Mike's Pots

 Mike Dodd - In Defence Of Tradition - 1974

Mike Dodd
In Defence Of Tradition - 1974

In Defence of Tradition .... because of the heart, in spite of the head.


.... Outside the mist hangs loosely, coolly caressing the still and stately branches of the walnut.... And as the sun rises drops of mist-water can be faintly heard as the young, fragile buds quietly renew. Life is once again given form different from last year; yet the same. Milleniums old, yet new. New, yet old ....

Imagine the "old" potters, with no knowledge of distant traditions and quite possibly little knowledge of potters outside their own county, preparing, settling, drying and throwing their clays; making wares which, in function, expressed the needs of their communities. Imagine the destruction of such communities, and the consequent dissipation of craftsmen during the migration of country people into the towns to supply the rapidly enlarging industrial revolution, meaning that the crafts, as an expression of those needs, lost their vitality, their self- integrity. Culture arose out of those needs. Their loss, therefore, signified the loss of culture. When that died, the living traditions were severed from their roots. Originality decayed (origin: . . . . from the source). Tradition wilted and died also or became totally unresourceful as e.g. in the modern Wedgwood and Delft factories, hardly definable shadows of their former selves. The craftsman of those early communities had no one to impress, no exhibitions to launch, no reputation to nurse. But he had his work, his craft with which he could develop, unheeded, an inner relationship. Such a relationship was between the Heart (the source) and the Hand. The very nature of the work at that time would demand this relationship if the man was to remain content. Between himself and the process of making lay the 'development area' of the pre-industrial craftsman. The deepening of his understanding of 'the one on the wheel', of the subtleties of his materials, where they were dug and how they were dug, the souring, the intricate sensations and delicate movements learnt through long hours on the wheel, his feelings and insights Intellectually, we now call the work of those men 'unselfconscious'. The identity of self, as 'I', was lost, since any self-assertion was subordinated in the heart/hand relationship. The 'I' bowed in the making of the pot, and not at its final acclamation! Such products were naturally original, individual and free (individual in the proper sense of being undivided). We are conscious of this, because of the head.

Twentieth century man, and the twentieth century craftsman in particular, has entered life through quite a different door. He has been educated or conditioned to use his head at the expense of his heart. (Hence the popularity of John Macmurray's books and lectures in the thirties. Freedom in Society, Reason & Emotion and Persons in Relation essentially expound that Christianity has become Stoicism i.e. the separation, and subsequent deceit to ourselves, of thought and feeling and they a re an attempt to understand and redress the balance). This imbalance of the intellectual importance, the conceptual basis of our understanding of life, gives us, in our relationship with our work a perceptual difference in vision, inner or outer. We are conscious of why we are doing what we are doing rather than doing it because it needs doing. We are, as someone said, intellectual revivalists. Instead of the relationship being between the craftsman's being and the process (heart/hand), it is now between the process and the finished product (hand/head).

The emphasis has shifted from the process of making and inner fulfilment, to the product and personal aggrandisement. Self-effacement and self-assertion, negative and positive, jiriki and tariki, yes and no. The shift is very evident in our work and attitudes (the fashionable negation of value judgements i.e. the heart). Anything goes, the more "original and individual" the better if only they were! What we are really saying is that any idea goes. But what we fail to see, is that the pot can then only be as good as the idea and unjustly limited thereby. Contrast Leach's "The pot is the man" with "The pot is the idea". Conceptual art must be limited since concepts can only function within duality, and therein lies the gates of hell and the prison of the heart. Work made from this conceptual and highly self-conscious premis cannot be individual and free but, conversely, individual and bound. Sadly the majority of art colleges fall within this trap, producing intellectual toys, negating the very humanity which gave them cause to be. This negation holds many pitfalls; resentment, envy, gimmicry, idosyncracy and supercilious pedantry on the ad nauseum argument of pottery v sculpture v painting etc., etc., etc.. They are all languages of human expression, but it is not enough to learn the grammar. We must learn to know those who are eloquent and those who, rarer still speak without speaking. The quiet austerity and spirituality of a Leach; the sensuality and humanity of a Cardew, the generosity and humility of a Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie and the simplicity and directness of a Batterham. "There are no major and minor arts, only major and minor artists".

However having established that we have been brought up differently, have "come through another door" we cannot conscientiously rest if we bemoan the fact and wallow in an over-romanticised nostalgia, by slamming it in the face of reality. Perhaps the function of the modern day potter is to try and strike a balance, a balance which in Japan is expressed as Jiriki, Tariki; Self-power, other- power (something akin to Cardew's deliciously understated 'the something other'). Being aware, we will have some sort of aesthetic, however nebulous, which in itself will have a greater or lesser degree of temperamental ecclecticism. We will consciously choose from those countries and cultures, forms, textures and glazes which, because of their choosing, give us an indication of that which will express ourselves best. This is healthy, albeit easy to abuse. And yet at the same time as we extract what we will from these divergent traditions we hear talk that tradition is dead, old hat, the concern only of the "two-bit" functional potters! Tradition is the living and inexhaustible form of the Source (that which Yanagi in the "Unknown Craftsman" prefers to call the Spring). It is interesting to note that in the modern tendency to reject the anthropocentric and irrational aspects of the traditions of the heart, we have evident, in compensation, conceptual creations of the 'natural order' e.g. seashells, fungi, rocks etc. We should be careful here not to intellectually misinterpret Aristotle. "Art imitates nature" does not mean that art should imitate the appearance of nature, but the nature of nature. The heart is the centre of human experience and yet we must use the head to transcribe that which we feel. But the head must serve the heart as Dag Hammersjold aptly put it "How humble the tool when praised for what the Hand has done".

Some years ago I was somewhat disturbed by something which Hamada is supposed to have uttered when asked if he would go to America and teach (he was then quite young). He declined and on being asked why, he replied 'I wish to start a pottery in the country and lose my tail'. And I wondered how he could lose something that evidently he hadn't got? Being now a little more versed in the eastern delight of paradox, perhaps he meant that he wished to get rid of his 'ego' or 'self' which he knew existed only as a mental construct or 'bind'. This bind is only too real to most of us and yet it has no real existence. And when more recently Hamada said 'a good pot is born and not made' I realized that he was saying something to the effect that if we didn't lose our 'tails', good pots would be out of our reach. Cezanne said something similar 'I wish to paint this landscape while I'm not here'. In other words, and in eastern terms, 'a good pot is born and not made', means that it is directly conceived from that which is Unborn. One has lost one's tail sufficiently for the creative force to come into play without the hindrance of our self-opinionated, ideologically conditioned, little egos. This process of emptying, fulfills us.

For me, pottery is unthinkable without very close attention to tradition. We cannot dismiss thousands of years of human love and expression by delineating an arbitrary line whereby tradition is no longer valid. True tradition is Vital, it is alive, it is life mirrored in an anthropocentric form. Why? In order that another anthropod may benefit thereby! Through this life we can give love, or indifference or hate, that is our choice, for it is not a concern of life itself, just as the sun, from its absolute point of vision knows nothing of shadows, and cares not, for 'man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it is dark'. A pot, a poem, a painting or a little piece of cloth, which speaks to us over the centuries, has shown us in its very form, the formless, the Unborn, the Heart, the Source. And we in our turn try to precipitate, give meaningful form to this formlessness whose language is written in the work of artisans from all countries at all times and whose vehicle is tradition. The success of this operation will depend on our ability to get out of the way, to allow the free play of the heart, that inexhaustible reservoir of growth.

Old forms; yet new. New; yet old .... I hope we get more walnuts this year.