Milk Jug

The object I’ve chosen to represent me is this jug.

(pass jug around)

What can we say about this jug?

What’s it made of?

Clay – yes.

In fact we can be more specific. If you rub the base of the jug where it’s
unglazed you’ll feel a sandpapery texture that tells us it’s made from ‘crank
stoneware’. This is stoneware clay with little bits of ‘grog’ – particles of clay
which have already been fired – added, which helps stability when working
with the clay and also reduces shrinkage when it’s fired. Now I’ve not been
fired at 1260 degrees C but I do pride myself on being reasonably stable and
resistant to shrinkage!

What else?

Yes it is wonky! I prefer to say ‘unique’.

The word I’m really looking for here is handmade. I know because I made it.
Autumn 2011, adult education ceramics classes at a Sixth Form college in
Cambridge – there I was slipping my two pinch pots together to make an

That’s got to be one of the most direct ways it represents me. It literally came
from my hands. When I was making this jug there were moments when the
clay felt like it was a part of me.

One of the texts we were asked to read in the first year I was at art school
was Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction”. I don’t think I fully understood it at the time but during those
classes something started to twig.*

I’ve got a quote here from the seminal English art critic John Berger writing
in 1972:

“For the first time, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous,
insubstantial, available, valueless, free.”

Now Berger is talking about ‘images’ not pots – he’s getting at the impact of
photography on the way we encounter paintings – by the early ’70’s art
monographs with really good colour reproductions were readily available –
if you wanted to see a painting before that you’d have to travel to where it
was (or commission a reproduction if you were really rich!) – Berger is
pointing out is that in the early 70’s you need look no further than your local
bookshop. And now we’ve got the internet of course! But I think
technologies of reproduction/manufacture have produced analogous shifts in
other art forms.

The thing I really want to focus on is the notion of “value” that Berger

How do we value a jug like this one?

(receive jug back from audience)

What do you reckon its worth?

(place jug on a high plinth in the centre of the space)

How about now?

Well one aspect of the value of this jug is personal to my family. I gave it to
my Dad for his birthday last year.

How else can we look at value?

Maybe in terms of the material it’s made of.. I don’t actually know the
answer to that one but I’m guessing that there’s an argument to say it’s worth
less now than it was as unfired clay – certainly it’s less malleable!

Ceramics has always spanned the divide between objet d’art and everyday
bowls and plates for eating one’s dinner off. So any of us can buy a milk jug
from Ikea for £3.99. But a one-off art object may well be worth more. I’d
like to take a moment here to reflect on what one is paying for – what is the
extra artistic value. One way of looking at this is in terms of the capitalist
principles of supply and demand – the more people that want to buy a piece
of art the higher the value will be – that’s how art auctions work. There’s all
kinds of arguments about the art market but one thing that makes sense to
me is that in commissioning a local potter to make a bowl or a plate or
whatever it might be one is sponsoring a lifestyle – the artist’s lifestyle – one
is sponsoring an alternative.

Personal value, artistic value, commercial value – all these things are in
tension. In our society money value and human values are all too often
working in opposite directions. The trick to me seems to be to try and bring
these into line by using money wisely. Sometimes it might be worth paying

Who would have thought that a milk jug would have so
much to say?


*There is something here too about markmaking – another thing that came up at art school. Markmaking also seems to refer more to two dimensional art than pots but if you will allow me some license… We are going on a journey to humankind’s prehistoric past. Today we are surrounded by evidence of humankind’s triumph. I sit in a modern house with central heating. Outside is a modern town. Roads and railwaylines. Cables and sewerage buried under the ground. I type this on the fantastically ingenious combination of technologies known as a laptop and when I click on ‘update’ my words will be uploaded via wireless internet to the world wide web. Prehistoric man had none of this. Markmaking. Charcoal on rock. The remains of a fire. Evidence of human presence. Human marks as opposed to animal marks. I. Was. Here. Art making carries on this tradition.


About hughchapmansblog

Poet and performance maker based in Cambridge and London

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  1. Pingback: « Hugh Chapman's Theatre & Performance Blog

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