Contemporary Ceramics and the Past

David Palmer Ceramics Art + Perception 109 2018 Yarrobil Home

“We are forced to that fundamental question of history: whether ... similar images arise far apart in space and time according to common types of human needs, reverence, and desire, or whether there was some vast stone age diffusion long ago”
Vincent Scully1
“That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art”
Walter Benjamin2

Of all the revolutionary transformations in human development perhaps the greatest is the least known: the global transition from the hunter, gatherer and fisher — dependent on the chance provisioning of nature to the reproduction of nature — through the husbandry of animals and birds and the cultivation of plants. But wherever, whenever, and whatever the pace of this transition, pottery is already present, flourishing as the invention and achievement of the semi-sedentary egalitarian community, raising its ability in wresting a surplus from nature by new means.

Pottery is present at so many points of this multi-form transition in so widespread a manner and out of such a great diversity of geographic conditions — the plateau of Anatolia, the lakes of central Mexico, the scattered settlements of the Middle Yellow River or the littoral of Kyushu — that it is easy to overlook the near universal evidence of its artifactual foundation in basketry, the woven container skeuomorphicly transformed into the new medium. Notwithstanding formal innovations such as the foot and the spout, “genuine ceramic devices”3, new clay technology not only replicated all the forms the accomplished basket-maker already provided, but also many of the decorative elements which the potter, now released from the technical constraints of the basket-maker, rendered as impressed or incised marks or as new cursive surface effects in paint, the new medium providing new possibilities of expression to the inherited patterning of coiling, plaiting and twining and able to elaborate those abstract symbols into new meanings and expressions.

The new form of the appropriation of nature first takes hold in the ovi-caprid cultures of the semi-nomadic tribes of the river valleys flowing south from the Anatolian plateau as far west as the Zagros mountains of Iran. Flexible economies combining the earlier hunting with herding and agriculture and a new form of mobility — portable housing, tents of goat hair — the promise of a more human life in the bleating of the lamb and the kid. In other regions, at other times, the necessary stimulus might come from outside; the introduction of flooded field rice-growing from Korea to Kyushu, the diffusion of maize from Mexico, south to Peru and north to the Southwest desert of North America, or the diffusion of sheep and goats, emmer and barley from the Near East into South East Europe providing the basis for the foundation of more permanent settlements, villages and cities.

Art is now divided, high and low, its’ meaning and the artist ambiguously split as the contradictions of community and rule collide and collude.

Nature and human nature now appear in a new way and are so expressed in the perception and imagination of the potter. The painted pot raising the beauty of the new medium otherwise much inferior to the skills of the basket-maker weaver. Where the pre-existing basket making tradition is weak and the catalyst of change is external such as in Peru or Okinawa, the decorative motifs may shift more readily to realistically rendered imagery of birds or fish. Elsewhere, the direct decorative impressions of basketry into the clay may persist well into the phase of the rapid expansion in the use of the new medium.

Like basketry, horticulture and the taming of animals, pottery, though overall a joint task, may in all likelihood be claimed as the invention or specialty of the women of the community. An art nevertheless common to all, evident in the Americas as the bowls allocated to each member of the Mimbres for their use throughout their adult life, or as the essential center of the feasting cultures of the Middle East. The new mode generated the reorganization of the settlement, the distinctive tholoi, or pit house, remade as the aggregated rectangular dwellings of the Pueblo, whether in the Near East or the American Southwest, a new way of living expressive of the new power of the community.

By the beginning of the dynastic period of Mesopotamia, Childe considered that all of the conditions for civilization, were already in place. With success, however, came the need for expansion of territory and therefore warfare. The incorporation of the conquered people compelling a new differentiation, severing the unity of the community, raising priesthoods and chiefdoms of hereditary rule. New forms of art appear that indicate the special status of rulers and associated rituals, distinctive vessels impractical for daily use, painstaking artistry, refined, remote, untouchable, seemingly separated from production, whilst quickly fashioned bowls soon to be made on the wheel; tool of the new craftsman, served the most rudimentary purposes of daily use.

Art is now divided, high and low, its meaning and the artist ambiguously split as the contradictions of community and rule collide and collude. The artistic root of the ancient community persisting as a craft tradition providing for daily life whilst elite work may be evident elsewhere. The Imperial kilns of Junyao or Bunwon, or in the special elegance of Cistercian architecture transposed into the formal lines of the baluster jug.

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