A Subversive Balancing Act: Critical Writing on Ceramics

Article excerpt

AMONGST THE CLAY SPATTERED EXHIBITIONS, DEMONSTRATIONS and speakers, the critical writing panel at the 2012 Australian Ceramics Triennale--Subversive Clay took this public opportunity to address what is right and wrong with critical writing in the contemporary ceramics field. (1) As primarily a visual arts writer I was delighted to join fellow panellists Dr Damon Moon--writer, curator and exhibiting artist; Dr Peter Wilson--ceramics practitioner, educator and writer; Moyra Elliott--New Zealand based curator and writer specialising in ceramics and panel chair Vicki Grima--ceramist, Editor of The Journal of Australian Ceramics and Executive Officer of The Australian Ceramics Association. As I introduced my own talk speaking from a background in art history ... my critical writing on ceramics comes not from the perspective of a practice, or necessarily a deep understanding of the medium, but from a fascination with ceramics as objects, their history and place within our visual culture and everyday lives. (2) Consequently I have written this article in conversation with the experience and dedication of the panellists, whose papers raised some key themes, alongside an acute awareness of the issues at stake and what changes are needed to re-imagine this field of critical writing in Australia.

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An important drive behind such a discussion (particularly a critical one) is to define what this 'good' ceramics critical writing should look like and attempt to do. Indeed the definition of this critical act is one that counteracts the assumption of negative judgment or comment. Rather, as each panellist described, critics should attempt to be objective, descriptive, informed, engaging, entertaining, imaginative, analytical and be contextualised. The writer should draw on research and theory and have an understanding of the material clay and the techniques that form it. Elliott also emphasised that a different style of writing was needed for ceramics, being inherently different to fine art and the critical discourse that stems from it. (3) But above all the panel stressed the need to develop a strong critical voice in writing on contemporary ceramics by fostering honest, accessible and well 'crafted' texts that express opinion and engineer an act of conversation between the artist, artwork and reader.

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This question of quality and honesty appeared to be fundamental, as in a small, specialised, materialdriven arena, it appears there are not enough writers who write about Australian ceramics from beyond the walls of ceramics itself. Many of the published texts we read are by ceramics artists and while this offers advantages of insight into the practice, it does not necessarily denote a good writer. The unease of this juxtaposition was reiterated by each of my fellow panellists. As Grima outlined, many of the submissions to The Journal of Australian Ceramics are by artists and while she certainly does not suggest artists should not or can not write, she "struggles" to find quality texts and "would like to find more good writers about ceramics". (4) As Moon reiterated "just as it would be unreasonable to expect someone to be able to make an accomplished piece of ceramics without some training, skill, aptitude and almost no practice, it is no wonder that a great deal of writing about ceramics by ceramists simply falls short of the mark." (5) Wilson suggested that ceramics' internalisation results in a personal obligation "to respond positively to the body of work". (6) Elliott voiced similar concerns, although she highlighted that a small core of international critical writers and online support networks are emerging and that positive changes are underway. (7)

In contrast, while we are certainly seeing a merging of roles across the arts (as artists turn to curating, curators turn to writing, dancers turn to choreography, actors to direction) in most other art forms the critic is often entirely removed from the artistic act. …