Among those deeming themselves ceramics progressives it has of late become customary, if not exactly mandatory, to cultivate a certain lament, namely that the field of contemporary ceramics lacks a serious and sustained critical disposition to complement that of the most challenging developments in current studio practice. Studio ceramics, so the argument goes, stands to liberate itself once and for all from the stunting influences of a depleted soil and all that remains is for criticism to rise to the responsibilities of an ally and an agent of progress. In this light, criticism appears to be nothing short of a miraculous fertilizer/herbicide capable simultaneously of promoting the growth and health of innovative developments and of weeding out noxious influences that hinder more exotic practices. This conception of criticism, formed out of frustration with the notoriously pluralistic and qualitatively uneven nature of contemporary ceramics, is perfectly understandable. In fact it is almost irresistible. Nevertheless, it is predicated on the unwarranted assumption that there is something progressive about criticism in itself. While it may be true that criticism can never be entirely disinterested, its partisanship does not inevitably assume a progressive cast.
The critical tenor of the modernist avant-garde, coupled with its implications of radical social transformation, did, of course, bestow on art criticism the general legacy of a progressive, even revolutionary, perspective, but embracing this perspective is hardly essential to the effective and influential practice of criticism today. Hilton Kramer, to cite an obvious example, has built a prominent career as the top conservative watchdog of the New York art world--and he is by no means on solitary vigil. Even critics who set forth on a rebel's path often adopt reactionary perspectives. (Consider the examples of John Ruskin and Harold Rosenberg.) Since its beginnings, art criticism has been as often rancourous toward the new as generous in support of the untried. Ceramics criticism likewise possesses its share of conservative voices, many of them quite eloquent in defence of tradition and every bit as insistent as those who clamour for change that criticism must assume a more rigorous role in contemporary discussions shaping the field. In the abstract, criticism cannot be said to owe a particular allegiance to either progressive or conservative perspectives.
When proponents of criticism argue for its progressive effects on studio ceramics one assumes that the reference is not to criticism in general but rather to a more narrowly defined practice that is, particularly within academia, commonly known as critical theory. Related in name only to earlier Frankfurt School strategies of radical social critique, this critical theory emerged in the 1960s in the context of literary criticism and specifically in reaction against the then-prevailing tenets of so-called New Criticism, which had sought to justify art in the modern age by adopting the objective orientation of the hard sciences. Rejecting the 'close reading' practices advocated by the New Critics, who confined their interpretations exclusively to what was actually present in a text, the proponents of critical theory began analysing literature in relation to social, historical, political and psychological contexts. This practice was made possible through adoption of theories developed in the soft sciences of anthropology, sociology, psychology and linguistics. The shift in literary criticism's inspiration from the hard to the soft sciences would involve not only experimentation with new methods but also and more consequentially, an increased scepticism toward the possibility of objectivity.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s a still fledgling critical theory relied heavily on semiological and structuralist concepts that emphasized the place of literature within the vastly larger system of signification known as language (a somewhat specialized term in this context because of the contention that it embraces signifiers far more diverse and complex than mere words). In the late 1970s, when critical theory came to dominate literary criticism and assume its definitive role in a postmodern critique of recent literary history, the critical approach to texts fell heavily under the influence of post-structuralist theory and most prominently, the method of deconstruction. Critical theory, which set itself fundamentally against the idea of the autonomous work of literary art, came to feel both revolutionary, as it undermined the ideology of modernist writers and overturned the methods of modernist critics, and emancipatory, as it deconstructed the underpinnings of institutional power that systematically excluded certain voices from the 'master narrative' of modernism.
By the early 1980s critical theory had begun to expand its influence well beyond the field of literary criticism to transform virtually every corner of the humanities, including the formerly quite conservative discipline of art history. Art historical mainstays, in particular connoisseurship and the formalist theory of art upon which it was fundamentally based, came under attack from newly converted poststructuralists who rejected all concepts of universal aesthetic value as the constructs of a hegemonic, culturally and historically specific discourse. In what amounted to an institutional coup d'etat, these revolutionaries deconstructed the notion of art history itself as an example of conceptual totalitarianism: a metanarrative in which a formerly unexamined male-dominated Eurocentric perspective administered both a hierarchy of media and a chronology of canonical works of art. The New Art History, as it came to be called, tendentiously undermined traditional art historical paradigms, toppled established hierarchies and inverted the previously unchallenged positions of margin and centre.
Art criticism, like art history, was radically transformed by the advent of critical theory, but in this case the transformation entailed more than the emergence of new methodologies for contextualising works of art and exposing the constructs surrounding and pervading them. It also--and in some respects more importantly--opened a schism between what would become a largely academic, post-structuralist critical discourse and criticism in what has been called the 'journalistic' vein. The latter, which from the point of view of many critical theorists constitutes a watered-down version of criticism designed for the uninitiated though educated masses, is typical of much of the writing in popular magazines such as ARTnews and Art in America. Journalistic criticism eschews specialized vocabulary and according to its detractors, substitutes subjective response for rigorous adherence to theory, belletristic musings for serious analysis of content and context and simple description for moreincisive judgment. This assessment of journalistic art criticism is particularly noteworthy, since the traits that it identifies are precisely those that many decry in the bulk of writing in journals on contemporary ceramics.
In contrast to journalistic criticism, art criticism as practiced under the influence of critical theory developed largely as the purview of writers from the ranks of the professoriate. In the early 1980s this form of critical discourse spread like wildfire through the formerly tranquil meadows of such institutions as the College Art Association (US). By the late 1980s the titles of panels and lectures at the CAA routinely bristled with such daunting terms as 'contextuality,' 'marginalisation' and 'logocentricity'. Works of art became texts to be critiqued largely for the manner in which they perpetuated or, less frequently, resisted culturally ensconced stereotypes of nations, class, race and gender and otherwise participated in the complex constructions of power relations endemic to discourse.
In theory, studio ceramics--as a sub-category of the so-called craft media--ought to have experienced surging prestige as a result of these momentous assaults on the art historical sense of order. After all, as artists and critics of the P&D movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s pointed out, the crafts in the western world had long suffered a double stigma of association both with the feminine (the damning status of 'women's work') and with the pattern and ornament rejected by modernist theorists from Adolf Loos to Clement Greenberg. Ceramics as a medium was clearly marginalised by chauvinistic attitudes and narrow concepts of art absolutes, and one might naturally have expected its discourse to have become as intellectually saturated as that of post-structuralist feminism, queer theory or postcolonial studies. In practice, however, few post-structuralist art historians found the cause of the crafts to be enticing enough at a time when the very foundations of their discipline were being zealously uprooted. Why re-examine the hierarchical status of pots when you could more prominently deconstruct the myths surrounding Post-Impressionism, Picasso, and Pollock? These ostensibly loftier tasks proved to be the work of decades and only now, when precious little of the arthistorical canon remains to be deconstructed, has the interest of some art historians begun to turn toward the crafts.
This development, though somewhat dilatory, has in fact been an inevitable consequence of the demands of the profession of art history. While generally embracing the methodological interdisciplinarity of critical theory, art historians still overwhelmingly endorse specialized focus in terms of objects of research. In the past such specialization was primarily period or culturally specific (Renaissance, pre-Columbian, etc.), but more recently a theoretical specialization has become increasingly common (for example, representation and the dynamics of power, or art and gender-construction). One is generally expected to invest in a distinctive professional identity at least from the time one undertakes the writing of a doctoral dissertation--which, in order to fulfil the requisites established by degree-granting institutions, must constitute a clear and original contribution to the field of art history. As the ranks of art historians have swelled dramatically over the past fifty years, the unexamined terrain on which to erect research reputations has diminished in proportion. Consequently, areas of expertise have narrowed and many subjects formerly considered of lesser importance--those embraced by material studies, for example, or the media traditionally described as the crafts--have begun to draw new interest.
From the art-historical perspective these developments may appear to signify a lull in the discipline, a period of settling into the minor tasks of tidying up after a quarter century of post-structuralist turbulence. In the field of contemporary ceramics, however, the perception is quite different. Recent efforts to promote art-historical crafts research, to found peer-juried journals on the crafts and to increase the participation of art historians on panels relating to craft at conferences such as the CAA cannot but appear to reflect a rise in the intellectual prestige of ceramics studies. There is no question that the embarkation of art historians and art critics on research in ceramics has begun to introduce a sorely needed professionalism to what has for far too long been a theoretical mess. Although ceramics theory and criticism have had their paragons in the work of writers such as Tanya Harrod, Garth Clark, Edmund de Waal, Jorunn Veiteberg,Vincent McGourty, Janet Koplos and Matthew Kangas among others and some relatively young ceramists, such as Adam Welch, who have begun contributing meaningfully to a critical discourse in recent years, their texts are obvious exceptions to what has more often been mere description, reiteration of achingly archaic ideas about art or inept, misinformed and haphazard application of poststructuralist concepts to ceramics in naive attempts to acquire cachet.
Until recently, the general lack of art-historical and art-critical interest in ceramics has allowed such weak practice to go relatively unchallenged. One can, however, expect ceramics criticism and theory to yield to a greater rigor, complexity and professionalism as academically trained critics and art historians such as Ezra Shales, Sandra Alfoldy and Glenn Adamson focus increasingly on investigation of ceramics and the crafts in general. Anyone who finds rigor, complexity and professionalism to be of value can hardly discern in this development anything but the hallmarks of progress. Although the hesitancy of the anthology rather than the full commitment of the monograph still characterizes much art-historical venture into crafts studies, there are numerous signs that a solid groundwork is being laid for an academic discipline capable of treating contemporary ceramics in intellectually sound and sophisticated terms. As some of this groundwork draws upon aspects of critical theory, there is no wonder that some ceramists have begun to view criticism as the central requisite of positive change in the field. With the increase in professionalism in ceramics criticism cautious optimism about the future has begun to creep into the discourse of many ceramics progressives.
Establishment of a professional practice of critical theory in ceramics studies promises to open lines of inquiry previously obscured by the vagaries of pseudo-intellectualism on the one hand and the myopia of an intensely formalist and otherwise exclusively object-oriented mentality on the other. We can anticipate the appearance of more detailed and compelling studies of the determinative relationships between studio ceramics and institutions such as universities, museums and commercial galleries. Investigation of paradigms and underlying matrices of power will no doubt yield new and challenging views of ceramics history and take to task the endless prattle about the motivating elements of heart and hand and the transcendental qualities of pots. We are bound to see more sophisticated analyses of the factors of gender, race and ethnicity in the production and appreciation of ceramics and to witness a general undermining of formerly unexamined notions of ceramics universals. The ceramics canon will undoubtedly metamorphose as key aspects of its underpinnings fall to deconstructive inquiry. In short, the development of a professional approach to critical theory can be expected to initiate profound and wide-ranging changes in the practice and reception of studio ceramics.
It is, of course, tempting to conceive of this looming transformation in terms of progress, though one can in fact only speculate on the effects that it may exert over the future health of the field. Few will deny that the Augean stables of ceramics criticism have long been in need of scouring and there is no doubt that the advance of critical theory will bring greater rigor and theoretical complexity to the discussion and analysis of contemporary ceramics. At the same time, it is well to remember that progress is always perceived in relation to specific goals. Where goals are not universally recognized, let alone shared, there is little likelihood of widespread agreement that progress has occurred. I make this observation not because I wish to point out that critical theory must inevitably face its malcontents within the field of contemporary ceramics--that goes without saying. For the moment, I am much more interested in what might be the perceptions of the rise of critical theory in ceramics from outside of ceramics discourse, specifically among those nonceramists who compose what we so often sweepingly describe as the contemporary art world.
Many ceramists seem to take for granted that the advent of a more complex practice of criticism will inevitably elevate ceramics' prestige among other art forms or at least provide detractors with less occasion to disparage ceramics as a stubbornly conservative, anti-intellectual and technically obsessed craft medium. While this is distinctly possible, one would be naive to assume that non-ceramist art professionals are disposed automatically to see new sophistication in the field's adoption of just any critical approaches to ceramics. Criticism is no more timeless and universal than is art and the ways of appearing embarrassingly ignorant as an art critic are as numerous as the opportunities to show oneself uninformed as an artist. One could no more base an effective contemporary criticism on strictly Freudian psychoanalytic concepts than one could convincingly present Abstract Expressionism as an innovative style today. To do so would reveal one's abject ignorance of history and worse yet, of the reasons that art critics, among intellectuals in general, no longer grant much credibility to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, Marxism, Formalism or a host of other systems of thought that once gave rise to bodies of criticism.
It is ironic that so many ceramists should stress that mastery of the medium of clay is acquired only through years of dedication, knowledge of the history of ceramics and in-depth understanding of the technical aspects of clay bodies, glaze formulation and firing processes, yet some of these same individuals presume that one can practice effective art criticism in complete ignorance of its history, the various forms that it can assume, the concepts that it embraces or rejects and the central issues with which it currently grapples. While it may be true that contemporary ceramics constitutes a discipline unto itself--a field of discourse and practices based on a unique history and a strong sense of tradition--ceramics is still a part of contemporary culture and if its proponents wish for it to possess any relevancy for the broader art community they cannot expect to do so by promoting concepts that are grossly out of sync with generally accepted ideas about criticism, art, history, politics, psychology or language. There is no question that the circulation of misinformed, amateurish and irrelevant ceramics criticism has been a primary reason that the larger art world has regarded ceramics as a rather backward discipline among the arts.
The mere adoption of a more critical tenor in the discourse of contemporary ceramics will not in itself assure prestige outside the boundaries of the field. Those who practice ceramics criticism despite lacking adequate knowledge of criticism as a discourse in itself--a set of practices with a complex history and changing assumptions about the objects that it addresses and even its own raison d'etre--risk perpetuating the impression of ceramics as retrograde. While certain ideas may appear novel and even radical within ceramics discourse, if these have previously run their course in the larger art world then to embrace them as innovative cannot help but generate an effect of naivete. To speak of the necessity of establishing a unified method of criticism relevant to all the diverse practices currently gathered under the rubric of ceramics is, from the perspective of the contemporary art world, to profess a quaintly antiquated optimism about objects and meaning. On the other hand, to extol the virtues of a post-modern perspective on contemporary ceramics is to provide an amusing picture of innocence to an art world that has already begun to normalize the conditions of post-post-modernism. Such blunders only reinforce the stereotype of ceramics as perpetually tagging along behind its more mature siblings, ingenuously mimicking, at a period of remove, their motions and speech.
Whether contemporary ceramics can acquire a more prestigious reputation among non-ceramists through adoption of a rigorous program of criticism depends largely on the form that such criticism takes. Even the increase in the number of art historians and academically trained art critics who have turned their attentions to ceramics provides no guarantee of a particular direction for criticism. In many respects contemporary ceramics represents for critical theory a virgin territory that imposes fewer restraints on behaviour than would areas with established precedents for judging the legitimacy of certain ideas. Even those art historians and art critics most conversant with issues in contemporary criticism may conceivably succumb to the freedom of a lawless sphere and begin administering pet intellectual programs in the context of ceramics that would have little hope of thriving in the contemporary art world at large. Such developments could hardly be expected to promote a general impression of intellectual sophistication to outside observers, but how many ceramists are capable of recognizing such opportunism and calling its perpetrators to task? How many ceramists are truly conversant with the most basic issues at stake in the debates surrounding the legitimacy of certain critical methods?
Evidently, very few. In fact, unqualified enthusiasm for an increased presence of critical theory in contemporary ceramics may in itself be taken as an obvious sign of disjunction between the discourse of contemporary ceramics and that of the art world at large. For nearly a decade now--ironically, precisely the period in which many ceramists have been pressing for more critical analysis of works in clay--the broader art world has been in the throes of a crisis over the question of whether criticism is still relevant at all. I will leave discussion of the specifics of this crisis for a subsequent essay but suffice it to say that no one who has followed with the least attention the wrangling over the problem of judgment, the pronouncements of blame for the decline of art criticism that have whistled back and forth between competing camps and most of all the melancholy musings on the many possible reasons why significant readership for art criticism no longer exists, can look upon the prospect of an escalating influence of critical theory in contemporary ceramics as anything but problematic.
I only say problematic, not necessarily undesirable; I am hardly an opponent of criticism or even of most aspects of critical theory. At the same time, it seems to me terribly naive to suppose that an increased emphasis on criticism will automatically exert a positive and prestigious effect on contemporary studio ceramics. Such an outcome can only be truly realized if criticism is itself approached critically--which is to say, if criticism is not promoted blindly but rather with an adequate understanding of its history, the vocabulary that has developed around it, the variations that it currently assumes, the problems that confront it in various fields in the humanities and the potential benefits and negative consequences that it may entail when applied to contemporary ceramics. In-depth understanding of ceramics alone provides no guarantee that one can practice effective ceramics criticism, just as a thorough knowledge of critical theory cannot in itself assure the ability to analyse ceramics in a meaningful way. The two spheres of expertise must be united. Whether such coalescence will actually occur in practice is of utmost significance to the field of contemporary ceramics, which stands to gain or lose in some measure of disciplinary stature as a consequence of its handling of the changes that are to come. At the very least, the matter would seem to warrant a greater degree of reflection and judiciousness than is evident in the bandwagon mentality prevailing among many promoters of ceramics criticism today.
Glen R. Brown is Professor of Art History at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, US and a regular contributor to Ceramics: Art and Perception and Ceramics TECHNICAL.…