Portraits and ponderings from the writing desk of Jill Foote-Hutton.

Design, Cognizant Intentions and Artist Statements

I can already tell you I'm going to cast too broad a net here. After six months in the role of Gallery Coordinator at Red Lodge Clay Center, I have had the opportunity to read many, many artists' statements. Not that I hadn't read any statements before, but certainly the reading was not of such a condensed nature. So artist statements are a point to ramble on about here, but the reason my attention was brought back to artists' statements was really because of a thought I had about aesthetic trends in contemporary ceramics. While unpacking some work (and I have been enticed by the imagery, the color, the design, the line, the form of many works unpacked over the course of the past decade) recently, my mind wandered to a conversation I had during the 2008 Presidential election.

Over some good and tasty beverages, I wondered about the dark side of design aloud as my two colleagues chatted excitedly about the "change" and the "hope". This manic excitement made me more than a little nervous. Now I was not particularly proud of our country's leaders at the time, but I'm also not particularly political. Nor do I have the sort of instant recall of facts that would aid me in a political/bar debate, so I waded into the question cautiously. I really did not want my voting opinion or my colleagues to be called into question. I just wanted to know SPECIFICALLY what "change" did they think was going to happen.

This had become an ongoing straw poll of mine. Educated folks, folks I looked up to as sound, reasoned and or creative thinkers were all pretty fired up about the election, but none of them could really tell me what exactly was going to change. None could tell me exactly what they hoped for, except something different. My students wore the t-shirts, there were stickers all over our little department, bumper stickers abounded in the parking lot. So the question I put out was, "I'm concerned people are getting seduced by the design campaign and really don't know anything about the candidate. I'm concerned the deepest level of understanding is the equivalent of 'Coke: THE REAL THING'." My colleague's calm, rational reply was, "Maybe that's enough for now. Maybe if the design gets the younger generation to the polls and engaged in the political process, maybe our country will turn a corner."

OK. Maybe.

The November 2010 elections and my now limited encounter with the younger generation, bring my original fears back to mind and make me question initiatives like the "Rock the Vote" campaign. If nothing else, we should learn design or propaganda has to be a continuous bombardment to keep working. Here's a cliff-note look at the history of such campaigns from a September 2010 entry at the blog Cruzine on Design and Propaganda and a snarky look at political design by the New York Times. Slick design gets our attention and motivates us into action. This can be a very positive effect, unless we are living in Nazi Germany. When the posters come down or when students graduate from college and the local college hottie campaigner quits showing up at the door to get us to Rock the Vote, does our motivation cease? It seems the answer is yes.

The focus of my concern is a slick design without deliverance of any substance or the creation of slick design without any cognizant intention behind it. November wasn't a total rout, so maybe some folks got mobilized and remained so after the posters came down, but I still have my concerns.

Now for the big leap back to ceramics and design and artists' statements.

There is some groovy work coming out from the hands of young makers. It's clean and sleek or it's candy colored and kitschy, but the quality of process (better known as craftsmanship) is not always present (and there is no sense of irony in the lack of it). What gives me greater pause though, is when I read an artist statement and I read the same thing from artist, after artist, after artist, after artist regardless of the aesthetic. To paraphrase one of the Red Lodge Clay Center residents, "...we know it's a cup! We know what a cup is for, tell me something I don't know." I couldn't agree more. Why are you working illustratively and why are you using the palette you are using? Why is everything so structured? Why is it unstructured? Why is it a functional thing when clearly the narrative is the focus?

Do they not know? Do they not care? It would be one thing if the work was always impeccable and cutting edge, but the highest quality is not always present. More though, I suspect it is a symptom of the justification academia requires of the arts which forces students through a process too quickly. A process of self-evaluation which takes years and years to understand. Cripes! It takes a lifetime to understand why we are doing what we are doing and then maybe we still won't have the perspective we need. Ask an artist about why they make what they make and you will get a different slant each time the question is put forth. It's a question worth pursuing, because it leads us to more discoveries, but why can't academia make it okay to say, "I don't know yet!" ?

Why is a verbal description of the art process important? I suppose I think it is because I want more people to value the handmade object. I want more people to understand the creative process. Even the untrained public knows when to call bullshit, they know it in their gut. But do you know what happens, even when they know something is a sham? They tell themselves they are not smart enough. They tell themselves they just don't get it and build their protective wall against art a little bit higher. I do believe it is important for makers to have some cognizant intentions, but I also fully believe in the magic of the creative process and being open to the unknown.

I just want us, makers, to do our best to be clear and honest about what we are doing and I suppose the only clear connection between the politics of propaganda and artist statements is: A slick product pulls an audience in and then, as if sucking on an opiate lollipop, the audience fails to grow or gain any depth of character.

I vote for pursuit of cognizant intentions. I vote for connection of dots. I vote for a enticing object or image with a kernel of truth in the ensuing artist statement, even if the truth is akin to, "I keep surrounding myself and my work in red and I'm not yet sure why, but I believe if I continue along this track I will find an answer eventually or learn something else along the way."