In the 2008 New Yorker article “The Real Work”, author Adam Gopnik takes us on a tour behind the scenes of the stage magician’s craft. We learn several things about magic, such as the training and preparation that go into what must ultimately look like an effortless display, and most importantly, we learn that magic is an artform of outwitting the audience. Magicians have names for their techniques, a language which is known to other magicians, filled with terms such as the “Miser’s Dilemma” and “the shift” – but this technical jargon is not known, for the most part, to the spectators. The spectators see only the craft and its execution. Knowing the technique would ruin the illusion. Magicians master the art of making their illusions look “casual” to the spectator.
In this, there is much to the practice of any art form that resembles stage magic. When one opens up a magazine or browses a website and sees the beautiful, accessible material within, they do not see the graphic designer’s actual process: ideally, the finished product looks effortless. When I’ve finished a piece for a client and it hits production, the end viewer will not see the preparation, planning, and thinking that goes into my work nor will they see all the failed attempts nor will they see the “comps” (comprehensive layouts) that were exchanged between me and my client; they certainly will not see the time I’ve spent training at design principles, art technique and computer software. The end viewer can’t see this process any more than a magician can reveal his tricks; it would ruin the illusion and distract from the information that I am presenting. They will see the InDesign template I used or the photo editing I did; the best typeface selection is that which doesn’t call attention to the fact that I’m using a typeface but instead communicates the message my client wants to get across.
Ceramic art, like graphic design and any other artform, also has much in common with the practice of stage magic.
First of all, there is “natural handling” – the practice of “making every move look casual rather than ‘presentational’,” as described by the article. In the case of ceramics, the “spectator” (the person who is viewing the end result, in this case) is not seeing the tens to hundreds of pots and pieces that necessarily preceded the work they are viewing, using, or holding. They are not seeing the mistakes or kiln “blow outs” or the times that the artist gave up and put his or her creation back into the lump of clay from which it emerged, they’re not seeing the time it took for the artist to learn to properly work with the clay. Ceramics is an art of process as much as end result, like magic; the artist practices endlessly so that the end result can look unpracticed and casual and so that the arduous, often tedious process is not experienced by the end viewer.
Gopnik goes on to tell us that “all grownup craft depends upon sustaining a frozen moment from childhood”. This is especially true in an artform which depends upon tactile manipulation as well as exploration and play. Any artist must engage his or her medium with a large spirit of exploration and experimentation, and in any artform, this exploration is the difference between art and repetitive replication of the same material over and over. In order to remain engaged with my medium, I find I must retain that childlike sense of wonder and experiment with different tactile properties and techniques.
Finally, most importantly, Gopnik tells us about the “Too Perfect” theory of magic: when an illusion becomes too improbable or astounding, the spectator loses the willing suspension of disbelief. “What makes a trick work is not the inherent astoundingness of its effect but the magician’s ability suggest any number of possible explanations, none of them conclusive, and none of them quite obvious,” he informs us. I find this true in working with the “organic”, imperfect forms that I love, and in the Japanese “wabi sabi” aesthetic of perfection in imperfection. Hours upon hours of labor and many scrapped mistakes go into making a single item which looks “imperfect” and “unstudied” and in fact there is a tremendous amount of study involved. One must still create an object which survives the firing process and holds up to everyday use, and there is the natural tendency for the objects to become smoother and more “perfect” as one works, so in the end, an “organic” and imperfect look (while still being well executed) can actually be quite painstaking. Balancing the intentional and the unintentional is a tricky prospect.
What distinguishes it from other artforms is that in ceramic art, the artist is able to create functional objects of day to day living, and thusly, engages with the spectator in a way that is personal and intimate: the artist has the capacity for entering the spectator’s everyday life in a way that other artforms don’t approach, and thus, the spectator is not merely a spectator but a participant in the artistic process, engaged in a direct conversation with the artist. Like stage magic, it requires empathy and anticipation of what the experiencer will be experiencing via the ceramist’s craft. It is an act of illusion to place a cup or bowl into someone’s hand and give them the experience of the thing without involving them in the process itself.