Nostalgia can be comforting, but it’s all too easy to wallow in a past that was really more like the present than one likes to think.
The Gordy/Bradford song was playing around the time Pottery in Australia was first published in 1962; Robert Menzies was Prime Minister, and EK Holdens were rolling off the production line, and tended to (forgive the tortured metaphor) paint a picture of Australian ceramics in, if not sepia tones, then at least colours reminiscent of an old Kodachrome slide. We think of it as being far removed from what happens now, but the reality is that only a few changes have occurred in Australian ceramics over the past five decades, and those changes, important though they are, are probably not the ones we expect to find.
For a start, not a lot has altered in the sort of work that is made. Ceramics can still be separated into the same categories of objects that it occupied fifty years ago; namely, vessel-based work and everything else. There may be a quibble about when ceramics becomes sculpture or at what point a pot becomes
a representation of a pot, but, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m contending that nothing new has arrived on the scene during the past half century.
We’ve had faux Sung and faux just about everything Japanese, Modernism, Funk, Memphis, Post Modernism, Cool Porcelain, Designer Groupings, Conceptual Clay and God knows what else. Even the seemingly recent innovation of installations date back at least to the mid-seventies.1 Some styles seem to have come and gone while others have endured, but perhaps the only really notable change in all that time has been a shift in interest away from brown clay, once the staple of Australian potters, to the almost universal use of white clays, particularly porcelain.
This preference for etiolation also touches on the question of techniques and materials, but again very little has actually changed. Earthenware pottery, once the mainstay of early Australian studio pottery, made quite a comeback in the 1970s and 80s, while the fetish for porcelain has continued to grow, making the wide brown land into the great Southern Ice-land. Although the use of more ‘natural’ materials has diminished, the woodfirers still show a significant commitment to a ‘back-to-nature’ approach, even if that means utilising pre-packaged and specially formulated clay that will react nicely to a three-day firing in an anagama. (And just trying to say “in an anagama” surely deserves some sort of prize.)
Shifting our attention to how ceramics is taught, it seems that here at least there have been some significant shifts, with the precipitous decline of ceramics as a discrete subject within the art curriculum being the most radical change of all. Nonetheless, what has remained constant is that the teaching of ceramics to adults has mainly been undertaken by tertiary institutions as part of the ‘higher education’ sector – bodies funded by the government that award qualifications of various sorts.
An unexpected consequence of this situation has been the proliferation of ceramicists who now possess higher degrees, but this says more about the way art schools have been incorporated into the university sector than it does about the work that is made. Universities are funded to do research and they take every opportunity to frame their activities within these guidelines, so if an art school is part of a university it is only reasonable to expect that some students will take matters to a logical academic conclusion.
There are several other possible approaches as to how ceramics might have been taught, but few of these met with any success. Despite some valiant attempts to set up government-funded apprenticeships, this approach never caught on, and privately funded apprenticeships were always destined to fail in a country where the teacher could hardly earn enough from the sales of work to support themselves, let alone a trainee. The other approach, where ceramics was taught as a genuine trade, wasn’t ever really a starter, since traditional ceramics manufacturers were dying out by the time the post war crafts movement had taken hold.
Despite this reliance on the art school system, the position of ceramics within the marketplace has always been more ambiguous, with goods appearing in venues ranging from high-end galleries to craft shops, private showrooms and even stalls in local markets. Sometimes a ceramicist would place work in all of these venues simultaneously, showing a promiscuous disregard for the niceties that constrained more mainstream artists and helped defined their practice.
Maybe the only consistent factor in Australian ceramics has been its continuing marginality; always one sandwich short of a picnic as far as the art world was concerned, and increasingly fated to be on the decline with a general public spoiled for choice in a modern consumer paradise. In fact, it is this last observation which points to the factor that has conditioned every aspect of the development of Australian ceramics, from the amateur to the professional, from academia to the marketplace, in both the public and private sectors, and that is money.
Money may indeed be the root of all evil2 (actually this is a malapropism – the original quote suggests that the love of money is the problem) but the economy of the crafts, how money is earned and distributed within a community of makers and consumers, has shaped Australian clay as surely as the hands of a skilled craftsperson.
To see how this has happened, we must go back to the late 1940s when legions of returned servicemen, aided by government funded retraining schemes, enrolled in courses in art schools and technical colleges throughout the country. Although ceramics was only a very small part of what was on offer it did allow some students to experience clay for the first time and to consider that some form of artistic expression could be a part of their lives.
In addition to this, the ending of the period of wartime austerity had led to a proliferation of small ceramics manufacturing concerns. The Australian public were hungry for goods, and potteries across the country sated the desire of the consumer for colourful, relatively inexpensive items that faced little domestic competition in a highly protected market. The work may have been earthenware, and some may have despised the seemingly endless supply of eggcups and ramekins that flooded the market, but it was a business with a sound economic base.
At the same time, growing numbers of Australian potters, inspired by Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book, embraced the challenges of stoneware. The aesthetic was different and the technology presented many challenges, which doubtless was part of the appeal and explains the tendency of ceramics magazines to include copious amounts of technical information. There was a ready market for this new style of work, as it fitted well with the more avant-garde trends in architecture and homewares, although whether it ever had the same level of mass appeal as earthenware is debatable.
Growing numbers of commercial galleries exhibited ceramics and, because of the good prospects for sales, commissions were low and galleries wouldn’t dream of charging up-front costs. Exhibitions often sold out, and there are wonderful stories of gallery directors rationing sales to eager customers, such was the interest in this new field of studio pottery. However, the major development in the ceramics economy concerned the increasing amounts of public money flowing to the crafts. There were two main sources of this extraordinary largesse.
The first was the proliferation of government-funded ceramics training courses. In departments of further education, in vocational training and at art schools, the 1960s and ’70s saw an exponential rise in the adult education sector. Since ceramics was often a part of the school curriculum, teacher training colleges incorporated ceramics departments as well.
The result was that by the mid-70s even a small state might have a dozen or more fully functioning ceramics departments scattered throughout the metropolitan and regional areas. Many of these institutions offered a range of courses, with part-time and after hours ceramics classes being very well attended indeed.
All of these departments needed to be staffed and equipped, and a reasonably talented ceramicist might well look forward to gaining at least some of their income from teaching, with the most fortunate ones being offered the sinecure of a tenured position, together with generous working conditions and the prospect of a highly subsidised superannuation scheme on their retirement.
We also shouldn’t forget the students who, thanks to the Whitlam years, now had access not only to free education but a student allowance that provided (just) enough money to live on, which led to ever greater numbers of people moving through the art departments.
If this era saw an expansion of the higher education sector, it also witnessed another facet of government support for the crafts, which was the introduction of the grant, or should that be the GRANT.
As Grace Cochrane notes:
“Towards the end of the 1960s, the first moves were made to rationalise and co-ordinate the ways in which the federal government funded the arts, a development that was to reach its fullest form in the reshaped Australia Council for the Arts in 1973.”3
The newly elected Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, called on Jean Battersby, the CEO of the then Australia Council (originally an organisation mainly concerned with funding the performing arts), to prepare a report for the new government that highlighted the administrative and, from a strongly centralist government’s point of view, philosophical problems presented in overseeing the raft of existing arts funding bodies.4
Predictably enough, Battersby found that, “... the present situation is not satisfactory from an administrative point of view ...”5 To conjure the blessed spirit of Sir Humphrey Appleby, “steps needed to be taken”.
After all, Whitlam, with characteristic hyperbole, had stressed the importance of the arts to his new government, stating that,
“... all the other objectives of the Labor government – social reform, justice and equity in the provision of social services and educational opportunities – have as their goal the creation of a society in which the arts can flourish”.6
Never one to waste time, on Australia Day 26 January 1973, Whitlam announced the first appointments to a new arts council, comprising seven specialist boards, of which the Crafts Board was one. For the first time, the crafts had a seat at the adult table.
State governments followed suit, allocating funds through newly created departments of the arts to local crafts boards, which were often also funded by the Australia Council. Offices were rented, staff appointed and these organisations, state and federal, came to control the purse strings.
Not that the strings were drawn very tightly, at least in the beginning. Fiscal rectitude was not one of Gough’s strong points, and activities that had hitherto seemed to be the domain of the hobbyist – basket-weaving and the like – soon found themselves being encouraged and given financial support, and the mechanism by which this was achieved was the grant.
In an interesting historical coincidence, it was at about this time that the influence of a mainly American school of avant-garde ceramics, transmitted through the pages of that esteemed journal Craft Horizons, really began to be felt in this country.
This was a new type of ceramic work that was at the very forefront of post-modernism, revelling in its ‘dumbing down’ of high-art pretensions and poking fun at the rather serious and tasteful world of studio pottery. Unfortunately, these new ceramic objects were mostly unsaleable, and it is here that we begin to see the negative side of a system that supported artists to make things the public simply didn’t want.
This is such a complex equation that unravelling all the permutations should be the subject of at least one PhD. Suffice to say that the combination of providing government assistance for individuals to make work, together with rewarding many of those same individuals with teaching positions, as well as generously funding non-commercial gallery spaces to show work which was going to be very difficult to sell, led to a situation where many ceramicists didn’t take the attitudes of the general public into consideration at all, because they had no financial incentive to do so. This represented a paradigm shift in the relationship between Australian ceramicists and a public that had hitherto supported the crafts in a fairly enthusiastic manner.
There began an inevitable drift away from ceramics. Ceramics departments began to close down and the student numbers dwindled. The new management-driven class of education administrators (whose numbers were actually rising!) used this as an excuse to close more courses, and it just went on from there. Private galleries weren’t as willing to exhibit ceramics, because the sales had begun to drop off. They also charged a lot more for the privilege, regularly demanding up-front fees to cover costs, a punitive economic burden which the artist frequently tried to defray by – you guessed it – applying for a grant. Ironically, this practice was also adopted by government-funded spaces that found themselves in the privileged position of being paid (how shall I put this delicately?) to both give and receive at the same time.
Amidst all this discussion of the role of government in shaping Australian ceramics, what is to be said of the ultimate consumer, the so-called general public? What role have they played in all of this?
Tastes certainly do change, as does the availability of goods, and with it the way people choose to spend their money.
In the heyday of the crafts, inner-city shopping precincts barely had a coffee shop or restaurant to their name. Whole categories of modern consumer goods simply didn’t exist. This is significant because spending on the crafts is discretionary. The funds can just as easily be spent on something else, for example anything beginning with a lower-case ‘i’, or eating out.
Shops are now full of ridiculously cheap ceramics, mostly, but not exclusively imported from China, a country which has been pretty good at cornering a global market for export ceramics for over five hundred years. Whereas you simply couldn’t go into a store in the 1960s or ’70s and buy a nice set of plain white noodle bowls for a couple of dollars each, now you can get them at the supermarket. This is pretty serious competition for a potter who makes functional wares and it takes a very informed and dedicated consumer to spot the difference.
In the end, perhaps all one can really say is that in ceramics the distribution of government money
has had a definite impact on what is made, but then again so has the normal ebb and flow of the marketplace. The final arbiter of the arts economy is actually the secondary market, which is about as free as the free market gets, “... Nature, red in tooth and claw ...”7, though I don’t think Tennyson had Sotheby’s in mind when he came up with the phrase. It will probably take another fifty years to sort it all out.