I’ve written before about the closure of the Harrow ceramics course, the BA Ceramics at the University of Westminster. Matthew Partington, of the University of the West of England, described the closure of ceramics courses a few years ago in an interesting paper “Can British ceramics education survive?” He says that in 1980 there were 17 degree courses in Great Britain; in 2010 there were four. The decline is actually steeper: In 1976 there were 37 full-time courses in ceramics (not all degree courses), although ceramics is still taught on some 3D courses.
There are several reasons for the decline. (This, I should say, is my gloss on Partington’s argument, not exactly what he writes.)
Fewer schools teach it, because of financial pressure, pressure on the timetable, concerns about health and safety and lack of skilled teachers. It’s not necessary to do a foundation course before a student goes on to an art degree, so students can start art at university without any experience or knowledge of ceramics.
There were too many ceramics courses and it was impossible to fill the places. They’re expensive, and if they’re not filled, they have to close in the end. Financial stringency in universities has ensured that. Ceramics tutors were getting old and they weren’t being replaced. One exception is Cardiff, where ceramics is still thriving.
Ceramics is unfashionable. It’s about materials and technique and not about ideas or self-expression. As art has become more cerebral, ceramics has lagged behind, though not on post-graduate courses. Ceramics expanded in a hands-on, intuitive way and there’s little critical discourse in the ceramic community. (It’s surprising how insatiable is the appetite of the older generation of pottery enthusiasts for throwing demonstrations.) There aren’t enough role models for young artists who want more than that. They would rather do fine art, animation or film. Ceramics once chimed in with alternative ideas; now it’s realised that it has a big environmental footprint, it’s not green any more.
The cost of a degree means that students have to think about whether it will fit them for employment. Ceramics won’t, so it’s now too expensive for everyone – for the university and for the student.
Partington points out that experimental ceramists depended on teaching for a living and weren’t under too much pressure to sell their work. Without teaching, some won’t be able to make a living. They’re not in the same market as the makers of useful pots, and the market for ceramic art is not well developed. Although there an over-supply of courses, there is probably an over-supply of ceramists as well. The market is lumpy: some potters cannot keep up with demand; others cannot make a living. I’ve spoken to many makers and gallery owners about this and no-one really knows why some things sell and others don’t. It’s not directly related to the quality of the work. A famous name helps, but is no guarantee. Perhaps if some ceramists have to stop making it will be better for those that continue.
But there may be a zero sum. The unfashionability of ceramics may mean that the market for it also shrinks. Anyone who sells ceramics direct to the public knows that most of their customers are over fifty. They grew up with Cranks and the Design Council. Will the generation that grew up with instant messaging and neo-liberalism replace them?