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

Conversations at the Log #3: Concerning Critical Writing

One of the most wonderful things about having the opportunity to work at Red Lodge Clay Center is the privilege to engage in conversations with folks who are at the top of the field. On a good day the location is a nexus of energy and I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity to look behind the curtain. We are leaving for NCECA tomorrow and it will be an NCECA like no other for me, because my perceptions have shifted so dramatically in the past twelve months. As is my nature, I am simultaneously excited and terrified by the prospect of what's to come. Before I post the next edition of "Conversations at the Log" I want to address a concern of mine regarding NCECA. I have heard many complaints about NCECA, complaints from voices I never would have heard had I not been given the opportunity to sit where I now sit. As someone who was grinding it out in the hinterlands for almost a decade, removed from and unseen by the broader ceramic community, I want to speak up for NCECA. The conference provides ignition for newcomers and a much needed revival for folks who work in isolation around the country. I'm always excited to see what is new and to have the opportunity to hear new ideas, to have notions validated, to make connections and to see countless works of art. It is my goal at this NCECA to review a couple of exhibitions and see if I can't hit the note a distant colleague and I discuss in the conversation below. This is the third transcription from the "Conversations at the Log" series of posts.

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CONVERSATIONS AT THE LOG #3: Concerning Critical Writing

I don’t know what academic writing is.

Don’t you think it’s about finding a reference point in history and connecting it to the thing you are discussing? The topic you are discussing is either restating an important historical part of the canon or it’s reacting strongly in opposition to the canon. Essentially your topic has to be validated by a minimum of three other sources so it’s not just “stuff” you are cooking up in your own head, although if Newton hadn’t cooked “stuff” up… But he had to prove it with examples--tangible things that were occurring in the world. So I think that is a large part of academic writing. We have to look outside of our own little worlds if we’re going to state something new. Where else is this happening in the cultural subconscious?

You can’t really make a seamless parallel between creative writing and ceramics, but there is an energy about creative writing or a feeling about it I can attach to what I do in the studio. Something about writers, the best writers write for themselves and are seduced by their own writing. I think good ceramic artists can be seduced by their own work and then they can send it out to a larger audience. Don’t you get seduced?

Yes. By my own work?

Yes, when it’s good, strong and right?


I do. I don’t get seduced by everything, but… An introductory text to “The Best Short Stories” says, “Stories are like jars full of bees. You unscrew the lid and out come the bees, maybe in the end that’s all guest editors do. We choose the stories that contain the most bees. The tales that sting us good, leaving us surprised and sore at first, then free to worry at our leisure, the tender inflamed spot, our attention focused, ourselves wide awake and alive.” That’s just beautifully written.

Well yes, because he’s making a picture in our head. I think, obviously, that’s what great writing does.

But is that an academic paper?

I don’t know, no. I don’t think what he was writing was an academic paper. That was a statement of intent. But, you know, I have so many College Art Association Journals that I want to read. I mean to read them. And I spend an awful lot of time beating myself up for not reading them. But I just can’t pay attention to them because there is not a strong narrative in them.


And I want there to be a story.

Well, a piece that Peter Stempel wrote, I would say it's academic writing wouldn’t you? It’s in a narrative form.

Yes, I agree. Have you read “The Botany of Desire”?


It’s the same style. I think if you are a good academic writer, and by good I mean accessible, you can make valid academic points and support your theories without alienating your audience. But not everyone is a performer, not everyone is a storyteller.


So maybe that’s the sweet spot of documentary or non-fiction or critical writing, when you capture the sweet spot of both styles.

Yes, I agree. Glen Brown is one of the top critical writers in our field, but after a paragraph I’m done.


But do you feel bad about it?

Yes, of course. I feel like I’m not smart.

But then you hear people talk about anti-intellectualism. I’ve heard that criticism a couple of times in the recent past, folks concerned about a move toward anti-intellectualism and I wonder if what they are really saying is that they want to be part of an elite group and this society is moving toward an egalitarian way. Is the public “voting” for a more egalitarian discourse? Just because something is egalitarian (narrative) does that mean it’s anti-intellectual?

Well, the anti-intellectual complaint I hear refers to the arena of politics. I don’t see anti-intellectualism in our field at all. I think it’s definitely prevalent in politics, but I don’t see it in ceramic circles so much.

But what you are talking about… If we are saying we want someone who can write well and support their observations in a narrative way, keeping the reader drawn in without using alienating vocabulary, we will stand accused of being for anti-intellectualism. Essentially we are saying, “I need sugar to drink this tea.”

Hmmm. Well another point he touches on in his opening comments tells about a lecture he attended where the speaker was asked, “What is the point of literature?” The speaker replied, “To entertain and instruct.” And everyone was disappointed in the answer. The audience continued to get him to expand on the answer and he refused. It was only after the audience members had matured themselves that they realized he was right. We need a little candy, a little sugar to swallow the pill. I don’t know, I like that idea. To entertain and instruct, heck yeah! Who wants to read a story without a little entertainment along the way?

I have to agree.