Repost: The bitter truth about professional standards in pottery (and art)

(From April of last year)

“Talk about equality gets off on the wrong foot if we start from the assumption that it expresses an immediate moral demand to treat everyone the same. Of course, there are thousands of legitimate reasons why people may treat different individuals differently. What egalitarianism objects to are social hierarchies that unjustly put different people into superior and inferior positions.” Elizabeth Anderson, NY Times, “What’s wrong with inequality?

So, Tony Clennell opened a can of worms the other day, and its a can I am well versed with opening myself. On facebook, at least, Tony whips up controversy like few potters I know. He’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind and stand by his opinion. And I really do understand where he’s coming from. I have the same sort of academic training, the same ambitions as a teacher, the same high opinion of craftsmanship, many of the same aesthetic preferences, and generally think his pots are among the tops out there. How could I not agree with him on some level?

What Tony says is this:

“I make no apologies for my opinion about making pots in meat trays for sale. I think it is great to introduce students to clay by means of meat trays, dollies and embossed wall paper or whatever texture available. Perfect intro for beginners. Whatever gets them hooked but then move them on.

I have also had the privilege to have taught at a school that encourages critical dialogue about ceramic art. If a student brought a pot made in a meat tray to a critique students would pay admission to see the horror on 6 faculties faces. My best students have collections of other potters work. They have libraries full to bulging with books on their profession. They can name who made what pot from 50 paces. They attend gallery openings, shows and attend workshops.  They understand and respect the profession. They have not paid 3 years tuition to be told everything they make is “sooooooo pretty.”

A few posts back I wrote what might have been had Steve Jobs been a potter. He was wise in all sorts of ways, but one thing his mind keenly perceived was that there are things which appeal to the ‘pros’ in the field/market, and different things which appeal to less well educated ‘consumers’. When Jobs was talking about computers he was not talking about the difference between a ‘good’ computer and a ‘bad’ one, simply the difference between ones that catered to limited needs and ones that had all the bells and whistles. The souped-up version. The consumer model isn’t made poorly. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with it. Only, its not what you will be looking for if you desire the ‘pro’ specs, and greater capacity, sophistication.

What we are talking about in pottery is that the ‘pro’ model, the souped up version, is simply one that has greater aesthetic capacity. THAT’S the difference. If a bowl carries food, a cup transports liquid, then it was made with all the competence needed to qualify as a legitimate sellable product. And consumers are justified in choosing them. The pared down version that Tony talked about, slab molded meat tray platters, are not lesser versions, if what we are really talking about is a functional pot. Like the ‘consumer’ computer that Apple began making, it does the job, serves the purpose, and fulfills the need that exists for such a product. And it simply does it in such a modest way that it might never appeal to the ‘pros’. On the merits of function alone, a slab built plate has what it takes. So what exactly sticks in the craw of pros like Tony?

Maybe the concern is that this sets the bar incredibly low. Its the perception of catering to mediocrity. Two week beginners can plunk down a lump of clay, roughly center it, stick their thumb somewhere near the middle, dig down, hollow it out, squeeze the walls approximately vertical, and end up with a form that once fired will hold liquid and occasionally not cut the lips of the person doing the drinking.

The question is, why should we expect more? Why are even walls and consistency better than uneven and inconsistent walls? Why is a purely functional simple shape with no aesthetic nuance a downgrade over the same functional form but with nuance? In other words, what is the point of sophistication?

When Tony says that his students look at other potters’ work, can name many contemporary artists, and even collect some of their work, he is explaining the path one takes toward sophistication, toward reaping the benefits of a wider exposure, improved craftsmanship, nurturing aesthetic quality, and moving beyond the limited standards of the ‘consumer’. This is exactly the path I hope that every student of mine will take. Its what I want for them, and its what I want them to want for themselves.

But how do we make that case? How do you praise sophistication without at the same time pooh-poohing the lack there of? How do we advocate for sophistication (our brand of it) without coming off as a fascist pig? When does belief turn from conviction to arrogance?

Pretend we were eating a meal, say a plate of spaghetti. Say we were digging in and enjoying the meal when the waiter shows up and offers some fresh ground pepper and some grated Parmesan. We decide to take a chance and add a bit of each. Now its possible that some people won’t notice the difference. Perhaps their sense of taste is limited in some way. Or obstructed. And its possible that some other folks will think “That’s too much pepper!” or “That cheese tastes weird!” and conclude that they made a mistake going for the extra. But there are also folks who get the cheese and pepper and decide that the meal now tastes that much better. Voila!

And it is this difference that we are counting on when we try to show students what we find interesting about the world. Instructors have the job of taking students who like what they like, often with good and justifiable reasons, and showing them more, of showing them the wider world. If an artist is like the chef preparing the meal, the instructor is the waiter serving it up, explaining the daily special, and describing what ingredients the sauce is made with. “Here, try some more pepper.”


So its not that our lightly seasoned bowls of pasta are deficient in some way and its not that beginner pots have failed. Its simply that they are not on the same page with other versions, as it were. When you get folks to see what a meal tastes like with just the right amount of pepper and some cheese, you are getting them to see the world differently, to no longer be satisfied with what they formerly thought of as ‘good enough’ and even ‘perfectly alright’. This dissatisfaction is what widens the gap between ‘pros’ and ‘consumers’, professionals and beginners.

Think about that for a second.

Its simply hard to say that dissatisfaction is the ‘right’ or only way to approach things. There was nothing ‘wrong’ with that plate of pasta before we learned that more pepper and some cheese made this difference. Our preferences have changed, but history did not change with it. Rather, what has really changed is the person doing the judging, the preferring being. We are now in a position to see the details differently. Its only from where we now are standing that our old opinions look the worse….

If you are in school or are actively encouraging your own growth its hard not to see that change as ‘progress’. We often think it means that having given up more limited tastes for more sophisticated ones we are making forward motion in a continuum of quality, replacing poorer for better. That’s the privilege of our own self confidence. But I’d hesitate to make it an objective claim, in all cases. And its not that we can’t agree that, yes, there is such a thing as improving. It only means that we can and do agree what it means and looks like to be “improving”.

It can happen in several ways: We have the same or approximately similar values; The standards we appeal to are roughly in the same place with the same messages which we interpret similarly. And when other like minded individuals cast their vote alongside us itsbecause we agree that things look to be so confirmed. This simply happens often enough that its not hard to imagine having successfully appealed to some objective authority.

But beware the seduction! The truth is that many folks have trained the same way for many years; studying the same examples; guided by the same influences, backgrounds, and experiences; agreeing to the same standards; appealing to the same ideals; and have simply come to look at this progress as a natural sort of evolution. Because for so many of us “A leads to B leads to C”, and so forth, convention and tradition seem to fully describe the arc of reality.

So things like progress can seem fairly self evident if you know what to look for. Every professional was once a beginner, and that genesis seems to contain the seeds of its fulfillment. How could a professional not believe that she had made progress from her formative roots? We have learned to be ‘better’, and this is what defines us. Its the idea that quality itself is necessarily hierarchical, and that it is THIS which we are teaching our students. “To be a professional with professional standards means exactly this”, we say. And its simply better than that which ‘fails’ to live up to those qualities, or so the argument goes.

But if you notice, something was lost in the shuffle. The magician waved his hand, and while we were gawking at the trombone he just pulled from his nostrils, the real switch happened, the thing we missed.

The flip side of shying away from arrogance is not wanting to champion mediocrity. The difficulty is attempting to do both at once, avoiding the two perilous extremes, arrogant elitism and indifferent relativity, to find the equilibrium at the center. But why is this such a hard task for the arts?

We like to imagine that a professional potter or other artist is something like a professional engineer or dentist. To build a bridge over a wide river you should get someone with the right qualifications. And to do root canal work on one of your molars you find someone with a diploma and an office with a reclining chair and one of those suction tubes. THEREFOR, we like to say that when buying pottery folks should get work from only ‘the professionals’, the ones who have demonstrated their qualifications, jumped through the right hoops, have the right sort of implements and accessories in their studios, don’t use blue glazes, etc…. This is the picture we have for what ‘being professional’ and therefor ‘professional quality’ is supposed to mean.

Where the comparison breaks down is that, in point of fact, those beginners crudely pushing lumps of clay DO make serviceable cups and bowls and plates and spoon rests and vases and toothbrush holders and loose change receptacles and bongs and flower pots and pencil holders and ashtrays and gravy boats and pitchers and sake bottles and yarn bowls and oil lamps and so on and so forth. There’s no sense in which beginners get them wrongin the way that beginning dentists would get dentistry wrong or novice engineers get bridge designs wrong. For other disciplines there may be more than a single way of doing something ‘right’, but in clay and most art you’d be hard pressed to say even beginners were doing it ‘wrong’. “Well… it looks like a bowl:) Maybe you can eat cereal out of it!”

What I’m suggesting, and what I’ve suggested many times before, is that ‘getting it right’ is a sometimes specific move in a specific game, and often we give professional potters too much credit for the ‘right way of doing things’. Quality turns out to be much more eclectic than that, in the arts at least.

Here’s what I mean: Mistakes in well defined games are easily identifiable because the rules draw them up for us and our agreement is implicit in the way we play. But take pottery, or any art really. What is the ‘right way of making a bowl? If it holds food is that enough? Isn’t the aesthetic and overall craftworthiness to a large extent subjective? When I say “That handle sucks!” what standard am I addressing? What if the point of the pot wasn’t even anything related to the handle, but maybe how well it was decorated with pretty flowers and stars? How thick are the walls supposed to be? Is a trade-off in clunkiness actually a functional advantage in insulation? Who is in the right position to determine that?

These different perspectives show how fractured our ideals are rather than our unanimity or objectivity. And that seems like an important truth.

As Ashley Morrow commented on Tony’s blog, “I have seen customers line up mugs and place a ruler on top. If any are too short or too tall by a fraction of an inch, they will not buy them. Then there are the ones that come armed with paint chips and fabric swatches. So long as the glaze matches their sofa, they will buy it.” Who’s to say they are not entitled to those requirements? And who’s to say the potter giving them precisely that is wrong to do so? Steve Jobs knew it, and maybe he’s not so alone anymore in recognizing ‘consumer’ needs.

My own personal pet peeve is handles made as an afterthought and with no real attention to detail, no sophistication. I also turn my nose up at forms that are merely a surface for decoration to exist on. I prefer handles that show some nuance and forms that are interesting enough to stand on their own. I like the marks of process (mostly) and details that show the maker was thinking. I am bored by pots so subtle as to be simple or so simple as to be bland. I’m less drawn to garishness than austerity and I’m more a fan of angular lines than bulbous shapes.

Is that the ‘right’ way to make pots? Obviously not! And it turns out not even for me all of the time. I see my chauvinism and I challenge it regularly. Its my job to do so, both as an artist and a teacher. The world is too full of exciting diversity not to have eclectic tastes and motivations.

The key, as I see it, is not to be such fascists about our preferences, calling work we disagree with ‘bad’ or having ‘made mistakes’. Its more like we are playing different gamesfrom one another, and even though all bowls may look bowlishly alike, the truth is they are not all aiming at the same things, even as far as specific function goes, much less aesthetically or craftsmanly. A person playing Go Fish isn’t doing it wrong by not declaring trump or what the wild cards are. Just because beginning potters look like they are playing a remedial game we should not expect that they are playing the wrong game or an inferior one.

(The magician slows down so you can see all the movement, the trumpet springing from his nose and what the other hand is actually doing)

What they are doing only LOOKS like the game that professionals play. But how naive would we have to be to expect that beginners necessarily have the same standards as professionals? Just because you are playing cards doesn’t mean you are playing bridge. And not playing bridge doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong….. People starting out on the wheel are only potentially standing at one end of a spectrum where, at the other end, folks who have investigated and evolved and poured themselves into the medium reside. They are not beginners in the sense that they are lesser versions of professionals, merely that professionals start here to get there.

The interesting thing is that the same person can play Bridge AND play Go Fish. Right? What would have to be the case for a professional to throw pots like a beginner? Would they have to give up their hard earned skill? Or would they simply not have to care about the sacred standards and lofty virtues they somehow swallowed on the way to becoming professional? Now THAT is an interesting question!

Maybe I’ve beat this horse for long enough now. I’m not sure its dead, but I get the impression there are folks out there who never even knew it was alive in the first place (much less a horse, it seems).

All for now!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Repost: Maximum Beauty

From March 19th of 2015:

“Often, stepping into another artists’ home is like a reassuring brush with the truth that we’re not the crazy ones; that it’s the rest of the aesthetically bankrupt world that’s got it wrong. I love that.”  – Scott Cooper reflecting on his visit to Michael Kline’s

In a recent post I examined how the things we don’t like often get that treatment as a result of our own inexperience. If ‘Try it, you’ll like it’ sometimes makes the difference then our unfamiliarity is just as often a source of suspicion and dislike. Everything from a new type of food to music we’ve never listened to before has a prejudiced hurdle it needs to climb before we can uncover what there is to like. We simply gravitate toward the things we already know (and like). That’s just human nature. And we steer clear of the things we don’t like, but often we don’t like them because we don’t trust them. We don’t yet know what they are offering, so we rush to the judgment that some test has been failed. We make the lazy leap from unknown to unloved.

It is interesting that over time we can change our opinions. Things we didn’t like can eventually become the standards of what we now do like. But what has changed? One answer is that we now know more about what that thing is and the magic of its beauty has been revealed to us. We have unlocked its potential. The closer you pay attention the more you get to see the value of what we are looking at. Its as if there were a tipping point in our exposure that transmutes the disliked into the liked. And it can seem like a magic transformation if we are observing closely. Like pulling rabbits from a hat, “Where did thatcome from?”

Which makes sense to me. I’ve always wanted to believe that if we simply knew more we would uncover the hidden beauty that surrounds us. We would learn to see the world with new eyes by peering closer and attending to the nuance. I’ve always wanted to believe that seeing beauty was a cumulative experience. That seeing these beautiful insights was a quantitative step taken with the right sort of understanding. If we but learned to see the world as containing these surprising instances of beauty our world would be forever transformed. Its like getting the keys to a car we can now drive.

But its also true that we can change in the opposite direction as well. We can now dislike what we formerly adored. But what has changed? This is not the scenario where we dislike things because we don’t yet understand them. In fact it seems that we occasionally now dislike these things because we have learned even more about them. Its as if we were wrong to love them the way we did, and only now understand the error of our ways. “What was I thinking?” We had a partial glimpse and were deceived into liking what we had no business liking. “If only we had known the truth we would have been spared the indignity of our misspent fondness.”

But doesn’t that sound strange? We can’t usually help the way we feel, and if we like something, that is often the end of the story. If we truly dislike it are we not entitled to have that feeling too? What does knowing more really have to do with it? Liking and disliking are hard facts of our emotional life, and they are true feelings regardless of the contingency of our understanding. ‘Love is blind’ and sometimes we’d rather have that love than know all the gory details. The love itself was real whether the thing loved was truly represented to us…..

But then sometimes knowing too much makes it impossible to continue loving. When I found out my Air Jordans had been made with child labor I no longer felt the same way about them. When I learned that Bill Cosby is a sexual predator he went from my favorite Philadelphian, a hero, to a zero. Some facts are simply hard to swallow without changing us, and understanding some truths is a straight jacket for our feelings. In other words, with the lens of the right facts we are inescapably seeing the world as something specific.

Take, for instance, the duck/rabbit:

duck rabbit

Or the young lady/old lady:

young lady old woman

When we see things as something specific its often true that we can only see it in that one way at a time. One way of understanding it contradicts the other: If its a rabbit its not a duck, and vice versa: if its a young woman its not an old lady, and vice versa. It can be both things but not all at once. There can be a mutual exclusivity to how we appreciate things.

And so when we see beauty we get that the world has this beauty because we see it in a particular way. But then the difference isn’t always an accumulation of insight but the particular quality of the insight itself. We don’t see the beauty by simply seeing more about these things, we see the beauty because this is how we see it. And seeing things differently isn’t just the addition or subtraction of knowledge but adopting an independent frameworkfor making our judgment. Understanding isn’t necessarily additive when the things known are incompatible or cancel one another out.

The truth is that many understood things hang together for us, and that given how much we already see through the lens of a particular kind of framework we are simply incapable of coming to see other particular things with the same kindness. Not at the same time, at least. You can’t be a member of the Sharks and also love the Jets. You can’t be a progressive Democrat and listen to Fox News….. Sometimes those things are so incompatible that bringing them together in one mind at the same time would be like joining matter to anti-matter: We would annihilate ourselves in the collision.

But I have higher hopes for beauty. Perhaps we don’t need to hold inconsistent and contradictory things in our minds at the same time, but can see the value of each on its own in its own time. F Scott Fitzgerald said “An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional” but maybe its not necessary for everyone to have this particular creative capacity. Maybe we can just be inconsistent serially? Aren’t we that way already? Its like we were an instrument. You can’t play more than one tune at a time, but you can lay down some Led Zeppelin before heading off to a Bach Cantata. It depends on how the instrument is tuned, and being tuned in a particular way gives us access to particular sorts of things we can play. But what is interesting is that we can also retune or recalibrate ourselves to see different things in different ways. Just like in the case of the duck/rabbit.

So what I’d like to propose is that we take our lesson from these two images, the duck/rabbit and young lady/old woman. So what if I like Classical Music? Does that mean I can’t also learn to see the value of Hip Hop? So what if I like salty foods? Can’t I also find something to like in sweet and sour, or tart? So what if Green is the color that moves me the most? Can I not find the hidden joys of yellow and purple? So what if I really get impressionist painting? Can I not also see the potency of abstract expressionism?

Which is not to say that some things are still not worth disliking, only that we rarely cross that line without the prejudice of some other bias hanging over us. We can come to know our dislikes better. We can explore them, mull them over, roll them around on our tongue, fix them with our gaze, wrinkle our nose up and take a big whiff…. We don’t have to be so ignorant about our dislikes. And maybe just then we can also open a few doors that we thought were closed. Perhaps we will stumble into some things we had overlooked and be suddenly struck with the wonder that is now revealed. Isn’t that worth aiming for? And the truth is that the world holds many such surprises for us. Just ask anyone who sees things differently than you. Isn’t the potential for our amazement just… amazing?

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Wittgenstein | 2 Comments

Don’t hate me because I’m pretty

Brandon Phillips' pretty pot

Brandon Phillips’ pretty pot

“It’s not often that I make “pretty” pots. But I really like what this glaze does over my bright white slip.”

Isn’t it interesting that some potters avoid making pretty pots? They could if they wanted to. Quite easily, in fact. But for whatever reason they have chosen to aim at something other than pretty. And that has to be alright. Not every pot has to be pretty. They can be alarmingly beautiful without affecting ‘pretty’. The question we need to ask is whether avoiding pretty is itself a goal or the side effect of aiming differently.

If you cook and serve meals without using salt are you aiming at bland food or is the blandness a side effect of some other reason to not use salt? Are there other flavors hidden in too subtle ways for us to make easy connection with? Is what we perceive as blandness not always the lack of taste but the absence of overpowering tastes? Salt may heighten perception, but it also obscures. We can become sensorily jaded.

Salt is too easy on the palate. Pretty is too easy on the palate. The human temptation to believe ‘What You See Is All There Is‘ makes us blind to difficult nuance. Salt and pretty swirl around us and make certain things stand out, but only at the expense of subduing quieter or humbler accents.

There is nothing wrong with pretty. I am thankful for it. But it is not everything. We should not dumb things down by surrounding ourselves with only the prettiest. We miss too much if only the pretty survive. There is more to the world than pretty.

So don’t hate me because I’m pretty. Simply learn to love a wider range of things than the pretty. Educate ourselves to the strange hidden and unexpectedly perplexing beauties that also surround us. Don’t settle only for the obvious in your face qualities. Search deeper. Look wider. Wait until you understand more before casting judgment. If there is a crime pretty perpetrates its that we are urged to make quick judgments. Because its easy. It teaches us not to work hard for beauty. Pretty casts a vote for simple and easy. Its lazy.

We should be thankful of pretty because there are times to be lazy. Just not all the time. Just not now. There is too much at stake to sell ourselves to simplicity and obviousness.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about how and why people misunderstand each other. We can’t learn the way others see things unless we take the time, suspend our own judgment, and earn our impressions. Pretty is a shortcut. Sometimes shortcuts are necessary. But life is not a shortcut. We know less than we think we do, and every time we settle for what we think we understand we can be guaranteed we are not getting the whole picture. Certainly not with the things that seem most obvious to us. They are the blind spots we have. Their obviousness is blinding.

Beware the pretty, but don’t give up on it.

Things to think about, at least….

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery | 3 Comments

Score one for the teacher

Unconventional pitcher

Unconventional pitcher

“Oh Carter, looking at this I’m reminded how so grateful I am that you taught me that a shape like this is a beautiful thing (and not a fail).”

A recent student made that comment seeing this pitcher posted on fb. I’ll take it as a testament to how good a job I’ve done to help at least some of my students to see the broader range of beauty. If there is one thing I hope I can leave my students with it won’t necessarily be the potting skills and techniques of their hands in clay, but the conceptual evolution of how they are able to see the world. If I can help them see the possibility of beauty in unexpected places, for them to not simply accept that beauty looks this one way and nothing else, then I will imagine I’ve done a good job.

The truth is probably that my student would previously have looked at that pitcher and found it ugly. A ‘fail’. At best it would have merely been uninspiring. As many of our pots seem to be when countless members of the audience walk by our booths with their noses in the air. The failure, if there is a failure, is not in the form itself but in the audience’s ability to make sense of it. The fail is not the property of blame apportioned to the pitcher but to the audience.

Its like saying that a person speaking poetry and philosophy in Latin is a fail because the audience has no clue what the words mean. Not everything expressed has to communicate, because the language it is cast in may not live in each member of a potential audience. And it is okay to use languages that others don’t yet understand. The value you are expressing is not simply a side effect of how well it has been understood. You can say important things, and NOT be understood. And you don’t need permission to do so…..

In the end, if there is a failure surrounding artists and the arts its that we have less curiosity than we should. The failure is perhaps that we are too confident of our own choices and do not admit the equal standing of others’ conflicting choices. Trying to see what those choices were, trying to understand how they come to have the value they do for others, is the exact flip side of our own position in the eyes of a judging audience. We should have the humility to admit that while we may not have made the same choices, often they were done for good reasons. Just not our reasons. We might not ‘get’ those reasons until we can adequately put ourselves in their shoes. And we will never do that unless we are open minded enough to see the world beyond the security of our own convictions.

Convictions belong to convicts, and convicts live behind bars. While it may be safe inside these cages, the question remains whether there is more to life than playing it safe. Not every conviction we hold is justified, and not every justification actually matters. Find the beauty that is hidden by our own lack of ability. Stay curious. Exercise beyond the limits of the known. Go broad. Go deep.

Things to think on!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


Posted in Art, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching | Leave a comment

Simon Levin to critique Andrew Linderman’s mug on Monday

Hey all!

My forward thinking buddy Simon Levin will kick off a great idea this coming Monday (4/18/16 at 9pm EST) on Periscope (@woodfire). Potter Andrew Linderman has sent him a mug to critique, and Simon will conduct the examination live, with comments and questions from the viewers (since that is how Periscope works). Tune in live, or catch it in the window the video stays up on the site.


I’ve missed all but a few potters’ shares on Periscope but this one sounds like a great experiment. As Simon puts it in the video, self critique has been an invaluable part of his own evolution, and its something that the clay community isn’t always set up to do well.

Self critique is somewhat different from the critique of another person’s work, but the idea is that understanding what we are doing and why we do it is not always obvious, even to the maker. It gives us the ability to ask “Should I be doing it this way?” and expect a considered response. Questions we ask ourselves and questions others ask us can tease these things into the light and make those parts of our process less taken for granted if not occasionally more intentional.

Knowing more about what we do and why we do it frames these things as options. We don’t necessarily have to do it this way, unless that is the important thing. If its not, knowing it gives us the option to do it differently, options we may not have known we had. We should not just do what we do because we are too lazy to question it or too ignorant of possibility to see beyond the safety of our comfort zones. Laziness and ignorance are not the virtues of an artist any more than they are of any other thing a human can do with their lives…..

Its not that there is a right way of making your pots, necessarily, but that there are options. Unless you know what your options are the decisions you make can be very poorly informed. Its like you are sitting at a table in a restaurant and the waiter hands you the kids menu by mistake. If you don’t know any better you may end up ordering only from those options.

The truth is that with our art the options far exceed our wildest imagination. Keeping ourselves in the dark, simply because this is the way we do it, this is what we’ve always done, it just seems right to do it this way, its like we content ourselves to order from the least expansive menu available. Its settling for less than we can do. Its a choice based on a tiny sample size. Its a lesser version of ourselves than it could be. Its not us putting our best foot forward.

The evolving artist always (periodically, at least) questions whether there are better ways of doing it. Its a perpetual critique of means and ends. Its the dissatisfaction of a grain of sand that makes us work harder, until wisdom grows, and a pearl of unprecedented quality forms. Critique is necessary if we want to move beyond the limits of our self satisfaction.

It doesn’t have to be painful. You are not ever doing things wrong, but you may be selling yourself short. You could be doing things better, not in some objective sense, but in terms of your evolving understandings and taste (See my previous post). The purpose of critique is that you ARE evolving. We start out as primordial ooze, and after mutation after mutation dinosaurs now walk the earth, and fish swim the ocean. As time passes and things continue to change mammals inhabit the trees and plains and birds soar the skies.

Evolving doesn’t mean there is one right way to be. There are millions of possible directions things could end up, each one fascinating in its own right. The possibility is truly amazing! The point is that creativity allows things to be different. If we truly don’t want to change, then we have no business thinking about our work or caring what other people have to say. But if we are open to different possibilities we have given ourselves permission to evolve. And if that is your desire, this process of critique is what you need.

So tune in to Simon’s event, and see what questions he finds interesting!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!


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

Is the difference between beginners and experts simply a difference in quality?

It seems about time that I reposted this here…..


I’m interested in this question as a reflection of how we teach art, what we teach, and why we teach. It also seems important for artists navigating the larger world of the art industry. Its only a question for artists trying to find their place in a larger context. Its not something that would interest the hermit artist on a mountaintop, or even many beginner artists. Its not a question that children always ask when they pick up a crayon……. What does that tell us?

Imagine this scenario: You’ve spent the last 30 years honing your art practice, perfecting your skills, improving, tweaking, and refining your forms, and you enter a show where beginner level work wins all the prizes and receives all the public attention. What went wrong? Has some objective measure of value been violated? We may feel an injustice has been committed, but what is the crime?

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Posted in Art | 1 Comment

A Short And Fanciful History Of Value

I just posted this as a response in the comments to that guest post essay I published on my friend’s ArtsJournal blog:


Something to ponder:

When I was an undergrad a professor made the point that in the ancient Greek world life was taken for granted and death was not understood. They needed to explain death. Meanwhile, in the modern scientific world life is anything but taken for granted. Rather, death/non life is accepted as the natural state of the Universe and it is life itself which needs to be explained. To the ancients the world was populated with gods and miracles. That the world is alive was a given. Today we know that most of the universe is dead. Life itself is the miracle. We accept the inert foundation and admit that life itself is the exception. And it seems a much better explanation than the Greeks gave us.

But today’s world is also much more complex than things were back then. There is so much more to know, things to do, and places to be. The more we encounter the greater our need to make sense. There are still things we take for granted and others we feel the need to explain. And possibly its true that we take some of the wrong things for granted. Possibly its true we look for explanations where there are none. But this is how we interact with the world. What the world means to us is predicated on how we interact with it, what we are doing, what we believe in, and where our interests lead us.

Value is one such thing that plays a role in our lives. It is understood only so well at times. We take some things for granted that may not be wise and we question other things that require no explanation. Here is what I like to call “A Short And Fanciful History Of Value”:

Nothing is all there is. Is isn’t. The Big Bang explodes the universe into being. Matter spins out from the center. Stars coalesce, galaxies form, and bits of matter cool and become planets. On one or more planets the climate moderates to where an atmosphere forms. Waters pool in low spots on the surface. Billions upon billions upon billions of years pass, and then life forms. Something new. Quickly life spreads out and diversifies, mutating into a plurality of forms, becoming larger, and moving to new environments, adapting to different circumstances and evolving from suitability and disposition. Consciousness quickly follows, and self consciousness exerts itself among a select few. Species become social. There are now herds, schools, prides, and families. Among some few cognitive development turns to reflection. Instinct and self awareness are joined by abstraction. Social forms and non biological situations become more a matter of choice, and with it the Universe is introduced to caring. Some things now matter. Basic needs, instinctual desires, and other primitive biological functions now have to contend with reasons. The Universe welcomes value to its list of accomplishments. Beings begin caring about pragmatic things, not only what is good, but what is good for the good things. Beings invent ends and means. Culture grows up around the values that are held and the practices which manifest them. These beings continuously invent a bizarre array of things to believe in and practices to enact what they believe. The gods become known. Tribes become political. Wars are fought because different groups can’t agree what things constitute value. Populations spread and misunderstanding proliferates. The world becomes ever more complex and our values more complicated. Humans lose sight of where these values came from. The end.

When I hear that the arts do not have intrinsic value it seems what is being said is a fact about the arts. A fact like “Cats don’t have wings”. It seems to be something put forward that we should be able to check. You pick up some art, look at it, feel how heavy it is, check the density, and conclude that it lacks intrinsic value. Or perhaps when it is said that the the arts do not have intrinsic value it is meant as a logical impossibility. Like saying that numbers don’t have mass. More scientists in lab coats get together, study the problem, and determine rightly that it was never capable of intrinsic value, by definition.

The history of value may tell us otherwise. Whether the arts have intrinsic value or not isn’t a fact about the arts, its a fact about us. It asks the question “Do WE value the arts intrinsically?” When you are looking for intrinsic value you do not check the status of the world, you ask people: “Do you believe the arts have intrinsic value? Do the arts have a place in your life that does not require them to be justified? Do you treat the arts as worthy in themselves? Do you believe the value of the arts needs to be explained? Are the arts something alive for you, or are they dead?” What we are looking for is a system of beliefs, a culture.

The Short And Fanciful History Of Value suggests that it is WE who bring value to the world. It is WE who make of the world something valuable. It is our actions and our beliefs that invent value for the world. Culture is the propagation and manifestation of these values. And the things valued can be anything. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, only to those people for whom it matters. Some people throughout history have worshiped or venerated the spirits of their elders. This is what they value. This is what they do. We don’t need to check the Aether for ectoplasm. We need to ask them, “Is this what you value?”

When the Universe is mute on value it is humans who need to tell the stories of why certain things matter. This is not exceptional or unusual or unexpected. If you are looking for value you ask people. You look at a culture as evidence that these things are taken seriously. It can be anything. I repeat, anything. The arts are no more preposterous than anything else. And if you believe in the arts it can seem entirely reasonable that they should require no explanations, no justifications. Doubt is misplaced if we imagine this is a factual condition of the arts themselves. When people behave as if the arts mattered, the arts matter. Facts may tell us the world is not always as we imagine it, but if no one behaves as if something mattered, if no one actually cares, that is the only evidence a thing has no value for us.


My original essay was a doozy, but if you have the time and inclination you can read it here:

Things to think about…..

Happy potting!

Make beauty real!



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