Second Response to “Temporality, Critique and the Vessel Tradition”

To accompany the recent publication of The Journal of Modern Craft 6.3 we have invited a number of critics to respond to the lead article of the issue: John Roberts’ “Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp,” which is freely available for a limited period (click here for the link).

Our second response to the article is written by ceramic artist and writer Bonnie Kemske, who holds a PhD from the Royal College of Art, London, and is the former Editor of Ceramic Review.

In his essay, John Roberts brings together two ostensibly antithetical art heroes: Marcel Duchamp and Bernard Leach. Both, of course, greatly impacted their respective art worlds through their output and the thinking that underpinned their works. Challenging our definition of art, Duchamp granted the artist the god-like ability to create through the Word, i.e. the artist declaring a readymade to be art. Leach, on the other hand, was part of a movement that deified the anonymous maker and established a ceramic canon that calcified development in UK studio ceramics, a legacy that persists, in some sectors to the present day.

Roberts links the two by positioning Duchamp’s factory-produced Fountain within the vessel tradition. Technically, of course, a urinal is indeed a vessel; it is also ceramic. Although Roberts’ comment that Fountain “offers an explicit embodiment of the crisis of artisanal craft labor in an alienated form of postartisanal productive labor”[1] is certainly apt and insightful, I think it is a stretch to think that the urinal “can be read as a continuation of the ancient vessel tradition”[2], as Joakim Borda-Pedreira states in his response to Roberts’ paper.

Looking back to Bernard Leach, we see his artistic contribution as part of a long, deeply embedded vessel tradition, which has been characterized as sensual, fecund, mystical, profound, awe-inspiring, and more. At times you can still smell the incense this tradition has absorbed after decades of unreserved reverence and adulation. It is hard to place the urinal within this craft inheritance, although Roberts does give a good rendering of the vessel’s over-burdened history.

In thinking about Duchamp’s choice of the urinal, Grayson Perry’s use of the ceramic vase comes to mind. Perry intended to undermine the art world’s hierarchy of materials, and using the vessel form also served as an inverted condescension of class and culture. Although there is a fitting comparison to Duchamp’s Fountain in this, underneath Perry’s bluster, one senses a deep respect for the material and forms with which he works, which is closer to a Leachian approach. Roberts tantalizes us with the idea that perhaps Duchamp shared this respect for making, in his case for factory manufacture, that he chose the urinal because as a vessel it “establishes an emancipatory continuity with the primitive communist past and the origins of humanity”.[3]

If we concede that “Duchamp places the vessel tradition in a state of critical abeyance”[3], it is easy to support Roberts’ supposition that we can “place Duchamp within an expanded understanding of craft-thinking”[4]. If we have reservations about doing this, then we are left unsure that “Duchamp, in the end, is the more compelling figure as a thinker on craft”.[5]


[1] John Roberts, “Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp” Journal of Modern Craft 6:3 (November 2013), p. 256.\

[2] Joakim Borda-Pedreira, “Modernisms, Vessles and the Birth of Conceptual Art”, Journal of Modern Craft Blog, http://journalofmoderncraft.com/forums (Accessed 9 January 2013). 

[3] John Roberts, “Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp” Journal of Modern Craft 6:3 (November 2013), p. 257.

[4] John Roberts, “Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp” Journal of Modern Craft 6:3 (November 2013), p. 265.

[5] John Roberts, “Temporality, Critique, and the Vessel Tradition: Bernard Leach and Marcel Duchamp” Journal of Modern Craft 6:3 (November 2013), p. 265.

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