In appreciation of the great beauty he expressed in his life and writing I sent Wendell Berry a piece of pottery and my essay “Essay on Beauty.” The letter below was written in response to his reply.
March 6, 1994
Mr. Wendell Berry
Lanes Landing Farm
Port Royal, Kentucky 40058
Dear Mr. Berry,
I am happy to know that the piece of pottery I sent reached you. Your letter revealed some weak points in my essay on beauty and I would like to clarify a few of them. I appreciate your having taken the time to write but please don’t feel any obligation to read or respond to this letter.
Maybe it would help you understand my position if l explain the context in which my essay was written. I wrote it after seeing a national ceramics show, juried by the head of the ceramics department of what is probably the best ceramics school in the United States. (So you do not think sour grapes prompted my writing the essay, I too had a piece in the show.) I was really disturbed by the chaotic and dissonant feeling of the majority of pieces selected. There was so little harmony. So much of it just seemed to be yelling for attention, or trying to shock or provoke. Often it was just noise. Today’s television-paced aesthetic has so diminished attention spans and sensibilities that for an object to engage people these days it must be very extreme. This extremism can manifest itself in color, shape or theme and most of the time some combination thereof. Much of the work was self absorbed, without any moral center or common reference. This celebration of the individual at the expense of the universal was one of the most troubling aspects of the show for me. That experience, which I think is representative of much of contemporary art, is what motivated me to write my essay.
One of your concerns about my essay was that I made beauty too exclusive. That was not my intention, in fact it was exactly the opposite. I in no way mean to separate beauty from skill, philosophy, social issues, life or anything else. Perhaps the perception of exclusivity was a result of my trying to extend my argument too broadly beyond my specific concern with pottery. It may also have been a matter of terminology. The terms: “art”, “artist”, “craft”, “creativity,” etc. get so mixed up that I think they often do not really contribute any understanding to the things they consider or define. That is why I am more often asking not whether a thing is art but whether it is beautiful. I think the concept of “art” has probably done more harm than good by separating the idea of beauty from everyday life. Art is now something locked behind the guarded doors of museums and the homes of the rich. This idea is similar to your perception of the problem of nature being some “other” place, not our homes or our farm land, but some place scenic where we go on weekends or two weeks a year. As you have pointed out, the whole system suffers from not making the connection between nature and our neighborhood. Similarly we suffer by not making the connection between “the beautiful” and everyday living.
Another concern of yours was that you felt that Emerson was wrong to separate beauty and skill. I do not have that same understanding of the quote: “The best of beauty is a finer charm than skill in surfaces, . . .”. The sentence prior to that in his essay, but not in mine, is: “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” The way I read this is simply that we must first cultivate, or more accurately, realize beauty within ourselves before we can express or appreciate it outwardly. Rules of art or skill alone cannot make art. But, to me, this quote does not imply that the beautiful can be made manifest without skill or that skill is separate from beauty. I can think of no one with a more holistic awareness than Emerson. As he wrote in his essay, “The Over-Soul,”
We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime, within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.
I think he would agree with the idea of the maker, the making, and the thing made, all being one. This sense of wholeness is also one of the things that most affects me in your writing.
You also mentioned that you were unwilling to separate beauty from philosophy, social commentary and narrative. I too am unwilling to make such a separation. I did not communicate this point well. What I should have said was that trendy social causes or superficial philosophy is completely inappropriate in visual art. I used the term art to mean “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.” My objection to narrative was also in regard to visual art in general and pottery in particular. I feel that social commentary and narrative can be better handled in poetry, essays, plays, novels and other more verbally based mediums. It is impossible for a potter to realize a fraction of the value that an essayist might from developing such themes in his or her work. In my essay I wanted to make the point that potters did not need to apologize for their craft. Potters can be agents of the beautiful just as validly as anyone and do not have to adopt the themes of more “acceptable” and “prestigious” mediums, such as what we call the fine or literary arts, to try to rise above the low status that has been conferred upon them by the “art” establishment. To the degree that a potter, or for that matter anyone, can facilitate humanity’s experience of beauty, to that degree will exploitation, negativity, degradation and violence–whether ecological, psychological, social, or spiritual–cease to be. In making this point though, I did not mean to elevate potters at the expense of any other group.
I hope I have clarified some of the points I was trying to make. In any case I appreciate your philosophy and social commentary and in them a sense of that great beauty to which I have made so much reference. Sorry to run on so but your comments got me thinking. I appreciate very much your expressing your reservations.
Jan W. Cannon