Paul Mathieu rants: “Maybe our culture is getting the ceramics and the art it deserves”

But is the glass half empty or half full? It is what it is, but what is it? Who is disappointed and who revels? Here’s a rant from the preface to Paul Mathieu’s book “The Art of the Future“:

“For millennia, ceramics’ role was primarily functional, practical. More recently, through the (pernicious…) influence of Modernism, it has become for its individual practitioners the focus for personal expression, often of a therapeutic nature and largely disconnected from the larger culture. It may be time to reassess the role of ceramics now and in the future, and a reexamination of its archival nature and potential may offer a renewed sense of meaning and provide further possibilities for inquiry. Historically, hand made pots and other ceramic objects played a seminal, essential role in the real life of real people and communities. Today, most hand made ceramics is the product of amateurism, of hobbyists and dilettantes, of the therapeutic activities of leisure. Even ceramics made by professionals tend to have as a main purpose the fulfilling of impulsive consumerism in a gift economy…. Maybe our culture is getting the ceramics and the art it deserves, after all. A rampant symptom of this amateurism within the ceramics community itself, is the bizarre phenomenon of the “workshop” where the making of ceramics is experienced as entertainment, as if it was a cooking show, with recipes, tricks, tools and a “chef”, a “master” who demonstrates how it is done, despite the fact that this experience is not possibly transferable. When the field takes its cultural role seriously, such futile activity will hopefully cease or cease to be at the center of its activities. I am not holding my breath.” Paul Mathieu

And I thought I was pessimistic…..

Actually, as with so many things that worry me I try to see both sides of the issue. And part of me is in sympathy with this rant. I’d love for our creative field to have the environment where aspiring to the heights of professionalism was truly nurtured and encouraged. And that can only really happen if there is support from institutions and support from the community. Unfortunately, many institutions in positions of authority in the field have put their weight behind a particular narrow view of ceramic worth, and you find things like pot making isolated in university teaching spaces and often discouraged. Fine art galleries won’t touch most potter’s work with a ten foot pole, and specialized ‘craft’ oriented galleries are under pressure to promote only the work that sells. While some individual artists flourish under these conditions it may be hard to argue that the future of the field as a whole is in the best institutional hands possible…..

This, then, is how the community helps support the modern ‘professional’ arm of the ceramic arts: by buying pots and sculpture from galleries. Galleries ostensibly reflect the cream of the crop, the high water marks of ceramic industry. And the gatekeepers do their best to insure professional standards. They don’t advertise merely average pots, or even above average pots. No, they represent themselves as offering only the very best, the elite. But they are also in the business of selling work, and so what they also try to insure is that things will sell. Professional work of high standards but limited commercial value may not always be smart business options. And so the question can often become more about how the work appeals to the gallery shoppers than whether the actual work meets those implied standards independent of its commercial viability. It is sometimes a conflict of interest whether galleries are good for the field or merely good for their own bottom line…..

One avenue (I won’t really go much into the others here) whereby pots in galleries reach consumers is that the work of famous potters is collectible. And this means that part of what the audience is sold on is the reputation of artists. It often becomes less about the work itself than who did it. A culture of celebrity asks for its personalities before it asks for their credentials. One can even be famous for the simple reason of being famous (Paris Hilton anyone?).

Sometimes our admiration is earned, but not always. When we become fixated on the rock stars the magician has already waved his wand, dazzled us with misdirection, and the illusion has been performed. If we weren’t paying close attention we may have missed it. Its the sleight of hand in a bait and switch. We end up watching bad movies simply because we want to see the actors, read books by particular authors simply because once upon a time they may have written something good. We have brand loyalty. And to the pushers of art, brands are money in the bank. Sort of….

Here’s Paul Mathieu ranting again:

“Various biographies of important artists also exist but again these tend to focus on lifestyles and on rather useless and unnecessary background data, as if the author was filling up the text with superficial information in order to hide the fact that they have nothing substantial to write about. The result is almost always hagiography where we are lead to believe in the importance of the person more than on the contribution of the work, which remains largely unexplained. All recent monographs on ceramic artists I can think of are of this type and they are all basically useless, beyond gossip. They actually provide a great disservice, not only to the artists themselves, but to ceramics itself, as a field”

The issue, then, is that the public is often seriously unprepared to deal with the work itself. If the publicly available high water mark of professional ceramics is already influenced by issues of commercial viability and celebrity then the consumer is being educated along specific lines, perhaps less about the work and more about the market. The public often has yet to be exposed to independent issues of quality and craftsmanship in many fields of the arts.

Which isn’t a bad thing, always, but it fails to act as support for the honest labor of hard working professionals who fly under the radar. It puts pressure on artists in ways that have nothing to do with quality. And as Mathieu described, this often means that the work of professionals ends up being commercially driven. Turning tricks in an effort to get ‘discovered’. Or, once they’ve made it, balancing on the high wire of past performances. Because, to stray too far off that line would risk a plummet back to the ground, a fall from whatever rarefied airs they now inhabit. This pressure either encourages moon shots or trains us to obedience, ossification, and stultification…..

The upshot for the field is that people looking at ceramic work have few reliable standards to go by. They simply don’t look at work as an issue of quality, the standards that professionals are supposed to aspire to. If something sells, well, that’s confirmation that it has an audience. Pots don’t really need to be good in the marketplace, they just need to sell. Good enough rather than really good. And these days the ceramic marketplace is awash with amateur efforts. The overall picture of the field, then, is as Mathieu described, diluted with beginner and hobbyist ambitions, and the public often simply can’t tell the difference. That’s the downside…..

So, all that is undoubtedly true, but what about the flip side? “What about a defense of amateurism?” you ask. I did promise that I like to look at both sides of the issue….

(The batter steps up to the plate, the pitch is thrown, the batter swings, and there’s contact! The ball takes off from the bat in an outward arc….)

As a person who actively teaches amateurs I am incredibly proud that my students are dedicated to having this creative activity in their lives. I know that 99.9% of them will never entertain notions of doing this thing as a profession, and most of them would never be willing to undergo the commitment and sacrifice required to become masters of the craft. They simply don’t have the time or the lifestyles needed to become as good as their potential.

But that’s okay. In fact, that’s wonderful! My job is to be there for my students, and only secondarily to be there for the field of ceramics. Almost all of them simply don’t need to be taught as if they would eventually become master potters. Mathieu was right that many pots are made from the simple hobbyist perspective of its therapeutic value. And (unlike Mathieu, perhaps) that’s not something I would scoff at.

The best I can do is to teach students to appreciate how hard it is to do these things well. They need to enjoy what they are doing, but if I’m lucky they will also acquire the sophistication to see what else is possible. There are standards of excellence available to them if they were to apply themselves. They can become fans not only of what they themselves are doing but of what other potters are doing (and this, importantly, is why workshops are so prevalent). That’s my hope. That they will be able to look at pots out in the world and see the difference between work that is half baked and work that is consummately crafted. Its an ongoing struggle I am engaged in as a teacher.

Sure, ‘The (pompous sounding) Field of Ceramics’ can be construed to suffer when the market is flooded with amateur work, and that the public therefor has no easy way of discriminating beyond their immediate unformed sense of taste (some of my professional friends have this stigma against the always popular blue glazed pots that seem to sell no matter how poorly crafted they are, for instance). But that doesn’t also mean that its not still important for folks to aspire. It is a mistake in my mind to only value the endpoint and not the journey that got us there. We don’t become professional overnight. To move from our amateur beginnings to more serious mastery of our craft we can’t help but start at square one. (It would be like saying that since adults are so much wiser and more experienced we should simply dispense with childhood.) And unless there is support for the people who are amateurs now, there will be no new professional artists moving through the ranks. Being an amateur can’t just be a dead end. It can’t be disparaged and despised…. If there is such a thing as the cream of the industry, then it surely only rests on the enthusiasm and unbridled exuberance of the amateurs of the field.

And if that wasn’t a good enough argument, if we are only getting the ceramics we deserve right now, then I would unconditionally say that we are doing the right thing! There are more talented pot makers making excellent work right now than at any other time in history! Sure there’s a lot of crap. But look around you. There is also some of the most interesting expressive work the planet has seen. These new artists are explorers in ways undreamt of by previous generations of potters. Some of it just blows my mind. As a true fan of ceramic talent and creativity I am not discouraged by the standards that are being set in the field these days. And here are some of the reasons why (And if you like these you can follow my board of favorite pots on Pinterest here):

Bill van Gilder

Bill van Gilder

Kenyon Hansen

Kenyon Hansen

Jayson Lawfer

Jayson Lawfer

Jennifer Allen

Jennifer Allen

Nick Joerling

Nick Joerling

Kristen Drummond

Kristen Drummond

Kristen Kieffer

Kristen Kieffer

Matt Long

Matt Long

Ryan Strobel

Ryan Strobel

Shadow May

Shadow May

I hope you agree that the future of ceramics is in good hands, as long as there are artists like these willing to explore the depths and variety of what it means to be both functional and beautiful!

Something to think about at least….

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, Creative industry, Creativity, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Paul Mathieu rants: “Maybe our culture is getting the ceramics and the art it deserves”

  1. Ashley says:

    Everyone in the “field” of ceramics started out as an amateur. I always wonder if the people who say that there is no room for the amateur don’t have a bit of amnesia. I am sure they did not spring forth from the womb with a lump of clay in their hand and the ability to make perfectly proportioned teapots. I started out as a recreational potter, but it quickly became a 2nd job of sorts and got better with time. Like you said, most amateurs are never going to sell their work, or aspire to be in prestigious galleries, they do it for the “therapy” and I would never begrudge them that. I should also note that some of my best customers are those that have tried making it but know they will never have the skills to make their own. Recreational pottery classes give people a taste of what it is like, and an appreciation for the skill levels required to make good pots.

    • Amnesia is right! And the arrogance of looking down on amateurs is so catastrophically centered on the view that the field isn’t in fact mostly constituted from these ephemeral efforts. If the ‘good of the field’ only meant what’s good for ‘those at the top’ then I suggest we take a page from the Occupy Movement and squat in some dank Ivory hallways and stuffy spotlit showrooms. The 1% deserve to have their aristocratically raised noses rubbed in a bit of home truths and reality.

      Fortunately most potters are humble folk, but the masters they serve are often quite something else…..

      • Ashley says:

        This also got me thinking. In the past there was the “potters field”, today it is the “field of ceramics”. The potters field was the burial site for paupers of which many were probably potters. I can’t imagine medieval potters were anything but poor. Now the field of ceramics is only for the upper echelons of the rarified world of university educated ceramic artists. My guess is that the potters are still poor, as my bank account can attest to and the fact that I work 3 jobs to be able to be a potter.

  2. Lori Buff says:

    I’ve just started reading his essays and I think the man is pretty arrogent. I do want to see where he’s going with these rants but I’m afraid I’m going to be disappointed. He makes statements like they are facts but doesn’t back them up and my own experience has proved them to be false.

    It seems like he’s complaining that potters have to support themselves by making pottery that people want because they aren’t supported in any other way. So I’m wondering what he’s doing about that besides writing essays or what he’s doing with these essays to change that. Frankly, I love selling my pottery because it makes someone happy. I also love buying other potters work for the same reason. Sounds like a community of people in the “field of ceramics.”

    • Hey Lori! Me too!

      I read the preface and introduction, but I’m not sure I can stomach anything more. Its definitely an academic perspective, but then he wrote this as the basis for courses that he teaches at a University, so little wonder…..

      I think these sorts of issues are important to talk about regardless of whether the viewpoints are sterling gold or not. Truth is sometimes a subtle and many shaded object, and sometimes there will be truth in both sides of an issue that seem contradictory or mutually inconsistent. And what’s true for me may not be true for someone else…. So its complicated, to say the least!

      The one thing I’d say about the issue of ‘loving selling our pots because it makes someone happy” is that we love our pots for many other reasons in addition to that as well. There’s nothing wrong in the joy that something we’ve made finds a happy home in other people’s lives. In fact, if I didn’t need the income from selling pots I’d be much more interested in simply giving my pots to people who I knew would appreciate them!

      The issue that becomes dangerous is that while this feeling is healthy and good when it is one of the many reasons we have for doing our creative work, when it becomes the dominant or only reason we have then it changes from a positive to a negative very quickly. If we are ONLY trying to please customers, what is the limit to the lengths we will go? Its a matter of what is driving us, which thing is the cart and which is the horse. If we make a customer’s enjoyment the reason for what we do and not something about our own pleasure in the process and making of work, then just about anything goes so long as someone wants it. And that’s not a good rule for living a life much less being an artist! (If I would enjoy someone taking a leap off a bridge, that’s not good incentive for them doing it!)

      So maybe its important to value our customer’s enjoyment of our work, but as a side effect of our own purpose rather than its raison d’être. Its a matter of priorities. If you enjoyed making something but found there was no market for it would you still do it? I hope you would! If you like doing a thing THAT should be its justification. Nothing else. And being a potter means we do things not simply for one universal reason but for competing ones. Its all very complicated. Case by case, as contradictory as that may sometimes seem….

      The one point Mathieu brings up that I agree with is that historically it probably was simpler, and that the production of pots did have a community purpose that is now greatly diminished if not overthrown. But then life these days probably is more complicated than at any time in our past. We have more options, more things available to us, and people’s paths are less determined throughout the course of their lives. So of course its more complicated now than previously, and the role of ceramics is only poorly judged by former standards. So, yes, I would agree that we need to take a closer look at what those evolved circumstances are. Mathieu is at least right in that…..

      Thanks for chiming in!

      Happy potting, Lori!

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I’ve never taken any satisfaction from selling someone a pot of mine I didn’t like, but selling a pot that I love to someone who seems like they’ll love it too is the best. Especially when we both think the price was good and fair.

    • Its funny how things show up when you are thinking about them! I just read this blog post by Chuck Wendig on the reasons writers write. Here’s a bit of what he says:

      is that what you want to write? Is that the only reason you’re writing? When you first started making up stories — probably at a young age — did you sit there as an eight-year-old trying to figure out who would buy your Avengers/My Little Pony mashup comic book or did you just tell that story because telling stories is fucking awesome? You did it because that story spoke to you. Because it leapt out of your brain and body like a goddamn xenomorph chestburster — a gory splurch and there’s the tale, running around giddy and bloody.

      When you look back on all the stories that moved you through your life — whether we’re talking Infinite Jest or Die Hard or Batman: A Killing Joke or The Handmaid’s Tale — do you think that those were created by their storytellers as products? That they were articulated as carefully-crafted widgets whose only goal was to rake in beaucoup bucks? Were they crass expressions of creative capitalism written by brands instead of people? Or were they the stories that those storytellers wanted to tell? Had to tell? Loved telling?

      Listen, I wrote a lot of crap before I managed to get to Blackbirds — and a lot of the crap I wrote was me running hurdles over what I thought would actually get me on bookshelves. I thought, “I’ll write anything at all as long as it gets me published.” And it was me trying to headbutt square pegs into circle holes. I worked myself dizzy leaping hastily through a world of finished and unfinished novels I didn’t actually like. They weren’t me. They weren’t anything I really wanted to read. They were a collective artifice created based on what I imagined were the trends — what I believed publishers wanted to buy and what bookstores could sell. Never mind the fact that by the time you pinpoint a trend it’s already too late (months to write the book, months to edit, months to publish, and by the time those add up to the year or more it’s gonna take to get it out there, the trend has slipped its leash and darted through the closing door).”

      Read the whole post here:

      • Scott Cooper says:

        I think Wendig nailed it here:
        “It’s about finding that crucial middle ground in the Venn diagram between the circles of what you want to write and what people want to read.”

        I try to make the pots I want to use, and hope that’s enough to make other people want to buy them. Often that fails in both regards, but it seems a lot better than knowingly schlepping out garbage to pay the mortgage. That’s what dayjobs are for.

        • Lori Buff says:

          I think you’re right Scott and we should never sell garbage work, that stuff should go in the trash never to be seen again. My point is that some pots are more exciting to make due to some factor like complexity while others are less exciting to make but are good sellers. For me these different pots are made at different times depending on my energy level. Some times I want to build something complex, sometimes I want to create something quieter. Since being a potter is my day job these pieces have to be of a quality that will sell at a reasonable price, making my customer and I happy.

          I’m still a bit curious about what Mahieu has written and will likely retun to the essays but right now I have other reading to do and pots to make.

        • Scott Cooper says:

          That’s interesting, Lori — I was thinking something similar after making that previous comment. I agree about making different kinds if pots at different times, depending on what I’ve got available (in the brain, in the fuel tank, etc.) Also, I make different pots for my shifting moods and interests; sometimes things that are unknown and give that surge if excitement at exploring, sometimes things that are familiar and give that reassurance about aquired skill and purpose.

    • I’m finding all sorts of things today! Here’s Dan Ariely from his TED talk:

      ““When we think about labor, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing, but the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it — meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride.””

      ““There’s something about [cyclically] doing something over and over and over that seems to be particularly demotivating.””

      ““The bad news is that ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes. … The good news is that by simply looking at something that somebody has done, scanning it and saying ‘uh huh,’ [you] dramatically improve people’s motivations.””

      Here’s the talk:

  3. Lori Buff says:

    Yes, it’s true, I won’t make anything I don’t want to make. If it doesn’t speak to me or challenge me in some way then it won’t be good in my eyes therefore it won’t be good in someone else’s eyes. If it doesn’t come from my heart it doesn’t happen. When someone asks me to make something for them if it’s not what I do (or would want to try) I try to refer them to another potter.

    As for giving pots away. I think we all do a little of that anyway but I think of Paulus Berensohn (who is a better read than Mathieu thus far) who has given away his pots for the past 40 years. He’s still making what he loves to make and is probably living a happier life than Mathieu too.

    I wasn’t intending to compair the writings of these two men but I think Mathieu’s writings may give us food for the mind but Paulus gives us food for the soul also. And isn’t that what we’re saying it’s all about anyway?

  4. paul mathieu says:

    Thanks to you Carter and those who replied for taking the time to read (some of…) my book “The Art of the Future” and commenting on it. In the Intro it also says that I take polemical positions, on purpose, to challenge you to make your own mind. I hope it can be of service. Paul Mathieu

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