Alex Rauch: You have been called a visionary. You are a gallery owner
, curator, writer,
historian and one of craft's preeminent intellectuals, associated with everyone
from; Peter Voulkos, Anthony Caro, the Natzlers
and George Ohr
to Ken Price. And this Thursday you will be
a lecture entitled How Envy Killed the Crafts Movement
: An Autopsy in Two
I guess a good place to start is how you would define the craft movement?
Peter Voulkos, Untitled, c. 1960; ceramic; 13.5 x 8 x 18 inches; Collection Museum of Contemporary Craft, Gift of the Margaret Murray Gordon Estate; 2004.10.03
Garth Clark: This you know has been a bit of a problem. The crafts themselves
have really defined themselves as a kind of purgatory and it's a place where
they wait until they've been accepted as fine artists. And this has been the
debate which has been the single most destructive element in the field. The
reason for it is very simple. This is the only community in the arts that gives
the greatest kudos to those who escape. You know its almost like a penitentiary
mentality. But the artists they revere are people who started in the crafts
and eventually made it in the fine arts. A movement can't have much confidence
or integrity with that kind of thinking. And its reached fairly extreme lengths
now for example: the American Craft Museum changed its name to the Museum
of Arts and Design [in a building designed by Portland's Brad Cloepfil]
Yet if you go to their current show for their new building that has just opened
in New York probably 80-90% of the work on display in that museum is craft.
So its sort of reminds me of the military's don't ask don't tell policy. It's fine
to show craft there as long as it's not identified as such.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that... "that" is an incredible kind
of self-loathing, self-defeating kind of approach to a field. And to an extent
this has always been this way. When this movement was founded hundred and fifty
or so years ago in England by William Morris and others it was called the arts
and crafts movement. The reason why it was called that is because they had to
deal with a class issue. And that was that the people who were now member of
the arts and crafts movement were mostly middle, upper middle and even upper
class English. At the same time a craftsman in England at that time was a lowly
worker. They were not celebrated or they didn't have any kind of prestige in
their community. So if you think about it from the beginning what their title
means by putting the word "arts" in is "better than craft".
And that has stayed with the field year in year out. In 1959 Fortune Magazine
did a very big article on ceramics the title even then was "The Art with
the Inferiority Complex". So if you look at all of this and put it together
you have a craft movement that is; running away from its name; that is trying
to escape the crafts and get into the fine arts. You don't see that in painting.
You don't see that in film. You don't see that in any other field. People try
to rise to the top of their field. They don't try and escape their field. Which
is what the craft movement has been doing. And then to make matters worse craft
is not art... at least not fine art. The great craftsman is an artist. But
that doesn't mean they are fine artist.
Fine art is another discipline with
a different set of values, different set of academies and a different set of
theories. And my feeling has always been that the craft community has been trying
to get into this party because of two things. One is ego. And the craftsman
is supposed to be this selfless person who toils with materials and processes
and is not hung up on the same kinds of things that the rest of the arts community
are involved in. But in fact their egos are not just large, but in many cases
kind of bloated.
Ken Price's Zig Zag
from the Hammer Museum's Eden's Edge
With the ego they want to be seen as artists because artists are given this
much higher profile in our society. And then on the other side this of this
it is driven by something much more basic. The fine arts has the best rewards
program in the culture world, people make tens of millions. And that is not
unimportant. If we had the opposite situation were craftsmen made more money
than artists (chuckling). The craft community would not be trying to force its
way into the art world. So what it has done is left a completely demolished
craft community. They once had an enormously powerful institution represent
them called the American Crafts Counsel. It has in the last twenty years gone
dormant. And has now clout no life whatsoever. Their flagship museum has taken
their name off the portal. And this has happened with several craft institutions
across the country. And all of this comes down to art envy. The Craftsmen are
desperate to move crafts into the fine arts community. It's a very very peculiar
Alex: Why present a lecture on the crafts movement now when your gallery front
has recently closed?
Garth: The two are unrelated
Alex: Is it the market of the craft world?
Garth: Oh, yes. Galleries are closing their front and center. The craft fairs
which were once this enormous low end market for the crafts are beginning to
shrink. And in between 1988 and 1995 the field lost most of its middle market
which was craft gallery shops the middle market where people sold from five
hundred to ten thousand dollars. And now the upper market where they sell from
about two thousand and even up to a quarter of a million. That is beginning
to fail as well. And you can't blame it on the economy because the failure started
before the economy went down. And at the same time the crafts were failing the
art world was booming along. And the most direct comparison which is the design
world was probably having the greatest bull market of its hundred year life.
So as people were spending more on their domestic objects craft was failing.
So that tells you there is a great deal wrong with the craft community. To get
back to the gallery and I had to correct the museum when they sent out a press
release because they described me as a craft writer. I am not a craft writer.
I am a writer on ceramics. And I'm not saying this because I would be embarrassed
to be called a craft writer, but as a gallerist first in Los Angeles and then later
in New York who worked with ceramics. We gave shows to people like Sir Anthony Caro.
Who is considered the greatest living sculpture in Britain today. Lucio Fontana
a whole host of major fine artists. We've given exhibitions to artists who are
definitely crafts artists. And we've also dealt with design and to an extent
architecture. And that is because ceramics covers all of those fields. Our gallery
was kind of a unique gallery in that it dealt with one material but it didn't
keep itself limited to the crafts. We worked actively and successfully across
the art, craft and design boarders.
Celestial globe vase, Ming dynasty, Yung-lo reign (1403-24), National Palace Museum, Taipei.
Alex: Why does a Ming vase become a masterpiece? Is it because of the cultural
standards that preceded it? Is this masterpiece considered an artifact? And
what is the difference between art and artifact?
Garth: Yes, there is a difference between art and artifact. But, it's a very
subjective one. An art object is something which is deliberately made for that
purpose. An artifact is usually applied to a beautiful object like a knife for
instance. But even though it was made for a specific purpose is so beautiful
it rises to the level of artwork. And objective because we are applying those
boundaries to work from the past where we don't know how that work was made.
In cultures in prehistory there is no way of knowing whether that beautiful knife
constituted an artwork in that culture or whether it was just a knife. That's
a very hazy thing. The thing about artists and craft is very simple. And that
is certainly the best craft people are artists, period. They are the best artists
within the craft. This isn't then a passport that they could just take into
video art or the fine arts and have the same status there. And the
reverse applies. You can take an artist from the fine arts and put them in the
crafts and the work they make may not rise to the level of art by craft standards.
It's not a complicated thing we are talking about, it is two distinct disciplines with
their own cultures. And success in one is not automatically transferable into
Alex: How important would you say intent is manifested?
Garth: It is fifty percent of the game. If you set out to make an artwork, clearly
your intent is to do that. But it doesn't mean you are going to be successful.
I'm mean, I sure you know a dozen painters and sculptures who are painters and
sculptures but they are not artists. Their work is too mundane, too aggressive,
too amatuere or whatever for you to really to take them and rise them to the level
within painting or sculpture. As I say the intent is only fifty percent
of the deal. Because anybody can want to make art. But the desire to make art
doesn't mean you are going to succeed at doing it. Otherwise art would be meaningless.
There would be no artists in the world. Anybody could say this piece of paper
is now art and it would become art. What happens is, the cultural community...
first in your lifetime and then later after your departure weighs in on that
and makes judgments as to whether it is art or not. There has to be on the other
side of the street an acceptance for that... that what you had made was not just intent
but does in fact go to the level of an artwork. I don't think any one individual
can take the journey by themselves. Their work has to be met at a certain point
and through criticism, opinion, taste, fashion, all kinds of things that come
into play. We raise it to the level of an artwork. You see this in art school
it's a very naive thought, "this is art because I want it to be art".
It just really doesn't work that way. Otherwise we could start declaring all
kinds of things we want to be art and by the intent would become that. It's
not that simple. You have to earn that position in the arts. You can't just
do it by your intent.
Alex: Speaking of schools. How do you feel technology in schools is affecting to
Garth: I think its having a devastating affect on the crafts. One of the things
you have to understand about the crafts and what makes it fundamentally weak
in contemporary arts terms is that it's a revival movement. Modernism was not
a revival movement, it was exactly the opposite. And so modern art and modern
design really set off aggressively to shake off the past and create something
new. And they succeeded. I mean modernism is probably the most significant art
movement in the history of mankind. And at the same time craft was founded
for several reasons. There was a socialist political background to it. William
Morris who was the founders of the arts and craft movement was also one of the
founders of the socialist party in England. The idea of a craftsman was linked
to workers rights and works dignity and the rest of it. But primarily they saw
the crafts disappearing and they wanted to save it from extinction. Well so it is revival
movement by its very nature. That tends to drive "A" a nostalgia, which
is not a good thing. It's like the sugar diabetes of art. It also pushes them
to think backwards rather than forwards, going into the past to retrieve materials
and to retrieve processes. And then lastly the movement was very, very anti-industrial.
So basically anything that didn't comply almost with renaissance crafts standards
was rejected. And as a result the craftsmen working today working in the old
format of one person one material in their studio are having an enormously difficult
time making ends meet. The craft studio business model is failing. And this
is in part because they have not been able to move toward
I wouldn't even
say technologies but processes. That will increase their production and give
them a better chance of surviving in the market place. Because their still hooked
in the, "if I going to make a pot, I'm going to throw it myself, I going
to dig the clay" but of course that's an exaggeration. Some of them don't
work that puritanically. But it is still a big problem. They can't come to terms
with technology because technology in theory is the enemy of craft.
Alex: So is it possible that the idea of "Avant-garde ceramicist"
is interjecting intellectuality into a more aesthically driven media?
Garth: That's been happening for quite a while. But again you can't achieve
Avant-garde status because you say you want to do it any more than you say you
want to be an artist because you want to be one. And what has been happening,
not what all, there is a small fringe in ceramics that has developed ideas that
are more in the line of mainstream fine art, which is where they belong. Avant-garde
art practiced through art doesn't really make since. Craft is an evolutionary
movement not a revolutionary one. And so if someone tries to make revolutionary
ceramics and crafts they don't have an audience. And seeing as though they're
making something that looks like fine art why not just make it in fine art and
be done? What you have seen in ceramics, which has not been to its advantage
is very simplistic ways of trying raise the intellectual and art value of the
ceramics. Every other piece is ridden with footnotes from Genz and Michel Foucault
is quoted every five minutes. But in most cases it comes across as a transparent
exercise to give added value to what is being made. If you look closely the
intellectual concepts they are dealing with are thin, they're tired, and you
can find better examples of the same ideas in the fine arts. Because what they
are doing is they are not working out of an authentic Avant-garde sprit. They
are mimicking the fine arts. And when you do that it's a myth.
There are examples of people who don't. I think one of the great examples is
. He's a British ceramicist. who won the top fine art prize in
England the Turner Prize a couple of years ago. I don't know if you know his
work? But here is this man who makes pots and against the Chapman brothers and
all of these superstars of the fine arts wins the biggest fine art prize. He
won it because his pots were very original and they were clearly from day one
not dealing with craft they were dealing with fine art concepts. And again they
were original. They brought something into the art world that had not existed
before. What you see with the ceramicist is they keep attaching these ideas
to the work again in the hope that they can get onto that bridge to the fine
arts and onto the other side. But its not going to work. Because again they
are imitating fine art not making it. And this is all now just a huge jumble
in the crafts. People don't know what their doing anymore. They've become so
confused as to whether they should be craftspeople or whether they should be
trying to be artists or whether they should be in the fine arts. The whole movement
is now enclosing. It's in totally disarray.
Alex: Who would you say the most important ceramicist of the twentieth or twenty-first
'Concept Spatiale', 1959 by Lucio Fontana, 100 x 125 cm.
Garth: That's interesting
the most important ceramicist of the 20th century
is an Italian painter by the name of Lucio Fontana.
Alex: Does he count as a ceramicist purely then because he is a painter too?
Fontana, Assunzione (1949/50)
Garth: He's known as a painter. Everybody thinks of Fontana as a painter. He works with cuts and holes
in canvases. So if you think of a red canvas with a knife slash running across
it. Just a single slash, or two, or three... that is Fontana. And he is considered
one of the greatest modern artists of the twentieth century. But the art world
focuses on his painting, which really gave him international fame. But before
that, Fontana worked in ceramics from the beginning of his career... for fourteen-seventeen
years he worked solely in ceramics. And then he worked in ceramics throughout
the rest of his career as well. And if you read his book there is knowledge of
the ceramics in there. But the ceramics are not dealt with. He made thousands
of pieces. He was an absolutely brilliant artist with the medium. He was very
impatient and impulsive and sensual and the clay just formed a marriage with
him that was just amazing. So, there you have somebody who's not from the crafts.
Who probably at least in my warped judgment is the best ceramicist of the twentieth
Alex: I think that's an interesting comment considering that one of your top
ceramicists of the twentieth century is Marcel Duchamp. And he is obviously
a purely a conceptual artist. Is there a purely ceramic artist that you would
give paramount to?
Garth: Duchamp doesn't really count, even though I am working on a book about
the fountain. He had only one piece that involved ceramics and that is the fountain
which is of course the urinal. You know it is interesting those things you jumped to immediately,
because it seems like such a stark statement. But it really is a difficult one.
is one that comes to the top of my list. He's a German-Jewish that
fled to England and subsequently became one of England's best ceramists and
one of the world's best ceramists. It's difficult to name one. It's easy with
Fontana, because Fontana is utterly extraordinary and he sort of stands above everybody
in the field. And he succeeded on so many levels. He worked with pots... he worked
with figurative sculpture he had an entire career with abstract ceramic sculpture.
He did buildings. It was an amazing career, which has not been documented. Again
I have a bias, I am working on a book about it as we speak. I suppose into that
list I would put Robert Arneson amongst the people who work specifically in
ceramics. And Daisy Youngblood both of whom work figuratively. And on the playful
side probably Hans Coper, Peter Voulkos and I'm sure when I put the phone down
I remember a hundred different names. But those are certainly standouts within
Alex: Do you ever see any similarities between yourself and Clement
Greenberg whose personal collection is at the Portland Art Museum
Garth: Ha ha ha. It is funny, there is a quote in the lecture from Clement Greenberg.
I got him to... actually a partner of mine got him to... to speak at the first conference
for the Ceramic Arts Foundation. This is an organization that promotes scholarship
and criticism in the ceramic arts. And for our very first conference in 1979
we snagged him as the keynote speaker, which was a huge coup. And
answer your question in a second. But what he said at that conference I will
never forget, which is exactly what I we've been talking about. He was very
diligent. He spent eleven months examining the ceramics field and the rest of
it before he gave the lecture. So when he arrived at that podium he was much
more informed than you would have expected from somebody coming from the arts
side. He had no real involvement in ceramics at all. And what he said to the
audience was, "You strike me as a group that is much more interested in
opinion than in achievement."
And that nailed it!
You know they were more
interested in what they would be called at the end of the day, "Will I
be called a fine artist? Will I be called a craftsman?" Than worrying about
whether the quality of their work justified either of those labels.
I don't see myself as Clement Greenberg for a number of reasons. I DON'T LIKE
DOING THEORY. I do it from time to time. It's a very unpleasant process for
me. It's like Pandora's box, you get the lid off and you can't put the lid back on.
I much happier when I'm writing positively about artists who work I admire.
I enjoy doing criticism as well. I don't mind being negative on that. But writing
theory about art for me is just a pretty awful experience. The other thing where
I think we differ is that Clement Greenberg thought he was right and wanted
people to agree with that fact. It's not why I write. I write to stimulate discussion
and challenge ideas and to topple sacred cows. But I don't think that what I
write is necessarily perfectly true... or is going to be used by people one hundred
years from now as the standard. It's a matter of acting in some ways as a goad,
particularly in our field where intellectual debate is at a very low level.
To get people to confront ideas. And very often the way to do it is to anger
them. And I don't do that just for the fun of it. It's that somehow you have
to get through the blandness of the craft community and get people to want to
fight back. So when I write my idea of what success is... (it is) if it's caused a shift in
ideas. Not if it's going to be the holy grail that people will read fifty
years from now.
Bright Blue Bowl, 1968; Ceramic; 5.25 x 3 inches diameter; Museum of Contemporary Craft,
Gift of Tom Hardy photo Dan Kivitka
Alex: Are you familiar with Gertrud
& Otto Natzler's exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Craft
Garth: Oh, very much so.
Alex: What are your thoughts on it?
Garth: Perfect example of magnificent craftspeople. The Natzler's are not artists
in the fine art sense. You can't take that bowl and place it next to a Brancusi
and say that they are as much a fine artist as Brancusi. What you can say is
that they have perhaps the same exacting standards of refinement that one finds
in Brancusi's work. So these are really potters... they are craftspeople but they are
very much at the top of their tree. Gertrude was probably one of the most skillful
and fluid throwers of the century. I mean her throwing is gorgeous. Otto's glazes,
which he designed or created for her work were often really remarkable as well.
Although, behind the door Gertrude was often very unhappy with the choices he
made on her pots but that aside it is brilliant work. Pure pottery doesn't get
any more refined than the Natzler's, it is exceptional.
Alex: Garth thank you for your time. It has truly been an insightful pleasure.
Alex Rauch is a Portland artist who graduated from Linfield College in 2007 with BA in Fine Art and a minor in Art History.