Is the value of pottery a material object?

The funny thing I’ve noticed in my time among fellow artists is that very few of us would count as typical materialists. Generally speaking we tend to find that the world contains more important things than the stuff it is filled with. And yet, potters and artists of most stripes obsessively add new things to the world and almost take it as a personal mission to exponentially increase the total number of items the world includes. How many thousands of Carter Gillies original pots do I have on my conscience? How do any of us reconcile this?

The issue came up yesterday in a conversation I had with a friend who was picking up some older pots from a gallery. As is to be expected she wasn’t too fond of what she had to pack up. Any artist who is evolving, who aims at getting better at what they are doing, is less likely to look charitably at their past work. You grow as an artist and you move on. And what you’ve left behind is never as satisfying as it was once upon a time. Nor is it as welcome as what interests us now. It has lost its luster. In a sense these pots have died for us, and at this stage they aren’t much more than the clay they were made from and a distant memory of the dreams we once had….

So, in a sense I completely understand where she was coming from. I’ve been there too (in my dubious experience, almost every kiln load is a painful measure of my disappointment. Its rarely ever good enough….). And so, my friend’s comment was to the effect that there is already too much stuff in the world and that the world certainly doesn’t need more mediocre pots. Her pointed summation was that she was “not a materialist”.

So the question is, is the value of a pot (or of any art) purely that of a material object?

Well, pots are material objects, so in some sense this must connect to their value, but does art add no more than simply other ‘things’ to an already overcrowded world? Can we be against the materialism of our culture and still feel good about making pots? Even ‘bad’ ones? (How else can beginning students sleep at night, for goodness sake!)

The challenge is to see that objects bring more to the world than simply the object. I made the statement in a recent post that part of the potter’s faith is that a life surrounded by pots is a life worth living. Doesn’t that sound like something a materialist might say? Hoarding our collections like dragons in their lair….. The question is, can you not be a materialist and still think that….

Part of what it seems to come down to is a balance where the quality introduced by objects counts more than the quantity.

At what point does the beauty of a Michael Simon jar outweigh the dread impact of yet one more material thing in the world? At what point does having it in our lives tell more about its effect on the quality of our life than the materialism of a measurable investment or status symbol? Aren’t we objecting that the materialist takes the things too seriously, too whole heartedly, that for him they are the value? Aren’t we offended when materialists make the typical confusion between what something is ‘worth’ monetarily and what its ‘value’ is? That they often only see Dollar signs, Ducats, and Guilders? That quality for them is inherently defined by some measurable quantity?

So, what is the difference?

The question comes down to just how little beauty it takes to make the world a better place. If we measure kindness, generosity, love, and all the finer qualities of human expression we find that having it is almost always better than not having it. We also find that adding more is usually a good thing. So the question is, does even a ‘mediocre’ pot not add something unique and precious to the quality of the world? Surely it at least has this chance…. Witness the unfathomable joy of the person who takes it home with them and cherishes it for the rest of their lives. Doesn’t this speak louder than any objections? Isn’t it true that other people value even our own sorriest and unloved pots differently than we do? And that in the final analysis we are not the best judges of how well something will fit in someone else’s home? Their life?

But how can this be possible? Especially since the artist is the one responsible for giving it material form. Isn’t it up to us to decide? Isn’t that object our responsibility and ours alone?

This is perhaps the hardest lesson for artists who have truly outgrown their primitive beginnings…. Its the idea that we don’t always see the quality of our own work as clearly as other people do. Our judgments are always front loaded to the present, and the present isn’t usually comfortable with its creative past. In disowning an old pot we dismiss its claim on our values. We can overlook and ignore what others see. And when we deny its different standard of value, we can be abysmally wrong. We forget the joy we felt when we first made it. Its as if we are out of step, out of tune, with the self from out past. And what this means is that value simply transcends the pot itself….

But I would also say that the question goes deeper. I think it may very well be true that many potters see their art mostly in terms of the finished product. And perhaps this is skewed unfortunately by the role of the pot itself in a potter’s life.

In my post relating the admirable qualities of Olympic sport to those of pottery I focused on how similar the kinds of process were between the two. The idea was that of our art being a performance akin to an athlete’s performance in a sporting event. Linda Essig, one of my favorite bloggers and arts advocate, chimed in from her perspective as a theater person: “Yay for process! Also, intention. That’s what makes it art after all.” And perhaps it takes an artist sufficiently unencumbered by the material manifestation of creativity to see this more clearly. What we do as creative people isn’t merely the clever construction of new objects. Concrete lifeless things. We perform. We execute.

As potters it is often hard to see this. Its not that we are blind to the sometimes backbreaking process behind what we do. Its not that we are unaware of the often laborious application of technique that can mean the difference between success and failure. No…. The difficulty is rather in the sheer emotional and financial weight that goes into the object at the end of our process. If the object fails, the art fails. Or so we often suppose. And if the object sells? The art was a success…. If how we make our living is so dependent on this pot before us, no wonder we fixate on the status of our art as an object….

Its sadly all too easy to become disconnected from the execution of our art when selling our work can be so separated in time from the process of its creation. In the theater, a show is an animated performance. The art is on display as an actively undertaken process. The art is obviously a dynamic engagement. The parts are always moving. For potters a show can come weeks, months, and sometimes even years after a pot was actually made. The process that gave it birth can be so far back in our memories as to occasionally be forgotten. We don’t often remember that the pot is, in an important sense, only a placeholder for all the creative processes and technical wizardry that went into its making. We can convince (deceive) ourselves that the pot is close to everything when making a living stands or falls on being able to move product….

But if we step back from our nose on contemplation of the objects of art we can see the wider perspective of the universals of creative process. I’m an eager explorer of comparative creativity. I like to consider just how related the art of pottery is to other art forms. And even things like sport. I find connections almost everywhere. That’s one of the reasons I avidly read Linda’s blog. I am also a huge fan of the irreverent Chuck Wendig, an author and notorious balloon popper who blogs fastidiously and profanely about the creative process of writers. I also like to check in at the wonderful gatherings of source materials by the gals over at Brainpickings. And then, even, I often get a kick out of the art flavored dots connected to the stuff of food by the great blogger over at Edible Geography. The point being that art may look very different (incommensurable) from the outside, if we only consider the form it takes, the object it produces, but the human endeavors of creativity, the performances, are certainly more alike than they are different. Something to ponder, at least….

And so, I’d also like to say that it is our fascination with the pots themselves that disguise the quality they bring to the world. If we are not materialists we need to be more serious about finding the nonmaterial good within the objects we are surrounded by. That is our burden. Not simply wishing for fewer things…. If we think creativity is important, then we should be less concerned that it might end up in concrete form and more interested in what kinds of things get made. Applaud (or lament) the creativity, not the object created. As with beauty: You don’t often get it unless it takes place within some object, a gesture, the smile on a face. We each seem to have our own key for unlocking it and for finding it in strange and out of the way places. That is a precious gift. But all too often we confuse the ephemeral instantiation of beauty with why we found it so remarkable. Cherish the beauty and not the place it happens to reside (Beautiful people, after all, are not better people. A beautiful teapot does not necessarily pour better….). Kindness is the caring between one physical being and another. Its not a matter of physics but of emotional value. And so on….

We should not resent the physical implications of these values. They are not discredited by coming to us in material forms. Appreciating beautiful things no more makes us materialists than ‘dreaming’ of a better future means we are asleep….

In the end, worrying about the number of things in the world is a materialist’s concern. Worrying about the quality of the world is something quite different….

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Is the value of pottery a material object?

  1. Brandon Phillips says:

    How many mugs does a person need? Hmmm…

    • Hah! Off the top of my head I’d say “55”. But that can’t be supported by much in the way of rationality, and I’m embarrassingly well over that number just on the mugs in my kitchen cabinets (not to mention the ones hung on pegs on the walls and strewn throughout my house in other places)…. I’d follow it up with “Two more than they already have”. Or something…..

      Great question, though! Questions don’t need to have answers to reveal important things about the world. Its like asking “How much love does a person need”. Or “How much kindness does the world need”. Or maybe “How much compassion and tolerance does our planet need”…..

    • Scott Cooper says:

      Technically, I think the answer is: none. Which is why having 55 (or x+2) can be so rewarding.

      • Yeah…. “Need” is such an extreme condition if you let it define ‘that without which it is impossible to survive’. We need air, but do we need clean air? We need shelter, but does a few rags and a highway underpass count? And we need food, but does spoiled leftovers scrounged from dumpsters make the grade?

        So ‘technically’, probably not…. But once again, the “how many/how much” phrasing almost always asks us to look in terms of materialistic measurable quantities. What I’m hoping we can learn to talk more comfortably about is how important and perhaps even ‘vital'(?) or ‘essential'(?) the idea of VALUE is. Quality rather than quantity. If we think of ‘desire’ and ‘want’ as only the dirty little disreputable sisters of genuine need, then we are setting the conversation up already stacked in a certain direction. Our language prejudices us in favor of materialism and against qualitative judgments.

        Which only means I’ve got my work cut out….. But here I am tryin’!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Your pal Michael Stipe asked this question in a lyric 25 years ago and I’m still puzzling it out: “Explain the change, the difference between, what you want and what you need. There’s the key.”

        • Indeed!

          I just had this further thought of why its sometimes so hard to talk about important things in terms of need. Or rather, how qualitative issues make use of the word ‘need’ something off kilter. For instance, we can’t say that we need respect, or dignity, or fairness, or equality. Life goes on without those things. We don’t even need personal liberty, as thousands of years of slavery will attest. But there comes a time when human culture recognizes that these things are our rights, both as human beings and as citizens of a society. But talking about it in the framework of needs is such a poor fit. We have been so trained to accept only the extreme of quantifiable difference between life and death. The change in perspective I’m advocating is that qualitative things also ought to be talked about in these terms.

          Or am I just blowing smoke? Any takers?

  2. Scott Cooper says:

    Great post, Carter. You came back from vacation on fire!

    That question of beginners feeling regret for all the clunkers they have to make along the way reminds me of what Jack Troy wrote about imagining the hole left in the earth by all the clay he had used in a lifetime. A humbling thought.

    • Yeah, the long view always seems to put me in my place. Hard to get too swollen headed when you see that not only are you standing on the shoulders of your previous selves but on those of countless others who have come before you, who stride alongside you, some of whom you may not even consciously acknowledge. And looking back is always so much easier than looking ahead. How daunting to imagine all that effort its going to take…. A beginner certainly doesn’t need to have it pointed out that everything they will make for the next seven or more years (to pick a safe number) will be looked back at in mild or strong disgust by that future self, and that the huge pile of crap needed to be produced as fertilizer for improvement will be so vast and take so much effort that in all honesty they could have spent their time doing better things elsewhere. SO DON”T EVER LOOK THAT FAR AHEAD!!!!! (Wasn’t that one of the critiques you sent me about the 10,000 hour rule? That no one would plan on suffering mediocrity for so long if they knew they had no chance of quality until so vast a quantity had been expended?) At least not beginners and novices…. Maybe a few self satisfied folk could use the Scrooge treatment of Christmases to come…..

      Sounds like another post, dang it!

  3. I remembered seeing this article from some weeks ago. Interesting thoughts about the ebb and flow of how cultures use certain types of language. You can think of how the languages of science and poetry have entered and departed the stage in recent times. Society teaches us what things are permissible, and we simply are not encouraged to see the world in unsanctioned or out of vogue ways (See my discussion of “beauty” and “subjectivity” on this earlier post)…. The language of morality is akin to that of value and quality which I was talking about in this post, and you can see the same obstacles at work in each of those cases. This is part of what Julian Baggini had to say:

    “If you had fallen asleep, Rip Van Winkle-like, a decade or so ago, all this talk of morality might well strike you as, well, wrong. Inspired by respect for diversity, fear of “cultural imperialism” and a kind of democratic relativism, for some time it was considered arrogant to judge the morality of others. Who are you to say what’s right and wrong? Isn’t that just your opinion?

    What has changed is that it has finally been accepted that we can’t function without values. (Indeed, the very project of avoiding moral judgments itself rests on the firm belief that they are wrong.) But the suppression of morality-talk has served another very good purpose: the language itself is being used differently, as if it needed time in retreat in order to purge itself of its puritanical associations. It left the stage muttering about people shagging each other and strode back on later lamenting how the privileged are screwing the masses. Look at how the uses of moral language have been pressed into service in recent weeks and you’ll find that they do not concern mere private behaviour but the point at which individual actions have consequences for wider society. Morality has recovered its political dimension.”

  4. Pingback: Repost: Is the value of art a material object? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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