“Questioning Wood-fire Aesthetics”

The following is a transcript of Ted Adler’s lecture presented as part of the “Aesthetics” panel at the International Wood-fire Conference in October, 2006 at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ

What can we possibly mean when we say “wood-fired aesthetics?  Can we really discuss the topic, given the subjective nature of our individual perceptions?  When we say “Aesthetics”, are we talking about concepts of “beauty”, or the study of the rules and principles of art?

Obviously, this topic can get pretty thorny, and in such a brief allotment of time one would have to make a lot of assumptions about what can be agreed upon in order to discuss an aesthetic specific to wood-fired ceramics.  The trouble is, this seems to be a major stumbling point in our field:  We agree too much on what we unquestioningly assume to be true about wood-fire aesthetics.  For this panel, I’d like to take a look at some assumptions that are made regarding aesthetics based on adopted ideologies that have defined the scope of this practice.  Rather than view wood-fire aesthetics from the perspective of visuality, I would like to frame the discussion in the context of the origins of its value system.  What I present here is a critique of the idea of “wood-fired aesthetics” with the belief that the field is healthy enough to withstand critical examination and worthy of such inquiry into its philosophical underpinnings.

There is a need to examine the expressly Nippon-centric attitudes that pervade contemporary Western wood-fire practice.  Western Art’s absorption of the art of Asia is certainly not original to wood-firing.  Western cultures have long portrayed the East as a place of mysterious wonders since the Silk Route bridged inter-continental trade.  Early modernist art movements in Europe such as German Expressionism were fascinated by the wood-block prints of Japan, and appropriated aspects of the process for their own purposes.  Within Ceramics, the West has coveted the ceramic aesthetics of China since porcelain’s introduction to Europe.  In the early 20th Century, the Art Nouveau movement incorporated Eastern ceramic forms and lines of ceramic wares were given exotic, Eastern-sounding names.  Can we say that the aesthetic focus of western wood-firing is anything but an extension of this colonialist practice of turning the East into a mythical place of secrets and treasures for our Western acquisition?

If we trace the introduction of Eastern ceramic practices to those of the West, the Japanese Mingei folk art movement crops up as a major nexus of ideas and techniques where western ceramic aesthetics were radically influenced.  Ideas presented by the triad of Yanagi, Hamada and Leach spread relatively quickly through a field known for its resistance to change.  Their agenda of writings and exhibitions in the United States and Europe sparked the interest of post-war ceramic practitioners, and quickly became a dominant theme. However, aspects of the content and originality of this movement are conspicuously omitted from its consideration.  Yanagi’s philosophy of beauty in craft practice bears clear similarities to the Arts and Crafts movement led by William Morris, although he avowed having only a passing awareness of Mingei’s predecessor.  In Addition, Yanagi’s criteria of what may be considered “true craft” never actually explore the definitions of such an imprecise term in any depth nor do they escape the nationalist polemic in which they are couched.  While Yanagi laid out eight narrow parameters he called the “Standards of Beauty”, his proclamation seems to be based less on aesthetic perception, and more on ideological PREception.  These tenets of aesthetics in ceramics need be taken in their specific cultural and historic contexts with the understanding that they are rhetorical devices intended to enhance credibility and popular support for the political purpose of advancing a movement, rather than as a universal truth exclusive of the social and economic climates that gave rise to them.

As it stands, the ideas introduced by the Mingei movement easily enmeshed themselves with another art movement in the U.S. that developed in the wake of two world wars and an era of economic depression.

Although Abstract Expressionism cast the artist’s creative role as more bohemian than bodhisattva, the Zen Buddhist overtones of Mingei appealed to the “anything-goesism” of the 1960’s art scene.  With a parallel emphasis on materials, authenticity and the physicality of mark-making, ceramics briefly found itself to be in step with activity in other areas of art.  As wood-firing gained popularity through the 70’s and 80’s, Abstract Expressionism became the aesthetic drug of choice.  This movement, however, became a subject of much heated debate in critical circles; a fact largely ignored by wood-fire artists, even today.  One parallel between Expressionism and Westernized Japanese spiritual ideals is the idea of the creative unconscious.  In critical analyses of expressionism, however, a point surfaces that casts the value of discussing the aesthetic merits of such art into doubt:

It’s kind of impossible to generate unconscious expression in the conscious, premeditated act of making art that showcases the idea of unconscious expression.  The idea of unconscious expression reveals itself as a pretense of art-making.

Likewise, as noted in the critical theorist Hal Foster’s essay “The Expressive Fallacy”:

“The expressionist quest for immediacy is taken up in the belief that there exists a content beyond convention, a reality beyond representation.  Because the quest is spiritual not social, it tends to project metaphysical oppositions (rather than articulate political positions); it tends, that is, to stay within the antagonistic realm of the Imaginary.  This suggests in turn that the “I” of expressionism is not the primary, transcendental individual, but the alienated, withdrawn subject.”[1]

In other words, when we make work with the idea of aesthetic transcendence, we’re actually making work about our desire for transcendence without ever really stepping up and articulating what we’re trying to say.

The fusion of Eastern spirituality and Western expressionism in wood-firing also allows for a certain kind of slipperiness when it comes to accountability in art making.  Explanations for specific aesthetic choices tend to be given in the form of vague references to naturalness, history, and a “one-ness” with tools and materials which are rarely clarified or substantiated, which bears a striking resemblance to blind faith and sloppy thinking.  Wood-firing has adopted a tendency to simultaneously claim a spiritual authenticity through a sort of humble surrendering of one’s self to the clay and the kiln as well as having the superhuman cojones to grapple with the unpredictable forces of nature mano a mano.  This circular argument never really addresses the issues of how wood-firing might remain relevant at the start of the 21st Century, aesthetically or otherwise.  It comes off as a sentimental desire for simpler times, and is a caricature of itself in its phobic response to developing ideas in art.

We must look at contemporary wood-firing and its aesthetics within the context that it is produced, here and now.  The reasons guiding the interest of ceramic artists in wood-firing today, particularly among younger artists who have taken to it in the last 15 years, can scarcely be the same as those explorations of the 60’s and 70’s.  By and large, the language used to describe the majority of wood-fired art has remained homogenous and ceased to evolve as evidenced by the identical nature of the language and ideas expressed in artist statements, curatorial statements, and literature on the subject.

Advances in the field are exclusively technical; Kiln design, clay body formulation specific to wood firing, and atmospheric variations are all significant developments in the possibilities of wood-fired aesthetics, but do they constitute primary knowledge in a way that exceeds the idea of technical mastery?  Are technique and pseudo-spiritualism the sum total of wood-fired aesthetics?  What seems to be lacking is a framework by which wood-fired ceramics can be analyzed and examined in a context with art outside of the confines of the field and in relation to the larger social discourse.

And yet that framework does exist.  Many aspects of contemporary theory and criticism such as Semiotics, Julia Kristeva’s theory of the abject, and Roland Barthe’s theories of the Text, among others, address issues pertinent to the practice of wood-fired ceramics.  The absence of wood-firing from these larger discussions has served only to insulate it from developing a meaningful engagement with aesthetics beyond the precepts that spawned it.  I would like to offer Thomas McEvilley’s observations from the essay “Heads It’s Form, Tails It’s Not Content”:

“Passionate belief systems pass through culture like disease epidemics.  The great formalist critical tradition of the postwar period, embodied in the works of Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, Sheldon Nodelman, and others, still has the art body in the last shivers of its fever. In their practice these critics opened the artwork to profound phenomenological analyses.  But their concern with surface, figure, and color eventually coagulated into a repressive ideology that could allow no real theoretical discussion of the inspired practice, which seemed as given as life itself.  It is time to reconsider certain basic questions that […] have long been long regarded as closed.”[2]

What can we possibly mean when we say “wood-fired aesthetics”?  What is at issue here is not whether or not one can experience wood-fired ceramics as beautiful, because I can, and I do.  What is at issue in this question is how well we as artists engage ourselves in the production of meaning through the medium of wood-fired ceramics.

[1] Foster, Hal. “The Expressive Fallacy.” Art in America (January 1983), 71(1):82, 83, 137nn10, 13.

[2] Thomas McEvilley, Capacity: History, the World, and the Self in Contemporary Art and Criticism, Amsterdam, Netherlands: OPA (Overseas Publishers Association, 1996, p.22


Owen Rye’s Response: “Head or Heart”

“Head or Heart?”  by Owen Rye

Ted Adler has created considerable discussion from his paper at the

2006 Arizona woodfire event on aesthetics, which has been published in Log Book #29, and I congratulate him for that. My paper from the same panel has been published in Studio Potter December 2006 and represents my views on the same subject but here are some comments about Adler’s paper. They are modified from email correspondence between me and Jack Troy.


It seems to me that we are viewing – have in fact been viewing for

some time, a resurrection of the old head and heart debate. From where

does our work originate – from our emotions, all intuition and passion

and no logic; or from our intellect, cool and considered and precise?

The chorused reply will of course say preferably both and I agree, but

we see a veering towards one end of the scale or the other in most

woodfired work – possibly more to the heart end.

Adler rightly sees a kind of stagnation present in the current language

(I assume he means what I would call the vocabulary) of woodfiring. I

share a concern that in order to keep alive what has been a vigorous

worldwide art movement over the past thirty years or so we need

reinvigoration – constantly. Adler’s closing remarks suggest very strongly

that we should look for a new aesthetic framework in theory as the

required injection of growth. I disagree. We have got this far without the

theorists intruding too much and I believe they should follow us, not us

them. We plant the seed, they shake the tree.

As a beginning, consider the environment of the woodfirer. Some exist

in the art school environment where contemporary theory and criticism

rule, and may feel some need to ‘fit in’, and to know something about

the French philosophers, the contemporary art and culture critics, and

the variety of others trying to make a name for themselves. Other

woodfirers live in the wilds of various countries and are far more in tune

with their natural environment and their place in it – and their

aesthetic responses to it. What seems just right to one type may include

nothing of what suits the other. From a distance this seems to me to

provide the current head/heart divide; and if that makes any sense Adler is

asking us to ensconce ourselves in our heads and as a probable

consequence deny our emotional/intuitional makeup.

Moving to another viewpoint altogether: the genius who decided first to

market prosciutto and provolone from the same stand thereby invented

the delicatessen, a great marketing device found all over the world.

Likewise the person who decided to market ceramics through a painting

gallery – when even sculpture was not held in very high regard –

inadvertently invented the kind of thinking Ted Adler espouses. (As a

footnote, I think it was an Australian gallery director who defined sculpture

as ‘what you trip over when you step back to look at a painting’).

The conjunction of ceramics and ‘regular art’ in the past fifty or

more years had far more to do with marketing than it did with cultural

theory. Potters saw painters making a lot of money and wanted some of

that. So – and here is the inadvertent bit – ceramics ended up in art

schools along with the ‘high art’. Attempts to make and justify

theoretical connections arose from this (in retrospect) probably

unfortunate conjunction which created the need for the ceramics department

representative to hold their head up in departmental meetings, and so to

maintain their quota of fancy words and thoughts. The painting department

felt the same need in relation to their arts faculty cousin who studied

contemporary cultural theory. Hence we have many Adlers around, hoping

to keep up. I have for many years questioned whether they need to and

if so whether they can.

Summary: I think the attempts to link ceramics into current cultural

theory accidentally originated with marketing strategies rather than the

need of ceramicists to articulate links with contemporary philosophy.

If this is correct we would be better off having symposia on marketing

strategies for ceramics – titled ‘How to sell a pot for the price of

a painting’.

Adler says he will frame the discussion about woodfiring in the context

of the origins of its value system and proceeds to examine

Nippon-centric attitudes, suggesting that we have vacuumed a Nipponese value

system. He asks, is the aesthetic focus of woodfire anything more than an

extension of colonialism?

Several thoughts. First, I see a distinctly more Nippon focussed

attitude in the US among some woodfirers than I do in Australia (and indeed

elsewhere in the Western world), and that may be shaping his thinking. A

rather preachy, rigid attitude about what is right and what is heresy

is not uncommon and is almost universal among those Americans who spent

time in Japan. That’s a shame because if you look underneath the

Japanese narrow-mindedness about maintaining their culture you see a

system of thinking which is pure mercenary genius, designed to maintain

local cartels. How otherwise, without that base of thinking, did the

Japanese proceed after the Second World War to become an economic giant on

the world stage? Its a pity some of the potters who are so Japan centric

have not been aware of that aspect of the ideology – or maybe they

are? If so they could teach us all a great deal about marketing.

To seriously examine the Japanese influence we must look at the

details. If someone says my work is influenced by Japanese ceramics I ask them

to tell me which Japanese potter/s I am influenced by – because I

don’t know myself. After all a painter here would be able to say if they

were influenced by Picasso or Rothko or whoever.  Ultimately we can say

that in the most general terms there is a connection between some

types of woodfiring practised by US/Oz/English/German etc potters and some

Japanese potters. The main connection is that particular types of kilns

produce generally related results. It could equally be established

that my bisque kiln which is an updraft fibre lined metal drum placed over

a woodburning firebox shows a relationship between my work and Roman

terracotta. The kiln was loosely copied from Roman kilns, and it can

fire terracotta, but so what? That does not mean that I should be

attempting to escape the Roman origins of my work, does it? After all,

influence is everywhere. The music I prefer listening to originated with

Negroes (sorry, African Americans – but when it originated they were

Negroes) in the USA – and at this stage I do not know in any detail where

their influences lay. Or I enjoy music, the music I grew up with, that

ultimately has its origins in Ireland in the 1600s with Turlough

O’Carolan and who knows what he thought worth listening to? Should I abandon

all that? Should the current musicians?

Turning to an earlier point by Adler, I’m not sure that Zen carries

the concept of the ‘creative unconscious’ which sounds to me very

much like an idea promoted by Carl Jung. My friends who study Zen

seriously would probably say that if you can express an idea verbally then it

is not Zen. Unconscious expression would be incompatible with

‘stepping up and articulating what we are trying to say’ as Adler requests

us to do, so he seems a little confused himself. Zen thinking would lead

us to a state where the pot and the potter are one. The ‘modern’

version of much Zen thought has been put forward by Merleau-Ponty in his

rendition of phenomenology. A recent very useful book on the subject

of Zen is ‘The Zen Master, the Potter, and the Poet’ by Milton Moon,

a man who I admire greatly. He is our Australian equivalent of someone

like Warren MacKenzie in that he is about 85 and still making pots and

writing books.

Back to Adler- he seems to want us to intellectualise our work further

than we have done but we are potters, not philosophers. Some of us

woodfirers may be capable of advanced thinking – we do have some quite

intelligent people in our ranks. But philosophy is best expressed in

words and pots are best made from clay and fire, not nearly as effective a

medium of general communication. Many other art forms are far more

culturally significant than claywork and the theory fits those best. Why is

that a problem? The lament of some woodfirers that our work is not

valued highly by our culture is strong evidence that our work really has

very little value to our culture and any contribution it makes exists

very much on the margins of cultural consciousness. Is woodfire relevant

at the start of the 21st Century? Not really. Should it be? Not

necessarily. But – as I said in the essay for our last national woodfire

survey, if what we do is not essential to our culture, neither is arranging

flowers or singing in the shower, or wearing a different coloured shirt

each day. Or having a message printed on it. But if we were to lose

all these singularly unnecessary, but collectively essential activities,

we would lose our humanity and live as robots in a dull mercenary

cold-hearted and grey world. And all of these activities happen quite well

without any profound philosophy, they are simply an expression of how we

feel at the time. The theorists with the exception of a very few

philosophers, follow the developments, let’s not forget, they do not

originate them.

Wanting us to be philosophers belies our entire history. Most potters

who have ever lived have been illiterate. Potters I have spent time with

in third world countries have very simple answers to questions about

their work.

Q.  Why do you make that like that?

A    Because my mother/father told me that is how we make cooking pots.

Q    Why do you mix sand with the clay?

A    Because my father/mother said that is the way to do it.

Q    Are you manifesting an expression of the unconscious?

A    Huh??

Q  Why are you not aware of Roland Barth’s theories of the Text, and

semiotics (etc, etc).

Make me wonder how they ever got anywhere if Adler is right. Basically

we are making decorative art. People everywhere in the world that I

have travelled have clay objects in their house that are just meant to be

looked at, and have pictures on their walls ditto. People like to

brighten up their environment. Sophisticated people (ie the bourgeois and

the rich and well educated) do it with sophisticated objects and like to

have something that nobody else has. We cater to them. Especially in

woodfire where we cannot help but make unique objects. Some of us make

things that can be used and apply our sophisticated thinking to the

question of function. Some don’t care much about that. To the extent that

we satisfy those demands, and give ourselves some pleasure along the

way – we have, to answer Adler’s final question – engaged ourselves

in the production of meaning. The meaning we have produced resides in

the feelings of the maker and the consumer, and the advancement of

philosophy as a subject lies elsewhere.

Our cabalistic responses to each others work may be expressed in words

but I think almost invariably what we are expressing is a feeling about

the work. That proportion feels wrong, or that glaze is too shiny for

that form, or this one is a real gem. If we very strongly felt the need

to place ourselves within a non-repressive ideology that allowed real

theoretical discussion I guess we would be good at that, but I for one

feel no sense of deprivation, no need to turn to the ‘dark side’. I

can drive a car with no great understanding of the latest engineering


I must say here that I have not found any great use for all this

thinking, I just go ahead and make work and look at the forms as I go,

modifying them to something that ‘looks and feels right’… glazing them,

or not in terms of what I imagine they will end up like; placing them

in the kiln, and firing, in a way I hope will give the ‘best’

results – and then being either delighted or rendered despondent by the

occasional unexpectedness of the results. I am an absorber of other work,

but not necessarily a conscious analyser unless someone asks me to

write about something – for making work the making is the analysis.

Finally, I agree with Adler that the newer generation needs to do

something new to keep the woodfire phenomenon going – if they wish to keep

it going. I am slightly surprised that it has not faded away

gracefully before now. We had our ‘prophets’ who got the thing going – so

maybe Adler is the new prophet of the new generation in which case I

wish them all well and await their insights with considerable interest.

And a final p.s. – Voulkos, the ceramic epitome of the abstract

expressionist movement – was almost certainly not generally regarded in

his later career in the US as a ‘potter’ or ‘ceramicist’ but as

at least, a sculptor and probably as an ‘artist’. That his work was

woodfired was probably not important to his reputation, and to the

price his work commanded. And I make a guess that he did not concern

himself with questions about the cultural meaning of his work.

August 2016
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