Dee Taylor Graham discusses utility: fitness for some purpose or worth to some end
My initial intention in writing this paper and considering the idea of utility, noun yü-ˈti-lə-tē
1. fitness for some purpose or worth to some end, was to wax lyrical on one of my favourite themes – the lunacy of displaying functional pots on plinths. Or to phrase it more gently, the potential role of functional ceramics in a relational art practice.
Are you impressed that I managed to get the word ‘art’ into the first paragraph? Not bad going when you think about the historical, not to mention deeply entrenched, divide between utility and Art (note the capital) that colours the very mention of the word, function. Kant, Greenberg, Burger … you know the story – all of them convinced, and very convincing in their arguments, that a work of art must be autonomous, i.e. removed from any possible association with the grubby banalities of the everyday, primary amongst these of course being function.
According to Burger “the condition of autonomy is coincident with loss of function.”1 For Greenberg, the fear was that “any art form enmeshed within daily life, runs the risk of losing it’s power and becoming trivialised.” 2 From the man himself, Immanuel Kant, described by Greenberg as the original Modernist (1790), the line was that art could not be good or useful for anything except aesthetic contemplation. “Beauty is an object’s form of purposiveness insofar as it is perceived in the object without the presentation of a purpose.3 Expecting art to be good for any other purpose diverts attention away from the art and toward another good, which is outside the aesthetic experience.
And so on and so forth … point being, pots: functional, everyday, domestic (and therefore associated with the feminine), solidly useful pots, were banned from the Modern Art club. But membership to the club equals real Art status, and as such potters have always wanted in.
In the 1920s, Bernard Leach “wanted his pottery to be appreciated in the same way as fine art was and saw himself fundamentally as an artist-potter.” 4 William Staite Murray, a contemporary of Leach’s, saw his (dare I say, much more beautiful?) vessels as sculptures rather than containers, and his later solo shows were held at Lefevre Galleries, “an established centre for painting exhibitions of the best repute”.5
It is interesting to note that despite their lofty aspirations, neither Leach nor Murray was able to sustain their ‘artistic’ practice. In order to survive the depression Leach developed a range of what he called “standard wares” and the ‘ethical pot’6 was born. In comparison, Murray’s pots seemed outrageously priced (although not in comparison to ‘fine’ art) and the market for his work dwindled. In 1939 he travelled to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), decided to stay and gave up pottery. 7
Nevertheless, the habit of putting pots on plinths has persisted.
So what’s the problem? I would ask, what’s the point? Why, if one wishes to make a sculptural statement, start with a vase or a jug or a bowl? I’ll come back to this one.
The other problem is of course Modernism itself, the failings of which have been pointed out and picked apart a thousand times over by the various protagonists of post-modernism – and yet it, the great modernist behemoth, still colours so much in our way of thinking. Erik Scollon, in discussing the attempted application of modernist art theory to craft objects, makes a great analogy saying, “The result was akin to someone trying to wear clothes tailored for another person. True, they could be worn, but they didn’t really fit.” 8
Enter the ‘relational pot’.9
Rather than attempt to conform to the demands of autonomous modernist contemplation, the relational pot, as I see it, accepts its true nature (and power) – it’s fitness for some purpose, as a social tool, an agent or a catalyst for exchange. And of course, therein lies the art – in the very thing that potters have always done – putting plates and bowls on the table and in the hands of the punters. To paraphrase Scollon again, he describes this as “exporting the art to the everyday” and in it one can see a twenty first century continuation, not just of the humanist ideologies of the Arts and Crafts Movement, but of the history of pottery, from a time when art and craft were one and the same activity and a communal part of the everyday.
Having said that, sometimes it’s great fun, and useful, to be in the gallery, not for the Art status, but for the different perspective, the alternative nature of the conversation. If we think of craft practices as offering us an opportunity to examine our relationships with objects, then perhaps we could say that in relational mode, functional ceramics offer a way of being in the world; in the gallery they offer us a way of seeing and thinking about the world.
Could this be an answer to my earlier question? Why, if one wishes to make a sculptural statement, start with a vase or a jug or a bowl? Does that depend on whether the statement is purely sculptural/formal? Is it, in fact, possible for utilitarian ceramics to be purely sculptural? Or does their power for provocation exist in all of the associations that come with functional wares? I would argue for the latter, and in doing so would like to use the example of Utility, the exhibition that runs each year at Sydney College of the Arts (SCA) in conjunction with the Powerhouse Museum’s Sydney Design program.10
At first glance Utility may seem like an incongruous title for an exhibition at an art school known for its rigorously conceptual bent. I don’t imagine you’ll be surprised to read that from it’s inception in 1997, Utility has sought to “challeng[e] student makers’ perceptions, and those of the viewer, of the assumed function inherent in the disciplines of the ceramics, glass and jewellery studios”.11 This position of challenge/opposition is highlighted by the fact that in some years the exhibition is given a question mark –Utility? and in 2003, the show’s subtitle, Function was placed in the catalogue alongside prefixes such as mal, dys, un, ex, anti, and post.
Ah, I hear you say, not so surprising after all; just the art school up to it’s usual tricks, mucking about with tradition in the name of Art. I would say not. Instead, I would like to suggest that the student makers who each year rise to the challenge of the Utility brief are, in fact, deeply engaged with the history and tradition of their discipline and through the exhibition offer a challenge to the modernist paradigms so stiflingly ill-fitting to the crafts.12 By embracing the idea of function, if only to subvert it, the students who exhibit in Utility bring the everyday that so horrified Greenberg back into the gallery. By hinting at usages that tug at memory, the artists invite us to consider the ways in which we interact with objects; and once again, like the generations of artists/potters/craftspeople/designers before them, offer a window into alternative ways of seeing/thinking/being in the world.
The theme for this year’s Utility is ‘Our House’. Timed to coincide with a major international exhibition at SCA called Bauhaus and Beyond; Utility 2011 will “generate contemporary views and attitudes to the domestic object in the craft and design disciplines and reconsider the Bauhaus concept of the Total Work of Art”13 whilst keeping with the ‘Sydney Design’ theme of bringing together old and new technologies/attitudes – an opportunity to, once again, engage with the history and tradition of the ceramic medium. Rather than seeing functionality and the everyday as limiting factors, the artists exhibiting in Utility will no doubt use them productively to expand the field.
Utility 2011: Our House opens at SCA galleries on Thursday 4 August, 6 – 8pm, and will run until 31 August 2011.