And so, the upshot of all the previous discussion is just that decoration and bright colors add something important to how a potter can navigate the expectations of an audience. Pots with drawings, patterns or eye catching colors are just that much more accessible on a much more fundamental level. Decoration draws attention, plain and simple. The bolder the better (within reason!). Not that people will always like what you’ve done, but they can’t like it if they don’t notice it.
So, when Ron Meyers says that he started putting animals on pots because he had a hard time selling undecorated ware, I should have been paying more attention. And when I asked Michael Simon why he decorated his pots and he told me he thought the forms needed the decoration, that should have been a clue. Didn’t I believe these pottery heavyweights? Didn’t I trust what they had to say? If this was true for their pots wouldn’t it be doubly true for mine? But just so I remember that I’m not a total ignoramus (and that this stuff is not all that straight forward), just how many years and thousands of pots did it take Ron and Michael to figure this out? The fact that both these potting geniuses had to slowly come to this realization means that in all likelihood I’m not the only one out there still operating in the shadows.
Here’s what Michael says in that sublime interview with Mark Shapiro: “Yeah, so that was the development of the technique of putting a pigment on. And I always claim that the form and the proportion were the crucial elements to me, and I still do. I still will claim that. But there was also an undeniable-that the audience would look at-would see the surface. The culture didn’t seem to want to look at the shape or proportion. I mean, try to talk to someone about the proportion of a bowl. It’s very difficult to engage someone with the proportion of a bowl. It’s just very difficult. And then I wanted to engage-I wanted engagement. I really did. So patterning, particularly, gave me access to an audience in a way that I didn’t feel like I could develop with shape. So that was part of the motivation to develop that kind of pattern surface…. It was dangerous territory, but it was still the kind of image that I needed, in that it was recognized by everyone in the whole world who would see that image, and, you know, they knew what it was and they knew the range of feeling that a bird could give-well, anything from a raven, a crow, to a buzzard to the most beautiful songbird, painted bunting or something like that.” (Oral history interview with Michael Simon, 2005 Sept. 27-28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)
He also says quite clearly on page 80 of Michael Simon: Evolution, “Those few well-shaped pots whose surface reveals the nature of the clay seem complete and are not painted. I paint the remaining ware with different motifs and patterns.” Which of course means that he thought only a select few of his pots were good enough on their own to stand up without any decoration. As if only the rarest few stood any chance of being seen without decoration. And if they failed in this, if they fell short, if the were lacking something, incomplete, or somehow flawed (?), only then would he paint them. Its as if the decoration is put there only to make up for some deficiency, not necessarily in the pot as a pot but in how the pot will be perceived. This seems discouraging to hear since almost all his pots are much better shapes than anything I will ever do…. And if he and Ron had trouble engaging their audience without decoration, what does that say for the rest of us?
So it seems that in a very real sense there must be more to this thing of being a potter than simply ‘doing what you want to’ and naively hoping that someday there will be enough customers who appreciate what you’re doing. Didn’t both Ron and Michael realize they had to change what they were doing? What they originally wanted just wasn’t good enough? Don’t get me wrong. I like optimism. But just how smart is it in every circumstance? A poor economy? A region attuned to different aesthetics (like what I was saying in the education tangent of these ‘seeing’ posts and what Barbara said in the comments to the previous one). How do potters get customers to want to ‘read’ what they’ve done, much less have galleries put the pots on pedestals? How do we potters present our work so that audiences will even want to look? Do we ignore them completely and trust to our self-confidence? Do we acknowledge them from the corner of our eye? Do we engage them and cater to some of their preferences? Do we pander to them out right? How do we maintain our integrity with all that pressure?
This just doesn’t seem very clear. What is the dividing line between being smart about the market and selling out? Intention? Both Ron and Michael decided they needed to paint on pots, and I would never accuse them of ‘selling out’. I guess in the end we need to recognize that our pots are in a conversation when they are in the marketplace. We are no longer daydreaming creators working in isolation. Its not as simple as only making what we want. Unless we already want what the public wants we won’t really be in a conversation with them. If our pots already speak the language of our public then making what you want actually already coincides with the public’s expectations. But not every potter’s imagination is so fortunate, and those artists don’t speak for everyone.
So what happens when our intention is no longer to make the best pot we can but to simply sell some stuff? Again Michael puts it clearly (page 81), “In our culture the graphic image has largely supplanted perception of shape and texture….I feel a contradiction in drawing images on the pot forms I make. The marks can distract from the more profound aspects of the pots. Pattern can render the shape a secondary concern…. Some pots are lost in the painting, but some are improved.” In other words, if the pot is merely a vehicle for some brush strokes it might as well be done on a piece of paper. This is probably just the extreme end of what can happen. And you can look around and see plenty of pretend potters using their clay as the excuse to do some decorating. They are sometimes not even aware that they are doing their decorative thing on forms that have a history of use as functional pots, and that things like craftsmanship and form actually matter. But this is different from decoration that is part of what that pot is. I’m not talking about decoration that is integrated with the underlying pot, and I don’t think Michael is either. A pot can be a good canvas for decoration, can’t it?
So it becomes a question of trying to improve the pots and not merely pander to an audience that can’t see shapes on their own. If the decoration makes it a better pot, then fine. But in some sense no amount of decoration will turn a lump of poorly crafted clay into a better pot. On some level there is a minimum of craftsmanship that dictates just how improved a lump of clay can be from decoration. As a pot. On some level it needs to start out a decent pot to become a better pot.
It would be like doing home repairs by putting on another coat of paint. Termite damage? Slap some paint on it. Foundation has shifted? A little dab of paint will do. Its amazing what things can be ‘saved’ with a swath of duct tape, but there is a reason they don’t build houses with duct tape instead of nails and screws. What you build with duct tape is not a house. You don’t build a pot just with decoration. You have to set a good foundation and build well functioning walls, not to mention giving them some kind of pleasing shape. Decoration is the window dressing. It is decorative, not usually structural.
So this means that although many people’s introduction to pottery is through decoration there is still the issue of quality that underlies it. It is a question of craftsmanship in the pot itself. It is the issue that quality is not always encompassed by how well a pot is decorated. Are we making paintings that you can incidentally also drink from or eat off of, or are we making functional ware that also happens to be decorated? If “form follows function” and pots are at their core functional items, then it seems that form is essential to what we are doing. Something is not a good cup just because it has a good decoration. It doesn’t function better as a cup because it was decorated well.
And this means that helping the public to understand pots better than they do is incredibly important. We need to help them look beneath the decoration or to see the pot as a whole. Isn’t this in every potter’s interest? Pottery is such a small niche that it can only be enhanced by educating more people about what we are doing. We can ask our audience to also believe that if something is important it should be worth fighting for. And handmade pottery, both good and bad, can add something valuable to a person’s life. The effort it takes to understand good pottery doesn’t have to be easy. People in our culture are mostly unsophisticated visual observers. We see the surface, as Michael said, but not form or proportion. Other cultures do a much better job of educating their audience. Can’t we also aim at a greater level of sophistication?
So our work can swing back and forth between giving the audience what it wants and asking them to keep an open mind. There needs to be a balance between meeting an audience’s expectations and challenging it. Do we give them a steady diet of easy to digest eye-candy, or do we feed them some stringy chewy roughage? Do we aim for their taste buds or their stomachs? Or do we ignore all this and just let the chips fall where they may? Survival of the fittest and all that… (never mind the watered down mediocre aftermath that future potters will need to deal with). This seems like an important question.
So, as I’m fumbling about, trying to get my own head wrapped around some of this stuff, I’m hoping that other people will join in the discussion. Potters especially, but really anyone who is interested.
Sorry this was so long (again!)….