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Looking at Looking
by Don Pilcher

     In a world that insists we communicate faster and make our own judgments accordingly, an invitation to ponder might seem anachronistic.  So be it—because the only way into and out of a deep understanding of ceramics aesthetics is the patient and discerning observation of our lives with clay. Here is a short statement about those aesthetics and observations: What we see is what we are looking for.

     The first time I heard that expression, it struck me as sensible, even obvious. Decades later I find it profound, not just for what it says, but for its revealing corollary, which is: Such seeing is as much a liability as it is an asset. No matter if we think our knowledge is vast, it is still largely incomplete. Even the cognoscenti see only in part. Those who suggest otherwise are deluding you, themselves, or both. I am making this point to put every reader on common ground—the beginner, the professional, even the “experts.” We all have huge gaps in our knowledge. It’s just a matter of degree.

Scarab Vase      When we address aesthetics and ceramics, are we talking about something purely visual? As makers, collectors, dealers, teachers or students, are we just playing our part in an endless beauty contest?  There is certainly more to aesthetics than beauty. Should we look at the question the way actual philosophers do? One philosophy text describes it as follows (I’ll paraphrase): Aesthetics is a branch of values, connected to a moral interpretation with a desire to understand and shape human thought and conduct as they manifest themselves in both ordered and chaotic societies, past and present. My gut says leave it to the professionals. My intent is something more modest and yet very practical. As ceramists, we make, see and judge almost daily. Are all of our judgments entirely subjective? I don’t think so. There are points of departure from which we can begin to become more fully informed. We might start with willingness and curiosity.

     To make any headway in a discussion about aesthetics, we had best develop a reluctant ego and become teachable. In addition, we need both a willingness to consider what has already been rejected and a willingness to try to understand that for which we have no common reference. About those things we have rejected, when was the last time you changed your mind about something in the hate box and moved it to the love box? Are you willing to even consider the possibility? We’ll conclude with a discussion about that, but I want to raise the question now and let it linger, perhaps influencing your thoughts about other intervening ideas.

     And about no points of common reference, those ideas for which you are completely unprepared, well, one of three things will happen to you. First, you may consciously decide to expand your experience in ways that truly challenge your aesthetic comfort zone. You’ll need to cultivate some humility and discipline, but that can be done. The second thing that could happen is that life, in all its forms, will intrude upon your existence and you’ll be forced to think the unthinkable and do the undoable. As they say, “Stuff happens!” The third is sad. You’ll successfully avoid and deny the larger world in favor of the one that you have already constructed. You’ll remain, until death, a fixed and completed work, in the smallest possible sense of the phrase.

     If what we see is what we are looking for, what are we looking for? All of us come to this day with viewing habits that result in nearly automatic judgments—some call it an eye, some call it taste, some call it style, some call it artistic intuition. Often as not, we know what we like and we like what we know. We come to this condition in many ways. Some of us have been taught—the true academic or art school acquisition of aesthetics. Sad to say, it’s not always that good. Aesthetics is often taught as a large lecture class with visuals. The students come in, the lights go out, the slides come up and the students go out. It’s one of education’s great ironies: the study of aesthetics becomes an anesthetic.

     Some of us have simply learned to like what we’ve grown up with—the culture and taste of the community, be that a school, a movement, a tribe or a zip code. Common enough. Some of us have learned at the foot of a charismatic ceramic celebrity. There are plenty of those. However we have acquired it, we often treat our own aesthetic judgments as revealed wisdom, and the judgments of others as being anywhere from partially unreliable to wholly incompetent.  Some of us explain our rigidity by saying we are defending an aesthetic principle. But that firmness could also be a stubbornness born of fear.

     Let’s talk particulars. What can we say about the aesthetic merit of a ceramic work that will cover all cases, all ceramic works; a pot, a reliquary, a tableau? We can be led by one of the best writers on the subject, Philip Rawson, when he says that the single condition that is shared by ALL great ceramics is that they “escape the tyranny of technique.” That statement will disturb some of us because it insists that the epitome of ceramic production—the skills, the processes, the chemistry and the human ingenuity—will take us almost nowhere, that there is no greatness in having mastered the material.

     To Rawson’s statement I would add function. There is no inherent aesthetic virtue in function. For example, we can’t argue that a bowl is a finer expression of form than a plate; nor can we say that teapots trump bricks. Need alone determines the virtue of function.

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