Art and Architecture, Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

August excerpt: Live Form


“Craft as Collective Practice”*

One way of characterizing the social turn in contemporary artistic practice is to foreground its history in the pedagogical practices of previous generations, in this case, women ceramists whose careers throughout the mid-twentieth century expand and enrich our current understanding of what socially engaged artistic practice is today. This book argues that is was modern craft and not modern art that spearheaded nonhierarchical and participatory experiences, through the experiential properties endemic to craft practices and, in particular, ceramics. This runs counter to the existing genealogies of participatory art charted by Claire Bishop and Boris Groys, which are wholly tied to a European model of performance and non-object avant-garde practice. Today, many artistic practices focus heavily on “socially engaged art,” “institutional transformations,” and “knowledge-exchange” between artist and audience. Mid-century craft is an important but unacknowledged antecedent to the activist principles that service such contemporary ideologies. Moreover, it was women artists, many of whom were affiliated with social reform movements and spearheaded radical educational initiatives, who performed the teaching and transmission of craft skills and ideologies at midcentury.

This study is a thematic and gendered history of postwar American ceramics, which resituates a presently isolated and self-contained field as a malleable medium that could be manipulated to suit simultaneously avant-garde, nationalist, and regionalist constituencies. The tensions between these competing interests are compelling not just for their historical significance but for the prominent role craft has played in the political economy throughout the twentieth century.

Accordingly, the perpetuity of the art/craft divide is better understood politically, rather than aesthetically: craft is most often linked to fiscal policy, a redistribution of labor, production, and skill resulting in improved economic conditions, while avant-garde art is linked to social policy and its ensuing debates of morality.The circulation of handmade goods, no matter how expensive or inefficient their production, have markedly more potential for bestowing pride upon a nation through mass ownership and collection. In both formats of production, it is public efficacy that is a t stake, turning on questions not of usefulness but of use, as political propaganda, the inherent attributes of craft’s materialism, its sustainability and durability, is potent as a metaphor for community and nation-building. In this way, craft becomes the ultimate service discipline, its utopian and communal values both politically alluring and easily appropriated by ethnic, religious, diasporic, or cultural nationalisms.

In the book, I focus on three American women ceramicists: Marguerite Wildenhain (1898–1985), a Bauhaus-trained potter who taught form as process without product at her summer craft school Pond Form; Mary Caroline (M. C.) Richards (1916–1999), who renounced formalism at Black Mountain College in favor of a therapeutic model she pursued outside academia; and Susan Peterson (1925–2009), who popularized ceramics through live throwing demonstrations on public television in 1964. These three artists were chosen in part for their direct relationship to teaching and writing—all left behind written legacies—and for their heavy involvement in the creation of alternative circuits and new forms of pedagogy.

At a time when women were virtually excluded from both the teaching and making of painting and sculpture, craft provided a vital arena as teachers, thinkers, and makers. It became a viable alternative to the mainstream, urban art worlds of New York City and Los Angeles, a space in which women could innovate, teach, and create lasting pedagogical structures. Ceramics in particular, with its emphasis on self-sufficient rural living, offered women unprecedented social freedoms, with the opportunity to live and teach in nontraditional settings, such as cooperative, experimental, or self-initiated communities. This unorthodox, largely rural livelihood was beholden to the formal requirements of their craft: the making, storage, and most importantly, firing of ceramics. Due to the strict fire codes and zoning laws that made kilns illegal in most cities, the medium itself was ill-suited to an urban setting. Infinitely more private, these off-the-grid situations were more conducive to alternative lifestyles and sexualities, minimizing the social pressure, judgment, and community policing endemic to the sexist and repressive 1950s. Able to barter their unique wares and skills sets, women, too, found varying degrees of financial autonomy in the informal economies of exchange that existed through pottery’s social and pedagogical networks.

But to have chosen craft at that moment required a heightened awareness and rejection of conventional artistic structures, institutions, and hierarchies. As women foregrounded in both pedagogical and theoretical constructions of their shared discipline, Richards, Wildenhain, and Peterson were craftswomen engaged not just in highly skilled labor but, moreover, in the language of that labor. Their stories prefigure, or parallel, the masterful male pedagogical narratives now so well known—the ABCs, in effect—to scholars and students of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: Josef Albers, Joseph Beuys, John Cage. In studio ceramics, as well, a version of this narrative has also been propagated, centered firmly on Peter Voulkos and his cadre of all-male students in the mid-1950s. As a parallel medium, ceramics offered a tantalizing proximity to the avant-garde movements of the era, including, but not limited to, abstract expressionism, Happenings, experimental music, minimalism, and, as I will argue, even early video art.

Indeed, its artists engaged in similar midcentury tactics: the expression of form through a suppression of narrative content, the embattled and sometimes exalted status of the artist as a maverick, the ambivalent relationship between artist and industry, and the increasing disregard for traditional artistic skills such as draftsmanship. In my project, the ceramic vessel becomes, in one sense, a foil, the shell object loaded with metaphorical and symbolic values of female labor, and, on the other hand, dematerialized, in tandem with the larger conceptual practices of the 1960s and 1970s, in which artists saw fit to engage with different forms of aesthetic experiences not limited to traditional object making.

The similarities between the formation of craft and media discourses during the postwar era are striking. As a hand-based, ancient technology, ceramic became a powerful metaphor for encouraging critical awareness and adaptation in the face of new technologies such as radio and television,and its performativity developed alongside, not in spite of, this sensoria. If one of the criteria for newer media is remediation, that is, the ability to generate an adaptation, translating from one format to another, ceramics itself is marked by variability and transformation, no more consigned to its basic materiality than is a computer chip, originally derived from metals and sand (silica). Beyond art and aesthetics, clay consistently transforms into media formats that seem unimaginable, at the forefront of advanced technological innovation in fields such as dentistry, automotive, oil and gas, solar, industrial, electronics, and defense industries.

*This excerpt has been adapted (without endnotes) from Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community by Jenni Sorkin (2016).


To read more about Live Form, click here.