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Ceramics pluralism: diversity of practice and the role of criticism.

THE CRITIC HAROLD ROSENBERG, WHILE ASSESSING A PARTICULARLY challenging exhibition nearly 40 years ago, reportedly quipped that when one was at a complete loss for what to call something, art seemed as good a word as any. Though the wit remains vaguely appreciable, the full acerbity of this remark no doubt eludes us today. What once registered as caustic hyperbole about the category of art--its ability to stretch sufficiently to incorporate virtually anything--now seems much closer to matter-of-fact observation. Today, art's boundless scope is old news and hardly worth satirizing. Even the addition of a qualifier such as 'ceramic' does little to restrict this inclusiveness, except in an obvious and often quite trivial material sense. Contemporary ceramic art may exist as a vessel, a relief or a freestanding object, take the form of an installation or environment, or integrate itself seamlessly into the lines of architecture. In style it can be meticulously naturalistic, austerely non-objective or anything in between. In content it runs the gamut from formalist self-absorption to personal expression, cultural narrative and social critique. Materially, it may adopt fierce allegiance to clay or, on the contrary, become so thoroughly seduced by the possibilities of mixed media that clay is almost incidental to its makeup. It can emphasize utility or show itself utterly disdainful of anything like a tradition of use. In short, contemporary ceramics displays all the bewildering variations, cultivated contrasts and even wilful contradictions of a pluralistic art.

One would no doubt take pluralism for granted--not even recognize it as a condition significant enough to warrant a name--but for the perception that art has not always openly embraced a potentially infinite number of possibilities at the same time. In this regard, art history has inadvertently given us the means of attributing aberrance to the art of our age, since the current pluralism contradicts the historical model of a succession of discrete period or cultural styles as blatantly as the aperiodicity of chaos contradicts the regularity of the clockwork universe. In the master narrative of art history, pluralism as we know it is unprecedented: so much so that a mere half century ago art pundits could still imagine that essential properties governed art, effectively uniting all of its manifestations at a level somewhere beneath the superficial differences among period or national styles. By the mid 20tn century the search for these art essences had aligned itself consciously with a theory of historical progress that could trace its roots all the way back to the dawning of the Enlightenment. This late-modernist project was geared to move art, through a sequence of experiments, ever closer to definition of its essential properties. Criticism--specifically the formalist criticism that dominated discourse in the context of second-generation New York School painting--assumed a central role in this enterprise, assuring that art remained firmly oriented toward an essentialist telos. As a consequence, the avant-garde could boast a cutting edge perpetually honed through displacement of formerly revolutionary art by a continual supply of newer and ostensibly purer forms.

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If a clearly optimistic spirit of progress enveloped the late-modernist objective of purifying art, this optimism was just as clearly at odds with an obvious scepticism toward the idea of progress in the context of broader social and ecological issues. In the twentieth century, serious scepticism about progress--what became a culturally ingrained scepticism rather than a mere polemical position adopted in philosophical discourse--can be traced to the First World War and the shock imposed on rationality by that unprecedented catastrophe. The rebellious activities of the Dadaists in Zurich, Berlin, Cologne, Paris and New York in the second and third decades of the 20th century were only symptoms of the broader western disillusionment with concepts of progress. No longer could science, which had made possible the blistering horrors of chemical warfare, or technology, which had produced the machine guns, fighter aircraft, tanks and heavy artillery that accounted for a mind-numbing quantity of slaughter, be uncritically championed as evidence of humanity's advance to ever higher degrees of achievement. The Second World War and the conjuring of nuclear nightmares and doomsday scenarios only confirmed the folly of characterizing humanity's future as inevitably progressive. Many modern artists, who perceived in the logic of the avant-garde the imperative of a socially critical perspective, began to reflect with dour mood on the effects of science on the natural world and the influence of technology over human volition. An irony thus arose from the contradictions between modernist aspirations to progress in art and modern artists' scepticism toward a broader cultural progress. The tensions ensuing from this irony were bound to precipitate change.

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This change, of course, took the form of the celebrated death of avant-gardism and Led to the crystallization of postmodern ideas and the first manifestations of the pluralism that Rosenberg so acidly noted in the 1970s. The unity of purpose and pioneering incisiveness of the avant-garde were fatally undermined when deconstruction stripped art not only of its ostensibly objective array of maps and compasses but, more profoundly, of its faith in a magnetic pole. Gone was the belief in essences through which to orient artistic activity and on which to base rigorous forms of progressive criticism. Talk of end game, rearguard skirmishing, hovering or treading water, all in the context of viable critical strategies, quickly replaced the formerly prevalent metaphors of progress. The consequences of this decisive transformation were profound and far-reaching, ultimately manifesting themselves even in the activity of ceramists (over whom the influence of avant-garde philosophy had never held particular sway). Style was freed from the restrictions of chronology through traps-avant-garde practices and, with history brought to a screeching halt, the past rushed up like a vengeful backwash, carrying with it everything that had been systematically outmoded and discarded during the advance of the avant-garde. This inundation effectively quenched the vanguardist ardour against convention and today every historical stylistic trait potentially bobs, mills and mingles in contemporary art like the flotsam and jetsam of a wrecked enterprise.

For obvious reasons, revival of the past in the art world at large did not, at least initially, exert noticeable influence on the field of studio ceramics. There was, after all, no need to revive what had never died away. The craft values guiding ceramics practice in the modern period tended to sustain a steady underlying respect for tradition that precluded any truly radical rejection of history. Even at the peak of the so-called revolution in studio ceramics in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, opportunities to institute a full-fledged avant-garde rhetoric of historical negation remained largely untapped in favour of a historicizing discourse that, for example, neatly tied the rawly manipulative and breathtakingly spontaneous activity of Peter Voulkos to precedents in Ira wares of the Momoyama period. Even Robert Arneson, who must have seemed poised to epitomize the radical vanguard ceramist in the early 1960s ultimately failed to generate a lasting spirit of the avant-garde. Arneson's biting No Deposit/No Return of 1962, a capped earthenware beer bottle, negated function in the ceramic object with all of the definitiveness of Manet's negation of illusionistic space or Kandinsky's negation of subject matter. It was not, however, the general process of negation not, in other words, negation as a critical act within an ongoing dialectic--that subsequent ceramists adopted from Arnesori's example. On the contrary, the narrow act of negating function was pressed into service as the foundation for what would become a vessel-referential school of ceramics that has persisted through the present.

The immortality of styles and techniques in contemporary ceramics should be obvious enough to anyone with at least a cursory knowledge of ceramics history. Nothing in the tremendously varied ceramics repertoire seems to wear thin or fall irrecoverably from favour, whether its origin be prehistoric or modern. Among the multitude of contemporary ceramic objects, one routinely encounters the legacy of Tang dynasty sancai wares, pre-Columbian stirrup-spout vessels, 17th century Staffordshire slipware, 18th century Meissen figurines and a host of other canonical ceramic types from the pages of history. More often than not, these vestiges of the past are perpetuated reverently, without a trace of irony. More striking still is the regular occurrence of these distant historical echoes amid works that seem to have preserved the precise appearance and, more significantly, the spirit of Abstract Expressionist, Funk, Superrealist, Minimalist, 1980s style narrative figural, post-industrial ceramics and numerous other types from the past half century. This latter phenomenon of preservation cannot be explained merely by the fact that many of the originators of those styles are still actively promoting them, although that is certainly the case. These 20th century styles, like those of the more distant past, surely could not be perceived as viable in the present were it not for the fact that some young ceramists, obviously feeling no compulsion to negate the status quo, have been largely content to assemble the habiliments of their own styles from the wardrobe of history. It is here, on the level of emerging generations of new practitioners, that the demise of notions of progress in art has most directly affected the field of ceramics. If nothing else, the death of the avant-garde in the art world at large has served to reassure young ceramists that their reluctance to slay the father, so to speak, is not inevitably a sign of timidity or a deficit of ambition.

Of course, the absence of avant-garde logic in the discourse of contemporary ceramics has by no means precluded all possible emergence of novelty in recent ceramics practice. On the contrary, sufficient trends can be discerned to assure us that the present possesses a character of its own and that eventually one will be able to gaze back and assert with confidence that early 21st century ceramics indeed bore distinctive traits. At the moment, any such traits would seem to be primarily thematic. For example, a good deal of contemporary ceramic sculpture addresses itself to the pressing environmental issues of global warming, sustainability and the need for more effective urban planning. Interest in the relationship between ceramics and architecture--in both technical and aesthetic terms and with particular reference to the history and function of ornament--is reflected in the work of an increasing number of ceramic sculptors. Topics in the life sciences, especially those relevant to fields such as genetics that steadily impinge on public consciousness, figure prominently in the orientation of another major current. In terms of technique there have been some notable trends as well. Most obvious in this regard is the embrace of digital technologies in producing ceramic objects. CAD/CAM systems have made possible a certain industrial anonymity of procedure that has begun to exert influence even over ceramics constructed through traditional hand-building techniques. All of these developments could be described as recognizably new within the context of the past dozen years.

At the same time it is noteworthy that these manifestations lack definitive status in relation to the larger field. Certainly, they cannot be said to reflect necessity in any kind of internally regulating sense; they do not, in other words, appear to be symptoms of any autochthonous factors that modulate and refine the character of contemporary ceramics as a whole. Rather than issuing from requisites imposed by the material, on the one hand, or the demands of a unifying philosophy on the other, the new in ceramics appears more often than not to reflect the individual inclinations of the maker, whose primary goal may not be novelty per se but rather the development of a distinctive body of work that is stylistically, technically or thematically recognizable. Perhaps this is inevitable within a system that does not provide a means of drawing significant value distinctions between novelty and convention. When there is no mandate to think or act in unprecedented ways, but only the necessity to do so in a manner that will adequately differentiate one's activity from the thoughts and actions of others, a mastery of under-represented traditional methods can be just as effective as the pioneering of entirely new strategies. This is evident in the field of contemporary ceramics, in which one might just as conceivably establish a monumental career by mastering something as venerable as the Japanese medieval woodfire aesthetic as by introducing a radically new style or technique. Success in contemporary ceramics is contingent upon the establishment of difference, to be sure, but this difference seems implicitly, even self-consciously, non-judgmental. Accordingly, hierarchies between the various possible approaches to clay have been slow to develop and have not achieved anything like universal acceptance; hence the pluralism of contemporary ceramics.

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Some have interpreted this situation as a crisis and have suggested that the present condition of simultaneity in ceramics--of openness to and acceptance of myriad historical and contemporary genres, styles, themes and techniques--implies a kind of stasis: a stagnation of ceramics in a curiously diverse mire of its own making. The concern, of course, is that in the absence of any universal definitions and any standards of criticism to align practice with these definitions the spectre of relativism hovers over contemporary ceramics, seeming to menace it with the possibility of arbitrariness and triviality If any genre, style, theme or technique were to be considered just as valid as any other, there could be no rallying point, no incentive for concerted effort among artists and no clear vision of how the future might come to constitute a marked improvement over the present. Apprehensions about relativism have spawned even more specific fears about qualitative degeneration, since relativism seems to undermine the very possibility of criticism. After all, in the absence of universally accepted standards against which to measure quality, judgment can only be perceived as subjective: a circumstance that, at least ostensibly, threatens to open the floodgates to the debasing waters of disingenuousness, opportunism and plain ineptitude in ceramic art. While no one may seriously contemplate the disappearance of juried exhibitions or the circulation of frankly incompetent work in those venues presently reserved for examples of the highest achievement, a general concern about indiscrimination does seem to be taking hold in the field of contemporary ceramics.

While such concern is understandable, it would be regrettable to permit fear of relativism to blind us to the positive aspects of pluralism: namely, those relating to the rhetorical potential that a diversity of styles, techniques, themes and practices provides for contemporary ceramics. The primary justification for art in the contemporary world is its freedom and the symbolic value that this freedom possesses in relation to ideas of the individual and the broader social systems that individuals inhabit. Would it be advisable for ceramics as a field to distinguish itself by aspiring to a lesser raison d'etre? Pluralism has developed as the art world's most effective metaphor for social diversity, and efforts to curtail pluralism through, for example, the promotion of essentializing theories of ceramics would be the rhetorical equivalent of seeking to establish a social system centred on concepts of ideal citizenship and, more perniciously, of deviance. Ghettoization of broad areas of thought and practice and the emergence of power mongers forged in the image of the modernist 'strong critic' are conceivable and perhaps even inevitable consequences of such a path. Would anyone who is not hopelessly seized by the will to power wish to revive these hegemonic excesses of art's recent past? By following such a potentially disastrous course, ceramics would risk reducing its broader relevance and even sequestering itself as an insular entity that actually lives up to its lingering reputation as a backward province in the cultural domain. The question remains, however: if pluralism continues unchecked by any essentializing theories of ceramics and any standard modes of criticism that progressively align practice toward these theories must we simply accept indiscrimination in contemporary ceramics? Must we choose, in other words, between the lesser of two evils, authoritarianism or anarchy?

Fortunately, as is generally the case with ostensible polarities, these are not the only available options. We need not contemplate the sacrifice of ceramics diversity in order to preserve the effectiveness of criticism, since indiscrimination does not inevitably follow from pluralism or even from relativism. Obviously, pluralism defies the use of criticism for reinforcing a single legitimate and universally adopted perspective, but it is not inherently antagonistic toward judgment in general. On the contrary, the multiple, equally valid possibilities for ceramics condoned by a pluralistic, relativistic field leave open the possibility of multiple and equally valid strategies for criticism. Indiscrimination, it should be noted, does not arise simply when more than one perspective is considered valid; it exists only when no invalid perspectives are recognized. In other words, criticism does not run the risk of becoming indiscriminate as long as critics maintain at least some criteria for negative assessment--beyond which they are free to embrace an infinite number of valid possibilities without compromising their basis for judgment. It should also be stressed that there is no need for critics to share a common vision of the field's parameters or joint criteria for negative judgment; criticism can and should be as conducive to individual thought and expression as art itself. A particular logic of affirmation and negation need only be consistent within the practice of the individual critic for criticism to function as it should. Some critics may seek to invalidate any ceramic object that does not issue from the direct actions of the hand and others might consider evidence of handwork to be retrograde; some might argue that utilitarian objects alone define the legitimate domain of contemporary ceramics while others might consider utility entirely irrelevant; some might stress the autonomy of ceramics and others might argue that no legitimate distinctions exist between ceramics and other forms of art. Such disparate perspectives, all of which can be defended through different strategies of criticism, add richness and complexity to contemporary ceramics discourse.

Obviously, diversity, relativism and the role of criticism in a pluralistic age are vast subjects that can hardly be addressed in anything like their entirety in so brief an essay as this. My concern has been primarily to urge caution when contemplating any paths that might lead to a narrowing of the possibilities currently enjoyed by contemporary ceramics. Yes, the present pluralism of the field confronts criticism with certain obvious challenges, but why should anyone expect or even desire that criticism be easy? Criticism has always involved risk and the hard work of thought when the objects with which it labors are worthy of consideration. In this respect, pluralism ought to be regarded as an obvious strength of contemporary ceramics; unlike so many other experiences offered by the present, pluralism demands intellectual effort and the recognition that uncertainty can never be fully extricated from judgment. Today, when pat answers, reductive solutions and knee-jerk reactions--endorsed in advertising, perpetuated in politics and abetted by popular culture--have become the norm in so many contexts, uncertainty is a valuable bolster against an advancing atrophy of the mind. Why, then, would anyone accept, let alone encourage, restrictions on freedom in one of the few realms where such freedom can still be observed and exercised? The pluralism attained by contemporary ceramics is an extraordinary achievement that ought to be savoured, not impeded--unless, of course, one finds restrictions on thought, a narrowing of practice, and obsession with a finite set of essentialist principles to be characteristics worth cultivating for the future of ceramics.

Glen R. Brown is a Professor of Art History at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, US.
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Author:Brown, Glen R.
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
Words:3255
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