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Loosely Speaking

By Pete Pinnell

From the November/December 1997 issue of Clay Times.

Most potters I know are interesting, literate, thoughtful people. They read widely, think deeply, watch public television, and do everything that one is supposed to do to be considered an intellectual. So why is it that these same people seem to think there are only two adjectives in the English language? The adjectives I'm referring to are, of course, "loose" and "tight."It seems that no matter who is doing the writing (or speaking), they still seem to end up attaching one or the other of these appellations to every pot. After hearing these terms so widely used for so many years, I decided it might be interesting to find out what they really mean.

Webster's Dictionary lists nine different definitions for the word "tight," and most of them really add little to the understanding of ceramic art. Number one, "so close in structure as to prevent passage or escape" might be used to describe a lidded vessel, but says little stylistically. "Marked by unusual tension" and "difficult to cope with" might apply if one didn't like the work, but are actually intended for phrases like "tight lipped with anger" and "in a tight spot." Definition number 6, "somewhat drunk,"appeals to me, though I doubt it's the meaning that most critics intend.

The only definition that seems to apply is number 7:

a) "characterized by firmness or strictness in control or application or in attention to details"

b) "marked by control or discipline in expression or style: having little or no extraneous matter."

The problem with these definitions is that they have little to do with the implications of the word "tight" as many potters use it. For instance, I can remember watching a workshop by a well-known "loose" potter who took a lot of time and who exercised a great deal of 'control' and 'attention to detail' in applying a handle to a mug...much more time and care, in fact, than I (a reputedly "tight" potter) ever did. That same potter worked in the Leach tradition, a philosophy that definition "7b" describes with great accuracy. Yet one usually hears that people who work out of this tradition are "loose" potters. Well, this led me to look up loose.

Loose, as it turns out, has even less which applies to our situation. My favorite definition is 1c, "produced freely and accompanied by raising of mucous." Okay, I know they're talking about a "loose cough," but I like it anyway. Number 4b: "lacking moral restraint: unchaste" is also appealing. The definitions that seem to most closely approximate the way potters use the term still are not an exact match. Definition 5a: "not tightly drawn or stretched: slack;" 5b: "being flexible or relaxed;" and 6b: "permitting freedom of interpretation" could all pertain to pots. Number 6a probably comes closest, but borders on the insulting: "lacking in precision, exactness, or care." Lacking in precision or exactness could be used to describe a lot of pottery, but I doubt many potters would want to admit a lack of care.

What becomes clear from this exercise is that the way we (the American ceramics community) use these words is entirely different from how the rest of the English speaking world uses them. Even within our own small group, these words can take on many layers of meaning. Tight can mean "precise" or "controlled," words that make no qualitative statement. It can also imply "constrained" or "lacking in expression." Ching Dynasty porcelains, Mimbres bowls, and Iznik plates were all made with precision and control, but certainly none of these lacks in expression. If I were to describe them as tight, how would you know my intentions?

Loose (as potters use it) seems often to mean "done with a lack of control," though I know many potters who are typed with that term who work with a great deal of care and control. The meaning most often implied seems to be "a pot that is made in a fluid style that expresses the plasticity of clay and employs surface information that refers to the throwing process." At least that is the way I have understood it, but what the heck is "loose" about that?

The entire purpose of a critique or a critical writing is to cast illumination and build understanding. The problem with these terms is they fail to do that, and often tend to accomplish the opposite: to polarize rather than communicate. All of which leads me to this, a modest proposal:

I propose that we call a ten-year moratorium on any use of the words "loose" or "tight" in any ceramic discourse. I know this will be difficult: we may actually have to wake up and start thinking during student critiques. In order to begin the process, I humbly nominate the following:

Instead of "tight," use "precise, careful, exacting, rigorous, rigid, restrained, constrained, constricted, inflexible, austere, severe," or "stiff."

Instead of "loose," use "relaxed, free, fluid, plastic, unfettered, unrestrained, extravagant, slack, flabby," or "limp."

See, that wasn't so hard, was it? Notice that my brief list includes terms which more clearly imply positive or negative qualities than the words they replace. That's the way we should be Communicating: clearly and succinctly, with all the implications of our statements open for appraisal.

I'm probably making a mistake by even starting with the "L" and "T" words. It makes more sense to talk about what I hope to see (and not see) in the work. I enjoy viewing art that is expressive, eloquent, meaningful, rich, significant, revealing, revelatory, suggestive, vivid, alive, demonstrative, lively, responsive, and spirited. I'm less interested in the banal, commonplace, drab, dull, inane, insipid, vacuous, impassive and indifferent.

One of the ways that the "crafts" world is criticized by the "fine arts" world is for our lack of any real critical analysis of ceramic art. It just might help if we paid a little more attention to our use of language. So, loosen your thesaurus, tighten up your thought process, and join the campaign! And, in the inspiring words of an old TV commercial, "Thank you for your support."

My special thanks to Merriam-Webster's Online (dictionary and thesaurus) at www.m-w.com.

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