A CASE FOR BEAUTY
For some years a discussion has been going on among a number of people interested in ceramics and the visual arts about whether or not pottery should be considered an art, along with the “Fine Arts” of painting and sculpture. Before determining whether or not pottery is capable of artistic expression, we must first know exactly what “art” is. The American Heritage Dictionary defines art as “the conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty, specifically the production of the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, recognized the central role of beauty in art when he noted that art’s primary function was to “. . . educate the perception of beauty.”
Beauty is a quality rarely addressed in contemporary art, although considering artistic works in relation to beauty would lead to a more universal means of appreciation and a more enduring aesthetic. It would also diminish the susceptibility of museums and galleries to fads and the commercially motivated quest for the “new.” Some people object to such a criterion on the grounds that it is too subjective, but I argue that any other method of evaluation is too variable and egocentric to be of real value. Beauty, as a manifestation of pure consciousness, synonymous with peace, love and joy, is the true basis of our being and the one constant of our existence.
Difficulties in determining what is genuinely beautiful, or art, arise from the tendency to rely on the intellect. Instead, intuition should be the primary faculty used in creating and appreciating art. The rational faculty, of course, may be appropriately used in making art and I do not mean to imply that intuition is in conflict with reason–just that the rational faculty comes more into play in the expressive, as opposed to the perceptive, aspects of the creative process. Consequently its role is secondary to that of intuition in making and evaluating art. Even though using intuition may be an uncomfortable prospect for many, because it is beyond the proof of the intellect, the creative worker or critic who ignores this faculty does so at the risk of aesthetic irrelevance. Referencing aesthetic creations to an absolute quality such as beauty, using the faculty of intuition, seems a more practicable and reliable method for deepening our understanding of creative works.
Contemporary artists tend to emphasize technique and process, frequently at the expense of beauty. Critics similarly overlook beauty in their attempts to understand and appreciate artistic works. Although considerable skill is employed in the making of much of today’s “art,” and much energy is spent analyzing it, the undervaluing of beauty renders it ultimately unsatisfying. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his essay on art:
“The best of beauty is a finer charm than skill in surfaces, in outlines, or rules of art can ever teach, namely, a radiation, from the work of art, of human character,–a wonderful expression, through stone or canvas or musical sound, of the deepest and simplest attributes of our nature.”
He observed in the same essay:
“As soon as beauty is sought not from religion and love, but for pleasure, it degrades the seeker. High beauty is no longer attainable by him in canvas or in stone, in sound or in lyrical construction; an effeminate, prudent, sickly beauty, which is not beauty, is all that can be formed; for the hand can never execute any thing higher than the character can inspire.”
Emerson felt that “. . . genius left to novices the gay and fantastic and ostentatious, and itself pierced directly to the simple and true.” In his view, the traits common to the highest works of art are “. . . that they are universally intelligible, that they restore to us the simplest states of mind, and are religious.” In contrast, much contemporary work seems overly narrow and personal, almost algebraic. Values are assigned to symbols and the initiated decode the works and proclaim the experience art. This is not art; it is mathematics without discipline. Others attempt philosophy or social commentary in their work. Such themes are completely inappropriate in art and are better served in other ways, such as by designing or flying space shuttles, writing essays or letters to the editor, or by making financial contributions to worthwhile causes. It is sad that so many people have abandoned beauty for such superficial attempts at intellectual legitimacy or social relevance when beauty, one of the supreme forces of human experience, is so capable of affecting real transformation in the human being and society.
The conceptual approach to art is further limited by its dependence upon narrative. To the degree that a person is engaged by narrative or reasoning in experiencing visual art–whether in trying to answer a question posed by the “artist,” or in trying to place the piece in reference to some other piece, or by any other intellectual consideration–to that degree the possibilities for a true artistic experience are limited. True artistic experience takes place prior to intellection.
Pottery’s freedom from the necessity of narrative is one of its greatest strengths. It can exist simply as line in relation to line, as texture, as dynamic volume, as color in relation to color; it may even be utilitarian. This, of course, is not to say that anything with an identifiable reference is flawed. Reference to natural imagery, for example, may simply be an excuse for a line or color or texture. An artist, as nature’s agent, has a right to these designs and is wise to study them. Artists surrendering to nature will find their work becoming an act of that great original force rather than merely an abstraction of it.
Clay has tremendous potential for artistic expression and is capable of communicating the great aesthetic themes as well as any medium. Minerals made plastic by water and shaped by a human hand, hardened by air and fire, existing in, and at times containing space; that these, the most basic elements of creation, can affect a transcendental experience is truly magical.
We are in the midst of a process that is so much larger than we can imagine. I think, for all of the seeming importance of contemporary art and ceramics, that history will not take notice of much of the work being made now, unfavorably or otherwise; much of it being so profoundly insignificant. That alone which is beautiful will last, its place secure in the stream of thousands of years of culture. May we revel in the perception of that great Beauty from which we have come.