Does Pottery have genres?

“Visitors can expect to experience the startling diversity of contemporary ceramic work being made right now from traditionally Southern work to cutting edge design.” Design and Crafted 14, Ceramics sale and exhibition

As you must know, I sometimes like to beat around the bush. I guess its what I do best, rambling on tangents and leaping to far flung conclusions with only thinly spread dots to step on. But occasionally I have a point that can be arrived at with minimum fuss. If there was an underlying question that the last post asked and which the preceding few hinted at it was this: Are there organizing principles of the kinds of pots we make? Are there pottery genres? Are there standards that apply to some pots but not others? Or is the best we can hope for that our audiences be ‘startled by the diversity’? Like deer in headlights?

Why would that conceptual unity be important or even interesting? Well, imagine we were talking about books. Ask a person what kind of books she reads and you may get some specific authors, but typically also genres. “I just adore Gothic Alien Crime Dramas”, or “Steam-Punk Romances float my boat”…… We can have very specialized tastes, or simply loose genre based or author affiliated ones. “Who is another author like Tom Clancy? I’ve read all his books and I need to expand my tastes.”

Music may even be more fully formed in most people’s minds. We listen to specific radio stations because they give us the genres we are interested in. Classical, Jazz, Opera, Hip Hop, Rap, Disco, Bluegrass, Country, Rock and Roll, Swing, Big Band, R & B, Motown, Oldies……. You can like more than one thing, but it would be unusual if you didn’t know what you liked.

My point is that most folks think of reading, music, and most other creative fields as oriented around either specific themes and author/artists or broad genres. “Point me to the Mystery section and I’ll find something I like.” What that also means is that if I am in the mood for Tragedy, Comedy won’t do. If my mind was set on Science Fiction, Romance is not going to serve. If I want Poetry I won’t be looking at the Travel section…… Do you ever find an avid reader who doesn’t know the difference between science fiction and Victorian murder mysteries? Are they ever startled by the stupendous diversity? Or are they simply better educated about what they like and do not like? And yet our pottery customers often seem quite ill informed. We the artists ourselves often seem confused about what we are showing them. As if being startled was a good thing…..

The weird thing is that in pottery ‘events’ we usually get shown everything at once. As much possible diversity as we can cram in. Unless its a single person show, the odds are that there will be a collection of potters showing work that is vastly dissimilar. Sometimes that’s because its a group of individual potters with their own brand of star power, but sometimes its also the default gathering of potters who make particular forms. A ‘Cup Show‘, for instance, may have as many unique interpretations of the cup as there are artists. Like listening to a soft rock version of ‘Hey Jude’, a Jazz version, and an operatic version. Like trying to figure out why even the first six alphabetical artists in last year’s AKAR Yunomi invitational (to pick a random number) are playing the ‘same song’…..

aj-argentina-yunomi-67620-13-0 anderson-dan-yunomi-67601-13-0 jeremy-ayers-yunomi-67631-13-0 mariana-baquero-yunomi-68138-13-0 noel-bailey-yunomi-67657-13-0 ted-adler-yunomi-68131-13-0

And that means the audience will have to sort through all the unpalatable versions to get to the ones that resonate. Its not just that the authors are sometimes unappealing, the work itself disagreeable, but the genre they are making work in is not even remotely connected to the stuff we are interested in. If the customer likes images of kittens and bunny rabbits it seems crazy to show them ‘undecorated’ soda fired pots. I personally have as little enthusiasm for highly decorated pots as I do Romance novels, Opera, and Horror films…. Is there an actual advantage to lumping it all together? Would a radio station ever play Opera, Bluegrass, and Rap back to back? Is it simply that in pottery we lack both the rhyme and the reason?

But just maybe we do this not from a categorical laziness or the poor definition of how we and others understand pottery. Maybe its not a lack of sophistication that blurs the boundaries between what different artists are doing, what they are aiming at. Perhaps we are doing this as a sign of solidarity. Perhaps the unity of pottery is more important than the diversity of expression. I won’t argue that the stuff which unites us isn’t important. I am deeply encouraged by the diversity of contemporary artists practicing their pottery making craft. And I am tremendously grateful that the clay community is defined more by its acceptance than its exclusion. I wouldn’t have it any other way. But is that feel-good attitude enough to carry Ceramics and the fields of Pottery forward?

What seems a bit peculiar is that pottery is so poorly understood as to not be promoted by the divisions that we and the public both find meaningful. We know what some of the differences are, but we don’t often use them to our advantage. Books, for instance, are marketed and even understood significantly according to the genres that they can be fit into. When you walk into a bookstore you know exactly the sections you are looking for. At a pottery show you mostly have no idea. Its so eclectic that the best themes we can come up with are often the generic formal terms like ‘cup’, ‘Yunomi’, etc. Or themes that focus on elements of the finished product, like ‘Birds of the Southeast’, or ‘The many shades of blue’. Or the family trees of great instructors. Or friendships of the potters themselves, ala ‘Cousins in clay‘, and ‘Soda chicks and Chet’. Are these groupings the most we can say about pots?

The pairings of work may be as alien as marketing Cookbooks and Fantasy side by side. It might be nice to provide a little something for everyone, but are we (pottery shows and the field in general) doing this intelligently and are we even spreading things more thinly than we need to? Should we aim for being all things to every potential customer, or something special for the limited few who ‘get it’, whatever our ‘it’ happens to be? If our efforts often go into displaying our diversity, have we done enough to educate the audience on the specifics?

Last post I talked about competition, and maybe one reason we have shows that aim for diversity is that putting two potters working in the same genre side by side also puts them in direct competition. We remove the competition by having only one of these, one of those, and only one of the other instead of all of basically the same. Are we afraid of this competition? Is showing our diversity a strategic move to appeal to as many diverse tastes as possible? Maybe it works on that level. But what we gain in an appreciation for diversity almost always loses something on the side of deeper sophistication.

Name three Impressionist painters. Name four Dada artists. Name five Horror films. Name six Action Adventure films. Name seven Mystery writers. Name eight Science Fiction authors…… What, if anything, is comparable in contemporary studio pottery to these divisions? English Slipware, Italian Majolica, Chinese Celedon, Bauhaus, Mingei, Appalachian Folk…… Are there more contemporary divisions? Or are we simply making it up as we go, uniquely among artists in creative fields? Does firing method embrace enough about what our pots are aiming at? Can you say “Cone six reduction” and have a clear understanding of what the pots are? Does “Wood fired” tell us everything important? Would that be like trying to identify music based on whether it uses a guitar? How about “Casual” and “Tight”? Is that like discriminating between East coast and West coast Jazz? “Decorative” and “Well Crafted”? “Production” and “One of a kind”?

I’m pretty confused myself. And I’m not saying that there are necessarily ‘true’ categories or that there shouldn’t be brave diversity within what we see as categories. I’m just wondering whether the vagueness of our descriptions and the multiplicity of what we show our audiences isn’t more confusing than it need be. Is the lack of clarity a blessing in disguise? Do we benefit from our audience failing to have any deep understand of our goals and aesthetic agendas? Are there, in fact, any genres in pottery to speak of? If there are not at least some things we can intelligently point to, that is what I would find startling.



Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | Leave a comment

Glengarry, Bob Ross and the razor’s edge of art competition

I just saw this and had to repost it: What if the Alec Baldwin character in the film Glengarry Glen Ross was the painter Bob Ross instead? What would he tell us about being a painter/artist?

Glengarry, Bob Ross.


- – – -

Okay, I’m just gonna use that same old brush, its working so well. Gonna tap that corner into a little bit of yellow ochre. Just tap the corner, I want very little paint.

What am I painting? Fuck you, that’s what I’m painting. You know why, mister? You drive to the store to get your paint supplies in a Hyundai, I drive an $80,000 BMW. That’s what I’m painting.

Painting is a man’s game. You can’t play the game, you can’t paint, go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in life: painting pretty trees. You know me, I always gotta put in a big, happy tree. You hear me, you fucking cocksuckers?

A-B-P. Always be painting. ALWAYS BE PAINTING. G-P-M-B.G, Get a clean paintbrush. P, Put some paint on that brush, M, Make some cute little clouds above some footy hills. B, Be sure to thoroughly clean your paint station afterwards. G, P, M, B!

You see this painting? This painting costs more than your car. You see pal, that’s why I’m who I am, and you’re nothing. You’re a nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good at sketching? Then turn your TV off and go sketch. This is The Joy of Painting, not Needledicks That Love Sketching.

You want to watch my show? Paint. Paint right now and do not stop until I have told you do so.

People tell me that my demeanor is “off-putting” and “alienating,” that I’m “abusive” and “scare away viewers.” You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksuckers?

You can’t take this, how are you gonna take the art critics? They’re wolves, vicious. “Bob Ross lacks technical sophistication.” “Bob Ross is basically just a landscape painter, and a mediocre one at that.” And that’s what they say about me. Bob Fucking Ross.

I can go out there with the materials you got. An easel from Michael’s. Some boutique paint from Etsy. I can go with that and make $15,000 tonight. In two hours. Can you? Can YOU? Go and do likewise. G-P-M-B.

Get mad, you sons of bitches. Get mad. You know what it takes to paint cozy log cabins that speak the softest parts of the human soul? It takes BRASS BALLS.

I like drinking a nice cup of hot coffee while I paint. You want coffee? Too bad. Coffee is for painters, not nothings like you. Put that coffee down, you think I’m fucking with you? I’m just kidding, you can have a cup too. It’ll be our little secret.

My poor sensitive artistic soul just shriveled up and bolted for the door! No wonder there are so many former artists, creative has-beens, and imaginative also-rans…… “Kids, put down your crayons and playdough now. Don’t waste your time being mediocre. You’re fired. You haven’t got the brass balls it will take to be real artists, so why bother doodling around, gazing at the clouds, and inventing fantastic new worlds? If you haven’t got the talent to sell it big time you are just crowding the market with failure. Go find something else to do……”

Actually, there is real competition trying to make a living as an artist, something my friend John Bauman reminded me of the other day. If the money spent on pottery is only so much, then you getting more of it may mean the rest of us have less to share out. The winner gets the car. Second place you get a set of steak knives…….

The question is whether I would ever be in line for the actual business you get and vice versa. Are we necessarily in direct competition? Is it like competing brands of dish detergent? Some are ‘new and improved’ and others are ‘floral scented’? There’s a budget version and ‘family size’ packaging? But despite the differences any version will actually do alright? Is it really true that one piece of pottery will ultimately do as well as the next? Is shopping for pottery like shopping for other commodities? Is the most important thing that a cup conveys liquid and a bowl shelters food? When we buy pots are those considerations alone at the top of our priorities? I’m not so sure….. We could be buying plastic cups at Walmart.

You see, the thing about art is that we tend to like what we like and not care for the rest. Unlike other goods, people don’t buy pottery because they need it (in the sense of needing dish detergent to run the dishes). Buying pottery is a lifestyle choice. We choose to be surrounded by what we understand as ‘The Beautiful’. And not everyone chooses the same way or sees the same values. It may turn out that two potters selling side by side would have entirely separate audiences. The work itself may be different enough that it could almost never appeal to the same people. Just because it looks like and functions as a mug isn’t necessarily proof that its something that every person in the market for a new handmade mug will be tempted to buy. That’s not how it works. We look beyond the function to make the match.

Then there may also be more personal reasons why customers buy these particular pots and not the others. There can be a history and friendship with the artist that leans in one direction and not the other. Customers with a home decorating agenda can also buy the stuff that goes with the rest of their house or matches their furniture. Pots are also decor. And that may simply mean my brown pots but not your bright red ones. Or collectors can buy the artists they have heard of but not really be interested in unknown artists. If its an investment some collectors will go with the best reputation, the highest status conferred. That may mean you but not me……

So its complicated. It may even turn out that we are actually in more competition with other commodities and experiences. If its a choice between a new mug and enough money to but a decent meal, if you are hungry enough it will probably be the food. Or at an art fair, you may be in the market for something new for your house or a gift for someone’s birthday, but it could be a painting or a pot, a scarf or a quilt, a sculpture or a birdhouse…… To some customers a pot will be no more attractive than a birdhouse. Either will do.

Buying our work is often like walking a razor’s edge. Customers can get sidetracked at the brush of the gentlest breeze. And what gets divided on one side and the other are often so dissimilar as to almost be alien. Walking that straight line from intention to your cash register is almost an epic tale of courageous dedication and commitment. Or complete intoxicated accident…….

Customers are looking for something more than just function, and yet we class these objects typically as generic cups, as generic bowls, as generic vases, etc. as if the form alone were enough to tell us what it is. But it occurs to me that the sheer variety of what we do and what we aim for is poorly contained by such simple words as ‘cup’, ‘bowl’ etc. It just seems that things get confused too easily by using too few words to distinguish what we are doing. Sure, its all pottery. Bowls are bowls and cups are cups. But those are functional definitions of material and of typology or use. Maybe we need more descriptive definitions that embrace aesthetic or technical details. We have those words, but it seems we neglect them in the comparative context of the broader field.

Mingei, Bauhaus, Folk, Funk, Slipware, and any number of other stylistic designations each have their own goals and sensibilities. A cup meeting the criteria of one style would mostly fail those of the others. They are almost irreconcilable, even with each doing an adequate job of conveying liquids….. Would a collector in the market for an Impressionist painting be satisfied with something Dada? Well, they are both painting, but they are not the same kinds of painting. Is figurative sculpture the same sort of thing as 3D geometric abstraction? If you like wood fired plates you may not accept a decorated Majolica one. Yes, they are both pottery. Yes, they may both be plates. But where it seems to count most, they are not the same kinds of thing. Are they?

What do Bob Ross and Pablo Picasso have to say?

We do have official competitions, juried shows, event prizes, purchase awards, and its true that if I get the blue ribbon it won’t go to someone else: But in what sense was I doing my thing as a competition with others? Did I see what they were working on in their studio and try to do them one better? Did I hire that kid to set off the firecrackers in their art fair booth? Is there anything I did that had me looking over my shoulder at what anyone else was actually doing? With envy? With contempt? Or possibly occasionally with admiration for the fine work being done? In the spirit of competitive attrition do we resent the artists that are as good as we think we are? Are we jealous of the work of artists that are thought to be better than us? Maybe we resent that the jury can’t appreciate what we are doing, that the audience likes other things, but are we seriously moved by a need to compete with these other artists? Are we moved to make the same sorts of things that their audience likes? Are we aiming at the same sorts of things, playing the same sort of creative game? Or do we simply make what we make and hope that we can educate enough people to see the value in what we are expressing? Uniquely expressing…..

“People can of course only speak for themselves and should not try to assign roles or goals for other potters……. As I get older I feel more and more strongly that each person must create a truth which is valid for themselves and which they can only hope will have meaning for others.”  – Warren MacKenzie, Studio Potter Vol5, No2 (Fall 1977) p.13

If we are in steady competition with anyone it is usually competition with ourselves. We like what we like. And as often as we also like what other artists are doing, maybe learn from them and try their tricks, we are still most often focused on ourselves. We are dedicated to making the stuff we like the best we can, and exploring the horizons as only we (or the select visionaries we call brothers and sisters) can see them. We are not often trying to make the same pot as the next guy, only better. Sometimes we copy, and occasionally its by accident, riffing on something we once saw and which we forgot was not of our own origin. We are usually doing different things. We are each running our own race, despite that we may be running it on what seems like the same track.

Its as if we were Olympic figure skaters: We step out onto the ice and give our best performance. And if we win the medal its not because we were competing with the other skaters but because we got the best out of ourselves. We did the best we could, maybe even better than we expected, and that is what we are aiming for.

There is a fundamental difference between how we look at what we are doing and how the outside world perceives us. The external judges stand outside and weigh our performance, measure how far we leaped, see how well things match the kitchen wall colors and the cabinets. But all those extrinsic criteria are only in the minds of those people. They may be looking for the latest in taupe. They may be looking for tight throwing and machine quality forms. They may be looking for floral motifs and decorative accents….. Even if the artist is aiming at the most broadly appealing art possible it still won’t be appreciated by everyone.

The things outside us that make it seem like a competition are a coincidence. They are generally not the things we are paying attention to when we are making our work. They are incidental. Extraneous. Possibly even irrelevant. Its like saying two mice are in a competition simply because you plunk them down at the ‘starting line’ and aim them at the ‘finish line’. One of them ‘wins’ and gets to nibble some cheese. How charming! How excellent!

The thing I have to remind myself is that culture never stands still: Things always change to benefit some at the expense of others. Always. Generations of new advocates rarely follow in the exact footsteps of their predecessors. So while it makes sense for me to defend pottery as form and function centered, there are other views with different priorities. The competition isn’t so much between the objects themselves as between the advocates and their values. One group spends time and effort (or their money) this way and the other spends it that way. The objects are simply the pawns of cultural imperialism and the shifts in taste: “Yay decoration!” “Boo utility!” “Yes to craftsmanship!” “Three cheers for expressiveness!” “Props for conceptual content!” “To hell with narrative!” “Stick that in your wood kiln and smoke it!” “Put a decal on it!” “Draw a bird on it!” “Stick your thumb through it!” “Slip trailing to the rescue!” “Brown is the new blue!” “Design trumps execution!” “What’s new in Fall colors!”……………….

Why would we ever think that a cup is just a cup? When is a handmade pot ever a generic thing? Maybe we need to be more subtle in how we discuss pottery……

Something to think about, at least.

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!




Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 2 Comments

The cost conundrums, pricing pickles, and value variables of selling your art

My friend and fellow blogger Carole Epp just vented a good rant on the difficulties of pricing pots. She kicks some butt and takes few prisoners. She has a beef or two for very good reasons: Its not always easy and its not always fair. I like what she has to say. You can read her post here:

This morning I wrote her an email response intended to be confidential between us, but somewhere along the way it turned into another bloated blog post. I sent it to her anyway, but will reprint it here (with minor additions). There are a few references to specific things she said in her rant, but you can probably get the gist if you just read what I’ve got to say. I still encourage folks to click the above link if you haven’t already seen the essay and read what she has to say.

Spark the canons! Raise the flags! Let loose the dogs of war!
Blare the trumpets! Down the heads! And charge towards the gore!

(This is me plowing into the topic this morning):

I think there are several lessons here. One, of course, is that some (most ?) galleries are bastards when looking out for their own bottom line. Without much respect for the artist most galleries would rather go with what they know, some business plan, than work with individual artists to figure out how to make it work. Allowing you to raise the price on your mugs so you can get paid what you need should at least be negotiable. That particular gallery’s refusal to accommodate you is a bad sign…..

The other lesson I would point to is that commerce is not simple. The objects we sell are not simple. The different ways that these objects can be perceived and appreciated are not simple. Our own feelings towards what we make are not simple…..

I totally get the desire to break the selling price down into the costs and labor that went into the pots, but then I have almost never been in a position where this doesn’t end up depressing me. When I was wood firing my pots I think I was actually making only $4 an hour. And you couldn’t charge more than I was getting. How could I not be depressed by that? But the bigger problem is that if we only look at it this way we have a plausible reason to quit making pots. “I get paid how much? Take this job and shove it!”

“Here’s something dark I didn’t learn until very late: for many of us, the first step to success as a potter is to marry well.” – Don Pilcher (courtesy of Scoot Cooper)

We may need to earn a living wage, we deserve to earn a living wage, but the world is often horribly unfair. The problem with galleries is that for all the good they actually do they are still an institution where the individual artist is a second class citizen. We have more freedom to get what we deserve when we are not being treated with such blatant contempt. If the outside market doesn’t support it, then at least we tried. Its better to ask the question “Will you value my pots enough to pay this amount?” than to be denied the opportunity to even raise it….

Sometimes I have pots that have languished unsold for more than a few years. How do you even factor that into what your wage actually is? If some pots take years to sell, then all that work we are doing hasn’t really been paid for yet. Every unsold pot just eats into the actual income you supposedly are earning. You are oversupplied. Overstocked. You spent money to make the pots but have nothing in return. Its a net deficit. How can we reconcile ourselves to unsold pots?

They deserve good homes, but for whatever reason people just can’t see them. What do I do? Well, after a time I get so depressed looking at them year after year, sale after sale, just sitting on my display shelves. Sometimes I take it out on the pots. I feel guilty about them taking up space. I don’t like them anymore, so I just need to get rid of them. Sometimes I give them away and sometimes I mark them down to half price in a clearance section. I just don’t want to have to look at them anymore. They are an emotional burden. They are a reminder of failure staring me in the face every sale. I am embarrassed by them, actually, so its more in my interest to just get them off the shelves. The public has voted them off the island and I’m just making a fool of myself pretending they still have a place on my display…… Ugh.

After I was making the transition from woodfired to electric kilns my wood pots stopped selling. I still had a number on display for years until I finally decided they were detracting from the overall display. But I had so much invested in them and I really really still did love many of them. I wasn’t embarrassed about the pots as much as I was furious that no one else saw the value in them. I took it personally. Customers looking past them every sale was an affront to my dignity. So eventually I claimed them all for myself and brought each one inside my home. And there they will stay, probably until I die and my relatives have to decide what to do with all the pottery in my collection…. Can anyone say “estate sale”? How can I calculate stuff like that into my wages for work done?

Another difficulty in pricing can be where public expectations are set. Doesn’t it always seem to hang on what the public understands you to be doing? For instance, in the local Athens area we used to have Ron Meyers and Michael Simon selling mugs for $14-16. Even though that was now close to 20 years ago, the folks paying for pots still have expectations that this is what mugs cost. Some do, at least. The current local potters are in the position where no one is really close to the fame and recognition of these luminous potters and only a few of us can come close to the quality and craftsmanship they put into their work. How can we justify charging more than that? Maybe a tiny increase for inflation, but the customers don’t always see it like that…..

So how do we reconcile the difference? Its like saying that the price of Picasso, Rembrandt, and van Gogh paintings is irrelevant to how we might charge for our own work if we were also painters. They are objectively masterful. Those are fixed points in the marketplace. The only way to charge more is to just ignore the question. Sometimes we are not interested in the truth (we are not objectively better than RM or MS), but so what? We have to live with ourselves, not ourselves in comparison to others.

By which I am also not saying that you are wrong to point your middle finger at the long-time potter who couldn’t understand you charging more than he did. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been working, you are still making crap. Often the same old crap you made 30 years ago. If you are not evolving, then the time you’ve spent making pots doesn’t really matter: You are essentially stuck in 1984. But if you are constantly working on new ideas, ‘improving’, then its different. Maybe you deserve a better price?

I can’t remember who said this, but when asked how long it took this person to make this one pot they replied something in the order of decades. It simply took them that long to figure it out. It took the entire stream of failures, near hits, and also-rans to make this one pot. Shouldn’t the person buying that pot also be responsible for the weight of experience it took to make it? The hard won mastery is something above and beyond the pots themselves. That only comes at a cost. It seems like something to think about at least. Sometimes you are not just paying for the pot but for the potter who made it…..

All of which suggests there are no simple answers or answers that make sense in more than limited circumstances. We get to ask these questions but we shouldn’t necessarily look for solutions that will satisfy every possible situation we find ourselves in. We take a stab at things, and often the best we can hope for is that we make enough money to pay the bills, earn a living, or feel happy about it. Sometimes as long as those things are taken care of the rest doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter that the galleries are bastards. We can overlook that, temporarily swallow or pride and dignity. We can get back up on our feet with relief that it wasn’t worse, and gladly wipe the dirt from our hands and knees if we feel they are actually in some other way furthering our cause. Sometimes we just make the best of a bad situation.

And it doesn’t matter that other potters are charging more or less than we are. That isn’t necessarily relevant to me paying my bills. Sometimes, at least. It may not even matter that some pots go unsold if you are overjoyed that enough customers seem to buy enough pottery to give you confidence in what you are doing. We make peace in various ways.

And sometimes none of these outside references matter: As long as you are enjoying what you are doing, find it fulfilling, then the intrinsic benefits of making art can sometimes be the most important things for you. Not necessarily the money. Maybe its just nice that we occasionally get paid for making art. But that’s not always why we make it. We’d be making it regardless, like a latter day van Gogh, because this is what we need to be doing. Too often if art is just a job we have, then we are really messing it up. Most artists are just scraping by. The failures of acceptable society. The also-rans. And despite that, the world is filled everyday with more sublime and glorious beauty by these ‘failures’. They must be doing something right.…..

Each potter’s pots are a universe unto themselves. Even drawing the connections between galaxies can be difficult. How much harder is it to relate what one potter is doing to what another is doing? Yeah, we both make cups, but not all cups are created equal. Sometimes they are not even cups in the same sense. Sometimes they are thought of as straightforward commodities and other times they are the intimate expressions of our authentic spiritual self. Sometimes its easy to put a price on and other times its not…..

Maybe its just the case that the world simply doesn’t make much sense when you look at it a certain way. Not a lot remains consistent. For artists, at least. Maybe we should learn from that, and make peace the best way we can. The idea that there is some one objective way of treating all these variables equally is simply laughable. Life, just like art, so often contradicts itself. Making peace with the contradictions is sometimes the best we can do….

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Ceramics, Creative industry, metacognition, Pottery | 11 Comments

Potters’ pots, low hanging fruit, and faces that only mothers could love

You know the phrase, “A face only a mother could love”? Well, potters’ pots are sort of like that. And while it might be easy to assume that mothers only have the prejudice of kinship to their advantage, they also have a certain expertise that others don’t. Mothers, by virtue of their closeness, can see behind the surface stereotypes of beauty to something deeper. A deeper beauty. Its not so much that they are blinded by their love, although caring surely factors in, its that they have spent the time and effort necessary to be in a position where their child’s better virtues are revealed. Beauty isn’t subjectively in the eye of the beholder and its not universally objective. You have to find quality. Invent it, even. You need to be positioned to uncover it where it hides. You need to be aiming in the right direction to catch it, nurture it, or craft it.

Some beauty is obvious, but we can’t just be seduced by that facile ease. The world is filled with beauty that we have to work for, that we need to be educated about, that we need to live with before it gets fully revealed. To find difficult beauty we often need to be as a mother to her homely child.

So the difference about ‘potters’ pots’ is that they are not the easy pickings. They escape the general public’s estimation of beauty and quality. Their importance is not accessible on the surface so much as revealed primarily to those who know a thing or two about the nuances. Pots that are not potter’s pots can have a general appeal that makes them easy to grasp, people can ‘get it’ much more easily, in a sense like low hanging fruit. ‘Easy on the eye’ also means that which we don’t have to strive for or strain to ‘get’…….

One of the stubborn intellectual problems is that the difference between the lower fruit and the less easily attained can often seem to reflect an inherent difference in quality. The mother’s prejudice for her difficult love in the face of the glamorous children with straight teeth, golden hair, and freshly scrubbed cheeks. When we know the joys of subtle beauty isn’t it sometimes easy to resent the 1000 watt smiles and obvious preening? We can make the leap that the low hanging fruit isn’t just easier to grasp but is therefor of lesser quality. Blandly accessible. Tawdry. Trite. If ‘anything good is worth working for‘ then it seems that unless you are earnestly working for it you won’t find much of real value. You have to earn the good stuff. If you wanted to distinguish yourself, why would you ever aim low, take the easy road? The difficult victories, we often feel, outweigh the easy charms…..

But why would that be necessarily true? Why would a low hanging apple necessarily taste worse, be less nutritious, than ones at the top of the tree? Aren’t they just different apples? Well, if you have two people picking apples from a tree, and one picker just grabs the apples in easy reach while the other takes time to build a ladder, shimmy up the trunk, crawl out onto branches, you can see why the person who spends that much extra effort would want to justify it somehow. Doesn’t it make sense to think that we are not just getting the higher apples but we are getting the better ones? We have so much invested in the exclusivity of the top apples that if they truly are no better than the low hanging fruit aren’t we essentially wasting our efforts?

Maybe not. We have the idea that the more experience we’ve got the better we see. One real advantage to climbing higher is that we can see more things at once. Our point of view encompasses more. Its more perspicacious. But is it thereby more ‘true’? Are we seeing more objectively? Think of it as something like the view from a telescope or microscope: is what we see with their aid ‘more real’ than what we see without them? Shouldn’t we say that both are real, but views of different things? Different orders of things? They don’t give us a ‘more fundamental’ point of view or a ‘more essential’ understanding. We are shown different sides of reality at least as often as underlying truths are revealed.

If we are right to say that there often is more going on beneath the surface than is apparent to the naked eye, isn’t it also true that the eye captures reality just fine? On its own? For certain purposes? Isn’t it the purpose to which we put our understanding that, in fact, qualifies what we are trying to know? Neuroscientists may have to use things like fMRI machines to understand how the brain works, but when they are crossing the street outside they will be happy they left it in the office……

Much of our daily operations are conducted on the level of low hanging fruit, and there is good reason for it. A lot goes on in the ‘human scale’. Our little boats float best on the surface. We don’t always breathe well outside the comfort zone. We can and should respect that.

But you can also see this implied stratification of quality played out in the perceived difference between amateurs and professionals. Everyone starts out an amateur. We simply don’t know enough to know what things beyond the obvious count as quality. Some things seem credible at first glance. So as beginners and novices we start out on the ground, picking the things that make sense to us, the low hanging fruit. Its only as we gain experience that we learn to see things a bit different. Issues such as craftsmanship start to loom into focus. We look beyond the low hanging fruit and aim higher. We invest more effort into learning subtlety and we explore nuance. We climb the tree.

And the higher we go the more things are revealed to us. We simply see more of the tree. If beginners can only see the tree as it looks from the ground, professionals can see the tree from inside the branches. They know more. They know different things to care about. Does this new perspective simply replace what we already knew about reality as seen from the ground? Does it give a more ‘true’ picture of quality? Are we, in fact, aiming at something objective or comprehensive? Doesn’t training make us better perceivers of reality?

But why is the ‘professional point of view’ necessarily better? Well, we want to say that as a beginner you start out with essentially a poor understanding. As you continue, you improve. There is real progress. Some things do count as worse and some as better, and the farther you advance the clearer this difference becomes. Right? If we can honestly say that the more experience under our belts the better we typically get, then there must be a continuum of quality, and beginners stand on one end and professionals stand on the opposite.

That has to be true, right? Getting your car worked on by the teenager down the block is not the same as getting it worked on by a qualified professional mechanic. You’d hire a professional engineer to build a bridge, not just a random stranger. In almost every field quality is circumscribed by qualifications. Without the necessary qualifications the quality of work simply won’t measure up. And that has to be true of artists as well, right? Aren’t potters’ pots the cream of the crop, the best of the best? Can we say that without reservation?

Maybe not so fast. Art is simply different from most other fields in that it flourishes the greater the exploration. It thrives in the cracks and crevices. It relies on breaking new ground, not simply staying the course. Its greatest qualification is sometimes the rules that have been broken and not the ones adhered to. And if quality is often measured in part by aesthetics, what’s to say one person’s point of view is ‘better’ than other peoples’? If you are building a bridge there is such a thing as getting it right, but if you are making a bowl, as long as it holds food is there really another objective way of ‘getting it right’? Once you’ve got the basic craftsmanship down are we even treading the same aesthetic lines any more? Why is one bowl necessarily better and not just a different apple from the same or different trees? I like Fujis and you like Mackintoshes. An objectively bad apple usually has more to do with the bruises and worms than what kind of apple it is. Doesn’t that really sum it up in the end?

The thing to remember is that quite often expertise comes at a cost. The more we focus on the finer points, the more we refine our vision and our demands, the fewer things we end up looking at. Our interest becomes exclusive. Our field of vision narrows. We become ‘specialists’. Rather than broadening our vision expertise has the frequent effect of tunnel vision. We see deeper at the expense of seeing wider. And the assumption is that this is always better, objectively, rather than simply more useful for specific purposes. We understand it to be an objective improvement rather than an instrumental achievement. And the more we learn to walk with a microscope in our hands the more we seem convinced that our way of looking is better than the rest. We do see deeper. But the truth is often that we are only looking at smaller and smaller parts of the world. There is truth not only in other places we can’t see from our narrowed perspective, but truth resides in the breadth of perspective as well. We shouldn’t let expertise go to our heads. If quality matters, then so too does difference…..

I just had this very conversation with Scott Cooper this past week. He reminded me that musicians are in pretty much the same situation as potters. Probably all artists are. The more you know about music the more your interests will evolve. Melody, rhythm, and harmony are so easy, right? Everyone who knows anything can do those things. What are the further things that deeply experienced professional musicians care about? Tone, texture, timbre, phrasing, style, improvisation, dissonance?

Isn’t it true that the more experienced you are the farther your interests range from ‘the basics’? Harmony and melody are the low hanging fruit. How can you not get the basics of rhythm? But even if the really good musicians still use them when necessary, isn’t it true that they often aim for other more ‘sophisticated’ things? Isn’t it true that once they have mastered the basics that the desire for challenge occasionally moves them in different directions? Doesn’t their sensitivity to nuance sometimes point them to areas of expression that are often lost on the general public?

We listen, but we don’t always hear. It sometimes takes an experienced ear to discern all the subtlety and nuance of a performance. Like with eyes and potters’ pots.

So, I started thinking about this issue again after moping at my display in the mega-event I am currently selling my pots at. As usual in an event of this kind I was depressed seeing how few of my pots had sold compared to the work of folks who were not aiming as high up the tree as I am. It seems that my pots are just not that accessible. What does that mean? Were my pots ‘less good’ than the ones that sold? Do I make ‘bad’ pots? Were they better, but simply so many pearls cast before swine? Or were they just different, and the public likes what it likes and I like what I like? Surely the latter.

One of the things that makes three dimensional pots accessible to the general public is that there often is readable information on the surface. Folks in our culture are not as experienced in making quality judgments about shapes and profiles. Some things, yes, we do put emphasis on knowing what we like and develop a bit of three dimensional sophistication. Cars come in all shapes and sizes and we generally have strong visual preferences for what we like. The human form matters to us, and we generally have strong preferences for what we like and dislike. But other than that we almost always read our interest from the surface. We are so used to looking at the three dimensional world through its two dimensional appearance that shapes are often simply flattened out as imagery. We watch TV and stare at computer screens. We read magazines and picture books. We are clearly used to getting an inordinate amount of information directly from the surface. This stuff matters to us. It has to matter to us in today’s world.

But that unfortunately sometimes prejudices us in favor of the surface alone. We look at a three dimensional object and we want to see something recognizable on its surface. If it isn’t decorated we feel it lacking. We look at the pot and our eyes focus on the surface while often ignoring the form. We look, but we don’t always see. The form cancels out. As if the pot were a raw canvas and what mattered most was the decoration applied to it. We are more visually sophisticated about surfaces. The low hanging fruit. The accessible information that has the best chance of broad appeal. Not the difficult love, not the face only a mother could love….. We simply don’t always have time for that…..

It may still be troubling to think of in this way. If you are a professional artist you have a lot invested in the priority of the way you look at things. Was your education simply wasted, after all? Don’t you objectively do it better than the amateurs who merely pick the low hanging fruit? Can’t we make real claims about quality in art?

Well. I’ve got plenty to say about that too, but I’ve already written a decent essay on how quality plays out in art. If you are interested you can read that here:

The thing to remember is that if its art sometimes the important thing is not that its ‘better’ but that you like what you are doing. Caring about quality and standards only ever reflects what things interest YOU. If you are looking at the tree from the ground, how can you not care about the fruit that is staring you in the face? And also not care as much about the unreachable upper branches? If you are looking at the tree from its upper branches, how can the fruit within your grasp not matter more than the ones further down? And if you are still climbing, you may decide that the ones even higher matter more. But its all fruit, and making inferences about quality only reflects what we are interested in, our aim, rather than necessarily the things aimed at.

There may be nothing inherently wrong with the fruit from different parts of the tree. Lets not turn discrimination (the power to see differences and explore tastes) turn into discrimination (the judgment against things based on their difference). That seems important. We need to look without prejudice, if possible, or at least keep an open mind. And that can occasionally be difficult for ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ to reconcile themselves with (“Oh pride, don’t fail me now!”)…..

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creative industry, Creativity, Ephemera, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching, Wittgenstein | 10 Comments

Confessions of a left footed clown

Marcel Duchamp:

“Tradition has been created by serious people who considered life a serious business and that it was necessary to produce serious things so that serious posterity would understand everything that these people, serious for their epoch, had done. I wanted to get rid of that.…”

Italo Calvino:

“Every idea you have, you become a fetishist of it, you think it’s the greatest and most original idea that any human mind ever had, you turn it into a philosophy of life and bore the backside off your friends. But you’re also a well-meaning sort, and you’ll be happy because you see the world only as you like to see it.”

Carol Dweck:

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.


There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”

Costica Bradatan:

“To live is to sink roots. Life is possible only to the extent that you find a place hospitable enough to receive you and allow you to settle down. What follows is a sort of symbiosis: Just as you grow into the world, the world grows into you. Not only do you occupy a certain place, but that place, in turn, occupies you. Its culture shapes the way you see the world, its language informs the way you think, its customs structure you as a social being. Who you ultimately are is determined to an important degree by the vast web of entanglements of “home.”

Uprooting is a devastating blow because you have to separate yourself overnight from something that, for as long as you can remember, has been an important part of your identity. In a sense, you are your culture, customs, language, country, your family, your lovers. Yet exile, should you survive it, can be the greatest of philosophical gifts, a blessing in disguise. In fact, philosophers, too, should be uprooted. At least once in their lives. They should be exiled, displaced, deported — that should be part of their training. For when your old world goes down it also takes with it all your assumptions, commonplaces, prejudices and preconceived ideas. To live is to envelop yourself in an increasingly thicker veil of familiarity that blinds you to what’s under your nose. The more comfortable you feel in the world, the blunter the instruments with which you approach it. Because everything has become so evident, you’ve stopped seeing anything. Exile gives you a chance to break free. All that heavy luggage of old “truths,” which seemed so only because they were so familiar, is to be left behind. Exiles always travel light.”

Malcolm Gladwell:

“That’s your responsibility as a person, as a human being — to constantly be updating your positions on as many things as possible. And if you don’t contradict yourself on a regular basis, then you’re not thinking.”

Daniel Kahneman:

“The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence [but] of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct. Quite often you can construct very good stories out of very little evidence. . . . People tend to have great belief, great faith in the stories that are based on very little evidence.”

Joss Whedon:

“[Our culture] is not long on contradiction or ambiguity. … It likes things to be simple, it likes things to be pigeonholed—good or bad, black or white, blue or red. And we’re not that. We’re more interesting than that. And the way that we go into the world understanding is to have these contradictions in ourselves and see them in other people and not judge them for it. To know that, in a world where debate has kind of fallen away and given way to shouting and bullying, that the best thing is not just the idea of honest debate, the best thing is losing the debate, because it means that you learn something and you changed your position. The only way really to understand your position and its worth is to understand the opposite.

 Oliver Sacks:

“It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened—or may have happened to someone else. I suspect that many of my enthusiasms and impulses, which seem entirely my own, have arisen from others’ suggestions, which have powerfully influenced me, consciously or unconsciously, and then been forgotten. Similarly, while I often give lectures on similar topics, I can never remember, for better or worse, exactly what I said on previous occasions; nor can I bear to look through my earlier notes. Losing conscious memory of what I have said before, and having no text, I discover my themes afresh each time, and they often seem to me brand-new. This type of forgetting may be necessary for a creative or healthy cryptomnesia, one that allows old thoughts to be reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.


Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.”

Joyce Carol Oates:

“JCO” is not a person, nor even a personality, but a process that has resulted in a sequence of texts. Some of the texts are retained in my (our) memory, but some have bleached out like pages of print left too long in the sun. … I continue to age year by year, if not hour by hour, while “JCO” the other, remains no fixed age — in spiritual essence, perhaps, forever poised between the fever of idealism and the chill of cynicism, a precocious eighteen years old. Yet, can a process be said to have an age? an impulse, a strategy, an obsessive tracery, like planetary orbits to which planets, “real” planets, must conform?


No one wants to believe this obvious truth: The “artist” can inhabit any individual, for the individual is irrelevant to “art.” (And what is “art” — a firestorm rushing through Time, arising from no visible source and conforming to no principles of logic or causality.) “JCO” occasionally mines, and distorts, my personal history; but only because the history is so close at hand, and then only when some idiosyncrasy about it suits her design, or some curious element of the symbolic. If you, a friend of mine, should appear in her work, have no fear — you won’t recognize yourself, any more than I would recognize you.”

Anais Nin:

“Dear Leo


I see myself and my life each day differently. What can I say? The facts lie. I have been Don Quixote, always creating a world of my own. I am all the women in the novels, yet still another not in the novels. It took me more than sixty diary volumes until now to tell about my life. Like Oscar Wilde I put only my art into my work and my genius into my life. My life is not possible to tell. I change every day, change my patterns, my concepts, my interpretations. I am a series of moods and sensations. I play a thousand roles. I weep when I find others play them for me. My real self is unknown. My work is merely an essence of this vast and deep adventure. I create a myth and a legend, a lie, a fairy tale, a magical world, and one that collapses every day and makes me feel like going the way of Virginia Woolf. I have tried to be not neurotic, not romantic, not destructive, but may be all of these in disguises.


I think life tragic, not comic, because I have no detachment. I have been guilty of idealization, guilty of everything except detachment. I am guilty of fabricating a world in which I can live and invite others to live in, but outside of that I cannot breathe. I am guilty of too serious, too grave living, but never of shallow living. I have lived in the depths. My first tragedy sent me to the bottom of the sea; I live in a submarine, and hardly ever come to the surface. I love costumes, the foam of aesthetics, noblesse oblige, and poetic writers. At fifteen I wanted to be Joan of Arc, and later, Don Quixote. I never awakened from my familiarity with mirages, and I will end probably in an opium den….

I am apparently gentle, unstable, and full of pretenses. I will die a poet killed by the nonpoets, will renounce no dream, resign myself to no ugliness, accept nothing of the world but the one I made myself. I wrote, lived, loved like Don Quixote, and on the day of my death I will say: ‘Excuse me, it was all a dream,’ and by that time I may have found one who will say: ‘Not at all, it was true, absolutely true.’”

Daniel Pink:

“Sometimes you have to write to figure it out…

This advice wasn’t just savvy guidance for how to write — it might be the wisest advice I know for how to live… The way to be okay, we all believe, is to have a specific plan — except maybe it’s not…

The smartest, most interesting, most dynamic, most impactful people … lived to figure it out. At some point in their lives, they realized that carefully crafted plans … often don’t hold up… Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just do stuff, even if you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead, because you don’t know precisely where it’s going to lead.

This might sound risky — and you know what? It is. It’s really risky. But the greater risk is to choose false certainty over genuine ambiguity. The greater risk is to fear failure more than mediocrity. The greater risk is to pursue a path only because it’s the first path you decided to pursue.

Mike Tyson:

“Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the face”

Dani Shapiro:

“When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.”

David Bayles and Ted Orland:

“If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble. Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error. Inevitably, your work (like, uh, the preceding syllogism…) will be flawed. Why? Because you’re a human being…”

Anne Lamott:

“Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen. Repent just means to change direction — and NOT to be said by someone who is waggling their forefinger at you. Repentance is a blessing. Pick a new direction, one you wouldn’t mind ending up at, and aim for that. Shoot the moon.


At work, you begin to fulfill your artistic destiny. Wow! A reviewer may hate your style, or newspapers may neglect you, or 500 people may tell you that you are bitter, delusional and boring.

Let me ask you this: in the big juicy Zorba scheme of things, who fucking cares?”








Posted in Art, Imagination, metacognition | Leave a comment

Letter to a young potter

“So I only made one piece I liked in my pottery class & I’m pretty sure I put it on my cars roof and drove home. Hum…So much for that one.”

This popped up in my fb feed from a friend and former student. It seemed worth a response. Here is what I said (typically bloated in my inimitable CGPB ramblin’ way ;) ):

Only one? Either you were not very productive or you are being very very hard on yourself. I wish you had stayed more during class that one time you had signed up with me. It seems we never had much opportunity to talk about things like this. To me the tragedy is not that a pot got broken, even the one you liked the best, but that there was only one pot that you liked. The real misfortune was perhaps in place long before you drove off…….

The danger I sometimes see, if I can presume in your case, is that it is not important enough to you that you like what you are doing. That’s the tricky part of holding one’s self to high standards: The eventual reward of standards are always in competition with the immediate rewards of the process. You can’t always have both at once. And if you can its because you took the long road to figuring out how this was possible. My suggestion is that there is more to making pots than how well we aim or even having the right things to aim for. Especially as we are staring out on that road. We have to have other reasons for traveling it than that we are pointing in the right direction……

In my experience there are also ways of working that focus on making more of the things you like, and ways of working that focus on liking more of the things you make. Liking the road we are traveling seems like a decent reason for being on it. And each of these exercises sometimes requires that we give up the ideas that we feel comfortable with. Your convictions about what you are doing can’t be allowed to stand in the way of finding things outside your normal comfort zone. The road isn’t always a straight line, and we can’t always see beyond the next curve to know what we will get.

Sometimes enjoyment of the process and the things you make will only come to you as a surprise. Just like in reading a book or watching a film, the ending isn’t always what we anticipate. And to get there we sometimes need to learn to suspend our disbelief, suspend our beliefs too, so that we may come to see things from a different perspective. To travel the road to its end we can’t always be the person we thought we were. Sometimes our own ideals stand in the way. Our inexperience stands in the way. Sometimes we have to unlearn the biases that limit us. Or, sometimes we need to understand those biases, where they come from and why they seem to stick with us. And then we can set them aside, when needed, and maintain them when they are actually helping us. And that difference can be hard to decipher…..

Sometimes its like we want to run a marathon and we won’t settle for anything less than that. Nothing else measures up. We are mesmerized by a single notion of excellence. The problem is that we are not always in a position to run marathons. We think we should be able, but we haven’t considered that there is a short term view and a long term view. To eventually run a marathon you can’t just head out the door and be disappointed by every 5 miles you are only able to run. 5 miles is actually good if it is part of the path that will eventually take you to 26.2. The trick is to see where you are at the moment and respect that.

Don’t think you necessarily should be farther along the path than you are. Seeing the finish line is sometimes easy, and that can actually deceive us about the real path to our goal. The getting there is the difficult part, and the apparent ease of our vision is only frustrated by the physical handicaps of the journey itself. Seeing the bullseye doesn’t always mean we are prepared to hit it. We simply haven’t accounted for all the hidden and undiscovered things that are involved in eventually crossing that line.

Which often leads us to frustration. Frustration can be tiring. And if we don’t learn to love or appreciate the steps along the way we may never have the fortitude to reach our final destination.……… Don’t love your work only because of how close it was to your aim. Love what you are doing itself. The process should also be rewarding, no strings attached. And perhaps love each pot because it may be better than the last. If you are improving this difference alone should be important to you. But also love each pot because it may be worse than what will come after, and this was necessary……

Because, unless you take this same awkward step and stumble occasionally you will never get where you are going. The destination is not reached just by unequivocal triumphs but by the missteps we must endure to get there. We are not ushered to the finish line amidst blaring trumpets and cheering crowds. We get there the hard way. We get there by taking a path through the rubble of mistakes and the dubious charms of might-have-beens and also-rans. If there is a symphony waiting for us at the end it sounds nothing like the glossy finished product while we are getting there…..

Cherish those steps for what they are. But also learn to see that there may not really be an end point you will reach. The goal that drove you, it turns out, may in fact be an illusion. Illusory? It may be an unnecessary part of the journey. The need to cross that particular finish line may have dwindled in the rear view as you take different turns that lead to other places. And if we won’t always get where we think we are driving, the question is whether where we think we are driving was all that important to begin with.

So, as you learn to step more confidently you will not just close the gap toward your original destination: You will also see new opportunities to get off the path and explore in different directions. As you gain the skills for moving through the work you will come to understand that the work actually wasn’t really the important thing. Not the physical stuff you made. Rather, the important thing was that you now have the ability and freedom to go where you will. What you have changed is not simply the steps you are able to take but the person taking those steps. By changing yourself you have changed what you can now see. And from this different vantage the terrain can seem drastically different from what it used to look like. There are unexpected mountains to climb and unforeseen streams to cross. These are the surprises we are faced with, and they can seem ever so much more interesting than the ideas we first started out with. And you can now do those things because you are not the person you once were. You are now an artist, not merely a maker of objects.

The transition will be hard to spot, but if you keep at it long enough and keep touch with sustaining reasons for being on this path, eventually you will look back at where you have been and know that even if you didn’t get to where you thought you’d be you have still gotten somewhere. And you will find that it may not even be easy to recognize that person who first took those awkward steps out into the world and explored their creativity. You will know so much more than you ever thought possible. You will dream dreams that were never an option for that person you left behind. And you will now know for a fact that there is so much more to the world than you can ever come to understand. And you may find that this humility was the single biggest step you took, though it may have happened while you were not looking and it may be hard to place a finger on when exactly it took place…… And isn’t that also part of the mystery that we perhaps have to embrace?

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, Pottery, Teaching | Leave a comment

Asking ‘better’ questions about Art

“Have you seen the movie Ghost? Is that local clay? Is the furnace your kiln? What kind of paint do we use. Do you do this all day?”— Typical questions to the artist from visitors at the pottery studio of Tony Clennell

If you are a potter you may have heard these same questions before or ones just like them. They seem designed to drive us crazy. They seem to almost comically miss the point. What are these people looking for? Why are they asking these things? Don’t they get it?

Obviously not. But is there a preferred way to understand art, to look at it, to make sense of what artists do? Well, sometimes clearly there is a tragic difference between an audience ‘getting it’ and not, so it seems there are real and important variations in how we can know a work of art. But are there objectively ‘better’ ways of understanding than others? If we haven’t seen the movie Ghost, for instance, are we missing something important about pottery? (Heh, heh)

What we do know often seems to be imperfect, a lesser form of understanding than is possible. Its sometimes obvious that there are better ways of looking at things. And we can unlock more of the important details by asking better questions. But what are the right questions that need to be asked? It seems true that even brilliant answers to the wrong questions get nowhere fast. Asking the right questions must surely be the best way forward. So….

I just read an interesting essay that takes a stand on what sorts of questions are the right ones. Its a good read. Here’s the short version:

Don’t ask:

  1. Why is that art?
  2. What is it meant to be?
  3. A four year old could do that, couldn’t they?

Instead ask:

  1. What can I see just by looking at this art work?
  2. How was this art work actually made?
  3. When was it made, and what was happening in art and broader history at that time?
  4. Why did the artist create this work and what is its meaning to them, and to us now?

The author thinks these last four are the better questions, “Questions that will finally yield some answers”. Perhaps these are the questions that will let us finally know art for what it really is….. Maybe?

Personally, I think a legitimate question is whether there necessarily is a ‘better’ vantage to understand art from and what this might even mean. Does ‘better’ mean ‘more accurate’? Is there is an objectivity to aspire to? Does ‘better’ inhabit the understanding of the artist, the educated audience, the culture in which it was produced, none of these, or all of these? ‘Better’ seems to imply a ‘best’, and if it doesn’t, then what does that tell us? How exactly is ‘better’ determined? Is ‘better’ something on a continuum of quality or is it instrumental, for instance? (Does science aim at ‘truth’ or understanding how things work?)

The four ‘better’ questions he asks could almost surely not have come from anyone who is not an art historian or seriously educated in art historical themes. And the questions themselves are interesting, to me at least. I’m just not sure that “What can I see just by looking at this art work?” is valuable as anything besides what it teaches me about what I can see just by looking at this art work. I’m also not sure that “How was this art work actually made?” answers anything besides how this art work was actually made….. These are different questions. Are they better questions? Is there some instrumental value that is handed to us by knowing these things? Do they necessarily point to anything beyond themselves? That seems like a good question too.

You don’t need to be an art historian to ask good art questions. For instance, what would a psychologist ask? “What was the mental state of the artist as she was making this? What was going on in her life at the time?” perhaps? Or, “How did her childhood influence her perspective on this particular creative issue?” What would a geologist like to know about a potter’s work? What would a chemist like to know about paintings? What would a gymnast like to know about a dance performance? What would a poet like to know about a stage production? What would a gallerist like to know about a sculptor? What would a banker like to know about a jeweler?………

To understand art better do you need to ask ALL these questions? Is it like filling in the blanks? An unfinished puzzle or one that has missing pieces? Is ‘better’ simply more comprehensive, more things filled in? But then even poor questions shed light. We can even learn by understanding what questions not to ask. Understanding can be indirect. So even looking towards a more comprehensive view still leaves us with the determination of good (accurate) questions and bad (inaccurate). Right? Does being comprehensive include what we consider to be ‘bad’ questions? And in what way? Has inclusiveness solved what we are trying to figure out? Or has it simply moved the problem up a level? Maybe the pieces we gather don’t all fit the same puzzle. Maybe its not simply one puzzle to be solved but different versions that all seem to point at the same underlying thing……..

My point is that some questions matter more to some people than others, and there are legitimate reasons they do. What we want to know often says more about who we are than what we are looking at. The questions we are inclined to ask generally follow the lines of things we are interested in. We are motivated to want to uncover specific things. We have been led to these questions by the values of our beliefs, the path of our lives. And that’s not to say that there are not ‘bad’ questions, but bad for what? Bad according to whom? What, precisely, are they bad in terms of?

As Duchamp noted, “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.” That seems to open the door beyond any one authority. Is there no one voice, then, who speaks for art?

If you ask an art historian you will get one response, and if you ask the artist themselves you may get something completely different. In that case can we say that the artist who doesn’t ask these art historical questions is therefor lacking in understanding? Does the art historian know the work better than the artist themselves? Maybe we would want to say that, but why? And is this a comment about the work itself or the merits of the perspectives? Are we talking about the art, or what can be said about it?

A quaint rustic scene, right?

A quaint rustic scene, right?

One other question is whether knowing more is always an advantage. Is it always the case that the more we know about a work of art the ‘better’ we will appreciate it? We have this phrase, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you”, and it seems to mean something not entirely irrelevant. For instance, I look at a painting of some rustic bucolic scene and think its decent. Then I look at the sign on the wall only to discover it was painted by Hitler. How does that change my perceptions? Does this added knowledge allow me to see the painting ‘better’? This is a question of the relation between knowing and seeing. Does new information always circumvent perceptual and conceptual biases or does it occasionally bolster them? Value often seems precariously balanced between what a thing is and what we think it is.

“I’m rich!” or not……

“Oh that’s a Degas. Isn’t it just marvelous!” Don’t we often see what we think we are looking at? Doesn’t understanding occasionally precede actual perception? Its always interesting when paintings that have been revered are pointed out as fakes. What we now know changes what we see. What do we learn from that? Is there a pure perceptual agnosticism at the end of ‘ultimate knowledge’? Will the ‘best’ view of art be perspective-free? Detached? Or is the ‘best’ view the view that aligns with human cultural values? How else can we justify the different appreciation for ‘authentic work’ and forgeries? Does value hang by such a slender thread?

If you notice, we are hardly looking at just the work of art itself in some cases. There is a penumbra of contingency that shapes how we see and what we see. Is ‘better’, therefor, part and parcel of contingent and historical accident? Provenance? If who made a work sometimes matters as much as what the work itself is are we actually seeing the work better if we absolutely know the author? Does knowing an artist’s style help us see the work more clearly? Or does it offer a shortcut that helps us ‘understand’ the work without actually seeing it? Is ‘knowing’ a perceptual comfort zone that occasionally induces our cognitive laziness? How does being deceived about the author connect with being deceived about the work itself?

Jonah Lehrer looked at these questions back when he was the new whiz kid of science journalism, and despite how we may feel about some of his other scholarship he makes some interesting observations (meta?). You can read his research here.

The first thing the researchers discovered is that there was no detectable difference in the response of visual areas to Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt” works of art. The key word in that sentence is “detectable”: fMRI remains a crude tool, and just because it can’t pinpoint a significant difference between groups (especially given these limited sample sizes) doesn’t mean there is none. That said, it’s not exactly surprising that such similar paintings would elicit virtually identical sensory responses. It takes years of training before critics can reliably discern real Rembrandt from copies. And even then there is often extensive disagreement, as the 1995 Metropolitan show demonstrates. However, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.

The first thing the researchers discovered is that there was no detectable difference in the response of visual areas to Rembrandt and “school of Rembrandt” works of art. The key word in that sentence is “detectable”: fMRI remains a crude tool, and just because it can’t pinpoint a significant difference between groups (especially given these limited sample sizes) doesn’t mean there is none. That said, it’s not exactly surprising that such similar paintings would elicit virtually identical sensory responses. It takes years of training before critics can reliably discern real Rembrandt from copies. And even then there is often extensive disagreement, as the 1995 Metropolitan show demonstrates.
However, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.

What’s the difference between wanting to get to know a work of art, this-here-now, and wanting to know all there is to know? Sometimes its like going on a date. Do you really want to know all the juicy details of their past? If you knew all the mistakes they made beforehand would you ever be in a position to like them or forgive them? Aren’t some details irrelevant? Or the timing of the informations could be better or worse? Isn’t how we come to know often as important as what we come to know?

And aren’t some things better left unsaid? Can knowing too much sometimes actually destroy the possibility of further interest? If our interest ends prematurely what are the consequences for our incipient knowledge? Isn’t that first kiss sometimes something magical, and it eventually goes downhill from there? Sometimes? And if we put that in perspective will it sabotage things for us? If we are looking squarely at the hardships of a long term relationship would we have second thoughts about the next date? Isn’t our own passion often defeated by knowing too much? And do we generally call this an improvement? Is deeper knowing always better knowing?

I have picked up, moved, shaped,
and lightened myself of many tons of clay,
and those tons lifted, moved, and shaped me,
delivering me to this living-space
I wake and move about in,
space perhaps equal to that I have opened and enclosed
in plate, cup, bowl, jug, jar.
I am thankful no one ever
led me to the pit I’d help to make in Earth,
or showed me all the clay at once.
I’m grateful no one ever said, There.
That heap’s about a hundred fifty tons.
Go make yourself a life.
And oh, yes, here’s a drum of ink.
See what you can do with that.
I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

from, “Calling the Planet Home” by Jack Troy.

Maybe these questions are not interesting to others. All our questions face that hurdle. But then we need to ask if that’s the fault of the questions themselves or simply the potential difference between any two human beings. I, personally, like asking questions. Challenging my own articles of faith isn’t just a silly diversion, its important. To me, at least…. To each their own, right?

Is cricket better than baseball? Is Rugby better than soccer? Chess than checkers? Questions are like moves in different games. Sometimes it looks like we are playing the same game, or that the pieces match up, but it also turns out that different games use the same pieces and moves can look nearly identical and yet be undertaken for radically different purposes.

We often think we are getting at the things behind our words, that we are peeling back the layers of confusion to get at the real things. We imagine that the art is something beyond what we casually understand it to be. We hope for a better insight in the same way that science gives us insight by performing experiments and bringing technology to bear. As if we were peering closer at nature.

Most people can point to art if you ask them (gray areas notwithstanding), but what does that tell us? What are we trying to see? When we talk about ‘art’, are we even sure we are always talking about the same thing? Are we pointing out a natural category, primordial divisions in world? Something like kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? Or atom, electron, nucleus? Or is it just a happy illusion of our language that so many things can all be referred to as ‘art’? And will the same questions penetrate equally in all directions of how that word gets used? Are the questions we use simply the choice between better and worse instruments?


I know my head is starting to spin. By my count that’s 82 questions I just asked relating to how we see art. You tell me which were the better questions and which didn’t lead anywhere. It seems that if asking the right sort of question is the best way forward you won’t be getting anywhere if you are not asking questions. So, what are the things that matter to you? What are the things you would like to know about art? What are the questions you ask?

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

And keep asking those questions!


Posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Creativity, metacognition, Wittgenstein | 3 Comments

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 217 other followers