Just one look at the kind of precious craft objects the Firths favoured makes me want to pig out on a book of Jeff Koons kitsch while eating a monster bag of Doritos and putting my beer can on the arts and crafts table without using a coaster. Pop art was born to free us from this cult of the handmade. Plastic was invented so we’d never again have to pretend that vases are art. — Jonathon Jones
Above: A chance to lift pottery out of its modernist doldrums? … new BBC show The Great Pottery Throw Down. Photograph Mark Bourdillon BBC Love Productions.
I am a fan of Jonathon Jones. And that fascination is not because I agree with him often but because he does not try to play diplomat or worse, translator of artspeak. Jones does not seems to need friends and in the field of art criticism where most writer’s describe what a photograph can tell one better and with more eloquence, is forthright and at times shockingly provocative as in the quote above. He is the demon art barber of Fleet Street and his razor has sliced open many a jugular including Grayson Perry’s.
We need more of these writers. Roberta Smith, Peter Schjedahl, Christopher Knight and Dave Hickey make the cut but few others do. I hope this will create serious dialogue. Everything is overstated but he makes some excellent points nonetheless.
While I am sure he will deny the charge, I do not feel that he likes pottery very much and, because I do, he is a perfect foil, stopping me in my tracks every now and again to question my oft-blind love. This time he excels at riling Fortress Ceramica. In a opinion piece in The Guardian he takes down two Clay Gods while considering the current phenomena of potmania in the British media (and for the record the image captions came with the article):
A £1m find in Leeds and a new BBC show The Great Pottery Throw Down have put ceramics in the spotlight. A pity, then, that so much pottery is too repressed to be considered art. [Ed. – Read CFile’s Justin Crowe on this reality series.]
A ceramics expert says that after discovering a £1m collection of modern British pottery in a bungalow in Leeds, he knows how Howard Carter felt when he peeped into a long-lost tomb and got his first glimpse of the treasures of Tutankhamun.
No, he doesn’t. Carter found wonders that tell of a lost world. The hoard of ceramics found in Leeds and being hailed as a marvel is just a collection of prissy, repressed, pseudo-artistic vases and bowls.
There is nothing more boring than modern pottery. My eyes glaze over at the names of revered “makers” like Lucy Rie and Hans Coper – the very names being touted as the stars of the collection assembled over decades by Pat and Alan Firth
Clearly, the Firths were very tasteful people. For there is nothing so tasteful as a simple, clean-lined modern vase. And nothing so dull. Modernist ceramicists in 20th-century Britain combined the idealism of the William Morris tradition with an abstract austerity inspired by ancient beakers and bowls. The result is a style of domestic object that exudes holier-than-thou morality, sexless artistic restraint and oatmeal puritanism.
OK, that’s going too far. The history of ceramics is splendid and rich. In the V&A’s gorgeous ceramic galleries you can feast your eyes on a stupendous array of pottery, from blue ancient Egyptian earthenware sculptures to porcelain animals made in 18th-century Prussia. There is no restraint or repression in the long history of ceramic art before the 20th century. Renaissance painted plates, rococo lovers – the variety and creativity with which people have given form to clay, throughout history, is astounding.
Yet it all narrows when you follow the story into modern times. Modernist potters have a hallowed conception of their craft. The serious modern potter is an abstract artist in clay and a priest of a nobler, simpler way of life. It is hard work revering such objects. Why should I?
Only Picasso understood the power of clay to create the modern (or postmodern) form. Picasso’s ceramics are magical; he conjures up mythic creatures and fills his designs with primal joy.
We crave craft. Cake making, pottery – it all frees us from the readymade supermarket world. I am not surprised the BBC is following up The Great British Bakeoff with The Great Pottery Throw Down. But the hyping of this Leeds pottery hoard reveals how confused we are about what constitutes creativity in clay. A reverence for dreary elegance crushes imagination. I hope the potters in the new BBC show do not turn out lots of safe, respectable Morandi-like vessels.
Instead, I hope they shape sloppy animals, tottering towers, grinning faces and whatever even more bizarre wonders the kiln can fire – the kind of stuff the Firths would never have given house space.
There is a moral here and it is not that Coper and Rie are worthless or that vases can’t be art (a statement of self-indulgent, ignorant bigotry). “Only Picasso understood the power of clay to create the modern (or postmodern) form” is equally vapid. Ever heard of Lucio Fontana, Mr. Jones, or Joan Miro?
His message is delivered with all the sensitivity of a compulsive bar brawler and with an instinct to cause damage. But at the end of a scuffle some truths remain (maybe scars is a better term). This one is that each age has to make way for its own aesthetic voice and not take refuge in the safety of the past as ceramics is too often wont to do.
His advice is timely and applies to those who claim to be contemporary creatives, their muses and their critics. Coper and Rie are a high standard for their own era. They should not be a litmus test for beauty today. Discomfort of the new is invigorating. As Beatrice Wood said, “art is not a comfort station.” (She said the same thing about sex.)
However, if you are a collector, ignore Jones and all the rest of us, gather anything you damn well want. Tasteful or tasteless. Both. Neither.
Bravo to the keen eye and perspicacity of the Firths.
Garth Clark is Chief Editor of cfile.
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