There has been this quote making the rounds of the Internet that I had heard in an interview sometime earlier this year or last. And while I agreed with and even applauded a lot of what it has to say, something about it struck me as untrue, maybe even misguided. So when it popped up again this past week I decided to put my thoughts in order and see how it fit my vision as a working potter and instructor of beginning and intermediate potters. The quote is this:
Can’t argue with the advice to work hard and not lose sight of the fact that improving takes time. What I have qualms about is the idea that ‘taste’ is anything like a motivator for beginners or that ‘killer taste’ is already there in beginners.
The way I see it almost no one gets into pottery because they have good taste. The truth actually seems to be that most people can’t appreciate subtlety in visual things in general, but in terms of understanding pottery there is a huge gap in appreciating what counts as quality. The gap isn’t between our taste and what we can do about it, but in actually having the taste to see quality. Most people see the surface and only the rare viewer will know much about issues of form, balance, proportion, and weight, let alone function. To have good, much less killer taste in pottery seems to require at least some sophistication in these matters. Beginners just aren’t there yet.
So the truth is more likely that beginners simply don’t have the education to have good taste. Beginning potters may have seen pots and lived with pots throughout their lives, but this is not necessarily a guarantee of taste. Exposure is important, but learning to put those details in perspective is another issue. And actually doing creative work is a whole different education. So in most cases, in order to have any sophistication about pots, we need to outgrow the limited perspective of the taste we started with. We will need to overcome the limitations of our taste. We will need to kill it and aim for better, not just use the old stand by as our guide.
And if you remember your own early introduction to pottery, or remember teaching a beginner at some point, it will be fairly obvious just how lacking in taste beginners are. A beginner is often satisfied with simply getting a pot off the wheel. Taste has nothing to do with it. Having good or killer taste is beside the point. What the lump of clay looks like is hardly ever a concern at that stage. And that’s a good thing for beginners to not be burdened with unachievable expectations. To stay interested almost means that they can’t have good taste at this stage. They can’t know how bad their pots really are.
The point I’m making is that we don’t start out reaching for the stars. Because beginners have so little understanding of sophistication it is hardly ever taste that leads them forward. In fact, most beginners are not really committed to learning the skills in any long term sense. And this lack of serious commitment just means that taste is often a non issue for beginners and even serious hobbyists. They are more interested in making a new planter for their favorite plant, a mug for their father, a bowl for their sister, and quality is this nebulous opaque issue that counts far less than these more immediate concerns: Doing something they enjoy doing.
A student of mine just handed me this quote by Salvador Dali: “There are some days when I think I could die from an overdose of satisfaction.” I will leave it to you to interpret what he’s talking about, but the point I would like to set out is that making art in a mature sense almost always means that the artist is working from a dissatisfaction with things. To be alive as an artist requires a struggle to give birth to our imagination. Its not simply an acceptance of the status quo. The artist is driven to add something new, to make the world different than it just was. But this quality is perhaps the exception. Ordinarily it seems that people are content with satisfaction. Ordinarily we make do with what we’ve got. We are complacent. And unless the beginner is driven to this need to improve, the taste that satisfies them will be the stuff in easy reach of their abilities. They may simply not know any better.
And so, rather than being this driving force behind what we do, our taste requires every bit as much education as our hands do. Our standards evolve as our understanding grows. We need to learn what counts as quality. We need to train ourselves to see the differences in details. We need to educate our eyes. And we need to train ourselves to make the value judgments that this is good, this is better, and that this is simply not good enough. And most of all we need to care. That is what counts as having good taste. And we don’t start out with much of that in our background. Its certainly not a high priority.
And the truth here is that beginners have a hard time distinguishing exactly what things count as significant details. If the details are a visual language, beginners often don’t understand enough to see which happy accidents are interesting and which are not. They don’t yet see it as a language. It takes training to spot that these marks and contours even are details in most cases. The proportion of the rim to the foot (for example) simply isn’t something beginners even know to look at. How much else simply slides by unnoticed? Witnessed but not observed? Seen but not understood? So my point is that beginners simply can’t have much in the way of taste.
And once they have been trained to see things in new ways and understand them, to determine what actually matters as an effect, its a whole other education to get them to contemplate which of those effects carry the work forward and which of those lessen the impact. They need to confront making value judgments. Killer taste means knowing enough to discriminate between what is good and what is better. And its not as if we are born with this sophistication. ‘Good taste’ isn’t simply this already fulfilled capacity we have at the start.
When it comes to pottery, in fact, most people have horrendous taste. Exposure to quality handmade pots isn’t something we should take for granted. Even if folks have seen handmade pottery most simply have not been trained to look at pots with an understanding eye. There is usually very little appreciation of nuance. What is most obvious are bright colors and flashy decoration, and this accounts for the majority of taste in beginners. Unless a person has been trained to appreciate things like form and proportion, balance and surface details, and larger issues of function, in short all matters of subtlety and sophistication, how can we expect them to have sophisticated tastes? How can they have ambitions that actually aspire to good taste? How can they know the difference between good pots and bad?
So my last point is that having artistic ambitions is also something that can’t be taken for granted. Not only do we need to train beginners to see things with sophistication, not only do we need to train them to appreciate the significance of those details, but they need to develop the desire to improve what they are doing. Its not enough to simply know what makes a pot better, you have to also be willing to accept the challenge of striving for improvement. You have to be willing to make it different. If you are an evolving artist its not just a matter of having good taste that drives you forward but a dissatisfaction with the way things stand. How often do we see beginners and even mature artists settle for what they’ve got and not actually challenge themselves to make changes or improvements? How often do we accept this in ourselves?
This is the video the Ira Glass quote was lifted from. There are 4 parts and I like most of what he has to say, especially in #2. Follow the links to youtube if you are interested.
So, I sometimes ask myself if my taste is all it can be. Do I need to look at things differently, to appreciate value in new and obscure sources, or is my taste already killer as it stands? Usually I answer this by experimenting and discovering new ways of doing things, new ways of seeing things, and I have to drag my taste kicking and screaming as I move forward. And isn’t it true that sometimes things that pleased us in the past no longer do so now? I hate to even sound like I am disagreeing with the great Ira Glass, but do beginners really have ‘killer taste’? Should they be congratulated on their ‘killer taste’ necessarily? And are we so sure of ourselves right now, as mature creative artists? Will our future selves be so charitable?