Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Art Of Ceramics : Chapter One: What is Art?

In commencing to write about the art of Ceramics, the question presents itself: What is art?

Art is more than technique and greater than discipline. The social status of work of art is determined by political and cultural forces and at the same time art is nature expressed through the individual man in the context of time, place, culture and politics.

Art is more than aesthetics; it also conveys meaning and messages. Prior to the invention of the printing press painting, pottery, and architecture recorded the stories of history. In modern times art has become inseparable from a continual redefinition of art. Artists make “statements”, artists “shock”, artists express spiritual, religious, intellectual and political ideas.

At the beginning of the history, preferences for unique ceramic shapes and decorative styles emerged within specific cultures and time periods for which there is no other explanation that pure aesthetics. By definition, the function of a pot is filled by any shape that can serve as a small container, beyond that, the choice of the shape and the decoration are purely aesthetic choices- unless they are also created to serve social, political and/or religious purposes.

In the Neolithic era pottery served a function in material subsistence. Raw clay from the earth was used to make baskets air and watertight. When it was discovered that the heat permanently hardened the clay, the art of ceramics was born.

The word “art” can be used in relation to any human activity requiring the development of refined skills and disciplines, which traces back to the etymology of the word, art”. The Latin meaning of “art” translates as "skill" or "craft."

As long as the making of pottery was considered part of the household chores, it was a women’s art. When the market place came into existence, and more importantly the wheel, - one of man’s first “machines”- pottery making became a masculine pursuit. Man was the “provider”, and woman, who gives birth to new generations, historically took care of the home.

As the market evolved, it came to be that the creators of the form and the decorators of the pottery signed their work and so from the beginning of man’s history, the concept of “art” as something above and beyond mere function has evolved as a by-product of the market place. One could provide more for one’s family by offering that which satisfies more than material function and appeals to man’s need for beauty. Aesthetics was likely as much a part of pottery produced by women in the process of doing the household chores, just as the manifestation of beauty is as natural to man as it is to nature, but it was the marketplace that brought a wider appreciation in which the linguistic construct of “art” as separate from mere “function” was culturally articulated.

Art has long been associated with class distinctions. “Blue chip art” is beyond the reach of the ordinary person, and often synonymous with “important art”. It is a symbol of social status for the rarified private collector. “Fine art” is traditionally identified as art for arts sake and by definition excludes art that has a functional purpose. Dictionary .com defines
“Fine art” as "a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically, painting, sculptures, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture.”

The inclusion of architecture in the above definition is incongruous. A building has an obvious and primary functional purpose and yet architecture is included in the above contemporary definition of ”fine art”, where as ceramics and other functional objects are excluded. A possible conclusion is that the inclusion of architecture is explained by the larger degree of concentrated wealth involved in creating a larger functional object such as a building. I submit that this is a bad definition of both fine art and design - as if aesthetics is the primary purpose for creating a building and function merely a tangential happenstance or after thought of the aesthetic purpose, in direct denial of the foundational tenant of good design;” Form follows function”.

The power elite are the arbitrators of a society’s “important art”.  Important art is exhibited in high-end galleries and museums. While the power elite may dismiss art produced for middle class or mass markets, the general public often looks aghast at what is presented as art by the power elite, be it Jeff Koon’s 1991  “Made in Heaven” show at the Sonnabend Gallery in Soho, New York City- a show of oversized images of Koons and his then wife, a porn star, in the act of having sex- or the 2010 federally funded Smithsonian Gallery show featuring ““images of an ant-covered Jesus, male genitals, naked brothers kissing, men in chains, Ellen Degeneras grabbing her breasts and a painting the Smithsonian itself describes in the show‘s catalog as ’homoerotic.’ –all in a show that the museum describes as “the first major exhibition to examine the influence of gay and lesbian artists in creating modern American portraiture.” It is arguable that the show is functionally motivated - all be it a political function. Thus in accordance with the definition of fine art, The Smithsonian’s gallery show is no more classifiable as “fine art” than beautiful pottery “artifacts” found in ancient graves.

It is quite possible to apply the design axiom “Form follows function” to every work of art invoking some interesting results. Form can follow from a spiritual, intellectual, political, or practical function. All of the arts are expressed through some manner of form. “Art” is an elusive quality not easily defined, always reinventing itself anew.

The definition exposes the meaning of  “fine art” as a man-made linguistic construct inseparably entwined with class distinctions, wealth, and power. It begs the question: “If “fine art” needs to be separated and exclusive of any functional purpose, then why isn’t it also separated and exclusive of social and political purposes such as concentrated wealth, politics and/or religion? What makes art “important” what makes art “fine” What makes art “art”?

I submit that “art” by nature is self-evident. It exists in the eye of the beholder. Art exists in any object that evokes an elevated response from the viewer. If art is defined as that which evokes the emotions, the intellect, or the spirit of man, then it makes no difference whether the work of art is created with gold, silver and rare gems, or from the ubiquitously available clay or wood, or if it is commonly available or only to be had by a rarified elite.

When a collector brings together a group of objects, he creates value. The collector’s eye creates the value.

While there is no escaping the function of art as a maker of status, and the collecting of art as inescapably entwined with the creation of wealth,

A function of making art is that it promotes well-being through meaningful work processes, and so while the art may be owned by a wealthy elite, the function of creating the art serves the larger society.