Use and the Art Experience 1 2 3 4 - PRINTER VERSION
Published in Ceramics: Art and Perception
, No. 5, 1991, 3-8.
There is a perception in the modern craft world that anyone interested in useful craft is some
sort of neo-conservative romantic who wishes culture would revert to a pre-industrial lifestyle.
He or she is considered to be out of touch with modern sensibilities and thought to be either
unable or unwilling to address contemporary concerns. Critics of useful craft, however, have never
really articulated what these concerns are, but instead have adopted a formula that says if an
object is useful it belongs to the past and is therefore unsuitable to convey modern feelings.
This presumption about useful craft's inefficacy in modern culture is not based on any kind of
intellectual or philosophical examination of the possibilities this form of expression offers. Its
rejection by the modern craft establishment has more to do with the fact that useful craft runs
contrary to all the values manifested in the postmodernist, avant-garde, market-oriented climate
of the fine arts world a world after which modern craft has mindlessly modeled itself.
When I first became interested in pottery, questions about its importance in the context of
modern art history and its ability to convey serious thought were not on my mind. I was drawn to
it intuitively and I would have no more questioned its relevancy than l would have my own
existence. My instructor, however, pushed me to get beyond this puerile stage of pottery and start
making the cliché of the early 70's ceramic funk art. Almost out of desperation, I moved to Japan
believing it was the only place I would
be able to explore my fascination with pottery. Ironically, it was there at the urging of Kazuo
Yagi, head of the ceramics department at Kyoto University of Fine Arts, that I began reading more
about modern art. Yagi, with his healthy cynicism about the relative value of both traditional
Japanese and modern American ceramic art, made me examine my prejudices and preferences and pushed
me to start providing reasoned arguments for and against both.
It was at this time that I was introduced to the writings of John Cage and was immediately
attracted to them. I believed, like Cage, that the artist should live on the frontier of his art
and should challenge culture's preconceptions, but at the same time I worried that my interest in
pottery which everyone in my own culture seemed to agree was an anachronistic endeavor placed
me in a category of artists who, Cage said, "spend their lives with music of another time, which,
putting it bluntly and chronologically, does not belong to them." Things came to a head after I
attended a performance by Cage and Merce Cunningham in Kyoto. Cage used common everyday objects
with microphones attached to them for instruments but the music itself was anything but mundane.
It gave a timeless and mysterious feeling you would associate with primitive music and yet there
was no question about its modernity. In his
performance, Cunningham rejected the athletic leaps and other complicated physical movements of
classical dance in favor of ordinary body movements like reaching and bending. At one point he
merely walked diagonally across the stage, but with such presence and authority that I found
myself questioning my whole notion of walking.
It started me questioning how the fine arts establishment (not to mention the modern craft world)
could accept aspects of the mundane in Cage and Cunningham's work but couldn't accept the
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