Punk and Pots

by A. Blair Clemo

This month, Objective Clay posted the second edition of our “Mix tape” project, sharing the current soundtracks of each of our studios. Over the past few months, my studio soundtrack has taken a radical shift. Typically a time for podcasts and audiobooks, lately my studio has been energized with Punk Rock songs. The current playlist is not new to me and was selected in large part for the reminiscence it carries with it. These are songs that brought me through my teen years, and as I rediscover them now with a more critical ear, I see these are also songs that helped to shape how I view the world today. Because I am in the studio, a time for critical thinking and questioning, I have noticed some strong parallels between the craft of making pots and my recent studio soundtrack. Both endeavors, each in their own way, are inherently subversive and critical of the system they belong to.

Greg Graffin, founding member and front man for Bad Religion (and also a lecturer in Biology at UCLA with a PhD from Cornell) draws a similar comparison between punk and science when discussing his book Anarchy Evolution on the NPR radioshow Science Friday. Graffin explained “It's not something that most people would put together, punk rock and science… And what I think I've come to the conclusion about it is that science is something that challenges authority in the same way that punk rock - the thing that kind of sweeps through the last 30 years of punk is this sentiment of challenging authority.” Art criticizes the world in a similar way as science, by trying to disprove (through criticism) what we think we know, rather than reaffirming it. Graeme Sullivan, in his book Art Practice as Research explains “the strategy of examining how something might be false, rather than trying to confirm it to be true, became a key tenet of both scientific inquiry and critical (art) theorizing”. Handmaking pots plays on this strategy as well, we make pots because we are critical of what already exists in the world (mostly the product of industry) and we seek to offer a alternative solution.

Punk rock is a contemporary form of music and I make contemporary pottery. This is an important statement. To be contemporary, something must question the system that it is a part of, those things that define now. These can address a big system; punk rocks overarching criticism of government, religion and the status quo, or smaller systems, like what a coffee cup should look like or how dishes dictate how we eat and entertain. Handmaking pots inherently questions a system; it undermines the industrial product stream, it allows makers to innovate new products on an individual level without the same concerns of industry. Though an act of criticism exists in both punk and pots, the tactics employed by each feel very different to me. The content in most punk songs is brash and brazen, outspoken with it’s indictments and making no apologies. The content in most handmade pots is subtle and quietly subversive, adhering to the structure of utility while pushing the boundaries of how pots work or how we think about objects of daily use.

Punk Rock and handmade crafts are close kin. Punk Rock is founded on Do It Yourself, whether self-producing a record or self-publishing a zine. Punk rock was my first introduction into making on my own terms. Twin Falls Idaho, where I spent my teen years, didn’t have a venue for punk shows, so bands passing through played in my basement and sold merchandise at my kitchen table. We screenprinted our own T-shirts, patches and stickers to promo the bands we built out of our circle of friends. I don’t need to spin a connection here to craft, as DIY has been a large part of our conversation for years. Craft has thrived on DIY culture just as Punk Rock has. To produce something yourself means not having to rely of institutional approval, be it major record label or blue-chip gallery. Punk rock does not ask for permission, it does not censor or strip difficult topics from its lyrics. The very fact that it is self-produced allows it to be punk rock. Contemporary utilitarian clay has an incredibly varied set of voices, owing to our ability to make whatever we choose, the terms of creation are ours to establish for ourselves. The more our studio output is produced and distributed on our own terms the more challenging and innovative it can be. 

Punk Rock made sense to me in my angstful teen years because it normalized criticism. It didn’t make me question anything, only gave me permission, the platform and language to criticize. I think handmade pots work the same way, they offer an alternative viewpoint in our daily lives. As much as I wanted my dad to sit down and really listen to the Dead Kennedys and then join me in a wholesome conversation about fucking the system, that did not happen. Similarly, my pots will not likely find their way into the hands of those uninterested in pottery and persuade them to start using handmade things on a daily basis. Punk Rock, unlike popular music, isn’t charged with the goal of getting the whole world to listen and topping the music charts. Rather, its listenership is small but devoted, engaged in a conversation that is deep and pointed, not broad and mainstream. I see a similar audience for my work; small but informed, equipped and ready to look deeper than a layer of glaze and see the content within the work. Handmade pots are not for everyone… and Isn’t that great?! Punk by its very definition is NOT popular.. or better, ANTI-popular. Punk is polemic and uncomfortable, at time downright hard to listen to, just as handmade pots can be hard to use or highly specialized, demanding our attention turn towards content rather than comfort. The pots of industry, mass-produced to capture as much consumers spending as possible, must be agreeable, non-confrontational and easy to use; the American Top 40 of dinnerware. Hand made pots, with their limited but sympathetic audience do not have to adhere to these same concerns, watering down content in favor of mass appeal. Our field of utilitarian pottery is really pushing the boundaries of form and function right now, many potters are foregoing practicality and ease of use for content and originality.

The second track on my mixtape is from the band Propaghandi and contains these lyrics: “Dance and laugh and play is not a message we convey, it seems we are only here to entertain”. That statement is one that I hope to take to heart more and more in the studio. As a potter, I am not just here to entertain, to make pleasant dinnerware that is quiet and demands little of its audience. Rather, handmaking gives me a self-defined platform for questioning and criticizing. If I take the opportunity, it allows me to point out the flaws I see in the world, call attention to what has been ignored and elevate those values I find important. Punk rock is a small thing, just the background beat as I throw pots, but it has had a huge impact on the way I engage with the world. I hope that as makers we can have a similar goal, making small things that provide a new, more critical lens through which we can view the world.