The Critical Santa Fe conference at La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe last fall was an ambitious undertaking, bringing in presenters and audience members from across the country for three full days of lectures and panel discussions. As is to be expected with close to 200 participants, “mostly professors and their earnest graduate students, with a smattering of ‘real’ studio artists” (according to Kathryn Davis in the December 2010 issue of THE Magazine) there were many tentacles to this three-day conference. Given the breadth of the event paired with the space limitations of this article, a ‘play-by-play’ of the weekend is not possible, so instead I have chosen to focus on some essential points and recurring themes that seem relevant to Slip Trail readers.
Jim Romberg and his organizing committee not only conceived of this conference, but carried it through in a relatively well-organized manner. Quite a feat! With no benchmark for direct comparison, it is safe to say that this event merits repeating, perhaps with some modifications like a different format for questions, some smaller discussion groups, and more preparation time and advance review for the individual lectures.
Following the introductory remarks and welcome by Jim Romberg, a panel discussion in which the difference between an academic and a non-academic approach was voiced by Garth Clark, with Donald Kuspit perhaps best representing academia, and Clark and Dave Hickey supposedly representing Everyman. As important as the dichotomy may be, even more important was the argumentative undertone of this first conversation, which seemed to set the tone for the entire weekend. Over the course of the next three days, lectures, panel discussions and slide presentations followed one after another, with some time after each for questions (and a fair dose of grandstanding) from audience members.
Some of the most compelling questions of the weekend included the basics, like “What is ceramics?” and “What is criticism?”
Here are a few highlights:
Dave Hickey, while managing in a quick few minutes to insult almost everyone in academia in the audience (and to amuse – or not – the rest of us), also got right to the heart of the matter in his trademark barroom style. “Some things are better than others, and criticism means talking about why.” Like many of the subsequent presenters, he described art criticism as a service position, a worthy point given the intimidation that many artists feel in the face of words like ‘critic’ and ‘criticism.’
Donald Kuspit, reading a lecture that was far too long, spoke of the critic as disentangling technique and creativity. Though somewhat tedious, his insights were helpful, since a somewhat out-of-balance emphasis on ‘technique’ has long been the bane of ceramists who do not want to be included in the hobbyist camp targeted by certain ceramics magazines.
Howard Risatti spoke of craft as always having been about multi-culturalism and universalism in a way that fine art has not. I recommend his book A Theory of Craft to those interested in a careful and logical consideration of the craft/art discussion. Risatti’s book explores the meaning of ‘craft’ in an insightful and clear manner, and defines its relationship to both ‘fine art’ and ‘design.’
Janet Koplos presented an excellent study of the ‘jargon’ of ceramics through an historical survey of ceramics publications since the mid-20th century and argued that everyday language is adequate in describing ceramics. In fact, her examination of this topic was one of the most well-considered lectures of the event, grounded as it was in clear examples.
Paul Mathieu held that not ‘clay’ but ‘time’ is the material of pottery – which I note as an indefensibly ridiculous notion that he seemed willing to defend to the death, but perhaps it is not an unworthy means of opening up the argument and helping us understand the importance of material and what joins and distinguishes mediums.
Roberta Smith spoke of ‘being willing to be betrayed by your own taste,’ and her unpretentious manner, respect for ceramics, and quick-on-her-feet insights instantly won over many in the audience. (I had a different impression of Roberta Smith than the one described by Cristin Zimmer in her October 2010 Slip Trail article.) Smith spoke convincingly in a natural and conversant style of our innate human desire ‘not to do something that’s been done before.’ (To quote Kathryn Davis again, “She (Smith) is the poster girl for art criticism as inspirational, humbling, and difficult – that is, a real-life endeavor.”) Smith emphasized the importance of looking at everything. The directness and clarity of what she had to say, backed by her clout as NY Times art critic, drove home the pronouncement that when criticism is intelligible and simple, it cannot hide – like a simple pot.
The opportunity to meet and listen to some of today’s most important thinkers on the topics of craft and ceramics spurred me on to read more and more about these topics. There were many other speakers, and details can be found at http://nceca.net/static/symposia_santafe.php.
While the complexity of concepts of art and criticism and the definition of ceramics and its role in the larger debate are not questions admitting readily of answers, this conference was an important building block in the furthering of our own understanding of why and how we do what we do. I recommend Judy Nelson-Moore’s blog www.nmpca.wordpress.com for those of you interested in taking part in the ongoing discussion. Also check out an awesome website curated by faculty at Lewis & Clark College, www.accessceramics.org. It’s better than HBO.
I leave you with a quote from an article entitled “Ceramics and the Art World” by Peter Schjeldahl (art critic for the New Yorker) in Studio Potter December 2005, Volume 34, Number 1, which I recently read upon a friend’s recommendation:
“About being an artist, a true artist – what is an artist? An artist is an unusually gifted man or woman with an attitude problem. They’re unhappy. Artists are unhappy people because they want something to be in the world that isn’t there….You’re setting out to do all this in a world that has never heard of your existence. You are taking a big chance, betting that enough people in the world will recognize what you’re doing as somehow necessary. Odds are that you’re wrong, in which case you may end up teaching hobbycraft at Dripwater State. But you will be a winner in life. You will know something about yourself that 99.99 percent of the people in the world will never find out about themselves. So, no whining, okay?”
Betsy Williams was a recipient of the NMPCA scholarship to attend Critical Santa Fe in October 2010. She is a professional potter and co-owner of Rift Gallery Contemporary Art, and will show her work at the Smithsonian Craft Show in April 2011. For more information, visit www.enbistudio.com.