Plates on Walls and Pots on Plinths
I’m looking at a picture of a piece of pottery. It’s in an old auction catalogue from The Chinese Porcelain Company, and it is of a vessel in the form of an owl. Just under six inches in height, it dates from the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) and, to my eye, it seems incredibly sad and alone. The reason I think it looks so lonely is that it is obviously a piece that was made to be touched.
Two thousand years later, I’m looking at another piece of porcelain. This time it’s hanging on a wall at an art fair in London. Plate for throwing in arguments, by Keaton Henson is a witty piece, playing on the turns of value as, elevated by the phrase painted on its surface, this is one plate that is unlikely ever to be thrown. Once displayed, it won’t be used, much less touched, ever again, but I’m finding it hard to muster much sympathy for it.
From 7th century Tang Dynasty mi se (secret-colour) porcelain, its delicate celadon green said to be so beautiful only the imperial family were allowed to look at it, to Japanese words that were only to be uttered for royal ears to hear, humanity has found ways to elevate the ordinary. Mi se was kept so secret that, for over a thousand years, until the re-discovery of hidden chambers at Famen Temple in Shaanxi Province, it was considered by many to be a myth. But what are we to do with today’s objects, those ones that are, to varying degrees, out of the ordinary?
It’s easy enough with Henson’s work to know that it ought to be on a wall, or in a vitrine. After all, it’s for sale at an art fair, and at a price beyond what plate and paint should separately amount to, even adding a cost for the artist’s labour. The art world have made a fine art of consolidating, and accruing, both price and value to the objects in its ranks. Sometimes, though not always, I think, craft looks on with envy.
So what about other things? My grandmother had a set of cabbage leaf plates that she prized so highly she never used them. They lay, displayed, on her dresser; a fair enough compromise between wall and table. And then they came to me. I have a loathing of plates on walls. I dislike the abstraction from function, and yet I don’t know what to do with my granny’s green china. Using them, and therefore potentially subjecting them to chips (of the irrevocable kind, the kind that comes without ketchup) and greater breakages would feel disrespectful, and so they currently remain, still wrapped in newspaper from the 1990s, in a box at the back of the wardrobe. Theodor Adorno had some words to say about this. Responding to Adolf Loos’ Ornament and Crime dogma, in a lecture in 1965, he talked about the spurious nature of imagining a gulf between use and beauty.
“In Loos’ thought,” he said. “And in the early period of functionalism, purposeful and aesthetically autonomous products were separated from one another by absolute fact”. Then he moves on to one of my favourite lines, when it comes to thinking about the nature of things: “Art, with its definitive protest against the dominance of purpose over human life, suffers once it is reduced to that practical level to which it objects…” It’s easy to adore Adorno. He gets it. “In any given product, freedom from purpose and purposefulness can never be absolutely separated from one another […] Even the most pure forms of purpose are nourished by ideas – like formal transparency and graspability – which in fact are derived from artistic experience. No form can be said to be determined exhaustively by its purpose.”
It’s lovely stuff, but it still doesn’t help me decide what to do with my cabbage-leaf china. The choices are easier with art works. You like them or you don’t, and that’s how you choose what to put on your walls. But crafted objects: vessels, plates, bowls, silverware; derive their form from an idea of purpose, which gets in the way of selection – whether for use, or exhibition. There are a great many things wrapped up in the newspaper around my plates, quite beyond my mixed feelings about aesthetics, function, use and display. There’s how I feel about my grandmother, ideas of collecting, family attitudes to “good china” (in a kind of left-wing statement, we never really had any), there’s my concern about disrespecting how much my grandmother cared for them, coupled with a knowledge that if I don’t put these plates in a space of value, how might they be valued in the future? Could it be that I’m stripping them of meaning and, in my concern for them, care?
The layers of value and significance that attach to mi se mean that when we do come to see it, we give it time, pausing to look beyond what might appear, to contemporary eyes, an everyday green. That time is important, as, focussing, something more can emerge. We might even be lucky enough to get a sense of what Tang Dynasty poet, Lu Guimeng, described as similar to ice and jade, “as crystal-clear as autumn dews […] impressive as the combined lushness of a thousand mountains”, and see beyond the surfaces of the ceramic to discover ideas of milky light, misty vistas, and the shifting shades of nature held in a glaze.
The difference with the little owl is that, unlike, mi se, it was obviously made to be used, held, touched. Even in a photograph, it reflects those centuries of loving use, back to us across time. Now separated by its incredible age from what it was created for, it appears detached from itself, lost, somehow, in time. Looking again at the photograph I realise that it is high time I unwrapped my cabbage leaves. Pausing, perhaps, to linger over the newsprint detailing the collapse of the Soviet Union, the arrest of the Unabomber, OJ Simpson, and the death of Princess Diana. Time and history move on, but things, with care, endure. It’s too soon for these to be abstracted from their useful meaning, just as it’s too soon for their story to be petrified into art. These plates were made to be used, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.