Emotionally sustainable ceramics

“Emotional sustainability, as I define it, is the ability of an object to maintain perpetual relevance through how we understand the meaning of the object. In short, how we treat an object is dependent on how we feel about or understand an object.

For example: my mother is a “sentimental” person – and will keep old gloves from her great-grandmother that are practically falling apart because of her emotional attachment to them.

(….)

In an increasingly capitalistic consumer culture, many decisions are made about where the materials for products come from, how the products are manufactured, and what expenditures will be made on behalf of the consumer versus the environmental costs of production. Oftentimes these considerations in addition to aesthetic characteristics add to the “emotional value” of an object. It is a well-known concept to potters who may have explained to a consumer why their product is priced higher than a ceramic mug from Wal-Mart.  This clip from Portlandia is maybe a stretch – but it stems from something so true about what people value! What many ceramicists have to their advantage is the uniqueness afforded by hand-making their wares and spending time on design. From a standpoint of economics, emotional sustainability is something an artist can provide to consumers. And, if a consumer has a sentimental attachment to a product, they are less likely to view the object as disposable (therefore decreasing a widespread problem of environmental efforts).”   Maret Miller, from the NCECA Green Task Force blog

The problem I see is that sentimentality attaches to the most peculiar things. Its not always a positive force in the world. For instance, there is emotional sustainability attached to guns, to hatred and prejudice, to greed, to getting the better of the competition and winning the rat race…. All these things have an emotional endurance, yet they are rarely qualities that provide for global health. The bitter truth is that what makes things work emotionally for one person can be at odds with the things that work for the larger aggregates of the community. Sentimentality can also be abused and exploited for extraneous purposes (think advertising). Its not a necessary ecological value in and of itself.

And while its true that “if a consumer has a sentimental attachment to a product, they are less likely to view the object as disposable (therefore decreasing a widespread problem of environmental efforts)”, you can also argue that disposability is just the opposite side of the problem from acquisitiveness. Sure, we keep the things we care about longer, but we also keep far more things than we actually need.

For every mug that is tossed away as disposable there are plenty sitting unused in cupboards and on shelves. I’m sure I personally have something like 200 handmade mugs in my kitchen collection, but I can only use 3 or 4 each day. And that only turns out to be the same 3 or 4 each and every day, with few exceptions. If the world suddenly had those 196 unused mugs fewer in it I would still have an adequate sentimental use of those 4 remaining mugs….. Do I really NEED those other ones? How can I argue my gluttony? Sentimentality drives me to find more and more mugs I like but will never fully use……

So, while sentimentality will keep things out of dumpsters and landfills, it also encourages us to hoard far more than we typically need. Its a double edged sword. And professional potters unfortunately need the paltry niche of ceramics collectors to buy far more pots that they can ever use or contemplate on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there is very little ‘green’ about an industry that only thrives in production and the potential for unused display and storage of new articles…. These items are not ‘needed’ only because they are ‘used’. Can we reconcile the glut of ceramics production? Is this part of the problem, or is it worthy of a kinder explanation?

My own response would be that sentimentality is just one potential face of the qualitative value added by making the world more full of handmade ceramic vessels. My stance has to be that I am helping to make the world better in a qualitative rather than a quantitative way. And my hope is that my work results in the world being a more livable place, that it is the intimate beauty of my wares that helps make this difference. They help create a human cultural environment. Something inherently qualitative. And unfortunately this is usually only calibrated to a local influence, person by person. When looked at globally the impact is far less enthusiastic…..

So, if ceramic manufacture unavoidably leaves a negative environmental footprint (in producing things that are ‘non-necessary’ in peoples lives), perhaps we can’t argue the sustainability card? Not in a global sense, at least, or ‘environmentally’. Maybe we just have to accept those compromises to make the individual lives of our customers more decently enjoyable? Perhaps the quiet beauty of the handmade is enough…..

How could we argue any differently? Every creator in adding new things to the world decides what the world will become. Artists remake the world according to their vision. This is not always an environmental pursuit, at least not globally. Rather, art acts in the human dimension. Art makes the HUMAN world a better place. It changes how people think and what they do. It changes how they live. These are not small things. They reside on the same plane as ‘love and ‘kindness’ and the sensitivity to our surroundings.

So, rather than arguments based purely on the environment or on individual human emotions, perhaps we should be making the case more in cultural terms. And also the deeper biological need for beauty in the world. If ceramics and other art can do that, isn’t it possibly worth the cost in nonrenewable resources? Quality of life simply comes at a price. We can admit that, right? Life itself takes its toll on the world around it. The best we can sometimes do is to not make our overall impact egregious.

Sometimes the trade-off in cultural gains is off set by things like pollution and nonrenewable waste. But knowing the cost, perhaps we can do a better job at striking a balance, and perhaps we can make sure that our positive contributions are more culturally sustainable. That the world IS changed in a positive way by our efforts. And the wonderful thing is that quite often an artist’s job is to teach the world about beauty, what other things count as ‘beautiful’ or intriguing. And its quite amazing that things that I don”t like are inevitably cherished by someone else. The human qualitative world is marked by its diversity and inclusiveness. The human creation of beauty is rarely a problem for artists. Maybe we’ve got that part of ‘sustainability’ well covered, at least……

Something to think about!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!

Happy potting!

.

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.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Emotionally sustainable ceramics

  1. Jane Sarre says:

    I think of it in terms of how hand made work meets the emotional as well as practical needs of the person taking them home – for identification, connection, uniqueness, beauty, tactility etc, and the way the choice of a particular piece reinforces and supports their personal values.

    • That’s definitely part of it. All of those things are good and worthy. The issue I was attempting to highlight is that personal emotional significance is not the only or even the best card we should play. It ends up appealing entirely to the personal and subjective state of individuals. Which can change quite easily. If no one cared this way for pots, would we be forced to say that pots were unimportant or had nothing to offer? Are they only important in so far as they are appreciated? Those are tough questions to answer if we just focus on the emotional connections made by pots…..

      Not to mention the points I actually spelled out in the post. If our highest value is simply what people like, and without proper experience, exposure, opportunity, and education they quite often have seriously stunted expectations and standards, what then? Are there wider consequences for this way of looking at things? Do we end up only aiming for appeal? As artists? Or is it our duty to also challenge our audience?

      You see, it gets tricky once you start to dig a bit deeper.

  2. I rewrote my response to the original blog post and entered it as a comment on the NCECA blog. This is the cleaned up version I probably should have published here:

    While its true that “if a consumer has a sentimental attachment to a product, they are less likely to view the object as disposable (therefore decreasing a widespread problem of environmental efforts)”, you can also argue that disposability is just the opposite side of the problem from acquisitiveness. Sure, we keep the things we care about longer, but we also keep far more things than we actually need.

    For every mug that is tossed away as disposable there are plenty sitting unused in cupboards and on shelves. I’m sure I personally have something like 200 handmade mugs in my kitchen collection, but I can only use 3 or 4 each day. And that only turns out to be the same 3 or 4 each and every day, with few exceptions. Do I really NEED those other ones? How can I justify my gluttony? Sentimentality drives me to find more and more mugs I like but will never fully use……

    So, while sentimentality will keep things out of dumpsters and landfills, it also encourages us to hoard far more than we typically need. Its not always a positive force in the world. Its a double edged sword at the very least.

    Another problem I also see is that sentimentality attaches to the most peculiar things. For instance, there is emotional sustainability attached to guns, to hatred and prejudice, to greed, to getting the better of the competition and winning the rat race…. All these things have an emotional endurance, yet they are rarely qualities that provide for global health. The bitter truth is that what makes things work emotionally for one person can be at odds with the things that work for the larger aggregates of the community. Sentimentality can also be abused and exploited for extraneous purposes (think advertising).

    Sentimentality as a generic measure of value just seems questionable. Its not a necessary ecological value in and of itself. As a human motive it has both its good and bad points. And by reflecting the range of possible human attachments it also bears scrutiny. We are far too sentimental about harmful and divisive things. If sentimentality has advantages those are perhaps entirely due to the things we are sentimental about, but also to how we use this to move forward in the world. The objects themselves need independent value, and the human culture surrounding them needs to have merit for its own or other reasons. The fact of sentimentality tells us nothing about the ‘good’ of the things it is attached to…..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s