the ability to control - and eliminate if necessary - external factors that come to bear on them. Expensive objects originating in dominant nations produced for those close to the center of socio-political power, feed into predictable worlds. Painting, for example, and especially large-scale oil paintings on canvas, which have been at the core of the Western tradition, have traditionally had fewer external factors mediating their production. The factors are reduced further still if teams of historians and scribes carefully construct protective quasi-histories.

I would argue that the more complex and multi-faceted a genre's historiography, the greater the number of factors impinging on it, the less likely that it could take part in the phase of modernity we have just finished. From this point of view, while clearly the high modernist canon included objects made with clay, the complex totality that has been the genre of ceramics was at best oblique to the canon, and at worst excluded from it.

Historiography and modernity are intrinsically linked. I should define modernity in order to show why this is. Modernity (and the related terms modern, modernism and modernization) is not a method for making cultural artifacts or a style of art. Modernity is a condition of existence. It implies the tacit recognition that the world is not static but moving, that we are shifting through time in distinct ways, and that there is a structure and direction in this movement. Previous key thinkers for modernity connected these shifts with evolutionary ideas (Darwin), with the metaphysical world (Hegel), or psychology (Freud), yet others with social and economic forces (Marx) and all modernists have been bound up with the idea of progress. Modernity implies that there is a structure to history - a historiography, that moves us through time and is not arbitrary. We can see that modernity has been a phased development.

This phased development has been in process for several centuries. The last phase, when engaged in visual culture, took on a number of macro-mannerisms that were largely dictated by the ideological environment. Most noticeable among these was the rejection of decoration, and especially complex decoration, from architecture and a wide range of cultural artifacts. The elimination of decoration during this phase of modernism has been widely discussed (though rarely explained) and is not the subject of my lecture this evening, but suffice it to say that it should be noted that this forced absence was neither inevitable nor total. Modernity is never single-stranded. Surrealism, for example, maintained and developed a particular sense of decoration and decorum; and many of the designers collectivized as "Art Deco" heroically maintained an interest in decorative language. Nevertheless, the dominant ethic was reductivist and determinist, two qualities that a priori eliminated decoration. For various genres the problem was not simply that they were carriers or vehicles of decoration, but that they were decoration in the most profound sense. They were centered on the production of objects that were profound ornament.

An interesting aside. If ceramic was aggressively excluded from the core project of modernity to the point at which we have to doubt that this particular phase of modernity had no "modernist" ceramics in any meaningful sense, then how could we have a "post-modern" ceramics. How can there be an "after" when there was no "during" ? Post-modern ceramic must be premised on the notion that there was a substantial, recognizable modern ceramic. But this was not the case. We must quickly re-iterate. The modernisms we have just moved through constituted a mere phase (actually the third phase) in the ongoing process of modernity. Ceramic continued through that period and there are many masterworks in the medium. And ceramic made a central and powerful contribution to previous phases of modernity. But ceramic practice was peripheral to the third phase of modernity.

We are about to start the next phase. Let's call this the phase of complex modernism. I believe it will contain a good deal of ceramic activity, at least partly because it will be premised on complex relationships rather than reductive strategies.

To return to an earlier point. Ceramic presents us with fascinating historiographic problems. Unlike other key arts it has never had a consistent historiography created for it. (We must remember of course that historiography does not equal truth. It is an invented version of the truth. However, it does have the odd ability to become a surrogate truth for the majority of people). As such, many things are yet to be resolved in the history of ceramic. Things that are fundamental problems that have not been resolved in any real way yet are:

Economic value - The Western tradition has not had a consistent sense of the material value of ceramic. The stock exchange has not regulated it, art dealers have no consistent hierarchy for it, the wider public have no clear sense of the cost of it. This is because history has not allocated it a clear economic structure.

Social Function - This is a problem of surfeit. Because it has so many social roles in so many societies that we know so little about, through time, the social function of ceramic is utterly confused. It could be said that we routinely commit category errors with ceramic, allocating roles to objects that were unintended and inappropriate. This of course, can have a devastating effect on their economic value.

Genre status - the homogenous nature of ceramic has not been well described. A genre is not simply a set of technologies. A genre is also a set of codes and symbols that allow an object to participate in a complex web of discourse. We need to have an acutely clear idea of what ceramic is before we can enjoy its poetry.

Style - Style has been the principle determinant in the construction of the history of art. Style is the visual fabric that coheres a culture. But what is ceramic style, or more concisely, what are ceramic styles? How do we determine its intellectual (as well as its visual) underpinning?

Classification - where does ceramic come in the class-based socio-cultural world of art? We have enjoyed a hierarchy of visual culture for some time now that was invented during the Enlightenment and brought to its specialized perfection in the last (twentieth) century. It is clear now that this hierarchy is falling apart. How will the next one be constructed?

We could say that these problems are not fair ones, in that they were constructed for other arts and then crudely applied to ceramic in order to de-canonise it. This is undoubtedly partly true. But only partly. The failure to rigorously analyse ceramic as part of the continuum of history, and the insistence on either ignoring it or using it as evidence for civilization, rather than part of it, has also created these problems. Ceramic needs a confident historiography in order to achieve a significant position within the next phase of modernity.

It would be quite wrong to suggest that there had not been numerous major scholarly works on the history of ceramics. Many volumes of stunning exactitude and investigative zeal that have exposed individuals, factories and cultures of ceramic have been published over the last several decades. We no longer have to constantly re-invent the wheel with regard to the history of ceramic. But what is only just under way is the production of a body of work that convincingly articulates the nature and role of ceramics in relation to the macrostructure of culture and society, or that provides us with a larger model of ceramic culture that allows us to position oeuvres and objects in meaningful relationship. But even this project is beginning on an international basis. There are historians, writers and makers grasping the issues surrounding the totality of the genre with a confidence that has been absent for virtually a century. It is vital that this work continue on as the next phase of modernist practice unfolds across all of the visual arts. We all know that ceramic has had a past and can rightfully expect a future; but that is not the same as to assert that it has had a history and will engage achieve a modernism.