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Under the big top.

THE CONTEMPORARY MOOD OF THE ARTWORLD HAS found expression in clay, bringing about an urgency to redress a stoicism that has crippled creativity and reduced the avant-garde to simulation. As director of Greenwich House Pottery in New York City, I have the privilege of witnessing this unfolding. In addition to the numerous exhibitions around the city, our studios are filled with artists upending the kitsch that unnerved the vitality of the field, which has become entrenched in virtuoso performance, relics remade and more recently a fetishisation of technology. Initially the entanglement was not easy to discern, but the more embattled the discipline became it made explicit that an Alexandrianism has befallen the field in the form of academicism fostering creative quiescence.

The artworld's recent aesthetical turn exposes an implicit sympathy toward kitsch within the ceramics sphere. That is not to say a propensity for curiosities or knickknacks, but the field's alignment with kitsch's essential substance. Kitsch imitates tradition. The avant-garde rejects convention to drive culture on. The field largely simulates avant-garde effects modelled after the canon, intentionally or unintentionally becoming the thing its purpose was to negate; for example, kitsch. The field is caught in a tautology, advocating work that is conceptually at odds with itself and bemoaning modernist precepts while embracing the imitation of the past.

There is important, creative and original work fashioned within the ceramics sphere, so too in the periphery and, recently, by way of the artworld. At present this work is largely neoexpressionist and at odds with conceptual art, though not to imply that it is without meaning. It is raw, unmediated, irreverent and reverential. This art turns away from conceptualism to look inward, with the focus on itself and the medium. Though this sounds rather formal/modernist, there are subtle ideological differences. At the center of the tension between this ceramics and the time-honoured work in the field is the intelligentsia--oblivious to their undoing. It seems the argument is based on two tenets, explicitly the attentiveness to, or lack of, material manipulation--the right or wrong way to make art and, more profoundly, a sort of moral philosophy. The belief is if it is well-made and looks good then it must be good; likewise, if it is not well-made and does not look good then it must not be good. Secondly, one must follow the rules, which in part stems from Enlightenment thought that privileges specialisation.

The pinnacle of recent achievement is not part of the mainstream. Insiders' faith/conviction/reliance on extensive historical and technical knowledge can hamper the fullest expression of creativity, propelling the continual legitimisation crisis. To create something from nothing was at one time a shocking revelation, particularly given over to virtuoso facility. Then the machine excelled at mass production, making unnecessary what had taken centuries to perfect through guilds and apprenticeships. Today the field is experiencing a proliferation of 3-D scanning and printing alongside the virtuoso. From the Arts & Crafts movement uninterrupted through today, the impulse has largely been to mimic mechanical perfection. Though this is the reigning ideology, it is important to remember that it is but one possibility and that advancement has many connotations.

One need look no further than the recent NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) Houston conference hosting numerous lectures and panel discussions focused on the potential related to technologically driven practice; and there are many. University and college ceramics programs are investing in this technology and single-mindedly embracing it--equating innovation with aesthetical and artistic advancement. The parallel to kitsch is worth noting--Kitsch is the imitation of the effects of art, while digital and printing technology imitates human capacity through the limitations of the technology, all the while imitating art. Technology produces what humans devise, only able to make how we conceive of making, this is its limitation, constrained by human expectation. It is an extension, not the cure-all. This strengthens the bond with design and indicates a further split from current art practice.

The origin of crises might just come from Marcel Duchamp's critique of originality. It is curious that one of the most disruptive and original gestures in art was not original or creative by the standards of the time--quite the contrary. Duchamp brought into question the idea of artist as mediator between material and form. This was a revision of the artists' monopoly on the era's belief that creativity was only the execution of material into exquisite form, and originality was inextricably tied to the creation of what had previously not existed. Duchamp understood the limit of human creative capacity under the prevailing acceptable artistic norm of the time. The resemblance to issues of today is uncanny.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the readymade. Accepting the ready-made's legitimacy has been difficult--for some, impossible. They shaped our understanding of art by redefining originality. Creating art with what was already produced was not part of the lexicon. Through readymades, Duchamp exhausted the creativity/originality complex and forced the paradigm to collapse. The result was a new interplay among language, philosophy and culture. The language formed our cultural understanding of art; Duchamp reversed the process, making art that shaped our cultural understanding, creating a philosophical problem that subsequently shaped language. Unpacking creativity brought intellect to bear on itself. The implicit result is that highly crafted art is regressive and counter-intuitive to human capacity.

In 2009, I wrote, "the 21st century may turn out to be the century of ceramics and one of criticism's roles is to ensure it is not missed by the ceramics sphere, or by those that have internalised their insecurities into a paralysing psychosis." It has long been believed that criticism would elevate the field, saving it from itself. This is a mistake. The issue is not clay or criticism, but rather the disposition of the field. Academia's aegis is conceptual art's highly intellectual capacity, which it has laid fallow, eroding its potential and blinding itself to the questions raised out of its own exhaustion. Further highlighting the conundrum, "the problem is that they (the artworld) showcase the wrong ceramics ... This is the work the field is likely embarrassed of, work that seemingly takes an ironical or an indifferent approach to material." Their worst fear has been realised, ceramics is NOW and fortunately, it is the 'wrong' ceramics.


Though this article was written in July 2013, the incipient root was the exhibition Dirt on Delight at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in January 2009 and brought to the forefront with Paul Clay at Salon 94 in New York City in June 2011.

This is not a New York-centric occurrence. For a discussion on the West Coast, see Leah Oilman, "The Happy Medium," Art in America, December 2012.

Other community-based studios are experiencing a similar outpouring of creativity and as Bobby Silverman, director of the 92nd Street YMCA and I expressed in conversation, this work taps into the zeitgeist in a way the field and has not.

See my "The Ceramic Sphere: Newer Ceramic Criticism and the Expanding Field", Ceramics: Art & Perception, vol. 77. 2009 p 56.

Ibid., p 50.

Article by Adam Welch

Adam Welch is a lecturer at Princeton University and Director of Greenwich House Pottery in New York City.
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Author:Welch, Adam
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Sep 1, 2013
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