Almost cut my hair……

I had a revelation the other day. I was thinking about two of the pots I had just purchased from the recent Crafted and Designed exhibition and I realized that neither Liz Lurie nor Simon Levin had signed/stamped their pots.

Liz Lurie wood fired bowl with 'elbow' nub handles from kiln firing #2

Liz Lurie wood fired bowl with ‘elbow’ nub handles from kiln firing #2

Simon Levin 'chunky' bowl lusciously trimmed in a soft state

Simon Levin ‘chunky’ bowl lusciously trimmed in a soft state

(The brilliant flash of light slowly dims, and the bewildered author stagers blindly for a few moments more until finally things return to focus and he can see the world anew.)

So many artists sign their work, I assume for a variety of reasons. I was told back in my school days that I “needed to sign my work”, and so I compromised by coming up with a meaningless stamp, half decoration half faux signature. And I’ve been putting one form or another of that blasted impression on virtually all my pots since. I at one point figured out that a good way to keep track of my various clay bodies would be to use different stamps to pick them out. Most of my work these days is in ungrogged white clay, and its nigh impossible to tell the porcelains from the other white stonewares when I’m about to do my glazing (Mostly Highwater Clay’s P10 porcelain and Loafers Glory). Another series of mugs I stamped upside down to remember the day one of my studio cats showed up injured. I was heart broken, and in my distress and still needing to finish the work I had started the day before I decided that my regular stamp was simply not right for the situation…..

Originally I think I was using the stamp to indicate where I wanted folks to look. The pots all have sides, and the front needed to be distinguished from the back. (This was a lesson I learned from Linda Christianson during the semester she taught at UGA. She pointed out that a handle on a mug will look better in one spot than another if the pot is not uniformly symmetrical. You have to look for the best option, and that decides the front from the back. I tend to avoid symmetry, so this insight made perfect sense to me.) Sometimes I put the stamp right in the solar plexus. Other times I put the stamp somewhere under the chin. On mugs I usually put it on the shoe laces just above the feet. At some other point I decided that some pots can have two ‘fronts’, and I robbed them of a ‘backside’. At other points I decided mugs could be stamped just next to the arm pit, or even on the tush where the lower extremity of the handle rested. At one point I was so disappointed in the clay body I was using that I hid my smallest stamp underneath the pot, where you could only find it if you properly undressed it in use.

What also became clear over time was that my stamp had indeed become my signature. And discovering this I had the uneasy impression that my stamp had transformed to yet another stereotype.

Back in the day when I was a late twenty-something, just starting Philosophy grad school, I somehow got the idea that some personal image control was necessary. I grew my hair out into a stringy snarled mess that eventually reached below my shoulder blades. I also kept up my fascination with tie dye T-shirts that I had fallen in love with living out in Seattle in the late 80’s. This was my uniform, grungy Chuck Taylors included. This was how I presented myself to the world in the early 90’s. Its amazing I ever got a date!

Tune in a few years later and its still the same image, just older and now in Pottery grad school rather than Philosophy. While working the day job that helped pay my bills a coworker (who incidentally had also been one of my undergrad Philosophy students) declared that “You can become a stereotype of yourself”. He was talking about changes in his own life, but the message hit home in my world as well. It took some time to work up the courage, but eventually I cut my hair completely off (I still have it almost 20 years later as part of an impromptu sculptural installation), ditched the now threadbare tie dyes, and opted for foot wear with more arch support.

Its simply amazing what we do to ourselves with the momentum of our history. You can settle into the most uncomfortable situations by making one questionable decision and sticking with it, come hell or high water….. Its just incredible what we do to ourselves because we have defaulted into this one image we are trying to project….. Not even actively trying, at times. Its just there. Like acne, halitosis, and dirty fingernails….

So, just the other day I had the second shoe drop, and the further lesson of that original revelation hit me that my stamp had become like my hair back in the early 90’s. I didn’t have to wear it if I didn’t want to. Despite my instructor once telling me I had to have something to represent ‘me’, there really was no other compelling reason why that simply had to be the case. The decision was staring me right in the face: I could ‘cut my hair’ a second time, and dump the gimmick out the door. Rather than simply stamping my pots as default, or somehow compulsory, I recently let whole swaths of pots dry without stamping them. I realized I always hated how my flared bowls looked when I stamped them, and it was a genuine relief not to punch out the sides of the ones I just made with the heavy handed use of my branding iron…. Other forms were equally unimpressed with the difference the absence of a stamp made: They looked just fine without them. Maybe I can do this after all….. Maybe its also up to the audience to decide which part of the pot is its ‘front’?

That said, I stamped all the mugs I made next. Maybe I will only pull it out on special occasions. Maybe only the pots I consider my own best expressions will be touched by the heated iron. Hypocrisy? Maybe. But I have to respect that sometimes it feels right and others it does not. That feels honest to me.

So, my lovely art making friends out there, are you ‘wearing you hair long’ because you feel you don’t have another choice? Or simply ‘cutting it short’ from habit? Will you change it up as the mood strikes you? Or have you simply done the same style over and over for so long now that you can’t really acknowledge there are other ways of doing it? What’s to stop you from cutting your hair? That some collector won’t buy it unless its been ‘authenticated’? I’ve had customers ask me where it is signed. Should we provide them with notarized certificates of authenticity as well? Maybe standing there with a magic marker and putting our ‘X’ across the face of it would appease them? They seem to suggest that they are occasionally paying for the signature more than the pot itself….. Is that what we are hoping for? Do we owe it to them?

Starting to ramble! (Pulls self back from the brink of temptation)

What do you all think?


Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Pottery | 10 Comments

“Potters’ Pride” and the ‘A’ game

“The truly simple and adequate reasons for making pots disappear from view when any gimmick is worth a try as an indication of originality and any publicity is worth chasing as a means to fame. To do something in order to appear original, to adopt mannerisms and play the eccentric in order to appear to be an artist; to pursue fame as a conscious objective are all symptoms of a sickness and examples of actions taken for the wrong reasons. In saying that potters should have the courage to be potters, one is merely saying that they should have courage to do things for the right reasons.” – Harry Davis, ‘An historical review of art commerce and craftsmanship’ Studio Potter, vol 6 no 1, p. 11

John Britt and I have been running a discussion last week on his blog over at The Clay Club. His initial essay had some really intriguing ideas and I thought it worth my own two cents to reply. He generously posted it on the blog, and then replied to clarify some of the differences in what we were talking about. It was a good conversation! I wish more internet interaction was like it. If you don’t know John or his work, he’s an incredible advocate for potters and a generous supporter of anyone interested in making pots. I’m so glad he’s on our side!

Anyway, my final response to his final response got posted too, and it might make sense to read the thread of conversation from the beginning, but I’ll go ahead and simply post my conclusions here. Check out the other posts if you want the background. There are some good ideas between us :)  The question John asks essentially comes down to this:

“I always find that people want to call themselves “Artists”. This is strange to me. Why isn’t it enough to be a potter? or a painter or a sculptor? No …people want to be called Artists….. Maybe I am wrong but that is my impression. I ask, “What is wrong with being a potter? “

My response:


I think you nailed it when you described the differences between the small ‘a’ and capital ‘A’ artist, and I think that differentiation illuminates very much of what we are talking through. Your argument seems mostly directed against the prestigious ‘A’ type artist also being humble potter sorts, and I agree that potters are such second class citizens of the art world that very little we do could move that celebrity focused side of our culture. There are no true potter rock stars the way that there are maverick musicians, sculptors, painters, etc. Maybe Grayson Perry is helping to put a more ‘socially acceptable’ face on potters (even if its occasionally in drag).

When art gets promoted to the mainstream populace its generally not potters who receive the attention. The publicity machine of popularizing artists shies away from what potters do. No wonder potters have learned to keep grounded and humble! Whatever tiny prestige we garner is more to do with our own niche than any broad cultural context. If you ask a random sample of average Americans to name ten musicians, ten painters, and maybe a sculptor or two, my guess is that they would have no trouble. If you asked them to name even one potter who was famous you’d probably draw blanks. At most they might know the name of the local potter selling at the farmers market, the academic professing at the University, or the camp instructor who teaches their kids each summer. We simply don’t know potters the way we know painters, musicians, and any other participants in the celebrity art culture.

The only point I’d make is that this division between big ‘A’ and little ‘a’ is more about perception than it is either what we do, how we do it, why we do it, or what kinds of things get done. The big ‘A’ seems to intentionally operate in the spotlight while little ‘a’ potters and their ilk eek out meager incomes in craft fairs, farmers markets, clay oriented galleries, and home studio sales. The game was decided before we even picked up a lump of clay: Potters will only ever be the poor cousin of the accepted ‘A’ artist culture. Its not that we did anything wrong. Its not that our work isn’t good enough. Its not that what we do doesn’t add real value to the world. Rather, its just that the scale we operate in is often insufficiently grand enough to warrant pedestals in the capital ‘A’ art market. Its too hard for gallerists to pay rent in SoHo selling $42 mugs…….

“It is not news that the art world caters to the 1%. It’s obvious that the outrageous prices for contemporary art mean that—although anyone can look—only the very wealthy can afford it. That is not news. The ongoing gutting of the middle class has affected my view as well. It means that absolutely no one except the very rich are now being addressed in these shops: anyone else who once upon a time might have felt this work was within reach is quickly vanishing from the economic spectrum. That demographic of potential buyers and visitors simply doesn’t—or almost doesn’t—exist anymore. Visitors and spectators who aren’t super rich are merely window-shopping.” David Byrne, I don’t care about contemporary art anymore, Oct 7th 2014

When you say, “It isn’t just an object but an artifact. It is presented in many museums, countries, talked about over all media, etc. It points to meaning beyond itself and calls attention to huge culturally significant things“, I have to point out that not everything we call ‘A’ art does these things. What you describe seems more felicitous to Modern conceptually oriented art or simply who has the biggest reputation. Most historical paintings that are venerated as capital ‘A’ art are simply paintings of this or that. The Mona Lisa. They are acclaimed because of their craftsmanship, their beauty, who painted it, what departure it represents from contemporaneous painting craft, etc. What you are describing is how the art fits into cultural practices and the publicity engineered to put it there. And if cultural practices are what makes things art, then it simply matters how we treat them rather than what they are. What this suggests is that pots are not necessarily or inherently different from some of the things that get pointed to as ‘A’ art. If we but treated them differently they would then be ‘A’ art……

And if not all ‘A’ art “draws attention to huge culturally significant things”, some potters such as Kathy King, Grayson Perry, and probably at least one out of four newly minted pottery Graduate Students actually DO use pots as a kind of social commentary. Pots are just one vessel for potential meaning, a canvass that creativity can be exercised on. Art isn’t one thing and pottery something else. They are kindred media for the creatively inclined to put to use. They are the agnostic tools of our personal expression.

Pots are only immune to being called ‘A’ art if that’s what we believe. Only, you have to wonder who told us to believe that and why. If you look deeper you see the weight of social conventions and contingent and arbitrary cultural decisions. The machinery that promotes some things as ‘art’ and others as not-art is part of a very profitable industry. If things are run according to their financial self interest alone its easy to see that potters will never get a break….. Its an institutional pattern.

There is no reason potters can’t just call themselves ‘potters’. I’ve seen some prefer to call themselves ‘Ceramics artist’ or ‘Ceramicist’ too. It turns out there is a lot in a name. Potters are not ‘A’ artists in the sense that we’ve already been voted off that island. And as second class citizens of the art world maybe we need a ‘Potters Pride’ movement to help us restore credibility.

Its not wrong to be a potter, even if top notch galleries would laugh you out the door, even if many academic art departments would shoo you away or stash you in the basement somewhere, sell off the wheels for more hand building tables. Potters seem tolerated in the art world at best. Not respected or really appreciated. And its easy to get defensive and stick to feeling good about the things that DO make us different. There’s nothing wrong with us. If we are made to sit at the back of the bus, well, maybe we can achieve some solidarity with the rest that are also sitting there. If its the establishment ‘them’ against the outsider ‘us’, maybe we can make the ‘us’ thing stronger….. “Potters unite! There is no shame in being called a potter!”

That would be one response to the discrimination against potters. The view I take is that the discrimination is simply wrong and it is unjustified in any way that I’ve ever seen proposed to make sense of it. I’d rather fight the injustice than learn to live with it quietly in some vaguely protected corner of the world. Too may artists playing the ‘A’ game have a big head simply because folks have told them they are ‘special’. Most of them are not. The fortunes of publicity are no true measure of a person’s value.

Its an accident of history that potters are respected so poorly in our culture. If we were living in Japan many of us might be acclaimed National Living Treasures. I simply refuse to play the game that has potters starting out with a raw deal. That game is rigged, and potters can never come out on top the way its being played. They tell us “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” but I think we should know who is pulling the strings and why. If the Emperor is wearing no clothes I’d rather shout that out than act dumb and ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ as he passes by. If artists are special, then so to are potters. Some of us, at least……

So maybe I’ll end this with agreement that, yes, potters do need to stick up for themselves. There is no shame in calling ourselves potters. But maybe we can do more than that. Maybe we can earn a place at the Art table, even if that means upsetting a few people who don’t seem to want us there. If potters deserve respect we may simply have to fight for it. A broader understanding of art, less controlled by the ominous warnings and prescriptions of gatekeepers, only seems to point to a larger brotherhood and sisterhood of creativity. The ‘A’ artists are mostly a mythology of publicity agents. Some are geniuses, true. But how many geniuses are hidden in the dark corners of the world simply through lack of opportunity. Potters lack that opportunity through no fault of their own. I’d like to change that.

“Today the borders between art and everyday culture have completely disappeared. Today art can be appreciated with the same ease and enthusiasm that we apply to film, fashion, cartoons, and pornography. You don’t need a sophisticated theory. All you really need are your senses. Yet somehow the art world manages to maintain the illusion that their art possesses some magical quality that is somehow absent from all other forms of culture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is nonsense.”


Watch all six of these videos for a great take down of ‘A’ art culture and the contingent historical dimension only few in the establishment seems to want to talk about….. Here’s Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor, with a ‘final’ word:

“Money and celebrity has cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting ideas and debate from coming to the fore,” he said yesterday, adding that the current system of collectors, galleries, museums and art dealers colluding to maintain the value and status of artists quashed open debate on art. “I hope this is the start of something that breaks the system. At the moment it feels like the Paris salon of the 19th century, where bureaucrats and conservatives combined to stifle the field of work. It was the Impressionists who forced a new system, led by the artists themselves. It created modern art and a whole new way of looking at things. Lord knows we need that now more than anything. We need artists to work outside the establishment and start looking at the world in a different way – to start challenging preconceptions instead of reinforcing them.”

And this ‘final, final’ word in response to the David Byrne piece quoted above:

“I agree with you that contemporary art has a problem, and that problem is the obscene amount of money passing through a globalized and elite corner of the art world. As an active member of said art world, I was embarrassed by the crap that came out of art fair week in Miami last year. I felt the heavy burden of “how am I going to explain this shit” when Damien Hirst unloaded his idiotic dots onto the world. I put up with awful museum curation that is little more than asset enhancement for private art collections that will be unloaded at auction houses a few years later. And I watch oil barons stock private art museums in old dairy barns with the saddest laundry list of safe, contemporary works and wonder how someone spending so much money on so much art could learn so little from it. Yes, the world is fucked up, and the art world is a reflection of that.

But….. I am over hearing from people within jogging distance of the Chelsea galleries that the whole of contemporary art is over; that art is no longer emotionally or intellectually fulfilling; that art is too expensive even for millionaires. I’m done reading articles titled “Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?,” written by people who haven’t figured out that Manhattan has bridges and tunnels and a subway. And I’m tired of pretending that a global elite has a monopoly on the expression of “ideas and feelings,” when there are thousands of people working every day outside of that slipstream as proof otherwise.” Ric Kasini Kadour

Stand up and be counted, potters.


That’s all from me!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | 3 Comments

Rhyming and reasoning

The issues I discussed in my last post are difficult for me to make absolute sense of. I feel there is something important in the discussion, but the conclusions I want to draw all seem to fly in the face of other beliefs I hold dear. It would be much easier if my cherished beliefs all lined up harmoniously and suffered no embarrassing contradiction or weak kneed inconsistencies. But I also know that things are not often as simple as we sometimes want them to be. I know some thinkers who just dismiss difficult thoughts when they don’t match what they already believe. I’d prefer to keep an open mind and see what different sides of truth obtain. I’m willing to be surprised. I’m willing to revise my stance. I’m willing to be wrong. I’m willing to appreciate the bigger picture…..

For instance, I have argued long and hard that ‘signature style’ and personal branding are contrary to artistic freedom and have more to do with successful marketing than anything necessary about creativity. (See this humorous take on the ridiculous pressure of branding for authors by the inimitable Chuck Wendig) If you want to do something radically different what else is there to stop you doing it? Protecting our brand simply comes at the cost of limiting our aspirations and confining our experiments. I see these as neither necessary nor inevitable, despite the obvious mythologizing that has been used to promote them.

So what on earth am I doing questioning potters’ lack of genres to work in? Why was my last post so adamant that the absence of clear genres in pottery has such negative consequences? Isn’t the idea of genres simply one more box that can be used to oppress artistic freedom and essentially put the extrinsic marketing cart before the intrinsic creative horse?

The thing to remember is that genres in other fields already exist. They are rough or even specific guidelines that orient what gets made and how an audience can be expected to interpret it. Its not a limit on what can be expressed within those criteria, and its not a boundary that artists can’t cross of their own free will. Its why you see musicians practicing Classical and Jazz at different times. I have a friend who is in both a power rock band and also a Klezmer band. Its why some authors can write science fiction and also fantasy and also mystery. The existence of genres doesn’t stop artists from finding what they need to express differently. Not in the same way that branding seems to hold us in our tracks. Genres are simply the modes of expression as commonly understood. Signature style is a deep furrow that if we plow often enough becomes a rut so deep we might not escape. Genre is the choice between what restaurants we want to get a meal at. Branding is a cage we build for ourselves…..

So what’s the deal with potters and genres? Why does it seem so fuzzy (to me, at least)?

Say you were a musician and you wanted to branch out. Say you wrote Classical composition but you also wanted to write a Rock ballad. Say you were a Rap artist and you wanted to try your hand at 70’s style Disco. Say you were a Heavy Metal artist and you wanted to try Ska or Reggae. Or what if you were an author and wanted to do something different. Say you were an historical fiction writer but you wanted to try your hand at poetry. Or maybe you were a travel writer and you wanted to compose a children’s’ book. Perhaps you are an international politics journalist but you want to be a food critic……

Now lets say you are a potter making wood fired pots and your kiln crashes or your wood supply dries up. You start making cone six electric fired pots instead, but what has changed? Is this a switch of genres? What if you were making exactly the same pots just firing them in an electric kiln rather than wood? Is that more like switching from Classical to Jazz or is it like playing in an orchestra rather than a quartet? The same style of music just different circumstances.

Do you see what I’m getting at?

I ran some of these ideas by one of my musician friends and he saw what I was getting at. He is also a musicologist and ethnographer. He helped point out that genres are a tool for framing that the audience uses to make sense of what is being presented. Say this were a discussion of language. Say you speak English. That is your frame of reference. You don’t understand by having heard it all before. What you are familiar with is not the exact construction of sentences, its the possibility for meaning. You know many of the words, the details, the grammar, but you’ve not necessarily heard them in this order or meaning these specific things together. You’ve never thought these specific thoughts before. Isn’t that fascinating?

When we lack awareness of genre what exactly are we missing? Well, its like we are trying to operate without a deeper context. The frame of reference is now gone, and we have to attempt understanding on the basis of the particulars themselves. We don’t necessarily know what counts as a good construction or a bad. And if we make sense of this one thing, its rules extend no further than that. If you have a sense of Jazz, you might not get all Jazz, you certainly won’t like all of it, but you have some idea what each Jazz artist is aiming at. They may not be playing exactly the same games, but they are playing games that are related enough that sometimes the comparisons are easy. They share a family resemblance. That is what genres entail.

Where are the guidelines for pots? Are there any? What makes a handle good or bad? Is there such a thing as ‘too heavy’? I’ve had to revise my opinions on weight after being confronted with a sturdy Joe Singewald bowl a few years ago, and that insight helped me appreciate Simon Levin’s bowl enough at the Design and Crafted exhibition last weekend that I had to give it a new home. (Joe’s pot on the left, Simon’s pot on the right)

Chunky bowls: Singewald, Gillies, and Levin

Chunky bowls: Singewald, Gillies, and Levin

Upside down chunky bowls: Singewald, Gillies, and Levin

Upside down chunky bowls: Singewald, Gillies, and Levin

The point is that genre at least orients us to making judgments about what we are seeing. Genre is the context that activates meaningful comparisons. What looks like a ‘bad’ handle may be exactly what the potter was aiming at after careful analysis and years of experimentation. To them it might be a handle far superior to any others being made elsewhere. And they are right. And maybe we are right too, to disagree with them. But we can’t adequately explain it if we don’t understand what they are doing, what they are aiming at. It would be like saying chess moves are ‘bad’ because we are framing things in terms of checkers…….

Gertrude Graham Smith interprets 'The Handle'

Gertrude Graham Smith interprets ‘The Handle’

Linda Arbuckle interprets 'The Handle'

Linda Arbuckle interprets ‘The Handle’

Carter Gillies interprets 'The Handle'

Carter Gillies interprets ‘The Handle’

Obviously these three mugs represent three entirely different sets of standards. They are all cups, but how are they related? “Cylinders with handles”? Is that a description that helps us understand what each is aiming at, or is it simply vague enough to white wash the differences?

Without knowing what the artists are aiming at how do we judge? If you were to compare an impressionist painting with a cubist painting with a surrealist painting, each of a human figure, how would you know that one wasn’t as good as the other? If we want to say one handle is better than another shouldn’t we say one painting of a human figure is better than another? Is an impressionist figure better than a surrealist? Is a surrealist figure better than a cubist? Is a cubist figure better than an impressionist? Are these even good questions? Right?

arshile gorky-cubist-figure pierre-auguste_renoir_lombrelle_d5650331h salvador dali-paranoia-surrealist-figures

Is it enough to say we are looking at ‘human figures’ to make sense of what each painting is trying to convey? Does that help us make sense of what each painter is aiming at any more than saying that the three previous images of mugs are ‘all cups’?

Don’t we know the cubist image for what it is by understanding something about cubism? Don’t we know what the impressionist image is aiming at by understanding something about impressionism? Don’t we know what the surrealist image is getting at by understanding something about surrealism? Aren’t the rules of interpretation spelled out for us significantly by understanding the rhyme and reason of genres?

So what is it we understand about pots that helps us know what the artists are trying to do? What is the rhyme and reason of what potters are aiming at? How does the public interpret what they are looking at? If each potter is simply making it up as they go, then there is nothing for audiences to fall back on to help them understand what’s going on. Maybe small pieces. “Oh, that’s a handle! Now I get it!” “Ooh! The pretty painted flowers!” “I’ll be damned if that’s not a cylinder.” “If I can’t put my ice cream in it I have no idea what its for.”……..

With a lack of genre understanding, have potters simply passed the buck too easily? Its hard to imagine that ignorance benefits the potters. Is there possibly some other interest that is benefited by Pottery’s lack of genre awareness?

I’ll leave you with those thoughts until next time…..

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching, Wittgenstein | Leave a comment

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 | 2 Comments

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

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