“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

5 Responses to ““Questioning Wood-fire Aesthetics””

  1. November 30, 2009 at 8:03 pm


    It is post-modernism that is phobic against anything that recognizes that traditional work may have some value that we have overlooked. Both Okakura Tenshin and Soetsu Yanagi were acting in defense of local culture, in the face of aggressive, global materialism. William Morris was inspired by the same values.

    The mark of the fall of a civilization is when its love of novelty becomes the love of the grotesque. Why does an expression of another way threaten post-modern materialism?

  2. 2 tedadler
    November 30, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Lee, I have a feeling that we’ll just have to agree to disagree, but I appreciate your comments.

    The fact is, we’re way past Post-modernism at this point (post-post-post-post-post-modernism). Your point that Okakura Tenshin and Soetsu Yanagi were acting in defense of local culture only underscores my sentiment that the Mingei movement was a political gesture, not the moral and aesthetic “truth” that it claimed to be.

    Additionally, I find it interesting that Morris, who died in 1896, was inspired by Yanagi, who was born in 1889.

    Also, on what premise do you found your ideas that Post-modernism was in any way motivated by materialist values? I believe it to be quite the opposite, as Marxism plays a very influential role.

    I think that Okakura may have been the one dressing mutton up as lamb. He and Yanagi may have more in common with Jeff Koons than you might think…


  3. 3 togeika
    November 30, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    The other thing you are mistaken about, is that Mingei has nothing to do with the “wood fire” aesthetic you speak about. All the original group inspired by Mingei fired in noborigami kilns, where everything was fired in saggers and behind shield screens. Unglazed wood fire is more of a tea aesthetic, which has noting to do with Mingei. As Philip Rawson said of Jeff Koons, “Koons is the perfect example of the ‘craftless artist.’

    If you are going to critique something. You should know a little bit about what it is. I would be happy to answer any questions you have.

  4. 5 togeika
    June 17, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Hi Ted, I stumbled across my WordPress account again and saw your post on Mingei.

    Zen Buddhism is another practice that is misunderstood by post-modernist. It has nothing to do with “anything-goesism”. I’ve been a serious student of Soto Zen for 30 years, spending time in monasteries in Japan and America. When you are in the monastery during meditation retreats, your behavior is very much circumscribed. As my late teacher Dainin Katagiri Roshi used to say, at Sesshin or Ango, you are putting a very wiggly snake in a bamboo tube. Until you put the snake in the tube, you never know how wiggly that snake actually is. The “anything-goesism” is a misunderstanding brought to us by the Beats and their interpretation of the old Koans/”Public Records.” When people actually practice Zen, it is all about giving up any choice and being propelled by the world around you. You become a vehicle rather than a driver.

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December 2009

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