Still Life: The Rarefied Domain

by Jack Troy

November 4, 2009

>>Hi Jack,

I've been thinking about an essay that you wrote for the back page of Ceramics Monthly. It was basically about the arrangement and grouping of pots. I remember it being controversial because I thought you were joking and other thought you were deadly serious ( which was it? )

>Hi Rick,
I recall a flurry of questions about the "truth" of the events in the essay after it was published, and I also remember considering it a measure of the piece's success that people couldn't tell for sure and could take the events as either "truth" or "fiction," and that's where I still stand. 

The essay in question:

Returning home from a recent trip, I faced an
unexpected dilemma when several pieces from ceramic still lifes made by
different artists were in the cupboard with my everyday cups and bowls. A vase
from one still life was on a table, with flowers in it.  The person who had been house-sitting
was staying for two more days, and while it it was reassuring to have had the
house cared for in my absence, I wondered about whether to raise the issue of
the disrupted still lifes, or to just let it go, and rearrange the pieces where
they belonged after my guest left.

When I woke up remembering how isolated the
remaining pieces in the still lifes appeared on their shelves, and the related
isolation the vase embodied, even with its lovely flowers, I felt the artist’s
vision had been violated. But what clinched it was seeing my friend eating
yogurt and fruit from one of the bowls removed from a still life. It seemed
disrespectful to see this bowl-like element in an uncommonly beautiful ceramic
composition being put to such common use. It was easy to imagine the artist
equating the quality time invested in his arrangement with his aesthetic
decision-making with the making and firing. The presentation - the concept -
was as much if not more significant a part of the content as the clay
itself.  In the cupboard, the
pieces were just so many sprinters in a race, but in a still life they were as
distinctive as Olympians on pedestals, receiving their awards.

Still, the nagging interior dialogue continued:
“How important is it, really?”

“Well, this person just doesn’t know!”

“But does it really matter?”

“ does and it doesn’t.  Do I play the Accepting Friend card or
the Informative Teacher card?”

“Remember that time on The Car Guys radio
show when Clack asked,  ‘Would you
rather be right, or would you
rather be happy?’ ”

“My friend might feel belittled by learning that
ceramic still lifes are special and
transcend having yogurt glopped into them.”

“Listen, this person was good enough to look after
the house; keep your know-it-all sensibilities to yourself. For once.”


As I was pouring the second round of tea, from
across the table came an innocent question that squelched my internal dialogue
and took it public:

“Jack, how come those pots are on that little

“Well, those pots really aren’t pots in the usual
sense of the word. They’re elements in a composition called a still life,
arranged by the artist.”

“,” my friend said,
deliberately, with spaces between the words, as if translating the expression

“That’s right. They look like pots, but by being
in a still life they are something more than just pots. They’re part of a
composition, with a new, integrative identity. They’re more important and have
more status than if they were just ‘a group of pots,’ or ‘some bowls and

“Some........bowls.......and.......vases,” came
the reply.  My friend’s brow was

“It’s a matter of looking at things more
expansively,” I said. “When an artist places pieces in an specific arrangement,
that’s called a ‘still life.’ It’s a representation of objects in a painting or
other artistic composition. And it goes without saying that the price and value
escalate accordingly, making the group more important than the sum of its
parts. Like when a team buys a whole infield instead of just a first or second
baseman.  Get it?”

“You mean this bowl isn’t for eating from?  It only looks like a bowl, but it’s more than just a bowl because it’s part of a composition and
that cancels out its bowl-ness or bowl-ocity?” Now the eyebrows were rising

My friend was a quick learn. “When we free
ourselves of the tendency to use
things, in the sense that what’s left has to be washed away like that yogurt,
we give the pieces a pedigree in the hierarchy of things that, well, transcends
physical usefulness, by making
them too nice to use; worthy
of something better. They achieve merit because pure aestheticism always trumps
suds-in-the-sink. Simply put, you don’t wash art, you dust it. When we
contemplate the relationship of each element to the others within the
arrangement, we bypass the pointlessly impertinent question, ‘Is that just a
pot or it it art?’ Any still
life is art.”

“You mean we should ask, ‘When is a bowl more than
a bowl?’  Are pots  more valuable when we look at them than
when we use them and handle

“Ask any curator,” I replied. “I wouldn’t think of
dividing the price I paid for these still lifes by the number of pieces within
each arrangement; it just wouldn’t compute. Don’t try to do the math. The object is the composition. And please look for another bowl for the yogurt
next time. And by the way, if that vase with the flowers looks out of place on
the table it’s because it is
out of place.  It isn’t even
supposed to smell as if flowers had been in it, if you really want to know.”

“I see what you mean. People who just own pots use them wherever they like, but by both making and placing them, the artist controls the space
around the pieces kind of like intellectual property rights. So a “real” vase
transcends itself by just looking
like a vase when it’s in a still life.   Wowsers! That’s better than Dada!”

It could have been a lot worse.  With no sacrifice to goodwill I gained
a savvy friend instead of one whose naiveté needed a nudge. And the pieces,
rearranged in their original configurations, continue to grace my home, in
keeping with the artists’ intentions.

Jack Troy

(world famous potter and writer)

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