Meta-making I: on making while making
I’ve been making a lot of late. As I make, I’ve been thinking both about the process of making and what that process means. These tangents are of course interrelated but also deeply divergent; the former running more from the practicalities of transmuting mud into magic while the latter rests on what it means to be the maker and who the maker is.
Clay, more than say, paint, facilitates these sorts of mental meanderings. For me, at least, potting is both deeply contemplative and inherently communal (not least because of the ceramic studio’s expensive mechanical requirements!)
So this past fortnight then has seen me drill into my own thoughts and drift into the thoughts of others in arcing conversations that blossom in the throwing room and float down the hallway, pollinating the common areas with questions posited but not resolved.
Questions of who (and what) makes the artist the artist are, after all, as old as the separation of the making from the made. In other words, ever since it mattered who made what, we’ve been questioning (nay, arguing or throwing things in violent disagreement) what makes the maker such. From the great masters, with their apprentices churning out in-vogue likenesses to the enfant terrible productions of Hirst and Koons and self-proclaimed ‘factories’ of Warhol and Wei Wei, this question just will not go away.
But why does it matter so much? In fact, does it matter, at all?
This is, after all, no new area of scholarly thought or even pub conversation, since the urinal was signed & raised well above its intended station in 1907. But it seems to me interesting afresh, when considered paying particular regard to ceramics.
Ceramics, seen until recently as one of the downtrodden ‘craft’ disciplines not worthy of the title ‘art,’ seems to have missed the first wave of debate entirely (which may be why the individuality of the maker, in ceramics, was traditionally less prominent than the production house that employed them).
Indeed, it seems that, in ceramics, the discourse on the role of the artist is only now getting underway (although I, too, am only now getting underway in ceramics).
In contemporary ceramics there are two general schools of makers; those who hold to the primacy of a direct and personal relationship with clay (the ‘makers mark’) and those who are more coy regarding how many parties may be involved in the relationship. (Oh la la!).
To me, there seems an unabashed hippy-ness in the former position, a Morrisian earnestness that, while I recognise its nobility, gives me a little involuntary twitch (I am working on my issues, and drinking coffee from increasingly hand-hewn mugs).
The latter is more of a contemporary diaspora, drifting amongst the rest, often esteemed by the market (which after all is ever present if not all important) as making really the most magic of things and admired by colleagues, until that whisper over a second glass of wine – “Did you know? They get them made in China…it really is so very economical.”
In ceramics this divergence from mainstream contemporary art is intensified, since the works are often outsourced not just from other hands, but also from another continent. The East-West trade dynamic is played out once again as the West comes bearing coin and ideas, wanting magic (and some change) in return. The flow focuses on, Jingdezhen, the so-called Porcelain City in southern China that has been producing porcelain for at least 1400 years. So obviously, they’ve had practice.
And perhaps, I’m thinking, this is fine. In our postmodern age, where the individual is the artist and the artist is the brand and the brand is everything, it makes sense - doesn’t it? – for makers to become mini factories, churning out the goods as they did on Stoke-On-Trent back in Morris’ day.
Why, then, is it so covert? Why does it feel so uncomfortable, resonant with shame and deceit? Why don’t the ceramic masters using these methods proclaim their factories as Warhol did, and as countless others across all media and genres still do?
Does our unease stem from a belief that the potter should personally make each pot? And does this then confine the ceramist to a function-based, repetitious and likely impoverished existence?
Do we think claiming the work means you claim also the conditions of its production? Do we fear being morally responsible for our workers? Does an exploitative taste linger in the mouth, a taste of colonisation swallowed through the centuries and resources stolen and plundered? Or is that frame itself condescending and reductionist in this modern world of smart-phones and assumed individual bargaining power?
These are just some of the questions that roil and rage in my mind as my hands calmly centre the clay on my wheel.
Should there be some sort of moral attribution in art, as with words, so that assistance is duly acknowledged?
That last floats from my mouth and meets swift reply from a colleague who, striding through the workshop, offers this rejoinder; ‘why not? The credit reels on films go forever these days, thanking everyone - including the guy that runs for coffee’
Not to denigrate caffeine collectors.
Perhaps it just seems easier not to say. At the 2016 Gulgong ceramics festival, Keith Brymer-Jones demonstrated his magnificent throwing skills, but I was equally impressed by how he was able to keep his cool under the fast and furious questioning that pelted him as he worked. The pressing area of interest wasn’t his skill but rather his decision to expand (publicly) into production work, establishing a pottery factory in India to manufacture some of his signature porcelain wares. At the end of the barrage of questions drilling down to the minutiae of proposed conditions, there was an audible and distinct huff as several audience members settled back in their chairs with accusatory stares.
Quite possibly these same questioners have bought work in high-end galleries made in much the same (or much worse) conditions but without the same transparency. Perhaps the reason why production is unacknowledged as a practice is simply that the market doesn’t want to know.
But still, questions as to whether it should, and whether such knowledge and such processes affect the authenticity of the work so stamped, ricochet around my mind as the bowl blossoms on my wheel.