Is the difference between beginners and experts simply a difference in quality?

I’m interested in this question as a reflection of how we teach art, what we teach, and why we teach. It also seems important for artists navigating the larger world of the art industry. It’s only a question for artists trying to find their place in a larger context. It’s not something that would interest the hermit artist on a mountaintop, or even many beginner artists. It’s not a question that children always ask when they pick up a crayon……. What does that tell us?

Imagine this scenario: You’ve spent the last 30 years honing your art practice, perfecting your skills, improving, tweaking, and refining your forms, and you enter a show where beginner level work wins all the prizes and receives all the public attention. What went wrong? Has some objective measure of value been violated? We may feel an injustice has been committed, but what is the crime?

It seems the easy answer is that, yes, there is an objective difference between the quality of beginner and expert level work. That has to be true, right? The problem with beginners is that they are not very good at what they are doing (no shame in that), but with enough effort and perseverance they learn to get it more right. We don’t start out as experts. We start out at ‘square one’ and simply need practice to get better at the things we do. In a very real sense experts are better than beginners.

For instance, you don’t let novices perform major surgery when you have a choice. You don’t let your friend’s uncle who once read a law related book represent you in court. And you hire the best, most qualified engineers to build a bridge. You don’t hire beginners to teach the class. When you are aiming for quality it makes sense to choose someone who ‘knows what they are doing’. Almost everywhere you turn you see that experience pays off and that merit and talent are justly rewarded. Quality and being qualified seem to be related. Beginners, by definition, lack both those things: They simply lack experience and know how.

So when we see obvious beginner artwork score big in art shows the folks who have spent their adult lives honing their craft sometimes feel an offense has been committed. We can perhaps understand why they might feel disappointed. But what went wrong? Is it simply that the judges and the audience blew it? They chose some punk off the street to perform neurosurgery?

I’m going to suggest that while this disquiet makes sense on a certain level its not the whole story. I’m going to suggest that quality in art is too slippery a customer to explain everything in this way.

Art doesn’t obey the rigid expectations that surgery and bridge building require. It’s not held to an independent standard that everyone can refer to, for instance. Look around you to see how often and how quickly we disagree about the quality of even expert artists. Compare and contrast art between cultures and across the ages. The values of art don’t have the specificity of things like major surgery and bridge building. When the patient survives it’s good. When the bridge collapses it’s bad. The analogy to these other fields is far too simplistic. Rather, our disagreements about the different qualities of art are like a confusion about the rules for different particular games. Virtue is always defined by the rules and ideals that apply to specific practices.

For instance, insofar as beginners are engaged in primitive forms of practice (learning to walk before they can run) it makes every bit of sense to say they are on the road to improvement: They are learning the rules, digesting the nuances, and perhaps aspiring to identifiable standards. They are building a foundation. And the foundation carries with it the notion of its completion, what it should end up as. It’s not usually arbitrary or ambiguous: The foundation is part of an implied whole.

The truth is that the foundation is only part of the puzzle, and judged by the standards of a completed puzzle beginners invariably fall short. They miss the quality defined by the whole. The point is to complete the puzzle. You work to get the foundation right and then build something proper on top of that. You fit all the pieces correctly. The progression can be described as from a lack of sophistication and an absence of refined control to a level of comfort that eventually expresses itself as mastery. Making mistakes along the way is how we learn to do things right. A mistake is when we go off course, stumble, or come up short. We put the wrong pieces together. We can lay the foundation poorly or quit too early. Or we can launch from it in unacceptable directions.

But can we say this is something at all (or always) obvious in the fields of art? In pottery? In painting? In music? What things necessarily count as mistakes and who decides whether they are? Are the standards for foundations universally appropriate? And are the directions one can take these foundations already written in stone? Isn’t the point of art that it has at least some flexibility and freedom?

If art beginners often don’t know ‘the rules’ for what they are doing can they properly be said to even be aiming for the same sense of quality? Do they even need those supposed rules to be doing what they are doing?

Without the rules it’s hard to call anything a mistake. A mistake is always qualified by its context. Isn’t it true that unlike aspiring medical students art as a personal expression has no inherent qualification for its practice? We make art for a variety of reasons, not all of which are aimed at the standards of experts. Beginning artists don’t ‘fail’ in the same sense that beginning med students fail at performing cutting edge surgery….. A child’s stick figure drawing is not a failed painting.

Here is the point on which this turns: There is a difference between making a mistake and doing something different.

For instance, we like to say that beginners are like people learning to throw stones at a target. At first they are wide of the mark, but as they learn to calibrate and perfect their technique they get closer and closer. You do it right when you hit the target. You get it wrong when you miss.

Unfortunately in art all the possible rules are not spelled out. Really, few are. And there are a multiplicity of things to aim at. Many seem to contradict one another. The history of art, in fact, has been built by artists overturning the rules and setting out in new directions. And experts, much less beginners, can be forgiven for aiming at things other than our own or society’s accepted preferences.

Question: If we play chess against a person who has all the rules down, but moves the pieces with the sole objective of protecting their pawns, do we say they are still playing ‘chess’? They move the pieces correctly, but it’s as if they don’t really understand the purpose of the game as we do. If they feel they have done well depending on how well they protected their pawns, is it still the same game?

We sometimes like to think there is a broad sense of quality that should embrace all the possibility within a specific field or medium. We sometimes like to think that you can set all the examples of art within a medium side by side and measure them all against a consistent standard of quality. In other words that they can be ranked, one work better than another, one artist better than another. We do this all the time. It’s the basis of juried shows. It’s implicit in the commercial art game. We put folks up on pedestals and we trample the losers underfoot in the scramble to the top. We let cultural arbiters like the galleries and museum curators flex their preferences and consecrate the new next best things. This is how it works. There is a pretense of unbiased objectivity.

But is that really fair? Is it honest? Or is it merely self serving?

If different artists are aiming at different things do we judge them on how well they aimed, their expertise, or what they aimed for? Is there an objective list of virtues for what to aim at?

Is chess better than checkers? Is football better than rugby? Is painting better than sculpture? Abstract Expressionism better than Realism? Isn’t any expression to the affirmative simply an admission of chauvinism? Do we really think the cultural gatekeepers and the establishment are unbiased and egalitarian? Aren’t their credentials, in fact, evidence of their partisanship?

So back to the earlier question of the difference between making a mistake and playing a different game. We often judge the failure of bad art as having made mistakes. In other words, that they got it somehow wrong. But getting the rules wrong implies that the intention is to adhere to that specific set of rules. The incredible freedom of artists is that they have the liberty to invent new games at will. New things to aim at and new ways of getting there. The violence we commit is that we imagine everyone is or should be playing the same game.

Some practices look pretty similar. Some are divided by only slight differences in the rules or objectives. Thinking that there is one objective sense of quality that speaks for all intentions is not only preposterous but rude. Not every beginner even wants to be an expert. Mostly they don’t yet know the difference. Do they need to be judged by those exalted standards?

Wine is a ‘spoiled’ grape, but which is better, the grape or the wine? Vinegar is ‘spoiled’ wine, but which is better, the wine or the vinegar? Quality is always domain specific. There is no independent natural order it inhabits. It is always tied up with the purposes to which we put things. How we aim, in other words.

The main difference between the beginner and the expert is that the beginner simply doesn’t know very many things to aim at.  Its not just about aim.

The scenario that kicked off this discussion more often points to the real and entirely justified preferences of the individuals judging. It doesn’t mean that obvious objective or universally agreed standards have been flouted. The audience and the judges are no more wrong than the artists themselves for making different choices and upholding different standards. Jurying a show is like asking one person to set out the standards and rules for the game we are playing. Is it any wonder that different people want to play different games? The criteria seem to depend on who is in charge.

This may take some getting used to. Its not the conventional wisdom. But the lesson (if there is one) is not to simply assume that we are all playing the same creative games. They are social constructs we sometimes share, but not necessarily. We can agree to play the same or same seeming games, but often our agreement seems implicit. Art, something that often aims at innovation, by definition frequently moves beyond the known, the only reference we might have for established standards of quality.

If we can accept that art is consistently reinventing itself, why would we need to be hung up on issues of quality? If you are playing some specific game, yes, it does matter. But if its a confusion between five card stud and jokers wild, or between gin rummy and go fish, the hand itself won’t tell you how well you’ve done or even necessarily what the game is: You can’t simply look at art and always know what it was aiming at. You can guess. You can interpret after the fact. But if you are trailblazing you ought not to be surprised that others misjudge what you’ve laid on the table. Even if it looks exactly like the game others think you are playing, it can still be something quite different.

So, what is the difference between making a mistake and following different rules? That seems like an important question…..

Peace all!


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, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching, Wittgenstein. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Is the difference between beginners and experts simply a difference in quality?

  1. Wyndham Dennison says:

    In your discourse on art and the beginner winning awards, where the seasoned professional is left out in the cold, I submit that the judges maybe reading into the beginners work something that’s not there. Possibly something the judge or others think they see because “no one would make something so “fill in the blank” without having a profound insight into the meaning of”fill in the blank”.”
    The other possibility is that the judges want to “shake up” the status quo because they have the power to do so,
    As a judge in several art shows and of no great standing in the art community, I found I was choosing the better of all the mundane or at times the better of the mediocre. That was very disheartening but all too real.
    Just my thoughts.

    • Thanks for the perspective, Wyndham!

      I agree that there are plenty of other motives that inspire jurors to choose what they choose. And I think you are too right that the candidates in a jury process often limit what things will be chosen. The purpose of my essay was simply to use that scenario with beginners to open up a discussion on the question of ‘objective’ value.

      I absolutely believe there are standards in most areas of the arts, and the idea of excellence definitely has its place. I’m not afraid of calling out what I consider poor art, but only as it reflects an agreed standard. In a wine tasting, vinegar would fare poorly.

      But it also seems that shows often leave the criteria kind of vague, and we’re not always sure whether its something specific or just the things people do with grapes. Are we always clear that craftsmanship and execution trump content and innovation? Or is it the other way around? Or sometimes one way and at others the other? The medium itself doesn’t dictate a right answer. And so the audience and the artists are often left scratching their heads…..

      As a teacher I have to be careful to allow my students the freedom to express their own ideas. I can encourage them to also see the things that I value, and I can expose them to the traditional values in the field, but in the end its up to them what they will pursue. Every argument I make for values is backed by reasons, but they can refuse the premise of those arguments. I can only show them what things are possible if they do things a certain way.

      In the end, plenty of people prefer to play checkers rather than chess. And the audience is perfectly entitled to go the way of checkers if that’s what they want. I can regret that they often fail to see the value of chess, but its not my place to say they are wrong. The best I can do is to show them chess, and if they like it I will have expanded their world in a new way. I won’t have made it objectively better. Just different. Or so it seems!

  2. John Lowes says:

    Congratulations on being named top pottery blog of 2013. It’s the thoughtful pieces like this one that got you there. I didn’t see an email address to be more direct, so here’s my hurrah.

  3. From a discussion with Brian Eno and Grayson Perry:

    BE……. I was thinking about the differences between the music and art worlds, and one thing that strikes me is that professional musicians are quite happy to share things with each other – their ideas and techniques, the tricks that made them famous. Is that something more characteristic of music than art?

    GP Well, music is more collaborative. In the art world, originality is seen as a precious commodity and it’s increasingly difficult to get because the territory of art is so trampled. I always think that painters are fighting over the last original brushstroke. To find your own voice is incredibly hard. There’s very few people who have a revelatory, original thought; I think they’re almost mythical. Most people start off being someone else and then they make mistakes.

    BE I find it interesting that artists are expected to be able to talk about their work in critical art language now – they have to have “personal statements”.

    GP As someone who uses words a lot in my work, I’ve always enjoyed that aspect of it; but I’ve always been one for clarity, you know. As for the language of the art world – “International Art English” – I think obfuscation was part of its purpose, to protect what in fact was probably a fairly simple philosophical point, to keep some sort of mystery around it. There was a fear that if it was made understandable, it wouldn’t seem important.


    BE One of the messages of contemporary art has been that, well, anyone could do it . . .

    GP Well, that’s something I would refute. But I was thinking about this – how do you become a contemporary artist? Well, you could just say you are one and start doing something, and in a purely literal sense you’ll be right. But you’re never going to have a career that way. As Constable said 200 years ago, the self-taught artists were taught by a very ignorant person. You have to go to art school. You don’t meet an artist in the art world who’s not been to art school. There will be undiscovered geniuses out there in Mali or Brazil or China because they’re not cultures that have been strip-mined by dealers and curators yet. But in the west [phone starts ringing] – Oh my God, sorry about this, it’s so rare for my phone to ring . . .


    GP One of the things I really enjoy doing is drawing with only half my mind on it – so I’ll have a couple of beers and get my pens out, and I’ll sit in front of X Factor, and I’m half watching the telly and half drawing. I don’t give a damn; I’m really free. And at the same time I’m operating because I’ve got my lifetime of experience to bear on it.

    BE Yes, sure – in a way, you liberate that experience.

    GP Yes. I wish I’d stop having fricking ideas and trying to make work that’s got somehow socially applicable.

    BE Do you finish everything?

    GP Not everything, not nowadays. I used to.

    BE I finish so few of the things I start. A lot of the stuff that I’m doing is just seeing how new tools work. So, in order to do that, I try to make a piece of music with it. And often it produces a notebook sketch, really.

    GP Yeah, I am loath to make a cock-up! But creativity is mistakes and if you can’t accept that, don’t get involved.

    BE So that’s a way of saying creativity is letting yourself lose control?

    GP Yeah, you’ve got to do risk. When I was young, I smashed a lot of my early pots because they were crap. In your twenties, you’ve got all that energy, and it’s wild and uncontrolled; in your thirties, you corral it somehow; then in your forties you make the money out of it, and in your fifties, you’re suddenly confronted with being secure. And you’ve got your reputation and you suddenly think, “Well, I could just churn out this work.”

    BE I want it to keep me alive, actually, I don’t want to be the person keeping it alive.

    GP That’s a lovely thought. I was thinking about Henry Darger the other day. Do you know him?

    BE Yeah. Fifteen thousand pictures, they found, when he died?

    GP Yes, he never lived to see his work selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars but it gave him a rich life. And I thought, “Wow, nobody even knew he did it, pretty much.” You look at his paintings, and he’s obviously got some art-historical knowledge, he’s not completely innocent. But I don’t think any outsider art is completely isolated.

    BE I always had the impression it was probably a totally hermetic, personal thing for him. Like someone generating their own pornography; they don’t particularly want to show it to anyone else

  4. Joel Blum says:

    One of the grandest surprises I regularly get from my studio partner is the violation of my asthetics by just wandering off and making up her own rules. I’ve learned to enjoy watching her work in the studio. I sit twitching away as nearly every choice she makes makes me question where she’s going. In the end I just lean back and watch.
    Are their mistakes in her work?
    I wouldn’t know, she doesn’t fly by my rules. She will deliberately do things in her work that I would avoid doing in my own… processes, choices, marks, form, composotition… The list goes on.
    Is her work beautiful and compelling… Yeah… I very much think so.
    Make our own rules, play our own game. Let the audience bring their own ruler, that doesn’t need to be the difinitive measure of our success.

    • Absolutely!

      I think the insight you get from watching another artist work is too often trivialized. We so often focus on the end results alone, and these are often fascinating, but the real magic happens in the decision making of the process itself. When I was in school I always felt that critiques that only looked at finished pieces didn’t have enough information to go on. Its much more interesting to see the process itself, what decisions were made, the hesitation between choices, and the confidence to push forward. Getting to look at another artist at work is one of the best demonstrations that we do make up our own rules, and that there is never only one right way of doing things.

      Great comment, Joel! Thanks for sharing!

      • Joel Blum says:

        Ps… If the game is to sell, its then the rule of the masses that pulls at the vision of the artist like gravity. It’s their asthetics that tend to bind us.
        It takes a special brilliance to successfully break away and maintain self sustained momentem.
        I think that’s what we are all searching for.

        • Yeah, that old art marketplace seems to look over our shoulders at every turn….. And the sad thing is that as soon as we find confirmation that even the direction we took that broke us away can actually sell, the marketplace steps back in and puts pressure on us to continue making the same stuff. The marketplace is promiscuous in that way: It will lie down with even the artists who are trying to get as far away from its influence as possible. You just need to walk the streets of commerce and its there whispering honeyed words in your ear. As long as you’ve got the sell-able product its happy to do business with you. It doesn’t care what it looks like or how much effort you put into it. If it sells its worth doing (double entendre implied).

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  7. Tom Johnson, Jr. says:

    Due to feel.

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  10. From brainpickings:

    “Every book is a sort of machine and this one is no exception. You have to read it to find out how it works.

    What makes a great book? That depends both on the book and the operator… We must acknowledge that greatness recalibrates itself from person to person and book to book. To one reader, “great” may denote unbridled cultural excellence, e.g. the greatness of Tolstoy or Flaubert; to another, it is an exclamation of pleasure, e.g. “One Day by David Nicholls: what a great book!” It may be that when we speak of “a great book” we are referring to a pillar of the Western canon: a classic, in other words. “Great books” of this kind may be important but they are not always straightforward or entertaining. Some, such as Under the Volcano or Ulysses, may require other great books to help make sense of them. Difficulty in a book constitutes a sort of unappealing literary masochism to some; to others it is a measure of artistic genius. Either way, a great book does not have to be a good read to be a great book. Some books become great because the public embraces them en masse; others are judged great by the critical establishment despite public apathy — or even because of it.

    Whether it is great in itself will depend on whether, as you turn the pages, the machine begins to hum; on whether it comes alive and speaks to you.”

  11. Reblogged this on CARTER GILLIES POTTERY and commented:

    It seems about time that I reposted this here…..

  12. Stephen says:

    Hey Carter,

    Couple of points I think always gets missed in these discussions.

    I don’t think years necessarily add up to expert and could mean anything really. You are kind of saying that but I really read you as more saying their naivety with their craft led them in a fresh way an expert may not see as clearly. Maybe true but I think, with pots at least, expert is more likely having thrown hundreds of thousands of pots instead of thousands.

    Hours and number of forms may more accurately reflect experience and from a production standpoint it may well mean more ease with throwing familiar forms and of course speed, so I guess if the point is to say that artist, when applying the 10,000 hours rule, would more likely be closer to that magic 10k hours after so many years then I guess that’s true. Now we have to leap to the conclusion that expert means higher quality and more appealing but nothing about the 10,000 hour, expert conclusion, really means that one pot is nicer than another or will be to a customer looking for a cool morning coffee mug or a cook looking for that great batter bowl.

    I guess I see it as only mattering if the newish potter is selling sub-par pots. If they are only binging professional quality work (in their opinion) then it should be as good as anyone’s. The lack of years does not change the need for quality it just means as a one progresses with their craft they have fewer and few pots that don’t measure up so their failure rate is lower and they make more money or gain ore acceptance (both are not necessarily the point). I am assuming obviously that the new potter knows what a good pot should be and can tell when culling their work. That seems like another discussion to me. Even if you’re newish you should be able to tell which of your pots are crap, marginal and which ones are good. Throw away the crap, keep or give away the marginal and sell the good stuff. The lack of this understanding by some should not paint all new professionals as selling sub-par work. That’s just not fair as some kind of blanket statement, is it?

    The other point is that these ‘experts’ all had a year 1 and a year 2 and a year 3 and so on and I assume they followed the same rule above and only sold good, well made pots in those early years.

    Finally, many of the new artist have been doing what they do without showing/selling their work for years, maybe even decades before going pro, so the ‘new’ artist may well have more experience then the ‘longtime’ pro.

    Great post!



  13. Stephen says:

    just realized this was an old post, I’m a little late to the discussion 🙂

  14. Stephen says:

    and I meant ‘blanket sentiment’ above.

  15. Hey Stephen,

    I accept all your points. I think I was interested in a slightly different connection, namely that potters can aim differently, and in that sense are not always on the same scale. Its not an objective measurement except in so far as we agree what that measurement will be. And sometimes we do have agreements, implicitly or as part of the activity. Its still an open question of whether we always need to agree or whether it is understood that by engaging in an activity we are accepting some specific rules. With pots its no longer simply traditional values we must appeal to. Potters make pots all over the map of possibility, and I think that is a good thing!

    The illusion we are so often captivated by is that we ARE doing the same things. But a bowl is not simply a bowl, once and for all, and in all senses to be measured accordingly. Bowls are a generic form that is a starting point for a potter’s own unique expression. Are your bowls ‘better’ than mine? Are mine ‘better’ than yours? The illusion is that since they are both bowls they can be measured in the same way. You could be aiming at one particular shape, and nail it perfectly, and I could be aiming at something different. What is the comparison? Your standards? My standards? What if I didn’t get exactly what I was aiming at, would it still be considered a ‘good’ pot regardless?

    My point is that we make these judgments too easily without understanding what it is the individual artists are trying to do. Does it even matter what the artists themselves are aiming at? How would it play out that this was NOT important?

    I never bought into the 10k hours rule. I think its lazy thinking. It ignores precisely what I am discussing. There is not some one universal continuum of bad to good, and beginners are not on one end and ‘experts’ on the other. So I totally agree with you when you say “but nothing about the 10,000 hour, expert conclusion, really means that one pot is nicer than another or will be to a customer looking for a cool morning coffee mug or a cook looking for that great batter bowl.” You may have misunderstood me if you thought that I was endorsing the view that experts make better pots. ‘Better’ is such a tangled word. My focus is more on what the aim of artists allows us to say about what we are doing. THAT is what I find interesting, and so often ignored 🙂

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! This stuff is worth talking about 🙂


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