The Subject of Touch

Inside this life, time is only this moment, risks are taken, chance weds human intent with the unexpected, and the best discovery is often things not sought (14).
– Scott Meyer, With Fire: Richard Hirsch, A Life Between Chance and Design

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Inside this life. There are risks when we write from a place of subjectivity. At least that is the line we are fed from our elementary school days. In With Fire the artist Scott Meyer writes about his colleague, artist Richard Hirsch. There is no pretense of objectivity- but as I never paid much attention in my elementary school days anyway, I prefer it that way. After all, if fine arts have any meaning at all, surely it is one of making connections: connecting techniques are used to express connecting ideas and questions, which ultimately (if successful) make a profound connection to the viewer. Through our eyes and hands we feel the walls of our humanity from inside this life- where we exist.

With Fire is an account of Richard Hirsch’s continuing journey as an artist working in clay. Through this life examined, many aspects of ceramics: historical, technical, and artistic are illuminated. Meyer opens the book with a wonderfully exciting account of Hirsch’s 1978 trip to Japan where he shared his innovative American style Raku technique with Mr. Raku himself at the World Craft Conference (I have to admit that I didn’t know before reading this book that Raku was a proper noun and not simply an adjective; I guess I didn’t pay much attention in art school either, sigh). Fraught with diplomatic, cultural, and artistic pitfalls, the excitement and genuine appeal of Hirsch comes through in the storytelling.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to interpret pivotal moments romantically (39).

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As an added degree of subjectivity I should probably mention that I am recently acquainted with the writer of this book as well.  But I don’t think anyone would accuse me of even trying to write objectively about Hugo, Lawrence, Nabokov or any other of the writers that touch me deeply, that is, in fact, what I always hope to share- the pressure of their touch on my soul. I do think that the point of an overtly subjective account is that the writer adores his subject. Meyer’s prose doesn’t hide his admiration for Hirsch and passion for the art- he very much intends for the reader to fall in love with both as well.

One can hardly avoid subjectivity, in my opinion, which makes objectivity a boring lie. There has never been a book written or a piece of art produced that didn’t involve subjective passion. Well, there have of course, but they are the sorts of things that only a mother could love. Unless I’m your mother. The one memory I have of ceramics class in school is the moment when I had produced one of my first pots and I showed it to my teacher. She held the still moist clay in her hand, and then – she crushed it. “Don’t be precious,” were her only words to accompany this brutal act of critique. I suppose I have some attributes as a student after all: I learned that lesson well! Much to my children’s annoyance (although I know they secretly appreciate my disinclination towards empty flattery).

The end result must be a testament to the quest (65).

Meyer’s book delves into Hirsch’s evolving development, seamlessly connecting his myriad interests, intellect, and passion with a winsome mixture of charming cheek  and abiding reverence, all culminating in the pots. It’s all there.

I have an overwhelming desire to touch these pieces, and if I have understood anything at all about Hirsch’s art, I think he would understand that urge, and be glad.

Hirsch presents what is essential, even primal, in man’s interaction with tools and material. From this fertile vantage point we may touch what is most spiritual and what is most human (52). 

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Image information in respective descending order:

1) Ceremonial Cup #1B, 1992, bronze: polychromed patinas, 7 3/4″ x 10″ x 10″ photo by Geoff Tesch

2) Crucible Assembly, 2012, soda fired stoneware and slate, Hirsch, Meyer and Scotchie, 26″ x 20″ x 10″ photo by Gordon Humphries

3) Vessel, 1974, raku fired “painting with smoke”, 18″ x 20″ x 20″ photo by Neil MacEwan

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15 responses to “The Subject of Touch

  1. Lovely Jessica. You are actually such a….positive spirit with your emphasis on both the subjective experience and art. Must remember to reread this the next time I feel doubtful about the importance of art….

  2. Great piece. You reminded me of a class in college called Feminist Subjectivities, where we had to write only subjectively. It was posited as a political act to pull the veil off the dominant power behind objectivity, and trying to recenter subaltern voices. You can see I am dating myself! But, I agree, there is just an honesty in subjectivity (George Steiner and his “private, passionate experience.”). Thanks for the great writing and the sharing of this beautiful work.

  3. Lovely piece. There is somethng about great sculpture that makes us want to reach out and touch it, which is a nightmare for curators. Reminds me of the practice of touching saints’ statues, but also some recent research whereby good luck habits like throwing salt and touching wood actually work – as long as you reach out. Maybe there is something more happening in art than mere enjoyment.

  4. Objective versus subjective was something I had to discern alond with other such words that divide ideas as I began those nascent steps out of illitreracy. Subject versus object; to be objective versus subjective.
    And I admire those that can distance themselves from what they are writing by keeping at bay their self and are able to make grand, sweeping statements that really bring home what I in my subjectivity seem unable to do.
    Supposedly, newspapers are purported to be objective; they try to leave out the subject. We all could learn from their declarative sentences.
    Oh, Jessica pardon my ramblings; it happened of its own after reading your piece again.
    I think we should all aspire to be more objective; there is something that occurs from our efforts to leave ourselves out of the story; sure we can emote but there is something that we are missing if we insists solely on being subjective; sure there is a certain amount of subjectivity in every objective driven dribble but by aspiring to be less subjective it empowers more our objective goals.
    Don’t make me go back and edit this piece; I write better in the mornings- I am more objective way less subject to writing what I feel.

  5. Interesting. I wonder what an “objective goal” is. I”m not sure I have it in me to be declarative- smacks of hubris to my ear. I guess I just think we can not be any other than what we are: subjective. But when your subjective, touches and glances off against mine- that’s something wonderful. We need another word.

  6. Hi Jessica –
    Another lovely post. Every book you write about sounds exciting. One thing many reviewers forget is how to actually enjoy the work they’re critiquing, and maybe this is because in part of that quest for objectivity.
    In this one, I really enjoy how your quotes inspire interest in the text, though they don’t seem to have much to do with your narrative.
    I do believe that objectivity is important in some stuff, such as reviews and histories – or at least an author ought to own up to their own subjectivity. Though another blogger wrote a really cool post about subjectivity in reviews: http://ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/theatre-thursdays-haters-gonna-hate/ – this by way of critiquing one of my own critiques.

    • Thanks Julius, the post above was interesting and a nice exchange in the comments.
      It is fascinating to me to read histories (mostly written by the “winners,” right?) because as seemingly “objective” as they are meant or wanted to be, I always feel that the subjective aspects are always there, and in fact that is what make them more compelling reading in many ways. Otherwise from whence would the need arise for anyone else to write the history of, say, the Peloponnesian wars after Thucydides? And yet many more do exist, okay, maybe in that particular case the subject is close to exhaustion, but you get my point. These books cannot help having a gloss of the subjective, and I can not help reading them with my own, what is truly enriching is when the meeting of two subjectives alters one another. I don’t know, it seems rather the point to me….I can’t think of- well maybe I’ll throw the question out there (here- where ever we are) Are there any aspects of life in which we do not bring and leave a bit of ourselves?

  7. Because humans are inherently curious, tactile and explorative it is in the interest of an artist to make any artwork as interractive as possible. Even in the literary arts.

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