Acid Green “Pixie”

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

In the last Ugly Things post, Sophie mentioned a Key Concepts class where we were each asked to bring in an object and discuss the attractiveness or ugliness of these objects based on our own preferences. I thought this would be an appropriate time to discuss my contribution to that class: a green glazed teapot covered in reliefs of fairytale imagery. I found this teapot in a vintage shop and had to laugh at how in-your-face green it was; the way the handle had been constructed to look like a branch, despite the artificiality of the rest of the pot, and that on the lid the word ‘pixie’ had been placed in quotation marks, as if it were suggesting pixies rather than quite clearly showing them. It was later given to me as a housewarming present and has pride of place on my windowsill as the first thing I see every morning. It was the discussion around this object that made us decide to create the ‘Ugly Things’ column.

 

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

Made of earthenware, the teapot has an image of a fantastic, whimsical castle on one side and a thatched cottage on the other. The spout and body are covered with trees, with pixies perching in them. The handle, as mentioned, is shaped like a branch and the knob on the lid is a pixie hugging its knees. Apart from the word ‘pixie’ on the lid, there are no inscriptions or makers’ marks that might give a clue as to who designed or made the teapot. From a brief survey of antique websites, it seems that similar tea-ware with pixie motifs was made by many ceramic manufacturers in the late 1930s. One example, by Grimwades and Royal Winton has the word ‘pixie’ written in a very similar font. At the very least, this suggests that my teapot is from a similar time period, although it must be noted that the only comparable aspect is the representation of pixies on a teapot. Grimwades and Royal Winton pottery would have been thought of as high quality and excellent modelling as they had been patronised by the Royal Family. The shared pixie imagery could suggest that in a particular time and context, my teapot would have been considered tasteful, and even beautiful.

 

What about when our class saw it in a contemporary context? We discussed our objects in terms of Adolf Loos’ notorious article Ornament and Crime which argues:

 

‘In a highly productive nation ornament is no longer a natural product of its culture, and therefore represents a backwardness or even a degenerative tendency.’[1]

 

While Loos would, perhaps, have found this teapot rather less offensive than the opulent piece from the Victoria and Albert Museum collections (shown below), it was generally agreed that my teapot ranked low in attractiveness in our collection of objects. This collection included objects such as a tortoiseshell pencil case, embossed leather laptop cases, egg cups shaped like cat heads and other everyday objects from my peers’ lives. It was decided that the vibrant green colour and the kitsch imagery of the castle and pixies rendered it an ugly thing in a present day context.

 

Coalport Porcelain Teapot and Cover, ca. 1830, Porcelain painted with enamels and gilded, V&A: C.575&A-1935 ©V&A Search the Collections.

Coalport Porcelain Teapot and Cover, ca. 1830, Porcelain painted with enamels and gilded, V&A museum no. C.575&A-1935 ©Victoria and Albert Museum

One element that saved my teapot from being completely dismissed as ‘degenerative’ was its functionality: a vessel to make and serve tea. This is based on a practical assumption that it at some point fulfilled its intended use. My teapot, much like the V&A example and as suggested by the description of the Grimwades and Royal Winton piece, has never been used for making tea; it has none of the wear or markings that would suggest regular use and I certainly have not used it since it was given to me. Like much of the perfectly functional blue and white porcelain used to decorate rooms in the eighteenth century, my teapot is purely ornamental.[2] In the eyes of Adolf Loos, this would make my teapot a crime, but does its lack of functionality also render it less of an object? Mikel Dufrenne discusses this in The World of The Aesthetic Object:

 

‘The aesthetic object addresses itself neither to the will so as to inform it nor to the intellect so as to instruct it. It shows and sometimes shows only itself, without referring to anything real.’[3]

 

Dufrenne is concentrating mainly on the act of capturing something from the ‘real world’ onto another plane, such as a canvas. I believe that, whilst a teapot will have more tactility to it than a two-dimensional rendering of a teapot, if both of their ‘uses’ are to be looked at then it seems logical to label both as ‘aesthetic objects’. What Dufrenne seems to be suggesting is that if an object is not actively performing a function then it cannot be considered as ‘real’. If an aesthetic object is not a real object, then does it even matter if we find it attractive or ugly as it is has no importance with regard to ‘will’ or ‘intellect’?

 

Bill Brown’s writing on Thing Theory provides a useful introduction to consider what makes something a real object. Brown argues that ‘We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us.’[4] Could this suggest that we are more aware of my teapot being a teapot because it is not used for brewing tea? No – in this instance I have simply not used the teapot for this purpose; it has not stopped working for me, I have stopped it from working. This does, however, return to the discussions in the Key Concepts class. I was asked by several people how good the teapot was at pouring tea, suggesting that simply holding and brewing tea was not enough, the quality of the pour would change how highly it was ranked in our object scale. Brown goes on to suggest that:

 

‘The story of objects asserting themselves as things, then, is the story of a changed relation to the human subject and thus the story of how the thing really names less an object than a particular subject-object relation.’[5]

 

In my opinion, its purpose is to sit on my windowsill. The times I am most ‘confronted’ by it is when it gets in the way of closing my blind. Perhaps this is when I am faced with its ‘thingness’, as a teapot it is not made to sit decoratively on a windowsill but is instead for making tea and its bulbous form suits that.

 

How does this compare or contrast with Dufrenne’s comment on ideas of ‘will’ and ‘intellect’? Dufrenne emphasizes how an aesthetic object only shows itself, so my teapot only shows itself as a teapot rather than acting like one. I assume that Brown would argue, whilst my teapot is usually just an object it becomes a thing when I interact with it. When I move it out of the way of my blind or if I ever decide to make a cup of tea out of it, it becomes a thing. Its existence as a thing, however, is fleeting. The moment I have nudged it out of the way of my blind and gone back to reading or emptied it of its tea it returns to being simply an object again.

 

When we think of aesthetic objects we presume their purpose to merely ‘be’ and to appear visually appealing. This suggests that they would never draw attention to themselves and become things as their aesthetically pleasing nature would never change. Whilst their form does not change, the tastes of society do, and I am sure that the V&A teapot would have been considered rather beautiful in its time. However, like my teapot, current tastes would consider it to be an ugly object in relation to the other objects in production. This suggests that unattractive aesthetic objects will always be ‘things’ as they will always be drawing attention to their ‘thingness’ by disrupting the gaze of the viewer with an unattractive appearance. That is until the object becomes commonplace–I am not as aware of my teapot as I used to be, yet it is one of the first things people comment on upon entering my room. Does my acceptance or nonchalance towards the object render it less or more meaningful? Brown concludes his article:

 

‘If thinking the thing, to borrow Heidegger’s phrase, feels like an exercise in belatedness, the feeling is provoked by our very capacity to imagine that thinking and thingness are distinct.’[6]

 

This seems to suggest that the very nature of thingness comes about when we are thinking about the object to which the thingness is attached. Perhaps this provides us with some explanation to the widespread appeal of ugly ornaments. Their blatant aesthetic unattractiveness draws attention to them, they demand to be considered as ‘things’ to be investigated and thought about, rather than something to blend into the background. Now how about some tea?

©Joanne Pilcher

©Joanne Pilcher

 

 Joanne Pilcher

 

 

[1] Loos, Adolf, Ornament and Crime (written in 1908), talk first given 21st January 1910 in Vienna. Published in Adolf Loos, Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays (Riverside, Calif: Ariadne Press, 1998) p. 108

[2] Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin has a good example of a Porcelain Room, the V&A website mentions this phenomenon. This link takes you to a pdf version of the palace’s guide book, pages 20 and 21 have some lovely images of the porcelain room and give further information on it

[3] Dufrenne, Mikel, ‘The World of The Aestheticin C. Cazeaux, ed. The Continental Aesthetics Reader (Routledge, 2000), p. 129

[4] Bill Brown, Thing Theory, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1, Things. (Autumn, 2001), University of Chicago Press, pp. 1-22, p 4

[5] Brown, Thing Theory, Critical Inquiry, p. 4

[6] Brown, Thing Theory, Critical Inquiry, p 16

3 Comments

  1. It’s very difficult to actually ‘take it in”. Much more so than the V&A one. The more you stare, the harder it is to see. I feel I would give a slight involuntary frown every morning if I had it on my window.

    • joannepilcher

      Your comment demonstrates the importance of personal experience and taste upon deciding what is ugly or not!

      • Yes, definitely, but with some objects their difficulty is an asset rather than a liability, that there is a sense that there is more to discover. But this…I almost feel that there might be less to discover the more you look! But I kind of don’t want to say it’s definitely ugly. More that it’s probably not not ugly.

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