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$$$$ vs. art? (long)

updated wed 30 apr 97


Doug Gray on sat 12 apr 97

Karl David Knudson wrote:
> Does the value of a piece of ceramic art increase as its function
> decreases?
> WHY?


I want to answer your question with a resounding "NO," but I must
admit that our culture does seem to de-value functional pottery. I
don't agree with this stance, but have seen this theory in action too
many times. I would like to think that the value of art is determined
by something more than whether a piece functions or not. Actually, in
the most pure sense, all art functions in some way--physically,
conceptually, or visually enhancing our lives in some way. If you can
accept this premise, and many don't, then that places pottery,
sculpture, painting, achitecture, etc., all on the same playing field.

Art History of the Western cultures teaches us that the fine arts (as
they are recognized today) were once craft traditions, holding no more
prestige than the craft of making shoes of bread. Since the
developement of the word "art" (created not so long ago in the larger
scheme of things) "Artists" have been trying to distinguish themselves
from the other crafts and have been successful, at least in many
media. The easiest way to do this was to separate themsleves and
their activities from those associated with manual labor and to
associate themselves and their activities with those of intellectual
pursuits. Some crafts, didn't evolve as quickly as intellectual
endeavors as others and this led to the art/craft split we find
ourselves in today. (This is of course a very superficial discussion
of the birth of art and artists in western culture)

There is an undoubtable bias against functional art in our society as
is determined by the dollar value we (I'm speaking as a culture) place
on things. If you consider the most valuable art pieces of our
culture, they are, with few exceptions, among the most exclusive items
in our society. By exclusive I mean that they are inaccessible and
unattainable. The more valuable a piece of art, the more difficult it
is to touch it or even see it. Insurance policies, designed to
protect the art work and the investors, restrict access. To keep
valuable art safe from fire damage, theft, water damage, etc., we (as
a culture) place them behind glass, behind bars, out of reach. As the
value of an art piece increases, it seems the individual interaction
with it deminishes, again reinforcing the notion that art is for sight
and for the mind not for the rest the senses. Touch no longer plays an
important role in our interaction with art, therefore those items
that we touch are not as valuable.

(I am immediately reminded of the cave of Lascaux which were sealed to
protect the drawings, paintings and relief carvings inside. And I
wonder how valuable art is to us when we can not fully experience it.
If some one, thousands or years ago painted a scene of a bison falling
in the forest, but no one was allowed to view it, would it still be

What does this have to do with functional pottery? Maybe nothing,
maybe everything. If those things we value are secured, locked away
for safe keeping, then what must we say of those items we use each
day. If you think about all the possible objects which could be used
to drink from, starting with the styrofoam cup at one end of the
spectrum and let's say a hand-made, original cup by artist X at the
other, which do you think will get used and which will be displayed on
the shelf? Which do you think we value more?

Again, I can't say that I agree with this practice, but it seems to be
entrenched in the way our culture views and values art. I keep saying
our culture because I believe that this is not true of all other
cultures. Some cultures do not de-value the useful object, some
cultures celebrate it and the rituals that revolve around the use.

It all boils down to what you want to do with your art and how you
want to interact with people through your art. Do you want to sell a
few pieces for a lot of money, or do you want to just make more work
to share? For me, art is about sharing. I enjoy the fact that
ceramics can and does appeal to more than just the sense of sight.
Conversely, I acknowledge the fact that ceramics can stimulate the
mind as well. In my work (mel, notice I didn't say play), I try to do
both. I am sure that you have come to (or will come to) some
conculsion about your own work.

This is, in part, what the NCECA keynote speech by D. Hickey was
implying. The art process needs to become more indiviual. One of the
easiest ways to do that is to create quality art objects that become
part of our daily lives, our daily routine. Art should function in
our everyday existence. I am always working to make it a bigger part
of mine.

I should probably stop now.

Doug Gray
Alpine, TX