December 24th, 2006


Good pots have errors

Well, after nearly three years of Click Opera we're still to publish our first piece about pottery or ceramics. I thought today might be the day to set that scandalous oversight right with a piece, inspired by an interesting radio programme, about the great Bernard Leach. Now, some of you may well look at what I have to say about Leach -- the fact that he was a British person highly influenced by his own idiosyncratic take on Japanese culture, or that he was an individualist who advocated anonymous craftsmen and collective tradition, or that he celebrated errors and mistakes -- and say that in fact this isn't an entry about pottery at all, but a retread of some old thematic pots we throw here week in, week out. Maybe so. The thing about a pot is that it's never just a pot. It's a way of looking at the world.

That's the thing. If you aestheticize something as simple as a pot, by extension you aestheticize everyday life. Leach "created the artist-potter simply by being it", but he did it not by devaluing his own status, but by elevating the work of humble craftsmen to a kind of religious philosophy, and honoring his errors as hidden intentions. He cites Zen ideas a lot, but later apparently became a Ba'hai. (Lovely gentle people; at university I befriended a knot of them in the creative writing group -- Ian Stephen, Angus, Joy... and yes, there was something pottish about them, that same devotion to simplicity.)

Leach's orientalism was earned (he was born in the East, lived as a child in Japan, came back and studied there, and married a Japanese wife) but also learned. It meshed Zen ideas with William Morris-type British arts-and-crafts beliefs about the value of simplicity and artisanal labour as exemplified in the peasant pottery of Japan and Korea. "I came to believe that we can re-learn from the East much that we have lost in our industrial revolution, for the machine leaves out the heart of labour, feeling, imagination and directness of control. The craftsman is the only worker using heart, hand and head in balance."

One of the Zen ideas Leach embraced was the principle of emptiness or non-intentionality, mu, as central in the making of mingei pottery as it is, for instance, in the music of John Cage:

"There is in Zen belief a quality called mu, a quality attached neither to positive or negative. It is a quality we most admire in pots, and it is that rare condition of which we catch glimpses in men and women when the spirit of life blows through an open window. It is the treasure of the humble craftsman and the haven of the greatest artist." (Rosemary Hill is slightly sarky about this; "Like many who extoll the virtues of the anonymous craftsman," she says, "Leach was in fact a towering personality with a huge ego".)

As for error-as-virtue, that comes of course from Japanese craft tradition too. It's in wabi sabi, and it's also in raku, the low-temperature kilncraft part of yakimono. (Correct me if I'm wrong, I'm not really a pottery expert.) As Edmund DeVahl explains, British critics in the 1920s saw Leach's pots as flawed. But in raku the low temperature means the glaze doesn't turn to glass, there are cracks and imperfections, bumps and lumps. You're invited to touch the imperfections, feel the cracks, see all this as personality rather than error.

Leach was on a Japanizing mission, thinks DeVahl: he saw pots as part of an evangelical project to convert an English audience to see the beauty in unevenness, mottled hues, quiet, solid tones of glazes, tactile qualities you can only discover by handling the objects, turning them over, looking at the detail on the underside. It's a very Japanese aesthetic, but it can be connected to the British arts and crafts movement philosophy, and that's what Leach did in his influential book A Potter's Book.

Rosemary Hill suggests that Leach's emphasis on imperfection was quite different in the British context than it would have been in Japan. Whereas Japan needed some emphasis on humble materials and asymmetry to counterbalance a tradition of exquisite high quality finishes, Britain probably needed to develop sophistication; adopting the rough raku aesthetic wholesale was a way of passing off typical British incompetence as a virtue. It was, she suggests, reassuring for Britons caught up in World War II to read Leach's book, concocted in bomb-blasted London "like an egg hatched in a thunderstorm". (He later relocated to St Ives.)

I think maybe the only time I have mentioned pottery on Click Opera was talking about Tori Kudo of Maher Shalal Hash Baz. Tori throws raku pots (and records his music) in his Shunji Pottery workshop at Tobe, Ehime prefecture, and you can hear the "deliberate imperfection" trope in his music as well as in the pots he once demonstrated to MTV's This is our Music series. I love that little clip, and I love the idea that making a hash of things ("always unsuccessful" is Tori's motto) could be a virtue, especially in this age of shiny shiny digital surfaces. But maybe I'm just being your typical British Japanizer. They can do both rough and smooth, we can just do rough. They're slumming it, but slums are all we have.

Then again, although Tori Kudo's parents were both potters, he learned his skills at Barnet College, North London. Repaying Bernard Leach's debt, perhaps.