Barrel Firings After Gadamer’s Conception of Art as Festival

On May 19, 2012, roughly 30 people gathered at the Isto residence in rural Douglas County, Oregon, for the fourth annual Barrel Firing, an event which occurs every spring and brings together a number of local ceramics students and teachers of all ages for a day. Starting at about 10:00am, students and teachers loaded bisque ware into two large barrels (and one impromptu “barrel” enclosure built of firebricks on hand), surrounded them with sawdust, wood, and cardboard, and fired the pieces over the course of the day, ending at around 5:30pm.


The firing raised several questions in my mind, some of which I would like to briefly lay out here. These questions are, for the most part, quite specific to the events of that day, and are not meant as such to raise fundamental questions about art or craft or community. Nonetheless, they are questions which in many ways respond to common theoretical debates regarding the relationship of community to the creation of arts and crafts.

1)      In what ways does the process of creating art create community? This question seems quite pertinent in response to the prevailing tendency to examine art in terms of the community that works of art create, sustain, or—potentially—threaten. While certain forms of art (performance art being the most obvious example) certainly raise questions about how community is (per)formed through the creation of art, it seems to me that the question of how the “production” of more traditional forms of art (sculptures, paintings, pottery, etc.) shapes community is seldom examined in depth. The case of a barrel firing—a process which certainly does not demand the participation of a large group of people but which certainly allows for it—raises very interesting questions about how art creates a community and about how that community exists in a temporal sense.

A group of people are drawn together for a day. They are drawn together outside the strict confines of any “institution” (although of course some of them are students, others are teachers, and others are simply interested in ceramics. They are drawn together by a mutual interest in the art that will eventually come from the firing; each person has at least one piece of art in the firing and therefore has a stake in the outcome of the day. Likewise, each person brings something—food, drinks, a piece for the firing, experience, conversation—to the community that is formed around the process of firing the kiln. Thus, everyone participates in some way, even if each person may not actually take part in loading the barrel kilns, stoking them, etc. Each person has a stake, so to speak, not just in the how their individual work will come out, but in fact in the totality of the outcome of the process. Barrel firing—as one of the more uncertain methods of firing ceramics—inevitably yields mixed results. Some techniques for decorating the surfaces of pots will work, others will not. Those who participate are held together by their interest in seeing how all of the works will emerge from the firing, not merely their own. It is not just the outcome which brings the participants together, however. The firing happens in a sense for its own sake, and not simply for the sake of a particular product.

2)      It seems to me that this way of looking at the barrel firing as a foundation for the emergence of a particular, temporary community bears a strong resemblance to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s discussion of the “festive” character of art in his essay, “The Relevance of the Beautiful”. How does Gadamer’s discussion of the festival relate to the example we have here, of a group of people coming together for a barrel firing and a potluck lunch in spring in the country?

Gadamer introduces the example of the festival to his discussion of art for several reasons. First, he wishes to emphasize how the festival is “meant for everyone”. He explains, “[festivals] allow no separation between one person and another. A festival is an experience of community and represents community in its most perfect form” (39). In this way, Gadamer sees the festival as a perfect example of a situation (like that of the game, which he also draws upon in his discussion of art) in which we are prevented from “falling into…private, subjective experiences” (40). The festival “gathers” us, in the same way that Gadamer thinks the work of art gathers us—in such a way that we are not “subjects” directed at some perceived or intended “object”, but rather exist first in the relation set up by the festival or work of art. Gadamer’s discussion in aimed at revealing something about the being of the work of art, but the analogy with the festival certainly seems to speak to the situation of the communal barrel firing. Here again, we have an example of an experience which is both “meant for everyone” and which does not allow for us to be “separated” into different subjectivities.

This may seem like a very straightforward point, but it certainly challenges one common way of conceiving of the “process” of creating art, the view which sees the creating artist as an isolated subject imposing a particular psychological or existential meaning upon the work she creates. Here instead we have, first, a (part of the) process of creation which is communal. Furthermore, this “communal” character is not to be conceived as some sort of joining of subjective intentionalities towards a common goal. Rather, the event of the process itself is such that it first gathers the participants and only having gathered them and given them a common stake in the process, allows them to be individual subjects which particular goals, roles, skills, and so forth. We might add to this the element of chance which is always present in firing ceramics, particularly when using methods such as barrel firing. There is no question of “total control” over the process. Rather, there is a healthy balance between experiment and skillful receptivity to the situation. The outcome is not something known ahead of time which guides the process; the process guides the participants in the direction of the outcome, and the “success” of the outcome is not something held in mind before hand, but something that comes naturally out of how the participants engage in the process.

3)      Gadamer’s comparison of art with the festival is also meant to highlight something unique about art’s temporality.  Gadamer wants to contrast one way of thinking about time, which sees time as something that is simply “at our disposal”, with the kind of time he thinks is characteristic of the experience of the festival and of art. The time of the festival is a special time, a time which “only arises through the recurrence of the festival itself.” He goes on to say, the festival happens “in its own time and at the proper time” and in this ways “fulfills every moment of its duration” (41-42). This “autonomous temporality”, as Gadamer calls it, is also what he sees as characteristic of the existence of the work of art. That is, the work has a unity which determines itself and calls upon us to respect and engage with that unity. Like the festival, the work of art only comes to have its meaning when we venture to take part in it, but the meaning is not simply something projected by us; it is found in the “autonomy” of the work (49-50).

How does the temporality of the festival relate to the kind of temporality we might associate with the barrel firing we are discussing here?  Like the festival, the barrel firing is something that recurs. It happens every year at a particular time of year (though not on a particular day). It has, as we say, “become a tradition”. In becoming a tradition it has taken on those same temporal characteristics which Gadamer attributes to festivals. It occurs “in its own time”, and this time is something quite different from individual participants simply “spending time” on the production of art. The barrel firing stands outside of the “everyday schedule” of the colleges and studios where the participants usually create their works. While one could certainly create a “schedule” for the barrel firing (it happens on such-and-such a day, beginning at such-and-such o’clock, with a break at such-and-such o’clock for lunch, and so forth), in another, more important sense, it is an event which happens “in its own time”. This time is not simply part of a schedule, and the participants participate precisely insofar as they step out of what might be considered their ordinary “schedules”. As with any firing which relies on human participation, the “schedule” which one might project ahead-of-time must be flexible, and the event itself determines what must happen when. Likewise, what is called for from the participants is not control, but responsiveness to what is called for by the event.

It seems we are left, then, with several general questions which may be raised about the process of creating art. Certainly, what we have said about the community formed during the barrel firing may not hold true for the creation of all types of art, for all kinds of communities involved in the creation of art. However, we may ask: Can Gadamer’s analogy between the festival and the work of art also be broadly applied to the process of creating works of art? Is the process of creation something which, like the festival, draws us, gives us our place, transcends our everyday conception of time, and overcomes our subjectivity? Is the process of creation “pre-subjective” in this way even if the artist is alone? Does the individual artist ever really approach the creation of the work of art as the shaping of an object, or is she always drawn into a particular sort of relationship which elicits the receptive response of the artist to the situation of creation? Is there a way to generally conceive of the relationship of art and community without focusing on the relation of artist and community or the relationship of the community to the finished work, but rather focusing on the way that the work gathers a community in the event of its creation? Are we “preservers” of the work of art even before it is “complete” and before it takes on a tangible “significance” in its completeness? What kind of “unity” might be found, not in the completed work of art, but prior to it: in its inception, its gradual birth, the unexpectedness of its final form? Does the artist ever stand beyond the “unexpected” quality of the work of art, or is she in fact always the first to be drawn in by what is fundamentally new and previously unrecognized in the work of art?

All citations from Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays, Trans. Nicholas Walker, Cambridge University Press, New York: 1986.

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