Tradition and...

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Tradition and the Future   1      2      -      PRINTER VERSION

Published in Ceramics: Art and Perception, No.14, 1993.

Perhaps one of the greatest questions facing modern pottery is how to create work that conveys or comments on the complexities of modern life. For an artist's work to be relevant in modern culture, it has to find its meaning in the issues that surround and confront us daily. Does this mean, therefore, that tradition-based crafts work has no place in the future? On the contrary, I would suggest that to be modern is to be, in the best sense of the word, traditional. This struggle for relevancy in one's own time is in itself traditional. It is something all truly creative artists have been engaged in throughout history. The kind of tradition I am speaking of, however, is not a timid or blind adherence to specious standards set by previous generations. Nor is it enough simply to say that certain styles of work—such as Japanese pottery from the Momoyama period—are relevant today merely because they were important in the past. The kind of tradition I am speaking of is a questioning and probing dialogue with the past about the nature of human existence.

Tradition, however, has come to mean something entirely different in modern craft: It has been pejoratively defined by the modern crafts establishment as anything useful that makes reference to the past. Those who engage in traditional or useful crafts—such as pottery—are viewed as conservative romantics who wish the cultural clock could be turned back to the kind of lifestyle that existed before the industrial revolution. They are presumed to be out of touch with modern sensibilities and are thought to be either unwilling or incapable of addressing contemporary concerns in their work. The modern crafts establishment is, in essence, saying that society has changed so greatly that the history and tradition of craft is no longer able to speak to us in a meaningful way or provide us with any kind of moral, philosophical or aesthetic lessons. This is, of course, a ridiculous argument that is contradicted by innumerable examples of historical work that speak to us as eloquently and with the same kind of urgency now as they did when they were contemporary works.

Modern crafts seem to have an equally simplistic and naive view about what it means to be modern or, should I say postmodern. Generally speaking, they believe that to be modern, all one's work has to do is to avoid any but the most superficial references to history and use, while at the same time stylistically mimic the most recent trends in painting and sculpture coming out of New York. In modern craft, novelty seems more important than content and the invention of new techniques substitutes for new thought, reducing the work of artists who engage in it to nothing more than fashionable clichÈs that have little to do with expanding the language of crafts to make it a viable, relevant force in modern culture. T.S. Eliot, one of the founding fathers of modernism in English poetry, wrote in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent that we have a tendency to praise artists based on:

"...those aspects or parts of his work which least resembles any one else. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet's difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously."1

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