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This was originally published in 2009 in the Journal of Australian Ceramics Vol 4 No 2, pages 69-71

Ceramics Education: What’s the point?

by Owen Rye

‘.... students with sad, serious faces, blind to everything but the hideous enchantment of some hopeless dream’. (Joseph Heller in his short story The Death of the Dying Swan).

I retired from teaching at Monash University in Gippsland at the end of 2003. The building where ceramics was housed was demolished six months before I left, a metaphor for the destruction of many ceramics courses around Australia. Should we mourn? Certainly not for that building, it was only an old tin shed anyway. The facilities don’t matter; high learning can happen in lowly places. What did matter is the quality of exchanges between people in that old building, and the resulting quality of objects. That’s what we lose when courses close.

A look at the rise and fall of ceramics courses could begin in the 1960s. Before then a few people who made ‘art ceramics’ sold through regular art galleries, the Boyds for example and there were virtually no ceramics courses, which combination might just be a glimpse into our future. The 1970s was a time of great expansion in ceramics courses, with a job advertised in a College of Advanced Education (CAE) almost every week but the terminus for that train was soon reached. At the peak there was a craft shop in every little town. Despite that, from about 1975 to 1990 when functional ceramics were the main focus both of courses and of markets, it was not easy to make a good income from ceramics alone. Most potters compensated by having a good lifestyle, living in an appealing environment with good friends, but now the possibilities for that are diminishing as markets evaporate. Conversely, in the USA there are still lively courses based on the more traditional approach, involving functional ware.

All CAEs closed in the 1990s and undergraduate ceramics courses moved into universities. I anticipated richer teaching in ceramics history ancient and modern, and ceramic science. But the opposite happened, a large dumbing down, based on ideas of economic efficiency rather than standards. It’s a pity we live in Australia where the statisticians measure gross national product rather than Bhutan where they measure gross national happiness. University administrations wanted many students and few staff. Instead of day and night staff-student contact, staff were sacked, contact time was cut drastically and inevitably the learning experience suffered. OHS regulations stopped technical innovation with kilns and equipment; woodfiring became socially irresponsible. Glaze studies developed a focus on toxicity rather than on creativity. Students could no longer work unsupervised; staff had to be in the room with them. Overall student enthusiasm was stifled. Subsequently many university ceramics courses in Australia have been discontinued or absorbed into more generalist offerings involving cross media studies, and cross disciplinary focuses. Is it merely coincidence that the general decline in public interest in ceramics coincided with the decline in functional ceramics and the rise of aspirations for ceramics as theory based art?

What about postgraduate studies? In the USA an MFA in ceramics is the key to accessing a teaching job and currently there is talk of introducing PhDs. In Australia there are no new teaching jobs to access. In the past I was involved with some 70 graduate students doing graduate diploma, masters and doctorate, and many of them studied purely to further their learning. I suspect that if the art schools were interested there is scope for this form of education to continue assuming standards are observed. Australian research degrees in ceramics have a mixed history. I know of various schools where masters degrees were supervised by people without master’s degrees and even worse doctorates supervised by people without doctorates. Sometimes, and even more dodgy, the examiners did not have the qualification either. I would have a small bet that these same schools would not consider having undergraduates taught ceramics by people with no experience in ceramics.

So overall, why continue with an inadequate education especially considering the prospects for a professional future? You might say keep up whatever we can of ceramics education; it will all turn around one day. Well, even if you get the big bit of the wishbone at Christmas and with a big frown wish really hard you are still going to be out of luck. Fashions come and go in our society and the handmade fashion has gone. People wanting crockery buy Maxwell Williams. Cheap decorative ceramics for decoration come from Kmart. At Harvey Norman you can have your favourite photo printed on a white ceramic mug, or pet food bowl. Real collectors who want serious, unique contemporary work are very few in number. Many collectors want Moorcroft or LLadro, either old or new mass produced pretty things.

If there is no call for people to make useful pots what can be done with clay? Convey a message? Call me deluded but - why use ceramics to say something to a very limited audience? In mediaeval times paintings told us of the glories of religion; now we have spruikers on TV. The old static world is being replaced by a mobile world. What use is there for ceramics that just sit there and do nothing? Or for crockery, when we have takeaway food, with disposable containers instead of home cooking? In the old days telephones were things fixed to the wall with a chair underneath to sit on while you talked. Now you carry them around in your pocket and talk as you walk. Movies are the medium of story telling. The internet replaces books and magazines as a source of knowledge, as well as a means of communication. We email or text, we blog or twitter, we get to know the world through YouTube or Facebook. We want it NOW; we value the instant not the slow. What we cannot have is instant ceramics. It’s a slow old process, no matter how we might try to speed it up, and in contemporary terms an obsolete process. So for what would we educate?

When I was a kid people taught themselves or each other – there were very few courses in anything. I’m generally not the nostalgic type but I can summon up some for the 1960s when anyone who wanted knowledge about ceramics had to search hard for it. No Google, very few books and magazines, few teachers and none in most parts of the country, and very few had visited Europe or Japan/ China/Korea where traditional knowledge resided. So you made it up as you went along. People who ‘achieved’ had to be resourceful, creative, imaginative, independent and immune to constant disappointment. Yet people managed to work in ceramics under those conditions. Sometimes the present feels a bit the same.

Will a revival help? You may simply say that we must be idealistic and passionate about what we do and that idealism and passion will be contagious. I can’t really disagree with that sentiment because it was one basis of my teaching belief - that enthusiasm is contagious. But what are we to be enthusiastic about – what will our culture value in the future that we must educate for if we are to educate? Will we continue to totally dissolve ceramics into the theory led world of the contemporary art school, structured so it fits sensibly within the contemporary university? Seems the universities are not too keen on that idea. Or will we place all our support behind the TAFE system? The reader will note that I have not commented on TAFE . I am not aware enough of the internal workings to do so.

In terms of ceramics education the woodfire movement is interesting. In the past 20 years it has spread around the world, it involves very large numbers and is one of the few areas of ceramics that universally hangs together in some ways, organising specialist conferences and specialised exhibitions worldwide. It was a long way towards this before any formal courses in woodfiring started up, and there are still few of these worldwide.

I firmly believe we need ceramics, as we need all other culturally quaint activities; at least I have no plans to stop working with clay. But given this I am happy with the thought that anyone interested in ceramics will, as did our ‘pioneer potters’, find a way, and that the absence of formal courses will encourage their individual creativity. As a culture we have lost our resourcefulness through the belief that in order to do something we must do a formal course to learn how. We can be more creative than that. Those who aspire to theory driven artwork can learn from regular art schools if that is their wish. Those whose work is process and material driven can follow the worldwide example of the woodfire movement – learn by doing, or by working with the right individuals.

And those of us involved now can practice the best form of education, which is to make the very best work we can and present it professionally in galleries, in magazines and websites and avoid anything amateurish at all times.