Personality Crisis

New York DollsAnd you’re a prima ballerina on a Spring afternoon
Change on into the wolfman, howlin’ at the moon, hooowww

All about that personality crisis you got it while it was hot
But now frustration and heartache is what you got

Now with all the crossin’ fingers that mother nature says
Your mirrors get jammed up with all your friends

I doubt very much if Bernard Leach would have cared for the New York Dolls. And yet somehow, the conclusion of A Potter’s Book made me think about  “Personality Crisis.”  Civilization’s mirror is indeed jammed up with all our friends:

Personal relationships of a group of individual craftsmen are not easy to resolve. The inability to give and take seems to be more pronounced than in ordinary human contacts. In the East, restraining influences of tradition still enable people to work together as the limbs of a body under the directing mind, with us a more highly developed individualism, nowhere more conspicuous than among artist-craftsmen, tends to create an impatient and critical desire for independence.

Experience prompts me to advise any young potter contemplating sharing a workshop with others to choose untrained local labour. Likely boys learn the jobs quickly, enjoy them, and readily form a permanent team if sensibly handled. An older man, trained in the pre-War Winchcombe Potter making pancheons and flower-pots is an asset, for such men know their locality and set a standard of horse-sense and breadth of treatment necessarily lacking in art students. In many cases the latter are capable of doing excellent work under direction, or as moderately free members of a group which is held together by a living tradition, but it is quite another matter when they cast off their shackles and begin to make shapes and patterns of their own.

They then usually join the ranks of the thousands of indeterminate second-rate artists for which high industrialism is responsible. It stands to reason that only rarely does the work of a student from one of the Schools of Art bear the imprint of a character. It is difficult to advise those whom one feels practically certain will not achieve genuine originality. (257-8)

poindexter_inThe problem, as always, is who gets to say whether a unique moment in the history of craft (such as the New York Dolls) is “genuinely original”? I find it altogether too fitting that David Johansen’s next move was to appropriate a traditional form and re-introduce it.

This reminds me of a strange moment in my own history, during the heyday of Buster Poindexter. My friend Slim was appalled that I wasn’t familiar with the New York Dolls, and made it his mission to introduce me to a lot of the old school punks. We were listening to a Replacements album that I hadn’t heard that he bought me one evening.

The blinds were drawn, and a few minutes in there was a knock on the door. It was the police. They informed me that they were there to search the premises and did not require a warrant because I was currently sheltering a parolee (my first wife’s little sister).

As twenty policemen (I’m not exaggerating) filled my living room, they started looking at my walls and noticed the hundreds of photographs that surrounded them. One asked:

“are you a professional photographer?”

Slim, in his typically punk fashion, replied: “Oh, he’s just a second rater!”

It may sound odd,  but it was the biggest compliment that he could think to give me. I thought he was brilliant, and he was sure that all the best people were “second-rate,” at least when examined by people who were fans of the current popular taste. It became a bit of an inside joke between us; we were the “second raters.”

Bernard Leach, obviously, isn’t using it as a compliment, and doesn’t think the modern “personality crisis” is a good thing either:

In a machine age, artist-craftsmen, working primarily with their hands, represent a natural reaction valid as individual expression, and they should be the source of creative design for mass-production whether they work in conjunction with industry or not. The machine has split the human personality.

It has brought humanity within sight of safety and leisure for the first time in history, but at this moment fear of a universal disaster is upon us all, and the only leisure is of the unemployed and the rich and idle, because we have not learned how to use art, science, leisure, or real wealth. Instead, we increase the tempo of industrial slavery, and, refusing to distribute money equal in value to saleable goods and madly pursuing escapist pleasure, we allow under-consumption to be described as over-production, and as a consequence the sheer technique of living has overwhelmed life itself.

Under such conditions of national life artists and craftsmen are obliged to live and work parasitically or precariously because they have no recognized function. Evidence admitted by observers on all hands points to the end of an age. (258-9)

Herbert Read has a completely different take; he declares that the “humanists” have lost the battle and that the reigns of industrial design belong to a special class of abstract mathematicians, as rare as artists but even more precious. The designer is, according to all accounts at the turn of the twentieth century, something to be severed from the reigns of the average “artist-craftsman.” Even Leach suggests that only a few carefully selected traditions are worth of continuing into a new age.

Whether we shall emerge into a time of plenty and a unification of cultural values after violence, or by slower stages of decay and recrudescence, it is not for me to say. Not improbably those who seek the meaning and beauty of life through art may suffer an eclipse, but meanwhile let us ‘bring out weight and measure in a year of dearth,’ as William Blake urged amidst the blindness and apathy of early industrialism. (259)

I suppose that the New York Dolls/Buster Poindexter moment might be a perfect example of the “decay and recrudescence” that Leach is on about; Poindexter and the resurgence of lounge singers of the old school did indeed happen in the era of post-punk.

The Blake quote is quite interesting. It’s from “the proverbs of hell” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a series of aphorisms where only about half of them can be considered as useful: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” is another one. Really? Sounds like something Satan might say, which is of course what Blake was on about. It’s hard to tell the devils from the gods, really. Not exactly a set of prescriptions for the good life.

Bringing out “weight and measure in a year of dearth” would have been precisely the wrong move in reaction to the punk rock movement; some of the most raucous voices in the punk movement also turned out to be the most eloquent. Another “proverb from hell” springs to mind as I read Leach: “The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.”

Isn’t it ironic? And not in Alanis Morrisette’s usage. Leach’s personality crisis doesn’t seem as useful as David Johansen’s. Perhaps, like Rev. Dr. Trusler, he’s fallen out with the spirit world.

 

 

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