Contemporary Ceramics and Critical Theory: Prestige, Professionalism and Perspective

Article excerpt

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). …