36. The Burden of History
For Art students today there are two great questions relating to Art History. The first is “Why do I have to know about all these other artists?” The second is “I wonder how famous I’ll be someday?”
A lot of people aren’t really very interested in the past. It doesn’t seem very relevant to our current existence and there’s just so damn much of it. Periods, cultures, personalities, and dates—always they seem to want you to memorize the dates. And once you’ve memorized a few things about Michelangelo and his contemporaries some smartaleck PhD will come up with a whole new superstar colleague of theirs you just have to know about or a revisionist theory about so-and-so being gay, or how gay were they? And why does being a gay artist matter anyway? Blah, blah, blah.
For the History of Ceramics we have fewer known personalities to study but plenty of different cultures, and over seven thousand years of production. It’s enough to make a potter feel puny and students, in particular, hate that. There are quite a variety of reasons for choosing a career as an artist, but the opportunity to feel small and insignificant is not generally among them.
Further, our culture places a lot of emphasis on originality, innovation, and personal genius. We do not want or encourage artists who “merely” copy the work of previous generations, no matter how beautiful the originals or how exact the copies. Unfortunately, for ceramics students a lot of what can be done in clay has been. The sense is that “it’s all been done before.” Spoken with resignation and resentment. Many artists simply stop looking at historical images of ceramics in an attempt to remain “original” through ignorance. What they have never seen they cannot be guilty of copying. Besides, it saves them all that reading and remembering all those dates.
Ignorance, too, may seem like one of the privileges of the artist. Certainly many Art students choose Art in part to avoid the rigors of other college courses. Why suffer through all that reading and math when in Art all you have to do is show up and be original?
The fact is there are bright potters and there are dim potters and to be a dim potter is no badge of honor.
Personally, I describe the world of Art History as the landscape or geography of the artist. Through ignorance the artist can choose to live in solitude (as if at the bottom of a well) without colleagues, or culture, or the convenience of other people’s research. But why? Perhaps it is my Midwestern upbringing but I prefer a wider horizon to my world. And the fact that Mondrian is here, and Michelangelo is over there, and next to him the majolica wares of Deruta, and on the left (around the other side) the Minoan octopus jars—none of it obligates me or enslaves me in any way. They are simply the geographical landmarks of my rich and diverse artistic heritage. Choosing not to know them is a lot like choosing not to learn your way around the town you live in. As if you could remain a child, forever chauffeured by your parents and content not to look out the car’s windows nor to understand what any of those places were or meant.
As to your own place in the landscape of Art only time will tell. Dan Rhoades, the noted ceramicist and author of ceramics texts, started his career as a painter. Worrying about his ultimate place in Art History (his personal paragraph or page in the textbooks of the future) wore on him so badly that, mid-career, he took up ceramics instead. After seeing Mexican potters at work he was drawn to the immediacy, utility, and anonymity of the profession. Where no one is famous you need never worry about failing to become famous.
Ah well, sometimes fame comes without being called.
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