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Making Music versus Merely Playing the Piano

Everette Busbee            

Two or three hundred pianists can play the piano better than I, but few can make music as well....
Artur Rubinstein       

The young reporter submitted a story saying, "When the judge sentenced the defendant, she fell prostitute on the floor." His editor informed him he must learn to distinguish between a woman who has fallen and one who has merely lost her balance.

RAFTSMANSHIP. FOR THOSE of us in clay, a warm, comfortable word, and for many, a word seeming to have grown from the earth like a great mountain, and as unquestionable. But just as the tongue keeps returning to where the filling is missing, I have often had the haunting feeling that the word craftsmanship somehow better suits the building trades, whose
Wood-fired unglazed stoneware vase, by Everette Busbee: 45 cm in height, 1988. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Clayworks. When this article was reprinted in the anthology A Potter's Companion, compiled and edited by Ronald Larsen, this photo was included.
rigidly defined goals demand such accuracy and economy that the individual touch is rarely perceptible, always inconsequential. The word seems oddly out of place in contemporary American ceramics, where constraints are rare and the individual touch is everywhere is everything. Potters, once as necessary as carpenters and masons, now produce pitchers as unnecessary as a painting on a wall, and perhaps as unconcerned with accuracy and economy. Yet we tenaciously retain a word denying this, even though any newly obsolete but still powerful word banging around in our thoughts can confuse goals and misdirect energy. This may partially explain our field's notorious love affair with technique.

A rule of thumb I use to determine if a juried exhibition is worth seeing: If the word "craftsmanship" appears even once in the juror's statement, the exhibition will be unexciting, and if "craftsmanship" is preceded by "the necessity of good," no glaze in the show could match the depth of the one that would form over my eyes.

Modem ceramics has a history of questioning emphasis on craftsmanship. Shoji Hamada, in his late fifties, said that every potter in Tamba had more skill than he, but added as a so what, "skill is cheap." His fellow countryman, Rosanjin, called soulless craftsmanship a "reckless tool," and insisted that pottery was not an art of technical expertise, but was "dependent solely upon the beauty of the mind."

"The real question is not 'Is my craftsmanship good enough?' It is 'What do I want my work to be?'"

Over a decade ago John Mason included all of ceramics when he noted the trend toward a "fastidious technical execution of craft in an effort to attain professional status," leading to sacrifice of "inner experience in favor of results," producing "a ceramic form empty in content and lacking in vitality, as demonstrated by the examples seen in our stores, exhibitions and architectural commissions." This bare-knuckles criticism is well summarized by Baudelaire's famous comment in his review of the 1900 Paris Salon: "The painting is getting better and better, and I find it a lamentable thing."

The definition of "craftsmanship" centers on "skill," which according to the dictionary is "the ability to do something well." This "something" done well can refer equally to the activities of a nation's most skilled peace negotiator or a dictator's most skilled elicitor of confessions. So choosing "something" to do is ultimately more important than the doing. Words, supposedly the servant of thought, can become its tyrant. Deep in our hearts we know "craftsmanship" has something to do with "well finished." Couple this with the possibly genetically dominant view that possession of ample craftsmanship is qualification for beatification, and we may be off and running toward the goal of technical perfection, without once having questioned it-thought control at its best. The real question is not "Is my craftsmanship good enough." It is "What do I want my work to be?"

"For every professional, craftsmanship is a given, and as such, is devoid of critical value."

Craftsmanship as the pursuit of technical perfection -- such an easy, well-lit route. There is the story of the man under a street light who, when asked what he was doing, replied he was looking for something he lost over there. When asked why he was searching here rather than over there where he lost it, he replied that the light was much better here. Under the light we will always be comfortable, and will probably find something sooner or later. But not what we are looking for. For the real goal, the music rather than the piano playing, we must search in darkness. Yet this term, "search," implying something already exists, is misleading. We do not search, we choose from infinite posibilities, making something out of nothing. We choose to work meticulously, we choose to work roughly. All very simple until we introduce the concept of craftsmanship. All of a sudden there is the implication that those unworthy of accolades for craftsmanship, if suddenly blessed with better coordination, would, after thanking providence for a second chance, assiduously perfect their skills and join the ranks of the truly talented.

Some other fields have an admirable, richer use of "well crafted" as "well composed, designed, or thought out," as in: "The Art of the Fugue, The Turn of the Screw and the model Paulina Porizkova are well crafted." An ingenious attempt in ceramics to rehabilitate, or to neutralize, the word "craftsmanship" has been redefining it as "the ability to do what you want to do," as Ken Ferguson and Warren MacKenzie have done. This leads irrefutably to the unsatisfying conclusion that a potter with George Ohr's abilities, but who has an unfulfilled desire to throw twice as tall and twice as thin, is a lousy craftsperson. This logic can be avoided by assuming a reasonable desire. But it then follows that every trained professional has the ability to do what he or she reasonably wants to do, or can, after sufficient offerings to the god of the shard pile, acquire that ability. That is, for every professional, craftsmanship is a given, and as such, is devoid of critical value. John Mason gave me a variation of the "ability to do what you want" theme: Craftsmanship in itself is mearningless; it is merely something that allows you, with a certain directness and economy, to get the job done, to get your ideas across. Notice that with the substitution of "a hard rubber rib" for "craftsmanship," the sentence still makes sense. Craftsmanship is a tool, not a message, and again has no critical value. This definition may also refer to the aesthetic economy of using the largest brush or the fewest brush strokes to get the job done, but this would be a craftsmanship of boldness, not technical perfection.

"The real question is not 'Is my craftsmanship good enough?' It is 'What do I want my work to be?'"

When we really get down to it, if we exclude our early fumblings, a failure in clay is due to a failed idea, not motor ineptness. Is there a single potter who makes gorgeous but technically inept pitchers? How many thousands make vice versa? And think of the hordes of students sitting at a wheel, staring blankly at a passable, even fresh, 8-inch cylinder, wondering what to do next, and who, if asked if they are limited by idea, eye, or technical abilities, would moan, "Technical abilities." And so, as if one more weight loss book is purchased in the vain hope it will lead to slimness without dieting, they search out one more technique in the vain hope it will produce excellence without thinking.

The love of technique in ceramics reflects our wider culture's love of technique over idea. High tech constructions light television and movie screens, stimulating little more than optic nerves. A radio segment attributes the recent cocaine-related death of a ballet star in part to pressure induced by the growing demand in ballet for great physical feats at the expense of the art. A critic says creative writing courses are producing technically brilliant writers with little emotional depth. While the battle cry of the sixties was "Make love, not war," I had thought the eighties were caught by the question, "Would you care for a croissant?" Perhaps our times are caught even better by the whine, "Do you like my technique?"

"Developing technique is a necessity, a survival tactic, but this doesn't justify our tendency to fixate on technical matters."

"Virtuosity" in ceramics is problematic, and is applied too freely. A virtuoso in classical music interprets someone else's ideas, generally playing works so well-known only the performance is evaluated. The word "virtuoso" is used far less in jazz, where the musical ideas of an improvised composition normally take precedence over instrument playing. In clay (as in jazz), we provide both idea and realization. In addition, musical-virtuosity-as-dazzling-skill implies raw speed, often accompanied by boldness, even cockiness. The young Segovia, asked his aesthetic reason for playing a certain movement at such great velocity, replied, "Because I can." The analogue in clay is Peter Voulkos, who once responded to the question of whether he could throw one of his 75-pound platters in two minutes: "What should I do with the time left over?" Or George Ohr, the self-proclaimed "world's greatest potter," who churned out wareboards of demanding pieces as if they were mugs. This Virtuosity, like that allowing the "Minute Waltz" to be played in 45 seconds, augments rather than pillages our supply of time, encouraging rather than inhibiting experiment and thought. What often passes for virtuosity in ceramics is really grueling, time-devouring detail work. It is like a Turkestani working five years full time to weave a rug: the result may be beautiful, but it hardly speaks of virtuosity.

Question emphasis on technique as we may, the reality we deal with, whether we revel in it or consider it a necessary evil, is that ceramics is one of the most technical fields in the arts, fine or coarse. Developing technique is a necessity, a survival tactic, but this doesn't justify our tendency to fixate on technical matters. At a symposium, John Mason was asked the formula for his clay body. He snapped back, "There's no magic in materials." Such a question may at times need asking, but like dental flossing, it best be done in Private.

"An admiration for others and pride in ourselves glows warmly in us all, unless we forget why we came to clay in the first place."

Admittedly, technique and idea blur. An idea necessitates a technique, which may inspire another idea, a leapfrogging process of artistic growth. And, after all, ideas can only be expressed through technique. In one respect a Mozart symphony is a string of compositional techniques. But here ideas were in charge, not a technique gone wild, as was the case with the palindrome, an accepted poetry form a few centuries ago in India, which reads the same backward and forward as in "Poor Dan is in a Droop." Its value was determined largely by length, which was often several pages. Technically brilliant but shallow of meaning and poetic language, existing today as nothing more than historical oddities, these palindromes illustrate how, as our abilities increase, a growing technique momentum, like a sort of lobotomized Attila the Hun, can lay waste to most ideas in its path. And as an anorexic's plunge toward a perceived perfect body weight overshoots a reasonable goal and produces a physical and spiritual impoverishment indistinguishable from that of a famine victim, the quest in ceramics for perfection of finish can lead to an art that rivals the aesthetic and humanistic impoverishment of much of American mass production.

The mind and emotions, more interesting than skill, can produce a pitcher, smooth and elegant or rough and stalwart, that adds to the total of human knowledge. That is what we are about, not a pitcher so ingratiating of curve and surface, so devoid of visual interest, uncertainty, and anything that could possibly cause even a hint of angst, that it is perfect for serving a wine of similar character, say a white zinfandel, while listening to Barry Manilow. And what is true for the pitcher, with its functional constraints, is obviously true for the vessel and for sculpture, where constraints are minimal to nonexistent.

We can feel a camaraderie because of our shared experience of working in clay, and can appreciate proficiency, elegance and elan in the craft of making. An admiration for others and pride in ourselves glows warmly in us all, unless we forget why we came to clay in the first place. This warm glow would not be cooled by our dismissing the world of gratuitous refinement as well as the word supplying its philosophical underpinnings, the slippery and baggage-laden "craftsmanship."

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