This is something I wrote to articulate a struggle I've been having with my own work and to help me resolve my feelings about it. I thought I'd share because it may help others crystallize their own artistic project. I will disclaim that the contents may not sit well with you the reader, but it is not meant to be directed outward, this comes from my own perception of myself and no one else. Please bear that in mind. This is 100% an internal and personal criticism directed at myself, no one else.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my impulses as a potter have come into conflict. On the one hand, i want to explore and understand EVERY form. i want to know why Wedgewood is beautiful, why chawan can be perfection and how to get there, how to make the most perfect imitation of a longquan celadon, or get the highest gloss possible on an attic red-figure copy.
But on the other, I can’t help but feel like I’m betraying myself and my own potential for a naturalistic artistic vision if I carry those desires too far.
Horace and Hamada ring in my ears. I can’t help but think about what Hamada said about the pretentiousness of Japanese potters adding granite to their clay to make it like the prized clays of Shigaraki that naturally had it present, or the excessive effort put into applying hake me brush strokes in a beautiful manner when the Korean potters who came up with the technique were just hoping to cover the red clay of the body.
Indeed, there are many Hamada copyists who miss entirely Hamada’s artistic vision. Hamada was a brilliant potter who could work in any style and formulate any glaze to fit his purpose, but he chose to be a Mashiko potter and work within the limitations of that folk tradition. The boldness and revolutionary nature wasn’t his forms, it wasn’t his subject matter, it was that he let those decisions make themselves as he set down roots. Leach (and Cardew) tried to do something similar, but he found that he couldn’t authentically work in the English country potter tradition as he’d hoped. Cardew’s attempts especially failed at making slipware commercially viable the way he’d hoped. After all, it wasn’t too long after Cardew was struggling to make it work that the last old time English country potteries closed. I suspect potters like Isaac Button would've thought Cardew “daft” for being too precious with “nought but clay.”
Leach’s true success was his marketing. The studio potter was his invention and I’m not quite sure I properly know what being a studio potter is all about. Maybe you do. But the concept eludes me.
What bothers me, however, is how many Hamada and Leach copyists exist out there. How many little brown jugs and pitchers exist, how many tea bowls are thrown, only to be an awkward way to drink Earl Grey or a latté, or how many anagamas are built in North America and Europe. It may all be a part of the natural progression of studio potters—the artist’s indulgence in the process seems to be part of the process, and that’s fine. But to what extent are we really just adding granite to our finely levigated clay? To what extent are we just lingering too long over how we’re going to apply our slip with a rough brush, when maybe we should be thinking about how best to do justice to our art as a continuation of ourselves?
It’s too easy to don masks and pretend we’re one thing or another. Playing at pretend is almost a right in the western world. We’ve allowed ourselves the luxury of saying “well, I’m pagan, but I really like buddhist meditation, and I wear a rosary to honour my great aunt, who was a nun—I can still feel her spirit with me.” To me, as I get older, this kind of pastiche of cultural appropriation seems to miss the point entirely. We can dissemble ourselves into oblivion, when the point of it all is to seek and express truth. Can a westerner truly grasp wabi-sabi? Maybe academically, but I think we only have limited choices before us when it comes to approaching another culture, we can step into it through a contextualized “window” of study, we can compartmentalize its attributes into our own, preexisting culture, or we can let it wash over us and envelope us and change us, but even then, we’re never quite authentically a part of it. Disagree? Examine how you feel about immigrants who come to where you live, do they ever really become a part of your culture in your eyes? Is the person with an accent ever really American/Canadian/Mexican/British/French/Swiss/or Japanese? I want them to feel like they are, but they know as well as I do that’s not an identity they get. Their children and their children’s children get that, but never them.
So too, I feel it is with culture. We will always have a cultural “accent” when we work within an artistic context other than our own. I’m getting pretty good at throwing Hellenic forms and I make a decent chawan, but they’re not real, my Canadian accent is too thick for me to speak proper Greek (οὐκ ὀρθως ἑλληνίζω). And while it’s a good and acculturating experience for me to try and expose myself to different cultures and ideas, at some point it becomes an exercise in hiding from oneself. At some point that in-between space between cultures becomes an insulation. Something like: I cannot identify with my own culture, so I adopt another to act as a mask among my own people, a means of explaining myself through other peoples and hiding myself the same way. Maybe the artist has a right to do this, but I’ve never been comfortable with that kind of conceptual art. It seems too much like the Animé fan girls who obsess over Japanese culture and pine over its superiority in order to compensate for their own struggle to fit in. Or a friend of mine who constantly travels, with no roots anywhere. When things get “too real” in any one place, he moves on, and finds a new set of friends and a new culture.
But all this begs the question? What do I do as an artist to be authentic to myself and my work? I think Horace’s Ars Poetica has a venerable answer. A painter cannot legitimately paint a horse’s neck with a human head and all manner of feathers and features down below. At least, not without proper context. A writer sounds ridiculous writing a day’s events in purple prose. There’s a proper register and justice to be done to everything. A proper way to work with clay. Indeed, i think that’s what the Japanese are talking about when they talk about the “flavour” of the clay. It’s like a wine’s terroir. A certain kind of climate does the best justice to a certain kind of grape. And so too, I think a certain land produces a certain kind of clay, a certain culture a certain set of vessels, and a certain person a certain kind of approach. There’s little place for obfuscation in this, I think. No real reason to try to appropriate another culture, at least, for any length of time. The culture you grew out of is culture enough. And really, the best artists I know, seem to shoot at something above it anyway, they look too deeply inward. Their imitators, however, seem all too superficial by comparison.