The NEA...
The Ambiguity...
Art and...
Otto Natzler

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The NEA and Pottery   1      2      -      PRINTER VERSION

Published in Ceramics Monthly, 38(10), Dec. 1990.

One of the biggest problems in discussing the issue of discrimination against pottery by the National Endowment for the Arts and the modern crafts establishment is the possibility of furthering the polarization and enmity that exist between artists who work in the separate contexts of the "vessel", ceramic sculpture and pottery. The old arguments over which is more important—functional or sculptural—would be revived, with people forced to defend their positions by denigrating entirely different categories of work that have no historical, conceptual or physical relationship to each other except the over exaggerated one of material.

It is time, however, to end this uneasy marriage of ceramic artists who no longer share a common direction or language in order to maintain not only the integrity of each group's ideals, but also to allow for a much less political and more friendly relationship based on mutual respect rather than mere tolerance. I am not suggesting that critical analysis or dialogue be suspended, but that they should be based on and deal with the context within which an object is made. Almost every ceramic artist you ask will say that categories don't matter; what really matters is the quality of the work. But when pressed, very few are actually able to articulate what that quality is and where in an object that quality resides. Nevertheless, this platitude, like some mantra, is recited over and over again.

I believe that to begin to determine the importance of work, one has to look at it in its context, its relation to other work of its own kind, work that is attempting to speak to us in the same kind of language. This is how we as human beings understand the world around us, by assembling and organizing information, then putting it into categories so we can make sense out of it. We cannot expect to find the quality of the proverbial apple and orange by comparing them to each other. To really know how good an apple is, we compare it to other apples. Whether one prefers apples to oranges is a personal preference that should not enter into the decision regarding the relative quality of either fruit. When this personal preference extends to decisions about whether one fruit should be held up as more important in our culture than another and therefore more deserving of public subsidy, then it ceases to be a critical decision and becomes a political one.

Part of the problem (as seen by those who argue that pottery has its own context or language, separate from that of either the "vessel" or ceramic sculpture) is that in the last 15 years we have been labeled by the modern crafts establishment as unimaginative conservatives who lack the creative wherewithal and intestinal fortitude to compete in the larger, more visible and supposedly more significant world of modern painting and sculpture. In other words, because our work does not comment on trends in the fine arts, we are not making ART.

This view is a red herring used by some ceramic artists to lay claim to and to capitalize on pottery's historical position within the crafts, while at the same time allowing them to reject crafts' language in favor of the language of modern painting and sculpture. Why else would artists, who have struggled to free themselves from the so-called crafts mentality with its limitations of usefulness and domesticity, be so

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