In Philosophy grad school I heard the story about the student taking an exam on existentialism, and the answer he put in his blue book, the essay he wrote, contained only the single word: “Why?”. The student got an “A” on the exam for his brilliance!

That’s too deep for our discussion here, right? And I’m not even sure I like that answer (though it does demonstrate the difference between showing and telling). “Why?” is a real question, after all. Instead, the reason I bring this up is that there are conflicting perceptions that art either needs to be justified or that it does not. I’m not an art historian, probably a decent enough potter, and only a middling/mediocre ‘Artist’, but here’s my take on things: There are views that a person’s art needs to answer the question of “Why?” and other views that say this is irrelevant. For instance, the fascination of modern academic art seems torn between valuing the contribution of artists on the basis of how well it embodies intellectual content and appeals to our cognitive side, the part above the shoulders, while others value the contribution of artists because they are the rule breakers who advance the field in new directions, and one of those directions is spurning a system of established values. Sometimes this can reach the level of mere contrariness for the sake of being contrary alone.

And so occasionally academic art can give the appearance of novelty for the sake of novelty, and the sense is that the only stance to take against this creative dissonance is to tether ourselves to some intellectual grounding, like the universal unconscious, sociopolitical criticism, or to an artist’s own self examination. Its as if an abject nihilism can only be avoided by creating the fable of Art’s own intellectual self importance, as if the value of Art was contained solely in its capacity for abstract erudition. And today things like beauty no longer cut the mustard.

I don’t want to discount the real merit of Art considering such questions of human existence, but it seems to have only come at the expense of casting issues of beauty in the world aside. These days you can’t always slide through Art school merely on the basis of investigating and giving birth to beauty. And that’s why potters now have such a hard time in academia. They are being quietly led to the back door where they will be unceremoniously evicted. A potter’s quest for humble and intimate beauty is simply less important than the grand ideas of…. Well, take your pick from any academic’s artist statement. It almost seems that the more opaque and indecipherable the idea the less artistically trivial it becomes. And its as if the bigger the words used to describe the Art the bigger the ideas. The fact that beauty stares us in the face, is so obvious, challenges us below the neckline rather than above it(to paraphrase Jack Troy from a Ceramics Monthly article I can’t seem to lay my hands on), and always is subject to ‘the eye of the beholder’ makes it less impressive academically than the myopic flagellations of their jaundiced solipsism.

And so, if it were up to Art departments Beauty might die a sudden death. Certainly it would wither and die from neglect. Academics these days are often too important to sully their hands with mere beauty. They are too involved in the vital task of applying their incredible creative skills (and their sometimes stunted, hide bound intellects) to the greater and most obscure questions of the world. That may seem unfair, but for art to not lay claim to beauty, we trade what we are naturally good at for something we may be less well equipped to explore. And by saying that beauty is less important than ‘critical deconstructed formal interpretive minimalist modernist seduction metaphor’, we are saying that it is someone else’s job to promote it.

We are saying that we don’t care how much beauty there is in the world, that it doesn’t really matter if there is less of it everyday. And if it is up to us artists, new beauty will find its path into the world only in the hands of amateurs, plumbers, and bank executives. Beauty is no longer the special subject matter of artists, and artists are essentially wasting their time when they explore it. Beauty is no longer the creative birthright of artists, but a lapse in judgment. Our special provenance is now a humble and embarrassing pastime better left in the hands of dilettantes, posers, anachronists, and fakers.

And so, I always seem to need to ask the question of “Why?”. I see someone’s art and I wonder why they spent so much time on it. And sometimes I “get it”, and am impressed by the new things that have been brought into the world. But at other times it goes right over my head. The world is filled with poetry, real magic, humble examples of the transcendent, and hidden treasures of the mundane. It is also filled with crass self importance, meanness, diseased ignorance, divisiveness, and shallow dogmatism. Art plays with all these qualities. And as I say, sometimes I get the “Why?” and sometimes I do not. An artist’s striving for beauty never has that complication for me. I may not like what they’ve done, I may disagree that it is beauty, but I always understand why they were moved to create.

When the answer to the question is something preposterous, inane, or entirely self-indulgent I always get queasy. I feel as if I have shaken hands with something unclean. Or disappointing. When great minds settle for petty and ridiculous expression I always feel the world has been let down. It is a crime when ability and talent are squandered in directions that waste it. Its as if Einstein decided it was more important to be the best patent clerk he could be and never spent his free moments working on Physics. Its as if Shakespeare decided that it was better to direct other people’s plays than to write them himself. As if Rembrandt painted houses instead of canvas.

Art can safely be about anything. That is one of its great attributes: Its universal applicability. But the need to disown beauty is unconscionable. And flogging disciplines like pottery out the doors of academia is a sorrowful lessening of what the world can and perhaps should be. Don’t give up on beauty. If you are an artist you are one of the special breed who have the tools to manifest your imagination. You have been trained to do things that others have mostly forgotten. You are a creator who can make new things come alive, and teach others to see the world in new ways. And while everyone has a key that unlocks their personal appreciation of the beautiful, it is really only artists who are trained to give it expression. The world deserves to be more beautiful, and we deserve to live in a more beautiful world. If you are any kind of artist, please don’t give up on beauty.

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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24 Responses to Why?

  1. ron philbeck says:

    Hey Carter. Were you up in the wee hours again? I had to look up the word solipsism.
    I was up a bit late last night and wondered over to the Ruggles and Rankin website.
    I saw true beauty in the way they lived and in the work they made when they were here in NC. Visiting them was like stepping into another world.

    I feel a bit inadequate to comment too much here. But I agree that beauty is what we should be striving for. How to define that,? I am not sure. I guess I know what it is not. And that’s a start. The word Honesty also comes to mind.

    I understand the separating the head from the body part too. I can’t work from my head. I need to work from my gut, my heart. If I work from my head the voices get in the way, I get stuck, procrastinate, judge before anything happens, and never get anywhere. My gut just acts, reacts.

    My question has always been , “So what?” I’m trying to think how that’s different from “Why”. I don’t think I know right now. I’ll try and work that out today.
    Well anyhow, sorry if this doesn’t contribute too much, but you do get me thinking, even if it’s along some other tangent.

    • Ron you are super qualified to make comment here. And I think Lee’s remarks below are the perfect illustration why independent potters somehow stand apart from the academic “rigamarole”(perfect word, Lee!). And we need our voices heard.

      I think that any activity that involves craftsmanship also makes appeal to ideas of beauty. And while beauty is visceral (hits us below the shoulders, as it were), it also requires practice and the intense honing of skills to give voice to. Academic Art gets bored with craftsmanship and beauty far too easily, I think. And while I agree with Lee that there are other good places to study it, I have not given up hope that the Ivory tower can be redeemed. It will be so sad, and a waste of such huge talent, if all those academically trained artists give up on notions of craftsmanship and beauty.

      Before I started making pots I told an artist friend of mine that I thought her work was “cute”. She informed me in no uncertain terms that calling anything an artist did “cute” was the greatest offense you could give. Of course I hadn’t meant to upset her, but I was searching for another word for “beautiful” and just landed on “cute”. This was my first experience of how opposed to the idea of beauty academic artists are. My friend couldn’t even see that what she had done was beautiful, she was in such denial.

      So potters have an advantage here. We know what we are doing is beautiful and we actively search it out. I nabbed a quotation from that Ruggles and Rankin website. It goes: “We love to make pots because we love clay and fire. The process and a craving for beauty lead to discovery. Discovery in turn drives the search.” How perfect is that!

  2. Lee Love says:

    Maybe there are better places than in university studio arts programs to focus on function and beauty. I recently became a Freemason. Their “pillars” are named Strength, Wisdom and Beauty. After finishing my apprenticeship in Japan and moving back to Minneapolis, I started thinking about how that apprenticeship experience (which have become hard to find in Japan), could be translated into a workable system for us in the West. The system the Masons use was developed during the time of the of preliterate guilds. (The “secrets” were a way to determine another craftsman’s level/skill without written documents.) It developed at a time when the printing press and the burgeoning merchant classes were giving more freedoms to the common people. It gives some clues into how apprenticeship systems worked for us at one time. Also, as Matthew Crawford points out in Shop Class as Soulcraft, the trade unions give us other clues.
    It has been slow going in these difficult economic times, getting the pottery and kilns set up, but little by little, I am putting it together. I will take on students, eventually, when I have the facilities to do so.
    Also, clay centers like NCC are another places folks can study without the intellectual rigmarole.
    What it comes down to, is that maybe we are asking a pitcher to be a teapot. What we want may come in the form of a different vessel.

    • I think you are right that there probably ARE better places than the University to study things like function and beauty, but I wish that were not necessarily the case. I think the ivory tower SHOULD care about this stuff, and the fact that it so obviously does not makes me one sad little art making person. I am encouraged that there are alternatives that flourish. My own teaching at the local community arts center is one small example. So I haven’t given up all hope!

      And I don’t think all the intellectual hoopla is necessarily a waste of time. Sometimes I get it, and sometimes I don’t. I am delighted that artists are exploring some of the things they do. Other things I feel much the same as Ron when he asks “So what?”. Maybe you are right that it is expecting too much from the ivory tower to appreciate our agenda of function and beauty. But the inconsistency that Art History studies “Art as Beauty” and museums house beautiful functional objects seems awkward. It actually seems rude that the ivory tower acknowledges us (from the past) on one hand, and denies us (in the present) with the other.

      The issue that hangs over my head like an oppressive weight is that galleries and museums and Art departments have all bought into this idea concerning contemporary art. What that means for us living pot making artists is that we can kiss certain forms of representation goodbye. The consequence is that potters are so low on the totem pole of Art that most in these institutional and authoritarian positions fail to even acknowledge us as artists. It was interesting to hear that a group of grad students had met with one of the big ceramics publication representatives after a recent conference and was told that they were utterly uninterested in the debate of art v. craft. Not that they have to care, but in my mind that was saying that the battle inside the ivory tower has already been lost. At least when I was still in school we cared to debate this. But maybe I’m reading too much into this….

      On a positive note, one shining light of an exception is something David Revere McFadden, the Chief Curator and Vice President, at the Museum of Arts & Design, in New York said: “Craft, art, and design are words heavily laden with cultural baggage. For me, they all connote the profound engagement with materials and process that is central to creativity. Through this engagement form, function, and meaning are made tangible. It is time to move beyond the limitations of terminologies that fragment and separate our appreciation of creative actions, and consider the ‘behaviors of making’ that practitioners share.”

      Thanks for the great comment, Lee!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        That quote is a fine idea, but it seems worth mentioning that his institution was until recently called “The American Craft Museum”, and of the three terms he listed — craft, art and design — “craft” is the only one that’s no longer in the museum’s name. Call me a cynic, but that hardly seems like moving “beyond the limitations of terminologies that fragment and separate our appreciation of creative actions”.

        • No wonder I’m such a pessimist!

          But that’s why I get so carried away with issues like this. Even our best ideas are being corrupted by institutions that don’t have our best interests at heart and by the inattention of the audience that stands to suffer the most.

          Potters are disenfranchised in much the same or similar ways that other historical groups have been marginalized by institutions. We sit back and take our exclusion from opportunity when folks no more deserving get all the perks and benefits of standing on the inside of acceptable. We are outcasts in our own country and our response is to only turn our backs or to vent our personal outrage.

          Will that change things? I doubt it. The establishment can weather isolated disaffection, and the ones who are alienated can be ignored altogether. They don’t have to change because we don’t give them a reason to change. And the ones of us that don’t care are simply no longer in the conversation. The ones who only argue amongst other like minded individuals are only preaching to the choir. Unless we engage the institutions we can’t even be sure they are listening to us.

          Interesting to look around the world these days and see how many people are standing up for themselves after long years of oppression and marginalization. What would happen if potters banded together and confronted the establishment? Would we change the world? I don’t know, but not caring is giving up, and not trying amounts to the same thing.

  3. I’ve been chewing on this one for awhile, I started a response earlier and then thought better of it. I think I’m responding more to what Lee has said though it ties into your post as well.

    To make something beautiful takes skill. Art departments aren’t teaching skill/craftsmanship anymore. Throw a pile of crap together and talk about it. I think the thought process is that if you have good intellectual capabilities with regards to your work then either the skill will follow, or worse is that it is completely irrelevant. The opposite should be true, know your materials, know your process then say something with it. You have to know how to speak effectively before you can convey your ideas. I see this all the time where I teach; a student half-asses a project or just isn’t cut out to be an art major altogether but they can talk, they can hand you a pile of crap and convince you that it’s gold. A+. Are you kidding me? And the whole art world had bought into this. Universities are so concerned with students having their own opinions and expressing themselves rather than giving them the tools to express themselves.

    I’ve been wondering to myself more and more if academia is the best place to become a potter and the answer I keep coming up with is: no. Do you want to be a vessel maker or a ceramic sculptor? Then by all means take up the university path: undergrad, post-baccleaurate, MFA, residency, teaching, cover of CM, workshop circuit, biggest collector of your own work, etc. But to be a good potter takes years of training. The current undergrad system is this: 2 years of basics, 2 years of focus. 2 years means 4 semesters of 15 weeks each meeting twice a week for 3 hours. So in class time is 360 hours assuming they take 4 semesters of ceramics. That’s equivalent to 9 weeks of fulltime work. Can you learn everything you need to know to be a potter in 9 weeks? Not a chance in hell.

    So then what is the answer? Since a BFA can’t really get you a job anyways why not just buck the whole academic system altogether? What about an intensive 3 or 4 year program in your chosen craft? I’m talking 5-6 days a week, 50 weeks a year type of intensive(you know, like a real job.) I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, what if you could work at a place like Penland or Haystack for 3 or 4 years solid as a working potter in training? Under a rotating cast of instructors, all of whom are practicing potters, not MFA profs who fire their anagama once a year at their summer studio. You could learn almost everything you need to know to become a practicing potter while honing your skill to a professional level. The other thing that an intensive program would do is weed out the weak students. You’d practically eliminate the crap is gold students. If art programs on the whole adopted this method the art world would be better off. As a potter though I would rather distance myself from the art world, I don’t want what they’re feeding me.

    I have more…but I need to get back in the studio.

    • That pretty much sums it up!

      For some perverse reason, though, I can’t bring myself to give up on them…. I hope in my heart of hearts that these opium smokers will find their way back to the solid ground. It was almost funny (in an entirely embarrassing way) the last time I went to the local Ceramic Student Organization pottery sale and saw the level of work being done. The hobby students in the community center where I teach had much more going for them than anything I saw at the U. But I suppose that’s what you get when you have Sculpture grad students trying to teach aspiring potters. Not only do the teachers not really know a whole lot about making pots, but they also don’t care about what they are teaching. Their is no personal investment in pottery craft. As long as they stay maybe a half step in front of their students’ throwing and can fire the kilns…. And the shame of it is that this is the place Ron Meyers taught not so many years ago.

      I suppose I should have known the writing was on the wall when an instructor told me, straight faced, that covered jars were an anachronism. I’m sure he was thinking “When you get right down to it, all pot making is an anachronism.” How quaint! I think you are right that school these days is more about knowing how to talk the talk, and not really about craftsmanship or any semblance of excellence. They want you to prove whatever absurd conclusion you come up with in words rather than have a foundation of excellence in craftsmanship.

      Looking back I think its a miracle they actually let me escape with my little piece of paper. I suppose it was either a mercy or they were just plain tired of looking at me. My grad instructors were both excellent human beings, and I suppose excellent Artists. They both could even make really good pots when they wanted to. They even both personally really liked pots in their lives. But pots always seemed like a strange embarrassment, and not something that had much purpose in the ivory tower.

      The thing that makes me most sad is really that the folks who should be defending us, the ceramics instructors of ALL stripes, have thrown us under the bus. And the fight for recognition within the system is mostly a lost cause, with the few exceptions of departments that are still accepting pot makers in their grad programs (like yours). And since all this sounds completely pessimistic I’m sure you are wondering why I bother worrying at issues like salvaging Beauty as an academic ideal. I can’t say I’m sure either, except that I’m not yet ready to give up the fight. I will get pissed off and rant as long as I have the energy. And if it falls on deaf ears or more and more folks tune me out, I guess I will still be howling at the moon until they come to take me away. So be it. I guess my secret hope is that if enough of us call their bluff, show these posing clowns up for the absurdist opium smokers they are, maybe we can wake them from their dreams. With enough voices raised we can maybe blow away the clouds of their hallucination and bring them back to ground. I guess that’s why I can’t give up yet….

    • Oh yeah. I forgot to say how much I like your dream for a new kind of ceramic education. I only wish this intensive training would be able to reach more than a small handful of artists. I am not as worried about the truly driven/self-motivated potters. They will always find a way to evolve into excellent and perceptive craftspeople. My main concern is that without reaching for the populace at large we are making excellence even more cut off from the mainstream. Nothing wrong with a healthy dose of elitism now and then, but so many potential potter/artists are just slipping through our fingers. And without the exposure an art class in college gives young people I kind of wonder where the majority of new potters will come from. And will their training be enough to set very high standards?

      The problem with community centers like where I teach is that they are businesses, and their business is to serve the customer, not necessarily educate them. So many of my students are there simply to do something creative with their hands, to blow off steam from a hard day at work, as a social outlet, almost anything but actually learning how to become a potter. You have to coddle them and cajole them into learning most times. You will be lucky they don’t walk out on you if you give them homework assignments. And that’s where academic institutions have a real advantage: There is, at least in name, a system of accountability. That grade hanging over a student’s head is at least a bit of pressure that I can never resort to except through pleading and rational arguments.

      The other issue I foresee is that the market place is simply even less educated about pottery than the Ivory tower. The masses don’t know what counts for quality except their personal preferences. And unfortunately this means that quite often the highly visible, brightly decorated, garishly colored pots of amateurs and hobbyists will outsell the quiet pots of professionals who have worked all their adult lives to hone their craft and refine their vision of subtle beauty. My point is twofold. First, the market is bent so far in the direction of the lowest common denominator that real talent can only flourish in specialized markets. And second, that with even rank amateurs making good money there is little incentive to hone one’s craft, or that as soon as things start selling the potter may feel that their pots are good enough as they are and that there is no need for further growth.

      So it turns out that only a handful of ‘name’ potters can make more than the poverty wages that most of us earn. Only a few potters get the recognition of Art status galleries. You can see it demonstrated when one potter’s Yunomis fetch hundreds of dollars at an event (like the one at AKAR) but the majority earn the maker something closer to minimum wage. And even that show seemed to lump all sorts of makers into the event. Some I was impressed by, but not all. You get the impression that some shows and venues trade more on reputation than quality- just the issue that is so problematic in academia! Its sometimes all about marketing and the emperor’s new clothes.

      But even in events without the pretense of status the really good non-name potters are thrown in the same marketplace with potters that are still learning their trade. We like to think that the cream always rises to the top, but the reality is that the brightly decorated pots will always outshine (in mass public appeal) the subtle atmospheric work we both so admire. And then also reputation sells itself to the collectors of reputable potters. The people who ‘get’ quality in pots are simply few and far between, usually other creative people or potters who are just as poor as we are. Can’t make our living just on other potters…. The market for honest pots is a shambles if these things, and not quality, is what sells pots and keeps us in business.

      So how do we go about educating the public? Can we even do this without the institutions of academia, galleries, and museums behind us? We could of course all sell out and give the masses what they want. Lets face it, as many people as genuinely like my pots, there are very few who see all the subtlety I am aiming for. All the efforts at craftsmanship are mostly wasted on even my biggest fans. Damn that’s depressing….

      I have no idea how to get out of this hole. But I’m willing to listen to ideas!

    • ron philbeck says:

      Just to comment on having some where to train. I think the Harrow School in England was set up to train potters and was a good model for many years. I’m not sure what shape it’s in now.

      As far as Penland, Haystact etc. If you look at most of the instructors that they employ over a given season you’ll see that many of them are the university types or those making the kind of over-intellectual pottery that has become the mainstream. Sure there are exceptions but I think it’s the norm. Gone are the Warren Mackenzies, Joe Bennions who come out to teach and talk about everyday pottery. Who would come and teach these classes??

      I had this conversation along w. some others and Will Ruggles several years ago. Will’s idea was to start a pottery school somewhere that taught the qualities we are discussing, well made pots, beauty, honesty, etc. But we tried to make a list of who the teachers would be and it came down to a very few. I don’t think we could pry Willam Gebben from his house in Colfax.
      Wanna know what Will was going to name the school? Here’s a censored version. F$%@ that MotherF#$%ing S*&# Pottery School. Will did have a harsh sense of humor.

      What about the apprenticeship system? Should we talk about that? There are a handful of potters turning out good working potters. I think it has it’s place but I can also see some of it’s weaknesses, one being an overflow of a certain style of potting in a given area.

      I’ve read most of the comments below this and honestly I have a hard time getting into the discussion. I guess it’s just not my thing, and I feel like I don’t really care what the university system does. In my opinion it’s up to the folks who are making the pots we are talking about to step up to the plate and make a place for the next generations to train and learn. I’ll take back my apprehension about there being no teachers. There are teachers, the thing is is that most of them are working their asses off making pots and trying to make a living. They can’t afford to go away and teach for a quarter or a semester. Maybe if the pay were good. See I just don’t know enough to say. Brandon, you teach and make pots. You are just who I’m talking about. You should start a pottery school.

      Maybe I’ll re-read some of John’s and Carter’s posts below and reply to them. All for now

      • Ron you are absolutely right: We need Brandon to start the new school. And I’m serious. Despite my verbal optimism that the Ivory tower can be saved, I really am just throwing my last few breaths to the wind before the waves wash over me and I am sunk in despair.

        If each new potter has to find excellence all on their own I am worried. Apprenticeships have their pluses and minuses as you noted. Community centers like where I teach are extremely limited in their ability to reach new serious potters. And it is sad that places like Penland are turning more to the glamor of the ivory tower artists and away from the hardworking craftsmen and women in the field.

        It would be interesting to ask the folks at Penland if they understand what they are doing and have reasons to back it up. My suspicion is that they are in business, just like the other institutions, and they are feeling the pressure to also buy into the circle of clout and reputation that holds sway over the academy, galleries, and museums. So for me, I see the real problem as breaking this cycle. Each of these institutions reinforces these ideas and it builds on itself until we poor potters get pushed out the bottom end.

        Seems like a dismal future where only a handful of new potters can get adequate instruction and the rest are left to sink or swim on their own. I can only imagine that the standards of excellence will shift even more to the absurdity of the ivory tower and the ignorance of beginners. I can’t really see much of a way out except to kick down the walls of one or more of those institutions and make them get their heads out of their a—-.

  4. john bauman says:

    Seems to me that the often overlooked corollary to the dawning realization or acceptance of a lack of a “universal” aesthetic is that man is almost limitlessly seduce-able. We disappoint me, but thank god we do. I’d probably never find a market were it not so.

    • Here here! Well put indeed!

      The only problem I see is that too often it is the intention of the ‘artist’ only to seduce, and that this somehow lacks the “honesty” Ron was referring to. Knowing that it is so easy (and accepted) to ‘pull the wool over someone’s eyes’ should we resist all temptation to give the customer what they want? Even a little bit? Or once we’ve started down that path is it all one and the same? I wonder if that difference in intentions has other consequences besides just ‘pulling one over’ on customers? Are we somehow ourselves different if we pay attention to how our customers can be seduced? Are we just seducers in the end, only interested in using our customers? Are we peddling something or are we making a kind of gift? Does it really even matter in the end?

      Is there a difference between only exploring your personal interests and visions of beauty (or whatever) and in exploring market influences, fads, and customer demographics? Is it even more selfish to only consider what it is that we want to share, and not pay attention to the customer’s preferences? By giving them something different are we trying to educate them and does this mean we think they need to change? Do we have the right to say that their interests should be something different? (OK, I’ve gone off the deep end with this….)

      My gut says there IS a difference, and that this is why I turn the radio and TV down during commercials. If I feel like the only real message is that someone is trying to sell me something, then my hackles are raised and I am not as curious. If I feel like this is a person who really believes in what they are doing, is willing to share it with the world, and is simply trying to make a living doing it, then I am somehow much more accepting. I always hang up when telemarketers call because I feel it is such an invasion. The guy selling produce at the local farmers market is way more appealing, and I’m not sure its just that I personally believe in what he’s selling. The guy on the phone may be working just as hard, putting as much of his soul into it as the farmer (maybe….), so why do I feel it is different?

      Is it a difference between a mercenary commitment and a commitment from the heart? Should this even matter? You guys tell me. This still seems a bit fuzzy and ambiguous. Any helpful ideas out there?

  5. john bauman says:

    I guess I could answer several ways. Here are two:

    1. The market is just one of any number of indicators that communication is actually happening. If, as a creative person you can honestly convince yourself (or convince yourself of your honesty) that you have no desire for communication in what you do — you do it to entertain/enlighten/confound yourself, then the market will be but a happy accident if it happens to seek you out.

    But given that man has two basic needs in life — security and significance — I’d be betting on the majority of readers here would ultimately admit that they are attempting communication (they want someone to come along side and give an indicator that your work means something to them….and even better if it means to them at least something of what you intended it to mean broadly). Come on, we’re all daydreamer, right?

    “Now don’t I dig the big time rock and roll
    To sit in the darkness and be somebody else
    A time which after all is under control
    Crank out the music
    Give me music
    Let the music fill the air”

    I’m communicating with my pots. I want people to say, “John, that’s the ginchiest!”. But I don’t dismiss their money as one of the most sincere expressions of my ginchitude.

    2. “Artists” have the same security/significance needs. They just work within a closed system. They have certain “gatekeepers” by which their expression needs to be channeled. Ironically, the language/vocabulary they use to describe what they do SOUNDS as though they are attempting a broader endeavor. I don’t think they are. I think that illusion comes because there is a disconnect between the work and the communication. Interpreters. That’s what the work requires. And their endeavor is actually (probably?) narrower, not broader.

    Beside that vague explanation, “Artists” shade toward the ‘significance’ (of the security/significance twins) need…and are not satisfied by just anyone’s admiration or acceptance. What seems required is peer acceptance and maybe even a bit of striving to make a dent in the BIG “A” Art — making history.

    3. Mental imbalance. All the above bets are off. Sometimes creative people just cross the bounds of average or “normal”. Sometimes unique individuals come along who communicate something that seems altogether new and, as if by some weird magnet that has us all finding north, we “get it” in large numbers. Even potters.

    • Whew! Thanks for putting my head back together!

      I can get so carried away asking (dumb) questions that I sometimes can’t even see if its a good question, or sometimes even that it only seems like a question but is really only a bunch of words stuck together with a certain punctuation at the end.

      Yeah, the marketing issue is one I haven’t always got my head around, but your response was a good one. I think I’m naturally one of the ones that is embarrassed when someone likes what I’ve made. I always say that I’d rather give my pots to people that want them than take their money, and its only my extreme poverty that requires it to be a commercial transaction. I sometimes even feel guilty taking the cash, and sometimes I slip in a little extra surprise pot to show my gratitude for them appreciating my work.

      So yeah again. It is definitely about communicating and the feeling of significance. I’m still not sure how this helps with the seducers and the emperor’s new clothes because I feel even worse twinges of guilt if someone wants to buy something I made years ago, have moved on from, and no longer feel as strongly about. But simply because we the artist no longer like something doesn’t mean that the person buying it is wrong to want it. We are just not the best judges of other people’s taste. And I guess in this case, if we are not especially pushing these pots, it is much more a purely commercial transaction and less about communication or our own feelings of significance. My clearance pots I’m just happy to get rid of. And if I can make a buck or two and make someone’s day at the same time, well great.

      That was a good way of describing the situation John! Thanks for the insight!

  6. john bauman says:


    but, yeah, I’m turned off by a sense that someone is merely marketing to me. I guess that’s why I tend to talk more people out of, rather than into, buying one of my pots. But the internet pushes us into gray areas of self-promotion.

    I’ve subscribed to a few blogs, only to conclude that there’s nothing of the person, or even their pots, beyond their marketing there. I shouldn’t be, but I’m turned off by it.

    I noticed that one potter actually has a third party managing their facebook page. Again, I shouldn’t be, but I’m turned off by it.

    • Ewww! That’s icky!

      And since we are telling stories, I once knew this potter who was in it only for the money (If you can believe that!) and for meeting young college co-eds. He would put adds up for ‘studio apprentices’ but this was such a scam since he hardly ever made use of his studio. He once confessed that because of his lazy nature he never actually made more than 60 or so pots a year (And they were barely better constructed than my beginning student’s pots). He told our woodfiring crew that he couldn’t take part because it seemed “too much like work”, and once he even showed up to split and haul wood in bare feet.

      But he could talk a good talk, and he even had several collectors of his work and patrons who would help promote him. His gimmick was that he was ‘reproducing historical folk pots’, and he even got a gig teaching at the local arts center for a while. Dave the slave potter was his inspiration (?) and he was hell bent on riding the folk arts movement.

      I kind of went off again, didn’t I? I guess my point is that there are all sorts who sell the emperor’s new clothes, not just academics. And also that there are some really creepy seducers out there. This shmoe’s idea of communicating was the excuse for talking up the stray co-eds. So I guess I maybe still need to look deeper into the issue (and double check that my search for significance is an honorable one)…..

  7. Tracey says:

    Hi Carter:
    first of all thanks for your comment on my blog! If I have strong opinions I try to express them on my blog and not someone else’s, I stay out of trouble more that way, hence the reason I wrote my own blog after reading this post 🙂
    But since you invited me to comment, I came back and read some of the other comments here and one of your statements struck a cord with me. re: “if each new potter has to find excellence on their own I am worried”. Well, I am mostly self taught, I got the basics from a few community clay studios that I quickly outgrew and I have been to Arrowmont and Penland, but I just read a post over at Laguna Clay that I will quote here: “I explored and learned things because I wanted to know for myself. It became my own learning and I could proudly claim it for myself.”
    That pretty much sums it up for me. I have tested and experimented and thrown away many many pieces, but I am a better potter for it. I didn’t sit in a college classroom and work on my pottery for a grade. I worked with clay because it was all I wanted to do and the learning is what kept me coming back to it. I think that when I know all there is to know about clay I will want to stop, which is assures me a long life in clay since there is an infinite number of things to learn. This has been a very interesting conversation, good way to spend a lazy Saturday evening!

    • Agreed! I have no worries about folks like you because with the right internal self motivation just about anything is possible. I wish everyone could do it on their own, had the grit and determination, the fortitude to not need the occasional helping hand. And because you are such a good experimenter and push yourself to learn more and more you will always continue to improve your craft.

      I just worry that too many potters on their own end up settling for the easy answers. They don’t always push themselves on their own, and there is no one else in a position to give them that nudge. Of all the reasons people have for quitting pottery, how often is it that they were frustrated by not being able to figure it out on their own, they were discouraged by bad or inadequate instruction, or they just lacked the determination that would get them over any and every obstacle on their own? So I don’t worry about folks like you. I just worry that there are not enough like you.

      There will always be great potters because there will always be potters like you. But many of the ones who could have been great will fall by the wayside. Many of the potters who only lack a bit of timely instruction will end up being far less than they might have been. If we are only doing it on our own there is no safety net. There is nothing to catch us when we fall. And there is never enough encouragement when we get it right, when we need it.

      If we are strong or are lucky we can ride above the swells and dips of the marketplace, but one of the dangers (and its always a danger) is that we can let the market place be too convincing. The marketplace is not a stand in for our education. If we put too much faith in only what sells, the limits of our learning shrink awful quick. We need to be brave against these voices. If we are figuring it out on our own, sometimes these are the only voices we are hearing. But beware the honeyed tongue! Seek wise counsel when you can!

      The danger of needing to figure it all out on our own is that unless we are ridiculously smart we would probably be better off with at least a little help. I know I’m not that smart, and as bad as some of my instruction was, some of it was great. I will always be thankful I didn’t have to do it all on my own. As passionate as I am, I’m just not that strong. Sometimes I need a good shoulder to cry on. Sometimes I need someone to explain it to me real simple, point me in the right direction, get my head out of my a–. I am flawed and fragile, and I am in awe of you strong potters. And I’m here because I need your help. Discussions like these make me a better potter because they force me out of the easy answers. I grow because I learn. I learn because I have such good teachers.

      Thanks everybody!

  8. Tracey says:

    ignore that random “is” in the last sentence, should have read this over before I hit send! (too many beers with dinner)

  9. Tracey says:

    “It is the making of effort that has meaning, not becoming something, but just making effort toward it. It’s not what you have done, the important thing is what you are trying to do.” Kogan Murata
    This quote is out of the book I am reading and it’s a good thing for me to remember when my judgmental monster rears its ugly head. A very wise woman said to me last year as I was complaining about the quality of a particular potter, “that potter is doing the best they know how”. I think that the doing is what must be meaningful, being true to yourself and being proud of what you produce, if someone wants to buy it, all the better. If a potter isn’t pushing themselves or if they fall by the wayside maybe it’s because they don’t want it bad enough, for whatever reason, laziness, fear, money, ignorance. I am lazy, I have fears and I have no money, and there is a lot I don’t know, but I still push myself, because I want to. It’s a choice and everyone can figure it out somehow if they want to bad enough. I read everything I can get my hands on, I blog, and I have coffee or lunch with other artists at least once a month. If I need help, I find someone with the answers. And at least once a month someone has to pull my head out of my you- know- what! As far as putting my faith in what sells, well if it proves to be a “good seller” I get tired of making it! What kind of curse is this?!
    No worries, it’s all lessons…………..

  10. Wow… this is way more interesting then the ceramics magazines out there!
    I agree with you Carter, Brandon, Ron, John and Tracy. Brandon I love the way you added up the hours of the coursework in two years of pottery at the college level. It is nothing in terms of making you “a good potter”. It wasn’t until 15 years after my BFA that I actually considered myself a good potter. It is all about hours and years to becoming a good potter. In defense of the University though, I must say it was what I learned in the other classes… the many sculpture classes, figure drawing classes, glass blowing classes, art history etc. that made me a better potter in the long run. It was the critical thinking that my professors taught me that helps me to this day. Years later I still can hear the words of Wanye Higby, Tony Hepburn, and Val Cushing. Granted I realize as I write this that they are some of the greats, and Val was truly teaching us about form and function 25 years ago. But even back then at Alfred when we grauduated we were expected to go on for an MFA. and to be in prestigious galleries. It took me quite a few years to get over that!
    I totally agree with you about the crap that passes as art at the college level, but I must say if a student is strong and convicted about beauty, they should just push their way through the rhetoric of academia. If they are genuine, and all is coming from the heart, a good professor will see that.
    Oh, there is so much more to say on all this, but Carter you are keeping me up past midnight, and that doen’t bode well for Monday morning 6:30 wake up and getting lunches made and the kids off to school!

  11. Scott Cooper says:


  12. Pingback: Responding to Scott | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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