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  • Johannes Scott


Artwork by Walead Beshty, photographed by the author at 2015 Venice Biennale.

Ceramic discipline is practiced in various specialist forms such as engineering, design, modern art, and traditional form.

Ceramic engineering

The engineer analyses the amorphous structure of non-metallic, inorganic elements such as oxides, nitrides, carbides, borides, and silicate. The analytic function is to transcribe these ceramic materials to meet the imaginary demands of industrial technology. Once transcribed, it enters the symbolic world of industrial design where its amorphous root is erased by the insignia of product logo.

The aerospace, biomedical, electronic, and optical industries are today amongst the foremost developers of ceramic technology; they use ceramic technology to manufacture products such as insulators for electricity, filters for cars, microscopic batteries, dental crowns, missile nosecones, and infrared heat-seeking devices.

Ceramic engineering has become a 21st century innovative medium for renewable energy and electronic communications.

Ceramic design

The contemporary usage of the term design replaces what was formerly known as applied arts. The new term was established by the teachings of the Bauhaus School of Design in Germany during the early 20th century. The new term incorporates both the verb, as in the making of craft objects, and the noun, as in the context in which the object is produced and traded.

Design is a process of production, and includes disciplines such as decorative arts, industrial design, and fashion design. The process of production can include the activity of developing a plan, such as in architectural blueprints and sewing patterns, or exclude a prior plan, such as in craftwork and graphic design. Either way, these objects are determined by external design goals and consumer environments.

The work of a designer can have utilitarian function, as in web design or urban design, or it can exclude utility, as in collectable objects for the display of fashion or décor.

Design houses, fashion houses, Salon-style galleries, and design fairs, amongst others, are generally the location for distribution.

In retrospect, the potter Josiah Wedgwood was more of a process designer than a practitioner of applied art. Wedgewood engineered the first modern ceramic factory in 1759, at Stoke-on-Trent in England. The formation of the establishment required a process of design that included architectural blueprints, such as chimney construction for the kilns and wet rooms for drying clay; organizational and systems design for coordinating his labour force of potters; product design for dinner ware and décor ornaments, and strategic design for viable socio-economic reception. As for marketing design, after being commissioned by Queen Charlotte to produce ‘A complete set of tea things’ in 1765, followed by being appointed Potter to Her Majesty, Josiah successfully mass marketed the same earthenware range globally as ‘Queen’s Ware’. Today, Wedgewood’s work has socio-historical significance and are treasured as collectable objects of design.

The production of ceramic design involves problem-solving and creativity to anticipate and compensate potential contingencies in the execution process and commercial delivery.

In short, ceramic design is a process activity orientated to establish brand name in a related consumer market.

Traditional ceramics

Traditional pottery achieved its technological peak of advancement in Japan and China with the production of translucent porcelain in high-firing kilns, producing vitreous ware incomparable to the production of porous, earthenware in Europe by, so-called, peasant potters.

Traditional peasant pottery was generally produced for the maker’s own household and imitations of Attic vases and monastery pitchers for the local craft market.

The myth of Eastern traditional pottery as the solo activity of a master was invented by Bernard Leach, on his return to Britain from Japan in 1920. The idea of Leach as solo, master potter promoted his pottery as authentic ware against the factory production of Staffordshire potteries, his nemesis.

However, the production of traditional Eastern pottery was not a solo activity. Every so-called ‘masterpiece’ imported by the Dutch East India Company in the 17the century passed through the hands of dozens of production workers; teams were designated to different aspects of production and decoration. Kilns were fired not by a master potter but instead, by a team of ‘fire experts’ who travelled by caravan across the countryside. The expert team would lodge at the host pottery for the duration of repairing and firing. It took them days to stoke a kiln to temperatures exceeding 1300 degrees Celsius, before traveling on to the next pottery.

The production of traditional pottery expired alongside the passing of traditional society. It cannot be revived because modern mechanisation and industrialisation erased the relationship traditional society had with nature. Today, one would expect to find a work of tradition, such as traditional blue-and-white china, in a collector’s antique shop or museum.


The British Art and Crafts movement for decorative arts often sustained the master potter myth in the generalised claim that artisans, prior to the industrial revolution, worked solo. To counter this, one simply needs to recall that the peasant potter was not a recognised artisan – pottery did not feature as craft category in the medieval guild system.

Today, in context to the pejorative connotation of ‘master’ in both postcolonialism and gender equality, the denotation ‘British studio potter’ has become the normative labelling for the Leach template of solo, master potter. The label remains ambivalent because, on the one hand, it erases the possibility of rural or wild clay artist, on the other hand, it incorporates the manufacture of collectable design.

Across the English Channel, where the notion modern master is a serious misnomer, the artist Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) transgressed both the Leach ‘authenticity standard’ and British studio potter convention of high-fired, vitreous production. Picasso joined an age-old earthenware factory in Vallauris, France, and onto their low-fired production of majolica plates and vases, painted his Cubist related imagery. These sold as works of art in modern art galleries and are still sought after by art dealers today.

Contemporaneously, the British persona artist Grayson Perry (b. 1960) gives parodic closure to the romantic idea of master potter with his autobiographical vessels in which he represents himself as transvestite potter. Perry’s pottery vases won the 2003 Turner Prize for art.

Ceramics and modern art

Whereas in the empirical approach of 19th century Romanticism, where the tradition of art was appreciated in author-centred context, with focus on the medium and intention of the artist, modern aesthetic shifts focus to message-centred, social context.

By the beginning of the 20th century, modern theory abolished the canon of masters of bronze, oils, and terra cotta. Expertise of art as form and the context in which the medium is deployed outmoded the biography and ‘hand’ of the ‘genius’ creator.

In the work of the Greek, American based artist Peter Voulkos (1924 – 2002), we see the treatment of clay medium as pure sculpture. Voulkos produced abstract expressionist sculptures and the clay medium would be noted in brackets, after the title of the artwork. One would find his work in art galleries and art museums and exhibited in context to art form, not medium.

The Italian artist Giacinto Cerone (1957 – 2004) worked in various mediums after his academic studies in, amongst others, Theory of Form and Theory of Visual Perception. He was prolific in the ceramic medium and his significant retrospective in 2011 at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna Contemporanea, Rome included close to one-hundred sculptures executed in red, black, and white gloss-glazed ceramic. His work often collaborates with poetic literary form.

The Los Angeles based artist and writer Walead Beshty, an Associate Professor who teach at numerous graduate Institutes of Arts, produces context-centred work that often includes the ceramic medium. Most of his work included in the 56th La Biennale Venezia was executed in the ceramic medium. His art practice often records social critique. Beshty writes, “I’m not interested in a grand definition of a particular medium – some sort of ontological construction – but in the particular expression of a set of relations within specific contexts.” And, “Objects have no meaning in themselves, rather they are prompts for a field of possible meanings that are dependent on context…”


The conceptual artist Ai Weiwei produced an art installation titled Kui Hua (sunflower seed) for the Tate Modern art gallery in 2010. The exhibition comprised one-hundred million porcelain sunflower seeds. The hyper-real porcelain seeds filled the entire 1,000-square-metre gallery floor to a depth of ten centimetres. Visitors were invited to walk on the tiny porcelain sculptures – the given context of the installation was labour exploitation.

The exhibition cannot be indexed as a ceramic exhibition, nor as collectable design or applied art. Such a view would lead to a gross misreading of the work. For example, viewed out-of-context, or in context to the studio potter, Ai Weiwei’s porcelain work is inadequate. The pottery items were fired to earthenware and not stoneware temperature, resulting in the non-vitrified ceramic items emitting dust when viewers walked onto these. The artist had directed visitors to walk on the ceramic seed installation, but once the emitting dust posed a public health risk, the interactive access point was fenced off.

Instead, Weiwei’s exhibit has aesthetic significance only when viewed within the given socio-political context of ideological criticism against labour exploitation.

The one-hundred-million ceramic ‘sculptures’ were not industrially manufactured. Each porcelain item was individually hand-crafted and intricately hand-painted by 1,600 artisans at the Chinese city of Jingdezhen – also known as the ‘Porcelain Capital’ because its factories have been producing export pottery for hundreds of years.

Weiwei’s political activism explores the desire for individuality in industrialised society, and the complex relationship between self and society.

Johannes Scott, 2021.


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