An Interview with Garth Clark
Garth Clark talks to Namita Gupta Wiggers about craft in the academy in post-war America.
Namita Gupta Wiggers, Museum of Contemporary Craft curator, sat down with Garth Clark, gallery owner, curator, writer, historian and one of craft’s preeminent intellectuals to engage in a far-reaching conversation about Clark’s provocative views on the current state of American Craft.
Clark’s lecture last year at Pacific Northwest College of Art—“How Envy Killed the Crafts Movement: An Autopsy in Two Parts”—examined how aesthetics, economics and art-envy have “killed” this 20th Century movement. This fall the Museum of Contemporary Craft is publishing a print-on-demand book with the same title available on Lulu.
Namita Gupta Wiggers I wonder if you would start with a bit of a synopsis of what you see happening in craft today, drawing from some of your writing about John Ruskin, William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement, then move us into how things shift after World War II, and then bring us to what you see happening today.
“It was a very curious thing—it was people from one class taking on the labors, in theory, of another class, of a much lower class, which of course in England was a great issue.”
Garth Clark Well, when the movement first began it was founded by middle and upper class gentlemen and gentlewomen in England and often their counterparts in the United States when it moved here. Many of them had private incomes. They were very well educated. It was a very curious thing. It was people from one class taking on the labors, in theory, of another class, of a much lower class, which, of course, in England was a great issue. And the way they dealt with it was two-fold—they called it the Arts and Craft Movement. They did not call it the crafts movement because craft was a lower working class activity. Decorative art, which was the higher level, were the people who took care of the needs of the wealthy and craft was definitely the village craftsmen, the village “smithy”. By adding the word arts they were able to elevate the concept as being above craft which was suitable for these members of the movement. Even though they were bohemian, they were very gentile bohemians, so they needed to have a different point of view. The other thing is that when push came to shove they did not actually touch the materials. They were white-collar craftspeople, so they would dabble with the technologies, with the processes, because that was science. They would draw the designs they wanted made on paper because that was either design or art. Both of these activities were acceptable activities. When it became dirty, when hands had to touch and things had to be made they used skilled workers who did most of the manufacture of the objects. They were anonymous, they were not given credit and very often you’d find them described in the ledger of the studio simply as laborers. So it was very curious right from the beginning; it was sort of an academic role-playing view of craftsmanship.
NGW I’m going to diverge from my question because the way you’re describing it makes me think a lot about the way contemporary art practice uses craft today too. Are you intentionally drawing a parallel there?
GC No, because that has always been a tradition. If you go back to the Renaissance, the artists then were also considered crafts people; there was not a separate category. There was a tradition of them having a studio and having people point up certain things, do certain aspects of it in the painting studios. They had those who were specially suited to paint clouds and others suited to paint hands. So there was a whole accepted tradition of using that division of labor and that is accepted. In the crafts movement it was kind of hard because here are these people dressed up in crafts smocks and the rest of it, but craftsmanship is about handling the materials. So it was a curiously distant way of dealing with the concept. Now this is corrected to some extent during that time here in America when people like Adelaide Robineau and George Ohr began to work in the way today we call studio craft. They got their clay, threw their objects, they designed the piece, they created the glaze. It’s the whole thing from beginning to end, maybe with a little help in the studio, but the work of one pair of hands. But even with that if you go back to England and you look at the Martin Brothers, who were wonderful potters from that period, and you read some of the letters and notes, the Martin Brothers would have had that sort of system. They would have created the designs and pointed to workers to carry them out. The reason why they didn’t was because they were too poor. They couldn’t afford to employ workers; it wasn’t because they were saying this has to come from my heart, my hand and my head. They were doing it because they really couldn’t afford the labor to carry it out for them
NGW So then what shifted in the United States? Because it seems to me what happened in the Pacific Northwest—and I know it’s much broader—but after World War II a number of people were able to go to college that weren’t able to go to school before. This changed the academy. We created the exhibition The Academy is Full of Craft to address this shift—where suddenly there was an influx of people into the art schools, into the academy. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that because it was such a huge shift and that was in many ways when the studio movement took off in the United States.
“Suddenly, when the GI Bill came through and so many of the returning service men wanted to go into something gentle—or seemingly gentle until they discovered how dull and Darwinian it was.”
GC It wasn’t so much of a shift, because if you look at the period between the two World Wars, that was a resistant aspect of the crafts movement too, that it was linked to education. So what happened was not a shift, but an ample increase in practice. If you go to Alfred University in New York State, a college offering a program of clay working and ceramics, from the outset when it was founded in 1900, the idea was to train the students to go out to other schools to start and set up ceramic departments to hire the next generation of Alfred graduates to work with them. What changed between then and the 1950s is the scale of the operation. Suddenly, when the GI Bill came through and so many of the returning service men wanted to go into something gentle—or seemingly gentle until they discovered how dull and Darwinian it was—which was the arts then, this just began to explode. As they began to open the art departments, crafts was a very popular program—strangely enough, because it didn’t require any academic understanding. It was one of the easy grades—when your grades are down and you needed to bump them up, easiest thing was to take a few craft courses.
NGW . . . “basket weaving” . . .
GC Yeah. That’s how Peter Voulkos got into ceramics. His grades were down and he needed to bump them a little. And someone said “Oh, go to the ceramics department.” Then he never left. So what happens is a continuation of the relationship between craft and education. And in America it begins in the 1900s and just keeps growing. And if you point to most major figures between the two world wars, they were teachers. And the other thing is that teaching them was different. From the 1950s the idea of self expression came into being so people became craftsmen so that they could express themselves. That wasn’t so important in the other period, although they did that. The teaching role for crafts was to get people to understand how materials worked. It was part of the process of art education. So how you made pots was not how you get to become a potter but you learned about form and shape. It was about the more formal process of learning art. You were going to become a potter, they were just there to teach you, and the other aspects were rehabilitation. That’s how Glen Lukens spoke of it: teaching service men coming back from World War I how to get their coordination back by throwing pots on the wheel. That extension of wheel existed, so he made them use sewing machines. Then the 1950s come along and it all changes, and that’s were it truly becomes an academy. When I came to the United States for the first time in 1975, the big thing was workshops and this was funded by art schools.
NGW When you say workshops can you give an example? Basically where someone comes to an academy and they teach for a few days in a specialized skill or share a way of glazing or something like that?
GC That’s it—and they spend the day demonstrating what we’ve been learning. Which was a peculiarly craft activity. One would go there; you could watch Richard Notkin carve the lid of a teapot. I don’t think the painting students went and sat for two days while someone painted dots on a painting. It’s something that belongs to craft and there’s some mystique that the magic of craft lies in the technique. If you have the technique you’ve got it, where as the mystique rests in whether it’s by a particular person, besides the use of color, the use of form. But this kept growing and then the crafts relied heavily on education for their books, catalogs, expressions, and conferences–all of these activities they relied on within the educational format in one way or another.
NGW Then when you look at it today, I think about the situation that people like Frances Senska and Paul Soldner had, the group from this post-war generation. They were building kilns for the first time. They were experimenting with processes and developing techniques that are available today to students at a school like PNCA or OCAC or any number of other art colleges. So a student coming in doesn’t have to learn how to create that kiln for the first time; they are just learning how to use the kiln to create a particular object. So how does that impact the crafts in your opinion?
GC I think it impacts the crafts in that you don’t have to be a single material monkey, because previously, if you wanted to be a potter you would have to find a place to build a kiln, you would have to do all of those things in order to make ceramics. Today, if you wanted to make ceramics you would find someone that really knows how to do it, they help you, and a within a few weeks you would have ceramics. So you don’t have to make a lifetime career out of it. We all know that if you want to become a great craftsman in any material there’s about a seven-year development program before you really begin to sing and you’ve really got a grip on the materials and you’re really doing something wonderful. So I think it’s going to take away that commitment. People don’t want to spend seven years learning just one material. The way the art world is going today, it’s probably wise not to do so.
NGW I’m going to tease you here, but when you say when you say seven years it makes me think of Marguerite Wildenhain and her philosophy regarding the apprenticeships. Is that what you’re meaning?
“Some may get there more slowly, others more quickly but you can’t shortcut the process of developing that intimacy with the materials.”
GC I think it’s got nothing to do with her particularly, although she was an extraordinary character. I met her a couple decades ago. I went to her and while we were talking the editor of Studio Potter turned up and he went to her white picket fence and she told him to go away because she thought he had a terrible magazine. The poor fellow, he was so sweet and was completely bemused but he left. He came all the way from San Francisco—two hours away—and she sent him away. She also yelled at me because I picked up one of her pots and I put my thumb on one side and finger on the other. As you ran your two fingers across the pot you felt two different pots. It was an interior pot that had been thrown and an exterior pot that had been turned and it was really an ugly feeling. She yelled at me “I can see that you’re an art critic—you handle pots just like that.” I thought, “What? Maybe.”
She also had this technique in teaching. If you were throwing a pot, your butt could not leave the seat. It was essential for a physical, spiritual reason that you be attached to your seat. For the students at her summer school she would walk around with sponges and if someone’s rear lifted off the seat she would quietly slip a wet sponge under them. So that’s a bit of a digression. I think it’s got nothing to do with the way that craft is taught. Some may get there more slowly, others more quickly but you can’t shortcut the process of developing that intimacy with the materials. You can learn to fabricate them in one kind of way, but that deep intimacy where you touch a piece of clay—and you know what that piece of clay wants to become— that takes a long time and there’s no shortcut to that. I think the biggest challenge facing crafts is that I don’t think students today want to give anything that length of commitment.
NGW . . . and I would even argue that that issue emerges in conceptual practice with any other material as well. It seems a luxury these days to stop and to sit and be able to immerse yourself in that kind of practice. So if there is this shift and people are, to use a term I’ve heard over and over again, promiscuous with the materials mixed with a bit of “short attention span theatre,” where do you think craft is going now?
GC It’s a very good question to which I think there is no short or quick answer. I think in some ways it will be towards a mixture of industrial and hand fabrication. There will be an element of the hand, but a machine will be there to help things along because one of the problems is that the business model for the crafts studio is failing. The cost of running a studio is fairly high. Certainly a painter and a craftsman have a very different overhead. If you work with glass you have a very expensive furnace and if you work with clay there are all kinds of equipment that you’ll need, so when you add up all of those costs and you ask one person to throw away their livelihood every month it isn’t working anymore. Also because a generation of making craft too affordable was a mistake made many years ago. And it shouldn’t have been that way.
NGW Tell me more about that.
GC Well, if something’s going to pop out of a machine at an incredible rate you can bring the cost down dramatically. When someone’s working at home making things one at a time with incredible skill and devotion, that is a much slower and much more expensive way of making work, and the price of the work should reflect that. But because in the Twenties and Thirties, and in the Fifties, there was an undercurrent of socialism in the craft movement there was this idea that you had to work for the man on the street. The man on the street didn’t actually give a damn and had no interest in their products and the people that bought them (the art and craft collectors) were mildly well-off to wealthy, so as much as this idea was so idealistic at the end, as William Morris once said, “I spent most of my life making bibelots for the rich.” But they were paying small prices for them.
NGW Well, it’s making me think of the Seventies and into the Eighties, with this huge influx of craft fairs—I’m thinking specifically of people like Tom Coleman and Elaine Coleman, and The Mud Pie Dilemma of a second wave after WWII. This other generation that realized “I can go out and throw a bowl and make money for it. I can subvert commercial ventures and I can go out and sell it on my own”; I mean it makes me think of that moment and I was wondering where you think that fits in.
“That’s a problem with functional pottery: it’s all made for the little house on the prairie and we know most of us live in cities.”
GC Yes there was a tremendous outpouring of people going out and marketing. Schools were producing tens of thousands of new craftsmen every year and they went out and made a living. For a while it was very successful. In 1975 when I came out here functional potters were kings of the heap and did very well. They made quite a lot of money and did better than the sculptors working in schools. They were doing very well, but it was their success that brought them down, because every year a few thousands of functional potters would come out of school. The amount of competition kept growing and until now, it is iffy for the functional potters to survive. A friend, Andy Schorr, said he and his friends had a term for young functional potters that made a living off of the sale of their wares. He said, “We called them unicorns because we’ve never met one.” So we had it come full-circle at one stage—it was very affordable and yet the same thing was very profitable. Now it is not as profitable. The cost for functional wares is just too low. A good example of this comes from a great functional potter—one of the few that does extraordinarily contemporary work—that’s a problem with functional pottery: it’s all made for “The Little House on the Prairie” and we know most of us live in cities.
NGW Except for Edith Heath, whose work is in the midst of a huge revival . . .
GC Yeah, although mostly with designs from the Sixties.
GC But Prudence Venables was asked by a very wealthy couple in Australia to do a dinner service for them. And she thought about it and said “yes I’ll do the service but not for less than sixty thousand dollars.” They were absolutely appalled. Then she explained to them. She said “if you want a great dinner service, I may have to throw anything from five to ten pieces to get one that is perfect for your collection and someone has to pay me for that time. I can’t just do this and write-off the rest of the time and then just sell you the plates and mugs and the soup tureen and the rest of it, as if I had got it right the first time. You have to pay for the whole experience.” And to their credit they accepted it and not only that—they talked their friends into commissioning her services as well. And I thought “That’s it. That’s exactly how it should be done.” But that’s not a problem for Prudence because she makes an extraordinary product. But it doesn’t apply to workers you might encounter at a craft fair. Because their work is just not of an aesthetic standard. Something that is 25 dollars—that might be all its worth …
NGW I’m not familiar with Prudence. Could you tell us her full name and something about her work?
GC Prudence Venables is a functional potter who spent a lot of time in England, studied there, and is now in Australia, which is her birth country. And she does beautiful, very stark, simple forms, often playing with verticality. But anyway, very elegant, beautiful forms, thin walled. You can tell that these works took a fair amount of work to get down to the refinement which finally she brings out. They are not heavy like some pottery forms or something like that. This is contemporary work.
NGW Speaking of the moment we are in right now, craft is being dropped from institutional names. Significantly, California College for the Arts dropped crafts at the end. American Craft Museum became the Museum of Arts and Design. In most recent years, we’ve had publications come out. There have been a whole slew of books—including ones by Paula Owen and Anna Fariello, Matthew Kangus, Glenn Adamson, Richard Sennett, Howard Risatti. There’s a college textbook coming out by Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf, The Journal of Modern Craft. Why all this writing at the moment when it seems like craft, in terms of what is happening at the academy, is in jeopardy?
“It is essential now that we start building a strong history department for craft.”
GC It’s a good question and it’s not really clear as to the timing, except I think the benefit of this writing is retrospective rather than forward looking. I don’t say that as a criticism, I think it’s a very practical way of looking at it because I think the biggest challenge for craft in the last century is for us to capture it, because while it was happening it had pretty lousy scholarship … recording, writing … you got your buddy to write a review for your exhibition. It was a very hermetic, incestuous field. If you take someone like Peter Voulkos, for instance, who I used to think of as an artist, I still think of him as an artist, but now I don’t think he could be taken seriously as an artist outside of craft. Reasons for that are many, but the point is if Voulkos is going to have a legacy it has to be on the basis of there being serious craft studies or he won’t have it. And if you look at somebody like Voulkos, he has two books. He was the greatest figure of our time in ceramics in some ways, but these two books—neither of them are any good. Rose Slivka’s book was more like a corny love poem than an analysis of his art, and there is no analysis of his art. There is no tangible writing you can turn to that is a tough breakdown of his art. He encouraged more of a cult following than an analytical following and so there is not a strong body of craft history; Voulkos is not going to be canonized because the fine art world is not going to do this. The design world is not going to do this. And so it is essential now that we start building a strong history department for craft because that period of 1945–1980 is major in terms of American visual arts. The period from then on is really messy and I think we are too close to it right now to see its strengths and weaknesses are. And then by the mid-‘90s the whole thing was falling apart.
NGW And I’m guessing that is something you’ll be talking about in your lecture.
NGW So the way you described it, it sounds like a recovery project, which is an interesting thing. I went to graduate school in the ’90s, when multiculturalism, post-colonialism and subaltern studies were beginning, and I can’t help but feel all of those “isms” and movements have had an impact on craft. In particular, I’m thinking of someone like Glenn Adamson, who is a just a few years younger than me—the schooling that he was receiving was similar to mine. We were taught to look through Modernism and to question Modernism. When I think about the way he is executing his project and the way you’re describing this need for documentation of history, it’s fascinating to think about how all of this opened up an arena for craft to take center stage in a new way.
GC Yeah, it is, and Glenn and I have a small disagreement on this, maybe because I am more old-fashioned than him, but I feel we have this obligation to do canon. Now canon is a sort of natural process in the fine arts, because you have so much writing, so much of it is historical material—it’s a constant juggling game as to who goes up and who goes down. And while it is totally artificial, on another level it’s a very effective way of putting talent against talent to see what is strong and what holds up. We don’t have that process in craft. Actually we do, but it’s based on whether the person’s a nice guy, what they’re like when they drink too much, whether they give a good workshop …
NGW … how fun their studio parties are …
GC Exactly. It’s all based again on cult, the cult of personality. And Pete was a good example of this. So it’s very interesting to see what we are left with once you pull Voulkos out of the picture and you are just left with his work. I’m working on something right now called “Coming to Terms with the Greek God of Pottery.” Half of it is not very flattering and the other part probably is because Pete had a very messy career. I think the last part of it was dreadful; it was craft at its worst. So that’s never been paid attention to. We all kowtow and say “Pete is great and everything Pete has ever made is great,” and that just blankets his entire output whereas, in fact, he had periods of brilliance that were very short and periods of time where his stuff was banal and not that interesting. So I think we need to come to terms with this.
NGW You have written over 50 books and articles and essays, do you see that as an effort to establish the canon you were talking about, or do you see this as a trigger to prompt the establishment of a canon. They would be two different projects.
“I want to be a thorn in the side of conventional thinking and get people angry and responding and doing things.”
GC I think it has been both. There are times when I wrote about George Ohr, for instance, that was really to take a step up the ladder of the canon. I’m doing a book at the moment about Lucio Fontana and his ceramics, and that is an enormous activity. He has never been placed in the canon of ceramic art. But a lot of the other work is exactly what you said, to provoke… I was having an exchange of emails with Glenn and we were talking about a particular art critic and he said, “I don’t really think of him so much as an art critic as a columnist” and I thought that’s what I want to be. I want to be a columnist. I want to be a thorn in the side of conventional thinking and get people angry and responding and doing things and at this stage of my career that is what excites me more. I found myself doing a major book on Lucio Fontana and I loved it. It was an exciting project and an education I couldn’t believe I was going to get when I started it, but it’s not really want I want to do anymore. It is heavy lifting and I’m getting older and much lazier and I think that the knowledge such as it is that I’ve gathered is much more useful for propagation than spending the next two years researching if someone’s birthday is right or not.
NGW Thank you very much for doing this lecture. I was wondering if you might talk a little bit about the lecture you’ll be giving this evening. This will be your one-and-only lecture on the future of crafts.
GC For me, this is a very special event because this subject has been stuck in my craw for two years now, ever since I went to “Shaping the Future of Craft,” a conference that was organized by the American Craft Council, which was an extraordinarily depressing event. Without meaning to, it highlighted everything that was wrong with crafts including the fact that I was a youth candidate at the conference, and it showed just how much it was aging and how it’s not replenishing itself with younger voices. Yes, there is Glenn and there are a few others, but they are not about the practice of craft, they are about the theory of craft. That theory relates to what happened in the 20th Century and is probably not going to be very viable during this century, so for me, this is a bit of an exorcism. So don’t be shocked if Linda Blair pops out of my mouth at some point. It’s something that I had to get out of me because it was driving me nuts and so the thought of continuing to write in that genre is probably too difficult. I’m not by nature a theory writer, though when I have to write theory, as my partner to my right, Mark del Vecchio can confirm, I am an options guy. When you say A then I immediately see B, C, D, E, F, G … in theory you have to be more sure of yourself, more like “W,” you have to be absolutely sure about this belief because if you are not, all of these options emerge and it is very exhausting. But the point is to explain to your audience that we’ve reached a point where old craft is over. It will continue because a movement is like a cruise ship and it sinks, but passengers all get on a life boat and continue, so there will be craftsmen even after the movement is gone. But the movement is gone. And for us to continue beating that drum is purposeless. Some survivors have to continue to do it because of their circumstance, but those of us that are interested in the birth of the movement do not have to keep dealing with an old movement past its time, maybe longer than it needed. Maybe it would have been with us longer if it hadn’t developed some of the neuroses and the bad habits that it did. That’s what we will be dealing with, and in a sense it’s like forensic criticism. We have a dead movement on the slab, we have to hack it to pieces and see why it died.
NGW Thank you.