Do beginning potters really have ‘killer taste’?

There has been this quote making the rounds of the Internet that I had heard in an interview sometime earlier this year or last. And while I agreed with and even applauded a lot of what it has to say, something about it struck me as untrue, maybe even misguided. So when it popped up again this past week I decided to put my thoughts in order and see how it fit my vision as a working potter and instructor of beginning and intermediate potters. The quote is this:

Can’t argue with the advice to work hard and not lose sight of the fact that improving takes time. What I have qualms about is the idea that ‘taste’ is anything like a motivator for beginners or that ‘killer taste’ is already there in beginners.

The way I see it almost no one gets into pottery because they have good taste. The truth actually seems to be that most people can’t appreciate subtlety in visual things in general, but in terms of understanding pottery there is a huge gap in appreciating what counts as quality. The gap isn’t between our taste and what we can do about it, but in actually having the taste to see quality. Most people see the surface and only the rare viewer will know much about issues of form, balance, proportion, and weight, let alone function. To have good, much less killer taste in pottery seems to require at least some sophistication in these matters. Beginners just aren’t there yet.

So the truth is more likely that beginners simply don’t have the education to have good taste. Beginning potters may have seen pots and lived with pots throughout their lives, but this is not necessarily a guarantee of taste. Exposure is important, but learning to put those details in perspective is another issue. And actually doing creative work is a whole different education. So in most cases, in order to have any sophistication about pots, we need to outgrow the limited perspective of the taste we started with. We will need to overcome the limitations of our taste. We will need to kill it and aim for better, not just use the old stand by as our guide.

And if you remember your own early introduction to pottery, or remember teaching a beginner at some point, it will be fairly obvious just how lacking in taste beginners are. A beginner is often satisfied with simply getting a pot off the wheel. Taste has nothing to do with it. Having good or killer taste is beside the point. What the lump of clay looks like is hardly ever a concern at that stage. And that’s a good thing for beginners to not be burdened with unachievable expectations. To stay interested almost means that they can’t have good taste at this stage. They can’t know how bad their pots really are.

The point I’m making is that we don’t start out reaching for the stars. Because beginners have so little understanding of sophistication it is hardly ever taste that leads them forward. In fact, most beginners are not really committed to learning the skills in any long term sense. And this lack of serious commitment just means that taste is often a non issue for beginners and even serious hobbyists. They are more interested in making a new planter for their favorite plant, a mug for their father, a bowl for their sister, and quality is this nebulous opaque issue that counts far less than these more immediate concerns: Doing something they enjoy doing.

A student of mine just handed me this quote by Salvador Dali: “There are some days when I think I could die from an overdose of satisfaction.” I will leave it to you to interpret what he’s talking about, but the point I would like to set out is that making art in a mature sense almost always means that the artist is working from a dissatisfaction with things. To be alive as an artist requires a struggle to give birth to our imagination. Its not simply an acceptance of the status quo. The artist is driven to add something new, to make the world different than it just was. But this quality is perhaps the exception. Ordinarily it seems that people are content with satisfaction. Ordinarily we make do with what we’ve got. We are complacent. And unless the beginner is driven to this need to improve, the taste that satisfies them will be the stuff in easy reach of their abilities. They may simply not know any better.

And so, rather than being this driving force behind what we do, our taste requires every bit as much education as our hands do. Our standards evolve as our understanding grows. We need to learn what counts as quality. We need to train ourselves to see the differences in details. We need to educate our eyes. And we need to train ourselves to make the value judgments that this is good, this is better, and that this is simply not good enough. And most of all we need to care. That is what counts as having good taste. And we don’t start out with much of that in our background. Its certainly not a high priority.

And the truth here is that beginners have a hard time distinguishing exactly what things count as significant details. If the details are a visual language, beginners often don’t understand enough to see which happy accidents are interesting and which are not. They don’t yet see it as a language. It takes training to spot that these marks and contours even are details in most cases. The proportion of the rim to the foot (for example) simply isn’t something beginners even know to look at. How much else simply slides by unnoticed? Witnessed but not observed? Seen but not understood? So my point is that beginners simply can’t have much in the way of taste.

And once they have been trained to see things in new ways and understand them, to determine what actually matters as an effect, its a whole other education to get them to contemplate which of those effects carry the work forward and which of those lessen the impact. They need to confront making value judgments. Killer taste means knowing enough to discriminate between what is good and what is better. And its not as if we are born with this sophistication. ‘Good taste’ isn’t simply this already fulfilled capacity we have at the start.

When it comes to pottery, in fact, most people have horrendous taste. Exposure to quality handmade pots isn’t something we should take for granted. Even if folks have seen handmade pottery most simply have not been trained to look at pots with an understanding eye. There is usually very little appreciation of nuance. What is most obvious are bright colors and flashy decoration, and this accounts for the majority of taste in beginners. Unless a person has been trained to appreciate things like form and proportion, balance and surface details, and larger issues of function, in short all matters of subtlety and sophistication, how can we expect them to have sophisticated tastes? How can they have ambitions that actually aspire to good taste? How can they know the difference between good pots and bad?

So my last point is that having artistic ambitions is also something that can’t be taken for granted. Not only do we need to train beginners to see things with sophistication, not only do we need to train them to appreciate the significance of those details, but they need to develop the desire to improve what they are doing. Its not enough to simply know what makes a pot better, you have to also be willing to accept the challenge of striving for improvement. You have to be willing to make it different. If you are an evolving artist its not just a matter of having good taste that drives you forward but a dissatisfaction with the way things stand. How often do we see beginners and even mature artists settle for what they’ve got and not actually challenge themselves to make changes or improvements? How often do we accept this in ourselves?

This is the video the Ira Glass quote was lifted from. There are 4 parts and I like most of what he has to say, especially in #2. Follow the links to youtube if you are interested.

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So, I sometimes ask myself if my taste is all it can be. Do I need to look at things differently, to appreciate value in new and obscure sources, or is my taste already killer as it stands? Usually I answer this by experimenting and discovering new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing things, and I have to drag my taste kicking and screaming as I move forward. And isn’t it true that sometimes things that pleased us in the past no longer do so now? I hate to even sound like I am disagreeing with the great Ira Glass, but do beginners really have ‘killer taste’? Should they be congratulated on their ‘killer taste’ necessarily? And are we so sure of ourselves right now, as mature creative artists? Will our future selves be so charitable?

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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15 Responses to Do beginning potters really have ‘killer taste’?

  1. Yes, some of us do have killer taste. No, not everyone does. But definitely some of us do. I believe it’s called vision. Being able to see beyond what we can yet do. I am grateful Ira Glass addressed this segment in this way, because (especially within the system of higher learning) there is a pervasive elitist attitude that you can’t arrive until you’re there. And everywhere there seems to be a lot of disdain for the process, the journey.

    Some of us have that vision from the beginning and work long and hard to get there, but it is there and evident from the beginning, that spark. There are too many people in the world who will recognize it but diminish it, and seek to destroy it, without encouraging the artist to give it life, to breathe upon it, to refine it.

    I love a good, thorough critique, a mentor who is sharp edged and experienced, but too often the blade of criticism is a death blow to young artists with vision. It is generous and encouraging that the great Ira Glass should recognize that there are exceptional artists within some of us, and that he should ask us to work toward the vision.

    He wasn’t talking to everyone, but I’m glad he said it, and glad it went around enough to get to me. It reverberated within me at a time when I’m struggling to get out there: no, not fully formed, but transforming. I can only grasp the leaves of the trees, the low hanging fruit, even as I reach for the stars. I need all the encouragement I can get right now.

    Good to have you back!

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    First! First, I say!

  3. tracey says:

    I have to respectfully disagree with you a little bit. First of all, I really like this statement by Ira Glass, I sent it to my daughter yesterday. When I was a beginner potter, I had been an interior designer for 20 years, I was well educated in “taste” and had plenty of it, still do. You have to remember not all beginners are young/college kids:) however, I had “good taste” when I was four years old. My dad did upholstery work for interior designers, and I can still remember loving the oriental rugs, the silk fabrics, the amazing art. My mom took me to art openings, antique shows, and performances at the theater, because I loved anything that was valuable and/or beautiful. I guess taste can be learned, but I think I was born with it. And I know without a doubt that, as Ira says, my taste is what makes me disappointed in my work and why I keep trying to make it better. If beginner artists have the passion and the talent for their art, I don’t think they need to be “trained” to have taste, isn’t taste subjective anyway? I like Budweiser beer and I like to ride in pick up trucks, but I also love the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta and I would love to one day own a porche(not going to happen, but still….)
    Who is to say what “taste” really is? It’s different for every person. Your sophistication might not be mine…..
    HOWEVER, that isn’t even the thing that I like about this quote, what I really liked about it was the point that you gotta do the work. If you put in the time, the work gets better and better. I think that is the real point of what he is saying. Too many people today want instant gratification, and someone should have told them to do the work first!

  4. Judy Shreve says:

    Carter – another thought provoking post. But I don’t think it has anything to do with taste. I think Ira Glass is just telling us if we don’t have the technical skills to make what we envision in our mind’s eye – to not give up. It takes time to learn our materials – and from that learning we are able to make what we ‘see.’ I don’t believe it has anything to do with whether it’s liked by the masses or not.
    I think he’s referring to ‘taste’ as the ‘thing’ that made us want to work with the materials — be it clay or whatever. It’s that ‘thing’ that drew us to the materials — because we must admire that kind of work — but it takes a while before we can make anything resembling what drew us in — that’s what we have to push through.

  5. I really like the quote, but thought “taste” was an odd choice of word for what I thought Ira was saying which I think Judy summed up well (in my opinion). I can’t say I envisioned anything near fully formed as a beginner, but had the intuition to know what I was making wasn’t ever IT and it would be a long road ahead getting to whatever it was. Still working on it after 25 years and every so often catch a fleeting glimpse.
    (good post)

  6. john bauman says:

    These rants are today’s poetry. Okay, we still have poetry too. But I don’t think these rants are meant to be exact with their language. They’re broad. They’re general. They’re akin to preaching, not to teaching. In anticipation of having such a rant exegeted, there’s always an implied “You know what I meant” attached.

    This Glass rant goes hand in hand with the viral video making the rounds earlier this year (and narrated by a Glass sound-alike, Yilmaz, who at least, unlike Glass, is capable of keeping, like, his, like, use of, like, like to a minimum) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqZAxLqJkzA

    The two rants are about getting off the dime. And the specific dime they’re trying to shove folks off (or, if you’re from Indiana like me — “shove folks off OF”) is the dime of too high expectations. In Glass’ case (hey,,,,I have a glasses case. It’s what I keep my glasses in), “killer taste”. In Yilmaz’, “Great works of art”.

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  8. Since I’m still bothered by this bit of advice and it still keeps cropping up in other people’s shares, I thought I’d just go ahead and archive some of my responses to friends who post about it:

    “As someone who teaches I could never understand why this “tidbit of inspiration” has gotten so much attention. I’m not sure I know many beginners who start out with good taste. In fact, it takes so much experience on their part to eventually see the difference between good and bad that the idea of the “closing the gap” to their taste is ludicrous.

    Rather than congratulating beginners on their excellent taste it seems more important to help them evolve in the directions of ‘better taste’. If we even admit that our tastes evolve this quote doesn’t make much sense (Do 3 year olds have the same taste as mature adults?). All that hard work that Ira is advocating is as much directed at improving our standards of judgment as anything else, it seems.

    In my book THIS is the better life lesson, that we need to educate our sensibilities as much as anything. To do less only puts us in the position of self satisfaction and inhibits curiosity. If we already know enough about good taste our minds are that much more closed to the mysteries of possibility. If beginners’ eyes are already good enough to catch all the sophistication and nuance of taste, then the only thing we are doing is training their hands, and this just doesn’t seem right.

    Beginners mostly have a hard time understanding what they are looking at. Why on earth would we congratulate them on their taste? (Sorry I went off on this, but I really have some issues with this bit of ‘advice’…..)”

  9. Scott Cooper says:

    I think the Killer Taste argument probably applies better to some mediums than others. For example, in most popular media forms — music, movies, radio/podcasts, etc — a beginning creator is already a seasoned consumer; they can have zero idea about how to make, but a very refined idea of what they want to make. Listening to 15 years of pop music can easily make someone decide to learn to play guitar. They still can’t strum a power chord, but they know a good progression when they hear it.

    But in the case of handmade pots, (perhaps this is blatantly obvious) most of the beginners in the US have almost no experience with them at all. At best, there were a few in their home growing up that their parents bought at a fair. Or maybe a distant relative took a class in college.

    So I think in our (your) case, the beginners have dead taste, not killer taste, and everything else you say follows from that problem. You’ve got to teach them up on aesthetics, taste, preference at the same time as teaching the mechanical skills and technical knowledge to even begin approaching them in the clay. And that’s a good part of why teaching pottery is so hard. Right?

    If I had a dollar for every beginning student whose idealized sense of a vase was that classic, dull Victorian, psuedo-Greek profile… well, I’d have at least 40 bucks. To say nothing of their idea of a good mug.

    • Oh so true!

      We are expert consumers, so all that familiarity in those other media puts us in a position of something waaaay beyond simple beginnership. (Still doesn’t mean that mere consuming is a gateway to taste, though) So you are right, in those cases what we call a ‘beginner’ is already a well schooled consumer and seasoned critic. And since its so obviously different for potters I just wonder why so many clay people repost this tidbit of ‘advice’….. I guess we all need a boost of confidence at times, but calling beginner potter’s taste ‘killer’ is such fantasy that it can’t actually be helping matters. In fact it seems that self satisfaction is one of the reasons so many early potters end up deciding their work is already good enough and no longer push themselves to get better. Ira can’t be talking about these folks, surely. Their having ‘closed the gap’ is more tragedy than triumph, unfortunately….

      What I would have said (if anyone was asking me) is that our taste presents us with an opportunity to aim. But what is really important (MORE important) is that our dissatisfaction motivates us to improve. Dissatisfaction doesn’t have to mean a calibration or a measurement. What it really is is a way of looking at the world, not accepting rather than agreeing to. And its this that we need to be cultivating. Rather than closing a finite gap, the gap should be moving forward at the same relative pace as our own progress. Closing the gap just means we are finished growing. Looking at it Ira’s way we just get an excuse to settle. Its a carrot that (if we believe it enough) will shortly be within our grasp. He gives us a stopping point that we can all identify by looking internally at this thing called taste and painting a target on it.

      The illusion of Ira’s advice is that it disguises just how flexible the target really is. If we only imagine that we can close the gap then we can also trick ourselves to thinking we are already there. Its an attitude about what things we believe ourselves capable of. We can surreptitiously repaint the target somewhat closer to home and be done with challenging ourselves. We can do this at any time. And we can do this so easily because the difference is between conditions of self satisfaction and restlessness. Its about our attitude and inclination to do more or to have already done enough. Its not based on some ultimate standard of ‘killer taste’. Its always something internal. If we only aim at self satisfaction, don’t you think we will always eventually get there?

      • I’m just adding rephrasings of my critique, just to inventory haw many times and how many different ways I am called on to offer it up:

        “I think that rather than beginners starting out with ‘killer taste’ and our needing to ‘close the gap’ beginners especially have no clue what counts as good taste, and our taste evolves as our own skills and experience do. Beginners rarely aspire to decent work simply because they don’t know any better. If we all ended up precisely where we had aspired to as beginners just how interesting would the pottery being made today actually be? Rather than ‘closing the gap’ I think we should strive to overcome our naive innocence, and struggle for even better taste. We don’t need to congratulate ourselves on starting out with ‘killer taste’….. Thankfully the internal critic for many of us continues to get better at its job, becomes more exacting, takes on higher standards, and learns more about possibilities. I really hate this quote, not because it asks us to work hard at getting better, but because it undermines the idea that we also need to learn what things count as standards of quality and that this target is continuously evolving (we should hope!) every bit as much as our own skills in achieving them do.”

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