Review: Paul Mathieu

“The worth of a book is to be measured by what you can carry away from it”, so says James Bryce. Well I’ve been reading and not solely because I live alone in the forest but namely because I need to buff up on come pertinent craft issues (don’t we all?). The writings of Paul Mathieu is where I have turned to. He has put out this book “The Art of the Future: 14 Essays on Ceramics” (you can download it here and I suggest you do!). I have only just begun and am looking forward to what is to come in these essays. In the Preface (seen below) Mathieu writes with a  level head and frank manner about ceramics and how we’ve been misinterpreting and underminding it all these years. Please give the following Preface a read and mull it over. I will certainly do the same. Some lines are like a punch in the gut and others you may find you nod your head to as you read. I am intrigued and think we may take quite a bit away from this read.

“The vase gives form to the void, music to silence.”  Lao-Tsu

Most if not all books about ceramics are of two main types: technical books with an emphasis on processes and materials, equipments and tools or, historical books. These books on the history of ceramics are generally, if not always, organized around geography (where something was made), and chronology (when something was made), as if knowing these specific markers was in itself sufficient for complete knowledge. For this reason, ceramics is understood by just about everyone, by practitioners and lay people alike, in term of expertise and connoisseurship. How, where and when an object was made, and if at all known, by whom, is often perceived as all there is to know about a ceramic object in order to understand its nature and the very important role of ceramics within culture, as a seminal and essential material of civilization. Although this may be important and necessary, possibly crucial information, why an object was made is rarely if ever addressed, quite simply, and then often tangentially, as if it was an afterthought. Ceramics is the most important cultural material known to humankind, since the beginning of what is called civilization. This is still true today, although this essential aspect of ceramics role within culture now finds itself usually dismissed or ignored.

In other publications, ceramic history is presented as a rather linear and chronological encyclopedic development; generally, the point of view is strongly ethnocentric. The difficulties arising from this method, presenting ceramics within national boundaries, is that it creates an artificial construct from a limited context. A false impression is thus given of the significant contributions of each country in what happens to be a global perspective of ceramics as an autonomous yet universal art form. An unfortunate drawback consists in the search for a parallel with the dominant art form(s) and discourses of each country, to “legitimize”, so to speak, the significant artistic contributions of the ceramic art in question. By doing so, ceramics is relegated to an inferior status, and the real contributions, innovations and precedents are overlooked or ignored or even, dismissed. Geography is also largely irrelevant in ceramics since it is, of all art forms, one of the most universal and its core tenets apply everywhere, indiscriminately. Chronology is also of little importance, if we make abstraction of the concept of style, as I largely do here. It also makes little sense since there are vast differences in technological development from culture to culture through time, yet the achievements of each culture within the history of ceramics are significant beyond these technological discrepancies.

There are a number of books on ceramics in existence whose aim is more philosophical, who look at the cultural aspects of ceramics, but these tend to focus on esthetics or on the history of style, or again on premises that approach making as if it was more informed by political, spiritual or ideological beliefs than by an actual connection to the real life of real people. Various biographies of important artists also exist but again these tend to focus on lifestyles and on rather useless and unnecessary background data, as if the author was filling up the text with superficial information in order to hide the fact that they have nothing substantial to write about. The result is almost always hagiography where we are lead to believe in the importance of the person more than on the contribution of the work, which remains largely unexplained. All recent monographs on ceramic artists I can think of are of this type and they are all basically useless. They actually provide a great disservice, not only to the artists themselves, but to ceramics itself, as a field.

One notable exception remains Philip Rawson’s “Ceramics” which, if not the only, certainly the most intelligent book written on the subject. Yet, it dates from 1971 and it is showing its age. It suffers from an approach to meaning that is too deeply informed by formalism, the fashionable theoretical framework of the time and it would greatly benefit from an updating. It also misses on a number of opportunities to discuss aspects of ceramics that are in my opinion crucial, its connection to text and language for example, among many. The book also contains a substantial section on the technical aspects of ceramics, information readily available elsewhere, and which feels here again as filler more than necessary material. The main quality of this technical section is that it is reasonably thorough and complete (not totally, though) and that it contains no mistake, something extremely rare in the literature on ceramics where most authors cannot even get the basic techniques, processes, equipments, materials and overall terminology right.  Rawson’s book also suffers from the use of an academic language and vocabulary that is not always readily accessible to beginners in the formulation of complex concepts, not all of them useful anyway, and that are not easily grasped. Although still useful, its basic premise is on the formal aspects of ceramics, most notably pottery (he has precious little to say about sculptural ceramics and even less about architecture) which is really only appropriate for the historical material since the system he proposes for the analysis and appreciation of ceramic forms cannot possibly be useful to understand contemporary ceramic art, which has moved beyond the ideals of form and beauty presented in his book. Rawson’s criteria for evaluation of what is good is informed by a “classical” formalism which is largely irrelevant to understand various approach to form now and all the recent formal developments in ceramics. Even as a system to analyze historical forms it remains limited and incomplete. Incompleteness is the curse of the ambitious writer, as it will be certainly for me, here.

So if ceramics is largely misunderstood and underappreciated, the fault lies within the field itself, which has done a shoddy job of explaining itself with clarity and in a manner that is accessible to all. I want to propose here a new and quite different model to not only deepen an existing knowledge of ceramics but, most importantly foster a renewed interest and understanding of the contributions ceramics has made to art, culture and civilization.  Ceramics is intrinsically a cultural material with social and historical properties, and not only a physical material with specific properties and transformative qualities (for more on this, see addendum “On Materials” at the end of the book). For this reason, this book will try to avoid technical aspects unless they directly inform the meaning of a work. It will also largely ignore the temporal and local contexts of an object to focus instead on the reasons why this object was made in the first place and how this understanding can generate relevancy and help us not only to understand ceramics better but most importantly make better and more relevant ceramics now and into the future. Again, I do not mean to imply that the temporal and spatial contexts are irrelevant, simply that they are not sufficient to explain fully the meaning of an object, why it came to be made and most importantly why it still speaks to us now.

The principal contents of this book were developed through thirty-five years of practice as a potter and as a teacher. They are informed by informal researches generated by curiosity more than scholarship. I am myself a ceramics artist first, a maker of functional and decorative pots informed by a conceptual approach to making since, after all, function and decoration are themselves concepts, something the hegemonic discourses on art history and contemporary art seems to forget. So, I have no pretension to an academic approach to the subject matter. This is first and foremost a subjective book, a very personal, opinionated and idiosyncratic outlook on the field as a whole, from its inception in the Neolithic to today. I am more interested in understanding than is knowledge itself, per se. Knowledge as a system is finite, while experience, practice and understanding are never-ending. One system is closed, the other remains open.

The current structure was given final form in a course on the History of Ceramics I taught recently at the Emily Carr University in Vancouver, Canada where I am Associate Professor in the Faculty of Visual and Material Culture. I had given that course before, using the traditional, academic, historical model of a progression through time, traveling historically from place to place, from China to Japan, to Europe and America, through chronological time. Ceramics history was taught to me following such a model, which is the usual model found in the literature as well, and I had found it at the time (and I still do) as basically boring and largely irrelevant. How, when, where or even by whom something was made was never that interesting to me, for some reason. I wanted to know, and far more importantly to understand, why they existed at all in the first place. What was the reason for the object to exist, for its being, its ontology, how it was experienced, its phenomenology, how it was understood, its epistemology (to use terms from another discipline, philosophy). I was foremost interested in the conceptual aspects of the works and I strongly believe that despite its obvious and inescapable material aspects, ceramics, like any other art form, is above all a conceptual practice. So, when I found myself teaching an History of Ceramics course using the same (boring, irrelevant) methodology, I felt that I was not living up to the challenge offered me, that I was failing myself as a teacher and, worst, failing my students in the process. Given the opportunity to teach the course again, I asked myself how I would have liked having been taught such a course as a student, how I would like to teach such a course as a teacher.

Since I was primarily interested in concepts and meaning, I asked myself what are the principal esthetics of ceramics, irrelevant of where, when, by whom and even less how an object was made. Quickly, seven specific esthetics became evident, and I have assigned them, not always as satisfactorily as I wish, the following names:

The Classical Esthetics: The Continuity of Form; with an emphasis on the constancy of certain forms through time.

The Flux Esthetics: The Unifying Surface and the Drip; with a specific focus on glazes, their particular properties, from glassiness to runniness.

The Decorative Esthetics: Abstraction and Ornament; on patterns, the arabesque and the floral, and the particular area of blue and white decoration.

The Narrative Esthetics: Framing and Fiction; with an emphasis on surface again, but often narrative in nature, on storytelling. I also argue here that surfaces in ceramics operate on a specific and highly original system of pictorial space(s).

The Simulation Esthetics: Illusion and (L)Imitations; when ceramics imitates other materials, at times even itself!

The Industrial Esthetics: Purity and Perfection; and the idea of a standard informed by mechanical processes, and now, new technologies and digitalization.

The Material Esthetics: the Obsession with Clay; with its emphasis on the visual, tactile qualities of the material itself; and its polar aspect, Conceptual Ceramics.

All the ceramic objects I could think of, irrelevant of how, when, where or by whom they were made could fit readily into one of these esthetics, at times more than one in fact, since this structure is not rigid in intent but on the contrary fluid, with multiple hybrids and crossovers not only possible but necessary. These seven esthetics provided a strong basis for my research and for my teaching as well, but I felt that there were crucial aspects of ceramics that were not being addressed by this focus on esthetics alone. Quickly, I then became aware that ceramics was also generated around specific themes and here again luckily and interestingly enough, I found seven distinct themes particular to ceramics as an art form.

They are:

Food: the Necessities of Containment; all objects related to storing, preparing and serving.

Shelter: Bricks and Tiles; ceramics in architecture. If we make abstraction of the shift in scale, buildings are conceptually, nothing but big pots. Tiles on buildings act like a glaze, covering a form and its surface with another surface, which is also the operative function of glazes.

Hygiene: the Body and its Functions; ceramics and the physical body, cleanliness, sickness and health. The very important role ceramics plays in our bathrooms and other conveniences.

Text: Speaking Volumes, Language and Memory; the importance of ceramics in the development of writing (and mathematics) and its relation to language throughout history, all the way to the present.

The Figure and the Figurine, Representations of the Human Form. I will argue here that with pottery, tiles and bricks, the other major contribution of ceramics has been the figurine, whose great importance and significance is largely overlooked.

Sex: “SEXPOTS, Eroticism in Ceramics”. It was while writing this book that I realized how interesting it was to look at ceramics thematically, in order to understand its hidden meaning and cultural importance.

Death: The Fragmentation of Time, the Past, the Present and the Future; ceramics and funerary rituals, and the death of pots in shards and fragments.

I will argue that this last theme, Death, is possibly the most important of all in ceramics as it encompasses all the others, interestingly enough.  It is important to keep in mind that most ceramic objects that came down to us from historical times were funerary in purpose and that they were preserved not only due to the particular physical properties of permanency of the ceramic material itself, but by being buried and left largely undisturbed. Our propensity to uncover them may eventually lead to their destruction… Here again, the specific themes are not independent of each other but often overlap and inform each other.

These seven esthetics and seven themes provided the basic structure around which I could organize my teaching of the History of Ceramics for my students and they provide the structure for this book as well. In each chapter, I will explore and analyze a particular esthetics or a particular theme, describing its characteristics and using a few chosen examples as models to develop its core aspects. My examples will come from the vast corpus of works available through time and space, in historical as well as contemporary times. They have been chosen subjectively, first of all because they interest me personally but also because they seem to embody particularly well, in my opinion, the particular meanings brought forth by each esthetics, each theme.

This model was exhilarating for me to use as a basis for teaching and students responded really well to its clarity and novel approach. I hope this will be true of the reader and that this book can serve others as well who may have similar needs and are interested to transcend their knowledge of ceramics toward a deeper understanding. There exists no such book for ceramics, as there are, if somewhat differently, for photography, design, architecture, painting, etc. I intend this book to be not only for potters and ceramists (the term “ceramicist” always makes me think of a hair dresser in my neighborhood whose shop window advertises: “Hair Sculpturist”!), and for people involved or engaged in ceramics in various ways. A book for everybody else who might be curious about it and who would want to expand their understanding. Quite simply, I decided to write the book on ceramics that has not been written yet (it often seems that all the books on the subject are slightly different versions of the same text!), the book I would want to read.

Ceramics and the Archive:

The main and central argument of this book is that, beyond its physical, practical and functional aspects, ceramics is above all an archival material and that the art form itself, ceramics, needs to be understood from an historical viewpoint as an archive of humanity. As such, ceramics is in so many ways and specifically more so than any other cultural phenomenon, the memory of humankind. The true material of ceramics is not clay. The true material of ceramics is time itself. The process of making pottery and ceramics is totally dependent on time in a way significantly different from other processes and techniques and from other arts. Ceramics is a diachronic activity, taking place over different times with drastic change in between. Each step is transitory and, after firing, the changes are irreversible. The completed object becomes “eternal”, permanent and its nature as ceramics cannot be reversed. The experience of ceramics is of low intensity yet very long lasting (potentially, eternity). This is evident in ceramics in the extensive, continuous historical record. This temporal nature of ceramics comes with a collateral effect. You can have an art that has great power for a short time, like most if not all contemporary art and all forms of image making (but this powerful experience tends to be fickle and easily dispersed) or an art that relies on a subtle, light and at times even dismissible effect, one that is released slowly, over a long, long time. Ceramics is of the second type.

This archival aspect of ceramics is at best misunderstood and quite often not considered at all. We live in a world obsessed with the present, with the “now”, in a culture of transitoriness, of impermanency, of obsoleteness, of expandability, of the “throw away”. This is true in the art world as well as it is true of most of the art we now make, if it is at all “made”. The culture we now produce is readily and instantly consumed but it leaves few, if any traces. It disappears quickly. What will be left of our present is still the ceramics we make! This is where and when it will take its revenge over the current neglect it receives! For millennia, ceramics role was primarily functional, practical. More recently, through the (pernicious…) influence of Modernism, it has become the focus for its practitioners of personal expression, often of a therapeutic nature and largely disconnected from the larger culture. It may be time to reassess the role of ceramics now and in the future, and a reexamination of its archival nature and potential may offer a renewed sense of meaning and provide further possibilities for inquiry. Historically, hand made pots and other ceramic objects played a seminal, essential role in the real life of real people and communities. Today, most hand made ceramics is the product of amateurism, of hobbyists and dilettantes, of the therapeutic activities of leisure. Even ceramics made by professionals tend to have as a main purpose the fulfilling of impulsive consumerism in a gift economy. Yet, these objects will be the archive we will leave behind. Maybe our culture is getting the ceramics and the art it deserves, after all. A rampant symptom of this amateurism within the ceramics community itself, is the bizarre phenomenon of the “workshop” where the making of ceramics is experienced as entertainment, as if it was a cooking show, with recipes, tricks, tools and a “chef” who demonstrates how it is done, despite the fact that this experience is not transferable. When the field takes its cultural role seriously such futile activity will hopefully cease or cease to be at the center of its activities. I am not holding my breath.

The role played by ceramics and pottery historically (to preserve and contain time) has been taken over by photography and more recently by digital technologies, by the most fleeting and impermanent media. Evermore, we need ceramics to maintain this essential link between the past and the future. In a culture where everything becomes obsolete instantly, where everything exists to be discarded, including art, what will be left of our culture, and it is a global culture, not a local one, will still be the ceramic objects we produce, as has always been the case. And the ceramics we are now making, the vast majority of them, are not doing a very good job of it.

Ceramics is a very misunderstood art form and the blame for that sorry state of affairs lies largely within the field itself. Ceramics as a practice has been dismally effective, amazingly inefficient at explaining itself convincingly as relevant within culture now and more specifically within the art world. I hope this book will provide, within its limits and shortcomings, an effective argument for relevancy and necessity of ceramics not only in the more or less distant past but now, today, as well and hopefully in the near and distant future too. To argue with conviction that, yes, ceramics is the art of the future.


One thought on “Review: Paul Mathieu

  1. shannon says:

    I’m just now starting a pile of things to take on my cross Canada trip and tucked this volume into the heap! Pots are the future? Hmmmmm.

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