The Art at its Margins: On the exhibition “The Flames: The Age of Ceramics,” the last of a trilogy at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris: conversation with Anne Dressen

— Benjamin Lignel

Anonymous, Chinese paint brush pot, ceramic, late 18th century

Anonymous, Chinese paint brush pot, ceramic, late 18th century

This conversation focuses on “Les Flammes, L’Âge de la céramique” (The Flames: The Age of Ceramics), the final part of a trilogy of exhibitions at the Musée d’art moderne de Paris (October 15, 2021–February 6, 2022), curated by Anne Dressen.

Benjamin Lignel: Your exhibition “The Flames: The Age of Ceramics” has just closed. This gives us a chance to discuss the last part of what we understand today to be a trilogy (with “Decorum” and “Medusa”) where you question art’s relationship with its “peripheries”: popular art, decorative arts, or non-Western art. To start, could you try to summarize your curatorial journey, and what led you to this project?

Anne Dressen: I first studied literature, then art history at Paris 1 and at the École du Louvre, and then at NYU—very complementary approaches. My master’s thesis was on the history of alternative spaces in New York from the 1950s to the 1980s. When I went back to Paris, I joined MAM (Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris), which may come as a surprise. That being said, in retrospect, I’ve always worked in the margins, on the borders of traditional art: on solo exhibitions of artists who were not well known in France, like Carol Rama and Sturtevant; and with group exhibition format. My first exhibition was entitled “Off the record” and offered a compilation of sounds by artists in the Cordeliers garden. Then, there was “Playback,” which centered around the theme of music videos. The two projects brought together sound pieces and music videos produced for or inspired by television. So, I went from pop culture to folk art!

BL: How do you distinguish them?

AD: Pop culture is the spectacular side, the resources deployed, the eye-catching, capitalist side, which comes from and addresses the masses: the mainstream has always been denigrated by the museum and intellectuals, in France especially, which has a kind of mistrust of and contempt for it. Folk art is more humble, but that doesn’t mean it has been let into the museum for all that! The museum remains elitist at its core. It needs to exclude in order to exist. Do not forget that France remains a very centralized and very vertical country. What seems interesting to me in this opposition between high and low is making this value judgment apparent. This could be a guarantee against the populism threatening museums today. This judgment is the result of a gaze, often from above, of museum historians and curators or conservateur (conservator) (the French term is illuminating), which ultimately encourages parochiality, making sure to separate art from life. Artists, on the other hand, have become very interested in folk art. They have a more open and interdisciplinary outlook on the world, but not necessarily a naive one. They help us to think differently about the borders and classifications that have been imposed by institutions.

BL: In 2013, you curated an exhibition entitled “Decorum.”

AD: “Decorum, tapis et tapisseries d’artistes” [Decorum: Artists’ carpets and tapestries] focused on the relationship between art and textiles; it was interdisciplinary and transhistorical, which is the common trait of the exhibition trilogy, with Medusa, on jewelry, and “Les Flammes,” on ceramics. “Decorum” included different types of pieces, anonymous or signed, from the Middle Ages to the present day that related to the decorative, the architectural, to furniture, or the sculptural. The plan for a trilogy only took shape when I was installing “Decorum” and the idea of “Medusa” became very obvious to me. Indeed, some artists made both textiles and jewelry, attracted by the suppleness of the fabric and the propensity to create useful forms, to blend art and life. “Medusa,” in which you participated as a guest expert, posed the question of adornment as a marker of identity, a support of values and rituals.

BL: Was it difficult to bring the artisanal and the decorative to MAM?

AD: It was really the artists who made me want to look at the relationship between art and craft and who inspired me—modern and contemporary artists who disproved the assertion that a functional object cannot be considered art. Some of these artists are present in all three exhibitions, such as Mai-Thu Perret, Nick Mauss, John Armleder, Marc-Camille Chaimowicz, Sylvie Auvray, and Dewar & Gicquel. They support me, and our approaches sustain one another. My exhibitions have offered comparisons between objects that are generally not related, popular, decorative, or non-European objects, that artists have collected or been inspired by. I also did research to create relationships with more ancient pieces, but without any chronological principle. I discovered the New Tapestry and the biennials of Lausanne without knowing that I was reconnecting with a forgotten part of the Paris Museum of Modern Art (MAM) history, the department of art and textile creation led by Danielle Molinari in the 1980s. This history was completely absent from books on the masterpieces of the museum’s collection.

These three exhibitions are thematic, but not in the traditional sense: the idea is less to show the kinship, the coherence of an artistic movement, or a geographical area, or to try to define a common feature, as it is to try to point out the complexity of a specific “minor” medium—namely, textiles, jewelry, and ceramics—which has been denigrated, to understand what was so disturbing about them, and also to look at those objects differently. The question then is to ask why all these mediums have been excluded or relegated to the periphery of the museum. I came to the conclusion that the perception of these mediums is informed by biases relating to gender, social class, and race, and that they force us to reconsider the definition of the art and history of modernity. Indeed, artists have often adopted these mediums in their practices out of a need to bring art back into the daily lives, to create useful forms, to rethink the utility of things and preestablished categories. This implication, as social as it is political, does “provoke” the established order.

BL: The three mediums you chose cover a lot of territories, and that allowed you to establish a dialogue and contrast within each category.

AD: Indeed, within each medium—textiles, ceramics, or jewelry—there are different realities. In the end, I seek to question the customs of display, but also prefabricated, peremptory readings and preconceptions through a wide spectrum of objects. What guides me is the desire to never impose a single vision. There is not just one imposed trajectory but opportunities to clear your own path and allow for personal revelations over the course of the encounters.

BL: Let’s talk about these encounters: you extend the encounter with the object, to what preceded it (its fabrication) and what followed it (its use). I think what is remarkable in the trilogy is its anthropological dimension. It’s not just a question of showing how people wore jewelry, used textiles, or produced ceramics, but of alluding to social practices. You deviate therefore from the mission of MAM, which is focused on the intention of the artist and the formal, aesthetic, and symbolic encounter with the work. You go well beyond that.

AD: In “Les Flammes,” for example, the theme of technique (alongside two others: uses and messages) evokes a material dimension but also the unpredictable and the unknown, which are an integral part in the making of all ceramics. That is why potters often place “kiln gods” on their kilns. But there is also an aesthetic of planned collapse. The “sloppy” is a current ceramic trend that seeks out the voluntary accident, that values the misshapen. This is a movement akin to Post-Minimalism, under the banner of which we find supple, sagging textile sculptures, which are also a critical commentary on the idea of a triumphant masculinity. The second section considered the variety of uses and sought not to contrast what was artistic with what was utilitarian, as is too often the case in Western culture, unlike Japan, for example. The last section on messages was a way of rethinking this idea that the decorative is necessarily apolitical.

But the section on technique was also political, raising the question of its avoidance in the discourse on art and in art history. In the Western world, it is the intention of the work, its meaning, that takes precedence over its materiality. As if revealing the way in which works are made, on the face of it, would take away their conceptual force and their mystery. That would affect the myth of the transcendental work. And one must avoid getting too close to the “manual” or to what is “too dirty,” to quote Mary Douglas[1] and her book on the idea of “dirt.”

BL: When does this turning point of the separation of objects into liberal arts and applied arts occur?

AD: It’s a long process. But the distinction between liberal arts and mechanical arts and the evolution goes back to a period between the Renaissance, when drawing was recognized a cosa mentale, and the eighteenth century. This explains the opposition and the hierarchization between objects considered functional and works of art (which we may call “objects of art”!). Decorative art objects occupy an intermediary place. Richard Sennett’s book,[2] The Craftsman, shows the aberration of this distinction between the body and the mind, the intellect and the manual. Everything is much more intrinsically linked and informed by one another.

BL: Can you explain the title you chose, “Les Flammes” (The Flames), and the subtitle, “L’Âge de la céramique” (The Age of Ceramics)?

AD: “Les Flammes” obviously has to do with a physical given, the heat that transforms clay into ceramic. It is also metaphorically a form of passion, of ardor, that can refer to social engagement as well as to working the earth. This brings up a more political dimension, or at least, a kind of ethical positioning. “L’Âge de la céramique” brings up the way in which ceramics, like weaving, was never considered, at least by prehistorians, as a technological and cultural revolution, deserving of its own “age” in the division of time. I’m afraid that it really was through a sort of erroneous, completely anachronistic reading that modern prehistorians associated, unconsciously perhaps, these first ceramics with the domestic, the culinary, and the feminine, ultimately granting them less importance than things within the realm of hunting and war corresponding to Stone, Bronze, or Iron Ages.

BL: Isn’t the age of ceramics also the current moment?

AD: Yes, insofar as there is ultimately the desire to celebrate this age today at a time when ceramics seems to be more accepted. It is the subject of exhibitions, and very widely used in amateur practices.

BL: Can we talk about the militant aspect of your exhibitions? In “Les Flammes” and “Medusa” you show practices that are looked down on, that history has left by the wayside. You talk about underrated arts and marginalized communities. Can you talk about the connection you make between the two?

AD: “Looked down on” means poorly regarded, denigrated, perceived as bad form, that which doesn’t deserve to be given attention, but also that which has not been looked at properly, that which has not been looked at enough, that which has not been of interest. It is because it has been denigrated and underrated that it has been excluded from the annals of history and art museum collections. It is no coincidence that these mediums have been often associated with minorities.

BL: The connection is made in particular with the domestic dimension, by the fact that these are activities referred to as women’s “work.”

AD: Needlework, weaving, embroidery, and sewing—and to a certain extent amateur pottery or painting on porcelain—are often considered to be women’s work. We see them as secondary practices, as artistic practices that don’t count. As a real means of subsistence, these works could in fact be produced at home, in a domestic setting. What is interesting to note is that during the course of the twentieth century, certain artists did not want to free themselves from these mediums, but instead claim them to make them the vector of a possible emancipation. For me, it’s a bit like the way in which certain racist or homophobic insults were finally reappropriated by the communities that were insulted by them. Niki de Saint Phalle, for example, made jewelry and perfume, but that allowed her to finance her monumental sculptures. Or Judy Chicago, who occupies an important place in the exhibition, and whom I connect to a much less well-known figure from La Borne, Marie Talbot, a kind of unusual person in her time. She was from a family of potters, but as a woman she was confined to the role of handle-maker (for pitchers and jugs and other utilitarian objects). She instead made real figurative sculptures and completely departed from the role assigned to her peers. Many female ceramicists took hold of this medium, starting in the 1840s. In the exhibition, I also allude to the medallions of historical women made by JJ Lerat in 1950 in Bourges, as well as the set of plates by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, twenty years earlier, in Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom.

In current queer communities, we notice that ceramics are quite often highly praised. Is this because of its “dirty” side, which can be connected to the earth, or the kitsch side sometimes associated with ceramics, which can offend good taste, or its intrinsic imperfection, due to accidents of firing? Basically, there is this idea of being able to construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct, playing with a standardized vision of form. I think that’s how I can interpret certain queer works made of ceramic: it is a medium that is not on the side of power, but is something that represents a counterculture, a possible counter-aesthetic. It also has a therapeutic benefit: manipulating the earth can heal, soothe. And so, Ehren Tool has organized pottery workshops for veterans traumatized by war.

BL: In fact, you are saying at the same time that there is something in the materiality of ceramics that aligns with queer aesthetics, and also that this minor art echoes with a way to claim one’s difference, a way to intentionally occupy the margin in order to resist the forms of oppression, or suppression, that these communities are subjected to. And so, defending ceramics is a form of resistance. What you are saying, this link you make, is made by very few people in France. I’ve seen more curators and artists in the United States actually claim this equivalence between minor art and a marginalized community, making this claim an identity and saying: “Queer is folk and craft is queer.”

AD: It’s true that for me it’s intuitive and obvious.

BL: Let’s talk about your method and the part that collaboration and intuition play in your approach. You talked about the role of artists, some of whom will help you on the project through their works, your exchanges, and in terms of the set design, for example; there are also “advisors” and “scientific and technical experts” with whom you surround yourself to work out and focus on the different aspects of a very broad subject for each exhibition.

AD: Yes, because I’m not an expert in any of those three fields. I am really a curator of contemporary art even though I studied art history in an encyclopedic and general way; but I’m not, and do not feel, like an expert, and I’m almost happy not to be. I think it allows me to look at things in a less partisan way: it allows me to look at older pieces with contemporary eyes and actually bring these different universes together. If I came from the world of studio pottery or Hispano-Mauresque faience, I would certainly not have done the same exhibition.

BL: How do you prepare? How has this research changed your view of ceramics,
and what obstacles have you encountered along the way?

AD: I took several trips in preparation, between 2018 and 2019, three years before the exhibition, which were very decisive. I discovered Nicki Green’s work in Pittsburgh, with Namita Wiggers, who once directed the Contemporary Craft Museum in Portland. I had the chance to visit collections with pieces I had trouble seeing elsewhere, notably the University of Arizona Museum, and in New Mexico I visited several Native American Pueblos. And before that, I took a decisive trip to Japan, on the trail of Mingei, which has such an interesting take on the beauty of the useful. I also went to Italy, to Albisola, to see Casa Jorn. And then after that, during the lockdown, I also took quite a few trips in France, between Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye, La Borne, and Vallauris, places with a strong history of ceramics. Then I went to see the ceramist Jean Girel in Cluny. Each time, these were places with a very strong relationship with ceramics and gave the impression of entering into a long history with traditions that still exist today.

Visiting museum storage areas is the most important: to experience physical encounters with works and sometimes completely unexpected encounters with pieces that become favorites, like this late eighteenth-century Chinese brush pot that looks like it might have been spray-painted in the 1980s. That’s typically an object I wanted to borrow right away: it almost seems like “plagiarism in advance” (a subject for an exhibition in itself that I would like to do one day), which deviates from an official and let’s say expected linear chronology. Abstraction is not necessarily a European invention at the beginning of the twentieth century. It seems necessary to take a less Eurocentric look at art.

BL: It’s as if you were restoring moments of discovery, apprenticeship, for visitors, and it was also a way to structure the exhibition. The brush pot was placed to next to a more classical 1000 Flowers vase.

AD: Yes, I love it. It was a happy coincidence: in the storeroom, the pieces were not in the same place, but they’re both Chinese, and contemporary to each other, against all odds, and present the same colors. In other cases, I tried to show similar pieces spaced out in time and space in order to show forms of possible influence. So I placed Souvenir du “déjeuner en fourrure” (Souvenir of “Breakfast in Fur”) by Meret Oppenheim, one of the icons of Surrealism, near a Chinese enamel bowl known as “hare’s fur effect.” Since cultural transfers in the history of ceramics are numerous, I wanted to show the current neo-Japanism or striking neo-Orientalism of ceramics, obvious if we look at the practice of Western studio pottery since the 1950s.

BL: Your way to create “bridges” or “resonances” amounts to considering the work not in an autonomous way, but in relation with others. This contradicts the idea of autonomy, one of the great principles of modernism. I have the impression that your choice of craft and decorativeness is also a way to have objects encounter in a similar way as one would in a real domestic space.

AD: I’m interested in proposals that invent other ways of exhibiting, outside of the white cube of the museum, but also in institutional critique that unveils the context of the display, like Fred Wilson and his simple gesture of interchanging two metalware objects (a piece of silverware and a slave’s yoke) in two display cases at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992, which brought everything together in terms of medium and dates, and above all in the links of cause and effect (the slave trade as a production of extreme wealth) that the museum purposely separated; this project was very aptly titled “Mining the Museum.” Or Louise Lawler, who makes impromptu photographic close-ups (a Pollock and a Limoges soup tureen), of the kind of encounters one finds in a collector’s interior. in an artist studio, likewise, you never find an isolated painting or sculpture; they are always placed next to tools, sketches, photos, postcards.

BL: Set design occupies an important place in your redefinition of the exhibition.

AD: Yes, in all my exhibitions, attention is always paid to the staging, and to the artifice implied by the museum display. This abstraction of the context, this sacralization, is anything but neutral or objective, and is accompanied by an implicit request to change the viewers’ attitude: to speak in a low voice, to whisper, to keep one’s distance, to not touch anything, etc. As many marks of deference, a respect to be shown in front of the work. The white cube acts on the work and on the visitor! But this convention is recent.

In “Decorum,” I had the pleasure of working with Marc Camille Chaimowicz. He placed deliberately asymmetrical pedestals with colors, patterns, carpets on which one could sit or even walk; there was also a compilation of furniture music à la Satie, conceived by Jean-Philippe Antoine … In “Medusa,” I sought to evoke the presence of the body (with a painted mirror by Nick Mauss, but also mannequins from Atelier EB, or even photos of objects worn in different contexts). In “Les Flammes” we decided, with the artist Natsuko Uchino, who was involved as an artistic advisor, to have plants in some vases. Even if they were dry, we let in an organic element, generally prohibited within the museum. Or even a set of ceramic lamps, that were illuminated, activating their functional role. These are strategies of diversion.

BL: Besides the artists, are there any historians or curators who helped you think about the decompartmentalization and reconciliation you discuss?

AD: Yes! The Musée National des Arts et des Traditions Populaires [MNATP] (National Museum of Folk Arts and Traditions). It’s a museum that was designed and founded by Georges-Henri Rivière in the 1930s, and that is an offshoot of the Musée de l’Homme. It was a truly political project, very original and provocative, that showed an interest in know-how, and modest objects, and that applied an approach inspired by ethnography, but to French objects. From a less classist perspective, too, if we consider that the collections of most major museums are in fact the objects of the elite. Rivière went on to look at numerous collections; he did very specific research to identify both the objects as well as the way in which these objects were made in order to then recontextualize them in reconstructed interiors, which were theatrical but without mannequins. What interested me were all these display cases, a way of transmitting ordinary objects, gestures, trying to translate them, show them, make them understood, and preserve a skill and objects that were in danger of disappearing if the museum had not been interested in them. He was nicknamed “the magician of vitrines.” If only through the black background of these display cases, he created a form of dramatization and recontextualization, which was specific to his gaze and has completely revolutionized the way museums are put together. In “Les Flammes” there is even a display case in homage to “Rivière.” This exhibition would surely not have taken place this way if Georges-Henri Rivière had not existed! The MNATP had educational display cases and one in particular, entitled “From Clay to Pot,” where, a bit like a storyboard details all the stages of a milk jug being turned, reconstructed by Natsuko Uchino, for whom Rivière is also important, and Marie-Charlotte Calafat, who is a curator at Mucem [The Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations in Marseille, France], where the ATP collections are kept today.

BL: Rivière says in the 1930s and 1940s that if we don’t preserve these skills of craftsmanship and the folk arts, and keep constrasting them with modernity, we will end up forgetting them. This way of thinking reminds me of your way of creating dialogue rather than thinking in terms of polarity, opposition.

AD: What’s interesting is the way he did not oppose “us” and others, seeing the diversity, the contradictions within the same country. He evolved with his time; the museum was alive, and it integrated contemporary urban practices—he organized exhibitions over time about the circus, skateboarding, graffiti, etc.—while also using technical devices, especially sound. He was extremely open and sensitive to the times he was going through. By inventing nylon thread display cases, he finally established himself as an artist, assuming great singularity in a very normative environment but without sacrificing scientific rigor. I am convinced that is not only compatible but also necessary within the museum.

Reconstitution of George Henri Riviere’s ‘From clay to pot’ vitrine by Natsuko Uchino and Marie-Charlotte Calafat, installation view of ´Les Flammes’ exhibition at Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, 2021

Reconstitution of George Henri Riviere’s ‘From clay to pot’ vitrine by Natsuko Uchino and Marie-Charlotte Calafat, installation view of ´Les Flammes’ exhibition at Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, 2021

BL: Which brings me to the question of what we have collectively called “spectatorship,” which is to say, the modes of interaction that an exhibition encourages with its audiences: more or less passive, collective, didactic, or experiential. How do you actually conceive of spectators’ encounter with “Les Flammes”?

AD: A specific space gave access to practical workshops, demonstration workshops, to the real-time fabrication process within the works, which is unusual. There were also several films—which showed the conception of the pieces, so that it was not only an exhibition of finished objects. And on the shelves of this workshop, we saw experiments by students from the MAGMA program of TALM (the Beaux-Arts of Le Mans) directed by Natsuko Uchino. The other project specific to the exhibition was the “collected objects display case.” This was a completely experimental project, unprecedented for MAM, rather inspired by society museums, and indirectly again by Georges-Henri Rivière. The project was in the tradition of eco-museums or societal museums, which deal with questions of history and society. They often resort to this principle of collection, of external contributions to constitute their collections. For “Les Flammes,” it was a little different since it was a participatory project that allowed visitors to deposit an object that they had designed, or which they lived with, for the duration of the exhibition. It was about showing the importance of ceramics in our lives. Ultimately, it mixed completely professional practices with amateur practices.

BL: Do you suggest a sort of critical look at the usual authority of the museum and its methods of choosing what it presents?

AD: I’m interested in museums as artists envision them, too, like the traveling sentimental museum by Spoerri. Another project of “Les Flammes” is the en valise (in a suitcase) exhibition, inspired by Duchamp’s Boîte en valise (Box in a suitcase). It’s a kind a vanity case in which there are ceramic objects, different clays, stoneware, terra-cotta, earthenware, and porcelain, found in secondhand shops or reconstructed by Natsuko Uchino and Clovis Maillet. For instance, the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, dated 29,000 BC, as well as cards in the style of the Eames card game, that reproduce works of the exhibition. The suitcase can circulate among a public that might be “impeded” from coming: hospitalized people, prison inmates, very old people, people with a disability. Also, what interests me is that this format can make the exhibition last beyond its closing date and allows it to continue to be activated. Recently, the Symposium on Ceramics and Politics held at the National Institute for Art History in Paris looked back at “Les Flammes” from a distance a few weeks after its closing.

BL: Let’s talk about the critical reception of “Les Flammes.” The mainstream public seems to appreciate it a lot, like the artists. The harsher critics stemmed from art critics and some sociologists.

AD: Yes, the show created expectations and sometimes frustrations. In artpress[3] there was an article that was very concerned about the loss of points of reference: about hanging a perforated plate by Fontana next to a folk nineteenth-

century cheese drainer from the Mucem. This association was not only formal. The journalist forgot to mention that there was also a Mingei plate nearby: this plate invited people to look at the objects around them differently, whether they were artistic or popular. The Mingei invites us to perceive the beauty of everyday objects. The critic also seems to have forgotten the existence of the Duchampian gesture. When Duchamp chose the bottle rack (porte bouteille), which is a draining rack (égouttoir), as a readymade, he was also playing on words: with the drainer, he wanted to offend good taste (bon goût), drain it away (égoutter), get rid of it. I also decided to put next to a sublime torso by Rodin the famous excerpt from Ghost (where Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze created on the potter’s wheel a form that reflects their growing desire), because I knew that Ghost played a role in popularizing the amateur practice of ceramics. This excerpt is as mythic as it is cheesy. In the exhibition, there are a lot of ceramic pieces that, in their textures or in their representations, refer to the physicality and sensuality of the body, to its fluids and pleasures, and several commentators (in the press but also on social networks or on the museum’s website) have taken offense at their obscene side.

BL: Let’s talk about the article[4] that appeared in the magazine Franc-Tireur, written by the sociologist Nathalie Heinich, who accuses you of practicing a misplaced queer feminism and called the exhibition “woke,” accusing it of being self-righteous in an American way, of being inclusive, recognizing that history—and especially Western history—is made up of patriarchal structures. In the end, all the things she accuses it of are qualities for me.

AD: Yes, the term “wokism” is used by these French critics in a pejorative way! Which itself is paradoxical. These new reactionaries claim to be for the Enlightenment and still, they rise up against awakening! In the end, this reminds us that the Enlightenment introduced also a lot of obscurity, under the cover of their allegiance to reason, and their defenders have inherited hypocritical certainties, which are very difficult to get rid of, as the current period of extreme regression and contradictions shows. In the end, these various criticisms truly convey the refusal to question the status quo of certain things and take a stand in favor of maintaining old criteria and old orders. It should also be noted that what shocks them has more to do with gender or social class issues than postcolonial issues.

BL: We have to recognize that museums and institutions have the power to create categories and organize things but also to undo them. I want to play the devil’s advocate and ask you a question: you investigate hierarchies between good taste and pop culture; but also categories like “fine art” and “folk art.” Isn’t it a risk, through these exhibitions, to erase the distinctions that exist between the art and the artisanal?

AD: I don’t think my goal is to erase those distinctions. What I am trying to show is the artistic quality of artisanal pieces and the artisanal side of certain artistic pieces. Basically, I’m trying to investigate the hierarchies rather than the categories, and each time I ask myself: Who really has an interest in keeping and preserving this system of hierarchies? Who opposes it? And it’s not just museums, it’s a whole system that in the guise of defending values is in fact protecting its own interests. In fact, I have “disturbed,” and I say that consciously. I have not separated the pots from the pans. I have mixed up apples and pears. In the end, the defenders of contemporary ceramics want to be associated with the artists but not with the artisans, and some accused us of “leveling” everything. As if the act of looking at these different hierarchies from a distance is to level everything, when it’s just asking, What underlies them? Where does it come from? Who informs them? Who benefits from them?

BL: Who has interest? is a crucial question. The question reminds me of museums of the nineteenth century, of the implicit invitation to the bourgeois to participate in the construction of the meaning of the pieces being shown to them and thereby to constitute their own unique subjectivities. This is how the sociologist Tony Bennett[5] talks about it, pointing out the hegemonic dimensions of the museum project.

AD: That’s exactly what I find important. Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, said that the English museum was founded on the idea that it belonged to the citizens; hence it was free of charge. But we can still wonder what citizens he was talking about: for a whole other section of society of immigrant, non-European origin, the story, as it is told, does not refer to any possible form of identification, their story is told only from the angle of submission, or predation, treasures of conquest …

BL: Agreed. The cultural hegemony of the upper stratum of the population—French or English—is expressed in the institutions, which invite us to believe that the tastes of the nobility are an ideal of taste. This idea has survived the democratization of political life, and we continue to think of the museum as an arbiter of good taste. From this perspective, broken plates or a drainer pose a problem. They pose multiple problems. It’s not just a question of hierarchy. Accepting the cheese drainer leads you to realize “All this scaffolding we’ve been forced to believe in, maybe it’s obsolete.”

AD: That being said, some museums change! I just got back from London and in the British Museum collection, there is a LGBTQ+ parcours.

BL: Artists like Nicki Green invite us to seriously consider the fact that the choice of ceramic, the choice of jewelry, or the choice of textiles are in fact ethical choices, which can support a project of political, social, and group identities.

AD: It’s true that it seems important to show the political dimension underlying these choices; but at the same time, it seems just as important to me to point out that when we say “political” it does not necessarily mean “progressive.” Defending craftsmanship, and the return to the land, can also be a self sustaining retreat, a defense of the local, traditions, not just humanist engagement: these are two completely opposite positions but both can sometimes find themselves defending what appears to be equivalent. That is what I tried to get across in the exhibition by showing medallions portraying Marshal Pétain.

BL: Forrest Pelsue, who did an internship with you during the preparation of the exhibition, is doing great research on the nationalist dimension of craftsmanship during the war. Pétain serves as a link between the prewar Rivière and the postwar Rivière. Rivière in fact perceived the possible drifting of the movement of national collections: the attention paid to French traditions leads very directly to Pétainist discourse on the specificity of French genius, on the link between the land and culture. It is quite interesting to see that craftsmanship has been the mainstay of reactionary, traditionalist, and racist movements, and also of progressive movements. All are coexisting.

AD: Yes, and it should be added that Rivière also participated in the financing of the Dakar-Djibouti mission in 1931 for the Musée de l’Homme, in the middle of the colonial period. One must always consider a broader context. And today, we should not underestimate the link between craftsmanship and “greenwashing,” which, under the cover of a critique of capitalism and excessive consumption, is in fact a tainted reclaiming by capitalism of a certain idea of craft. The text by Jenni Sorkin[6] in the catalogue explains it very well when it critiques the reclaiming of the idea of well-being through refocusing, a current form of marketing that can be a very pernicious manipulation.

BL: Yes, it is also similar to the illusion of believing we all have the right to happiness, which is also a strong neoliberal promise, that with the clay, we will come back to ourselves. Speaking of individualism, I don’t think I’ve seen any examples of pottery as an expression of collective work. “Les Flammes” deals essentially with the recognition of a unique, singular author. And I wonder if in your political questionings, and in the way you disturbed things, as you were saying earlier, isn’t there more room to make, not just for the anonymous but for the collective?

AD: You’re right. We could have gone further. The term “anonymous” often reveals a sort of laziness on the part of museums. When we know the name of the decorator or the maker for pieces made in a manufactory, for example, we put their names on the labels, or the name of the potter, for a piece commissioned by an artist. In the case of a collaboration between an artist, let’s say a visual artist, and a ceramicist, we have systematically mentioned both. There was indeed an anonymous plate by Extinction Rebellion, which refers to a collective that seeks to remain anonymous, but it’s true that very few pieces were produced collectively.

Marie Talbot, Fountain of Cleanliness, ca. 1840, Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, Marseille, France, © RMN-Grand Palais (MUCEM) / Image RMN-GP

Marie Talbot, Fountain of Cleanliness, ca. 1840, Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations, Marseille, France, © RMN-Grand Palais (MUCEM) / Image RMN-GP

The principle of naming, of giving back an identity, an existence, in order to better localize or anchor a piece, is truly crucial. For example, Theaster Gates, the African-American artist from Chicago, did the work of a historian, which he later shared during exhibitions[7] and conferences. He was looking for another ceramic genealogy, not recognizing himself solely in the history of Western or Eastern ceramics. He found traces of jars by David Drake, Dave the Slave, who became Dave the Potter, an enslaved man from South Carolina, who was also a poet. The “Flammes” catalogue reproduces all the texts he engraved on the stoneware jars that he had to make for his successive masters, and which had survived from the 1840s. In retrospect, these are fundamental historical and artistic testimonies from an era where there are very few traces. It is the voice of a slave, of incredible strength and humanity, markers of resistance, which are at once encrypted and so poetic that, fortunately for him, his masters did not perceive the subversive and rebellious force they contained.

BL: It is the echo of work that, once again, is carried out more in the U.S. than in Europe. But you will probaly pursue it in France.

AD: My next project is to continue this crossover but this time among different mediums, which is to say: after showing them isolated, it would be about having them intersect. Contributing to rewriting, to questioning the canon and the sacralized history of modernity, rethinking the way in which art history has been nourished by objects from the crafts and arts and the decorative realms, often produced by women and the working classes and often emanating from extra-Western cultures. Rethinking all these myths of autonomy, this official version, which has had its day by now! All the objects that are missing from official art history! This encourages us to think of a new type of museum. We could call it the museum for the plural arts, for the “engaged,” rather than “applied” arts.

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman

  1. [1] Cf. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).
  2. [2] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
  3. [3] Richard Leydier, “Tout a changé, oui et non”, artpress, no. 495 (January 2022).
  4. [4] Nathalie Heinich, “L’art du micmac woke”, Franc-Tireur, no. 8 (January 5, 2022).
  5. [5] Cf. Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1995).
  6. [6] Jenni Sorkin, “Le centrage et le problème du recentrage,” in ed. Anne Dressen, Les Flammes : l’Âge de la céramique, exibition cat. (Paris: Paris Musées, 2021), 198–99.
  7. [7] Cf. The exhibition “To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter,” Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, April 16 – October 07, 2010, and Orron Kenyetta, Ethan Lasser, and al., Outlasting Denial: A Case Study in Curatorial Activation Around Dave the Potter (Milwaukee, Chipstone Foundation: Green Gallery Press, 2015).