Target practice and other lessons for potters in the business of art


“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeod proclaimed in Ignore Everybody, echoing a prevalent cultural sentiment. And yet there’s something terribly disheartening and defeatist in the assumption that we’ve created a society in which it’s impossible to both make good art and not worry about money — an assumption that tells us art is necessarily bad if commercially successful, and commercial success necessarily unattainable if the art is any good. But in Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career, writer Elizabeth Hyde Stevens sets out to debunk this toxic myth through the life and legacy of the beloved Muppeteer.”  (Maria Popova in the Brainpickings blog post on this just published book. Sounds like a good read!)

And that is perfectly true. Not all ‘good’ art is commercially unsuccessful, and not all successful art is necessarily ‘bad’. And I suppose it is a “toxic myth” if it is taken in those extremes. Because, simply, the opposite is also true: Just because something is commercially successful it is no guarantee that it stands as ‘good art’. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. But where?

Consumers are not often paying for ‘good art’ or this or that ‘good’ product but for what they like. And the truth is that they will like almost anything. Anything appealing. And ‘appealing’ is not always the same thing as ‘good’ in an objective sense. Its the job of advertising to convince people that they want this thing, and that conviction often comes in murky and manipulative ways. Advertising rests on making products seem appealing, not necessarily something based on objective quality. Sometimes when artists aim specifically at commercial success we are aiming at the factors that make our work appealing. And its an open question whether this encourages a cynical ‘dumbing-down’ of the content….

Fuel inefficient and unsafe cars, food that is low in nutrition and fattening, tobacco and alcohol products and other addictive substances….. These all are appealing to plenty of people for other reasons that outweigh the more sensible justifications for these products. The idea of ‘good’ just gets a bit hazy after a while. The better question might be, “Good for what?”

But it would be strange if we took ‘good art’ to simply mean ‘good seller’ or really anything to do with commerce. They seem to mean distinctly different things despite how they may overlap at times. The problem is, the interface between commerce and art IS dangerous to navigate. They DO influence one another. And to be both ‘good art’ and commercially successful is like passing through the eye of a needle. Not impossible, but certainly the exception and not the rule.

As soon as you start to aim in one direction there is this magnetic-like force that draws you away from the other. If you aim at ‘better art’ you are running into the possibility that fewer people will like what you are doing, and your innovation and imagination will be too far fetched for people to understand. Audience acceptance rarely accrues to things that are novel enough to be popularly misunderstood.

And so we can also aim at what folks DO understand, aim at the possibility of commercial success, and this again is subject to the magnetic pull away from the purely exploratory benefits of the imagination. If you are banking on acceptance you are simply not as concerned with daring artistic enterprise. If you are determined to pursue whatever direction the muses inspire then you will have less time for looking over your shoulder at what the customers want. Its a conflict for most artists because the two aims are often quite different priorities.

When it works out that we both make ‘good art’ and commercially successful art its almost a happy accident. Or the Herculean effort at overcoming those magnetic forces. Most of us are simply too lazy or too easily sidetracked to do both at once. Or we don’t know any better. Our attention spans are often occupied by one rather than the other, and rarely both at once. How do you let interest in one not compromise the other? This psychological complicity is the danger that perhaps gives rise to that “toxic myth”.

We simply cannot take the marketplace as a measure of art, and yet this is the temptation that many working artists fall under: “If it sells its good enough.” And that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good enough, simply that it sells. You can’t draw any conclusions from that. Also, it seems obviously untrue in so many situations that one wonders how so many artists end up believing it. If it sells we have simply found the commercial sweet-spot and have this new incentive to do this one thing, despite whatever else the muses may be indicating. In the conflict between the marketplace and the muses it is rare that both come out victorious.

My recent post exploring the pressures of wanting to be an artist was shared on Ceramic Arts Daily, and generated a number of thoughtful and genuine comments. Here’s one that expressed this confusion between our art and our commerce:

“Being an artist, and making money with your artwork, are two completely separate and different activities. One does not correlate to the other. I wish people would stop trying to tie them together in terms of value and meaning of one’s art. Someone who can make money is not “more” of an artist or “less” of an artist. They are better businesspeople, that’s all.”  Mea Rhee

And its also true that the more time you spend on being a better business person the less time you will spend on making art. Of course every artist hopes they will ‘be discovered’, that all their hard work making art will bear fruit all on its own and that they won’t have to raise a finger as a business person: People will simply show up and give them money for their work. Out of their studio or basement where it is all crammed together. No marketing. No fancy display. No trips to fairs and shows lugging our work across the country. No submission fees. No 50% gallery cut. No packaging up work to send out in the mail. No publicity. Etc…. We want the work to sell itself. Every minute we spend doing these other activities is less time we will be spending making the stuff. How is that not a compromise?

But life as a business person aside, what does ‘good art’ have to do with commercial appeal in the first place? You’ve heard “Sell the sizzle, not the steak” before, right? Doesn’t that sum it up in a sense? Sometimes our business efforts are not even aimed at the steak, the work itself, but the perception of that work, the sizzle. Sometimes we are trying to get by not on the quality of our work but the appearance of quality, regardless of what stands behind it….. If it ‘smells’ good it will be appealing, even if its a slightly rancid slab of mostly gristle and fat. The prime cut is usually far too expensive and takes too much effort and time to ‘cook up’ well. If we are only trying to sell the sizzle we can simply cut a few corners here and there. And if this is what our business sense is telling us to do, then surely there is an entrenched conflict between ‘good art’ and what sells…..

Of course that rancid slab of fat won’t get many repeat customers, so you can see that there is at least some incentive to offer up a decent product. But is ‘decent’ the same as the best we can do? Once again its the question of doing just enough to be good enough or doing what it takes to be independently ‘good art’.

What, for instance, about all the ‘good ideas’ that failed? Or, things that were good in their own right but not so good for the marketplace? Anyone remember this:

Or this,

Amphibious bicycle This land-and-water bicycle can carry a load of 120 pounds Paris 1932 Courtesy

Amphibious bicycle
This land-and-water bicycle can carry a load of 120 pounds
Paris 1932

Or this,

Wooden bathing suits Supposed to make swimming a lot easier Hoquiam, Washington, USA, 1929

Wooden bathing suits
Supposed to make swimming a lot easier
Hoquiam, Washington, USA, 1929

Or this,

Radio hat Portable radio in a straw hat, made by an American inventor in 1931 Courtesy

Radio hat
Portable radio in a straw hat, made by an American inventor in 1931

In fact, the novel consumer goods that become commercially successful are just as much an effort of passing through the eye of a needle as is maintaining artistic virtue while making money from our creativity. They all seem like good ideas to someone. Or sometimes the idea itself is appealing but the execution is not. Sometimes ideas are ahead of their time….

FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) advertising usually shows people who are so excited to buy new product X that they practically experience orgasms. However, reality paints a much harsher picture. The failure rate of new products created by established companies is 65 percent, while more than 90 percent of startup products end up being wares almost nobody wants to buy. Needless to say, bad market validation costs a lot of money – some estimates put annual losses at $260 billion in the United States alone.”  “The Museum of Failed Products: Where Consumerism goes to die”

Passing the test of consumer appreciation is hardly a measure of quality or effectiveness in achieving a purpose. The public may simply not have a need for what you are making. And this is no slight on the perfection of your art, the consummate craftsmanship you display, or how well you did what you set out to do. The history of commercial products is littered with graveyards of these things dumped in landfills or broken down to be reconstituted as something else. A modern testament to this can be seen in the Museum of Failed Products in Ann Arbor Michigan:

Photograph Kelly K Jones

Photograph Kelly K Jones

Here there are collected such dubious consumer goods as these:

The breakfast you were spared – microwaveable scrambled eggs at the Museum of Failed Products in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photograph: Kelly K Jones

The breakfast you were spared – microwaveable scrambled eggs at the Museum of Failed Products in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photograph: Kelly K Jones

Photograph Kelly K Jones

Photograph Kelly K Jones

The point being that your aim as a creative inventor is not the same as your aim as a diviner of the pulse of the marketplace.

“Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we’d rather avoid confronting that fact…. Another problem with our reluctance to think about or analyse failure – whether our own or other people’s – is that it leads to an utterly distorted picture of the causes of success. Bookshops are stuffed with autobiographical volumes such as the one released in 2006 by the multimillionaire publisher Felix Dennis, entitled How To Get Rich: The Distilled Wisdom Of One Of Britain’s Wealthiest Self-Made Entrepreneurs. It’s an entertaining read, conveying a similar message to many of the others: that to make a fortune what you need is stubbornness and a willingness to take risks. But research by the Oxford management theorist Jerker Denrell suggests that these are just as likely to be the characteristics of extremely unsuccessful people, too. It’s just that the failures don’t write books. You rarely see autobiographies of people who took risks that then didn’t work out.” Oliver Burkeman

As artists and creators there is a real difference in where we can direct our attention, but I’m not sure we always see this clearly. We can aim at the marketplace, we can aim how we think the ‘successful’ people have aimed, do it their way, or we can aim in our own direction, independent of those other targets. And maybe, if we are lucky, we can aim at a little bit of all of those. But passing through the eye of that needle is never guaranteed. In fact, it almost always happens by accident. And if that happy coincidence of ‘good art’ and success should fall in our laps we need to remember that this is still the exception, not the rule. Short of that blessed miracle, its best to acknowledge what we are up to, what we are aiming at, and make peace with both the advantages and limitations thereof.

So, in a sense we can see this question as a matter of intention. But it goes a bit deeper than the surface differences. As I’ve tried to tease out in other  posts there is a real difference between out intrinsic motivations to do something and extrinsic ones. But even here things can get tangled. Part of the job of advertising and marketing is to convince the public that this new product is exactly what they need. The sizzle that draws them in.

Unfortunately, we as artists are sometimes duped in the same way. When we confuse the distinction between our intrinsic goals that are independent of external considerations and our extrinsic goals which are entirely externally based, the distinction sometimes blurs. We can take the measure of success we have as a new source of intrinsic good. For instance, when I see that I can sell a crap-ton of bowls with this particular design I may find that I actually like making them when I had not been that fond of them previously. Its a new incentive to gain some satisfaction from our efforts. It can be something like reverse advertising, where we become believers in the product because that’s what our audience is telling us. We get trained to repeat these past versions of success because it is simply too often too risky to set out in novel directions when we already know what the audience wants. But again, this is a difference between the values of art and the values of commerce.

….. And this can be surprisingly difficult to discern.

That’s a lot to think about! But if being a better artist means being better paid for our artwork then it makes sense that we artists also learn to be better business people. And if that complicates the issues, well then, perhaps things will just be complicated. The mistake is only ever assuming they are not.

Hope this makes the targets a bit clearer! Or maybe just that it gives folks a better sense of what they are aiming at, whether the target is still hidden or not…… Hope it made some sense to some of you!

Peace all!

Happy potting!

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 education, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Target practice and other lessons for potters in the business of art

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    Ding! That Muppets video was great; I’d never seen it before.

    And the rest is spot on, too. I like how you characterize art vs. commerce as magnetic poles. One can’t exist without the other, as you concluded, but they are also in constant, unavoidable opposition.

    Also love the “eye of the needle” references.
    “Better to be poor than to be a fat man in the eye of a needle.” – Sting

  2. Pingback: What was I thinking… in 2013? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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