Unbridled joy


Picture a herd of wild horses roaming the plains. No bridles. No saddles. No masters. Free to go where the desire takes them. Untamed. Not chained up or put in cages. No Brand……

There is a thread of conversation on the pottery webs right now that concerns my favorite pet subject. If you’ve read this blog for a while you might even think I was beating a dead horse (to continue the equine imagery). But I’m not the only one who is interested in this topic. Its often even a default presumption of the way things supposedly work, that brands are important for artists. Some artists are content to heat the iron and sear their own creative flesh, while others look for ways to escape the pens and roam free and unbridled.

Ceramic artist/blogger Tracey Broome opened this latest round of conversation by posting “Branding” and “Branding 101“, to which Michael Kline responded “The Spin“. In the comments Meg Chernack Beaudoin responded to Michael, and I responded to her.

If there is one thing that blogs can do well its to give a forum for ideas and conversations that are worth thinking about. Maybe even if enough people are discussing them and are willing to challenge the accepted wisdom, mythologies, and superstitions we can someday change things. As theoretical physicist Max Planck suggested with science, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Things are unlikely to change dramatically in our own lifetimes, but perhaps we can lay the groundwork for different thinking about this topic in the future if enough of us are willing to make it part of our conversations, how we teach, how we make things, and how we live. Maybe our children and all future aspiring artists can grow up without a brand being inflicted on them.

Michael asks the central question that seems the largest stumbling block for artists. He asks:

Is it possible to have a great time, enjoy what we make, AND enjoy some modicum of success? Maybe the first thing for each of us to do to brand or re brand, is to define success. What is enough? Can we be more aware of what we really enjoy doing and do MORE of whatever that is?

And can we give up what we don’t enjoy doing?

Seems a little simplistic, but I guess it’s a start.

Meg’s response was:

I have significant trouble with this whole notion of branding. In my pre-clay life when I was a psychologist/psychoanalyst I had the same exact problem with the push for having a specialization, a niche, really an appearance of an expertise that would bring in particular “customers”. I just never believed in it, thought what I was doing was good psychotherapy at a deep level and that might be different for individual different people but it wasn’t different for any subgroup. Specialization perhaps is valid for some fields. I guess I wouldn’t choose my family practice doc to do my spine surgery but even in medicine we know the problems that specialization brings. With pottery it seems to me something essential is is at best bypassed, at worst distorted, by applying this zeitgeist of specialization and its marketing version of branding to what we do as artists. I know that we are pushed by the culture we live in to believe that if we “just” make the best pottery we can and don’t brand ourselves we will forgo all the sales we would get if we marketed (sold) ourselves but I wonder if this has to be true or whether we all keep it being true by living by it. Thanks for opening up the discussion Michael. Joy doesn’t sound the least bit hokey to me.

To which I responded:

I’m with you on this, Meg. I cringe whenever the idea of branding gets brought up for artists. It does seem to be an ideology that perpetuates itself by our willingness to buy into it. Aspiring potters are even taught the importance of ‘finding their voice’ as if this were somehow either necessary or inevitable.

You can’t deny, however, that the system of patronage and gallery representation deals mostly with satisfying expectation and the conformity of creative consistency. Most graduate art programs also seem to require that their applicants demonstrate a coherent body of work. So there is all this outside pressure on artists to toe the line, and there are undeniable perks in the establishment for doing so. But I think you are right that those expectations are not universal.

The art game of brand recognition is not played by every customer who comes to a sale. Many people just buy what they like. Which seems exactly the counterpart of the artist making what they enjoy. Which quite naturally SHOULD be all over the place. Why would our artistic expression be the least free thing we do?

The difficulty is that there is insidious internal pressure to crank out what sells rather than simply making what appeals to us. And the confusion between the two motives only reinforces the idea of branding and consistency. Most selling artists end up making work that loosely fits their ‘brand’ whether they set out to do so or not. Seeing what other people like (and are willing to pay for) is a powerful inducement to keep trotting the same thing out…..

I’m sure you could also tell us about the Overjustification Effect. From what I understand, once we trade the intrinsic motivation for doing a thing (doing it because we enjoy it or believe in it) for the extrinsic motivation of exchanging it for a few dollars, its also possible to lose sight of why we were doing it in the first place. We can end up making pots simply to pay the bills, and the memory of doing it for fun can dim and disappear….

So Micheal’s suggestion of keeping the enjoyment clear in our motivations seems absolutely vital. Even if we play the art game it is important to remember why we are doing this art thing in the first place: Because its what we loved doing. I just wish these issues were more talked about, and that the extrinsic pressures from the marketplace and the art establishment were not so powerful. As powerful as these pressures are, they are neither necessary nor inevitable. Joy doesn’t sound hokey to me either.

So I ask you, can your art be a reflection of unbridled joy? Not the joy of cubicle dwellers, that is. Not subservient to a master’s whim. That seems like an important question. Perhaps, even, there will be a future where artists are not these caged beasts that their owners trot out for their own prestige or to plow their fields. As soon as we put the brands on its like we are bowing our necks to the yoke. Its like we are resigning ourselves to living as beasts of burden. Why are so many artists happy to take the hot iron up and place the brand themselves? Don’t we value our freedom sufficiently?

Things to think about…..

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

20 Responses to Unbridled joy

  1. Meg says:

    One could argue that branding is the antithesis of what is essential in art since branding requires uniformity and is aessentially a “reproduction”. But the external stressors of the marketplace and the art establishment as you said, along with the internal stressors of needing money and love combine to make it very difficult to stay true to ones work, to really produce and not just reproduce!

    • Glad you wandered on over to my blog Meg!

      I thought your comment was spot on, and I’m excited for someone with a Psychology background to weigh in on this topic. This seems like such an important issue moving forward, for ALL the arts. I’m so glad we can talk about this sort of thing in an open minded way. The art establishment has written the script for us for too long. Time for individual artists to stick up for themselves and give voice to the downtrodden. Its a voice that needs to be heard.

      Thanks for the follow up comment as well! So nice to meet you here in the aether!

  2. John Bauman says:

    I want in on the conversation too. I just don’t write quickly. Last month I spent two hours on the phone with a potter talking about the whole issue of branding.

    Branded, scorned as the one who ran.
    What do you do when you’re branded,
    And you know you’re a man.

    I’ll get around to it. I’ve been writing about theology all morning. :^)

    • I’m wondering to what degree it’s relevant that this quote is from a guy who eventually put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

      • I’m interpreting this as “When you give up on enjoyment you have suffered a kind of death”. It seems fairly true that being motivated purely by extrinsic reasons is not a great recipe for enjoyment, and that it does often lead to a kind of stasis and merely going through the motions. So I’m taking this to advocate for finding the joy rather than what one does in its absence. Look for the things you can be passionate about. Focus on that. The stronger interpretation would be that “There is no reason for living if we’re not enjoying things”, and perhaps that explains his suicide. That’s pretty bleak.

        The problem with that interpretation is that death is final. Unless you believe in heavenly rewards. There’s no going back in any event. Its giving up on the chance that you can find new ways to enjoy things. Its giving up on the idea that there ever again might be reason for us to smile on that trip up and down the hill. In the absurdity that is human life, many things are possible. One or more bad turns doesn’t write our entire future in stone. The odds are that many unhappy people will discover new joys later in life. If there is no ultimate meaning to life, how do we find purpose? It seems that purpose is best found in the things we enjoy, the things we look forward to. And we can discover new things to enjoy right up to our death beds. So it also seems important to look to the things you personally care about. It seems important to affirm life, not death. Affirm the possibility. That’s why I prefer the weaker version.

        If the cup is half empty its also half full. Does it even matter? The real question is, what are you going to do about it. How will you act in the world? If its one trip up the hill and another back down, no objective meaning, no heavenly embrace waiting for us at the end, we must find our own reasons to smile.

        That’s my take, at least….

        • CG,

          I guess this came to mind because I recently read an interview with David Foster Wallace that was chock full of great observations by him — real “mark that down and try to live by it” stuff. But I have a lot of trouble squaring that apparent wisdom with the fact that the person expressing it eventually committed suicide. Maybe this is just my deal; I’m probably oversimplifying a vastly complex issue. But when I see stuff like this now, I can’t help but think those quotes should have a big asterisk next to them, like home runs in the late 90’s or anything Lance Armstrong ever did on a bike.

        • No, I think its just proves the essential point that human beings are contrary and contradictory beings. One of the first truths I learned is that to be human is to be a hypocrite. Don’t expect consistency! Unless you are an artists selling to a gallery, heh, heh….

        • Yeah, I’m not looking for consistency so much as thinking in terms of “consider the source”. It seems like taking life advice from someone who chose to stop rolling their rock prematurely is an iffy proposition. I dunno.

          On the other hand, maybe someone like Hemingway or Wallace is an excellent source of advice. Maybe that’s exactly the person to listen to; a cautionary tale, a long list of qualifiers and caveats instead of the usual tidy maxims.

          To put it in different terms, is it better to get financial advice from someone who’s busted out and lost it all or someone who’s currently sipping champagne in the back of a limo?

          As usual, I’m stumped.

        • I like to think that we all make mistakes, some of them really big ones. Considering the source almost denies that mistakes happen, and even that mistakes are sometimes valuable lessons. Sometimes cautionary tales, but also sometimes new avenues to explore (which was part of the point in my post about the difference between beginners and experts).

          This addiction to advice from only the Champagne sippers also gets us into territory of the Survivorship bias, so I also think there’s things to be learned from folks who set out to do one thing, but somehow also failed.

          Besides, general advice like that always musses the nuance. It is insight, like a light being shined on a room, but its not the map for how exactly we must navigate the room itself. Or, if it is a map, the map is not the territory. Advice is all very well and good, but its not a replacement for living.

          That’s my take, at least…..

      • Meg says:

        Actually i don’t think joy and fun are the same thing

  3. Especially interesting just before the 2 minute mark and beyond:

  4. meg says:

    Well I think that David Foster Wallace was a pretty wise guy and what he says is worth taking seriously despite the fact that he was ultimately in so much pain that he couldn’t keep living. That is of course very very sad but I think all we can conclude from that is that it is possible to be smart about fundamentals in life and still not able to live. We are complex beings, yes? Hemingway on the other hand, I don’t think he and I would agree about what is fun anyway! But what about the concept of fun? It was not fun in the studio today. I am working on a new idea and it is hard to get it to work out and that doesn’t feel good, not fun. But, that doesn’t come close to making me question the joy that is inherent in my work. Joy, that is something else. Boredom, I would agree, is a joy killer, or at least a sign that joy has been killed off. I liked hearing what Brouillard had to say about the gallery not being able to show his work together in one show. How could it not be coherent being made by one maker?! This has so much to do with the narrowness of thought and spirit that is wedded to what sells.

    • I think you have the right of it: “it is possible to be smart about fundamentals in life and still not able to live.” That’s part of what I meant about our fundamental inconsistency, and even how it makes us a bit hypocritical in some ways: “Do what I say, not what I do”…..

      I had to think a bit about the distinction between fun and joy that you raised yesterday, and I agree that we don’t talk as if they were the same thing. We use the word ‘fun’ to describe activities and we use the word ‘joy’ to describe an emotional state. The way these things connect is that things that are fun almost always bring us joy of one sort or another (Can you think of exceptions? I suppose its possible to use the words that way, but would we understand what someone meant by them? What would it be like to have fun but not enjoy it?). So you might say that all fun things are ordinarily contained in the domain of what brings us joy. However, joy seems to extend a bit farther than those fun things, as you describe in your studio example. Fun also seems to be specific in a sense that joy isn’t always. For instance, you can say that playing soccer is sometimes fun, always fun, or never fun, but as long as its at least sometimes fun you can also say you enjoy playing soccer. Enjoyment has this quality of generality. When you say less specifically that playing soccer is fun, it still admits the possibility that sometimes its not fun. And saying we don’t enjoy it at those times shows the link between fun and enjoyment that I talked about above. The description of our enjoyment isn’t always (but sometimes is) as instance specific as a declaration of fun. You can say that you enjoy soccer even though you are not enjoying it right now, and this is not an inconsistency. Enjoyment seems to have this potential for ambivalence perhaps because of its more general quality.

      In the end, I don’t think there is an underlying metaphysical reality that distinguishes these things. There are differences in the world, yes, but its not necessary to describe them in only one particular way. How we speak about things is embedded in our way of life. Its all about the conventions of how we describe ourselves and the world and what we do in it. ‘Fun’ is a part of speech that describes some things, and ‘joy’ is a part of speech that describes other things, sometimes in a related way. We mean different but related things by them. They share a kinship in the practices we have of describing certain aspects of the world. Those are my thoughts just off the top of my head this morning. How do you see the difference?

      I think your question ” How could it not be coherent being made by one maker?!” strikes at the heart of the problem. In a sense what we make always manifests something from the source. Its almost a logical proposition. The only exceptions would be in the case of our decisions leading to truly random outcomes or in the case of schizophrenia. Other than those exceptions on that basic level it seems true. But this doesn’t tell us what in particular gets manifest. And that’s the point that I find interesting. It really could be just about anything. There is no limit, really, on how we express ourselves or what we express.

      This is why the idea of voice has become so insidious in the industry. In the sense that our voice always represents us, and that we can ‘hear’ who is talking we expect a coherence of identity. Our voice is how we naturally express ourselves. But the interesting thing is that we can modulate our voices. We can put our voices to different purposes. We can talk and we can shout. We can scream and we can sing. We can express love poems and we can spew hate. Really, the individuality of voice is such an unimportant part of what gets expressed in most circumstances.

      Sometimes the voice resonates and is perfect for the message. That seems true. Martin Luther King’s speeches would be so different to our ears if someone else had spoken them. Was it necessary to the movement that he said those words? In a sense, it probably was. But this shows the difference of priorities between larger cultural significance and the elements of our expression themselves. If its important to know who is talking, then its important that particular individuals are heard. And since the art establishment is so strongly built on the reputations of artists recognition plays a dominant role. It has turned into a culture of celebrity, much like our culture at large. Its often more important to be recognized than that we have anything worth saying. As long as the right person is saying it, the rest almost doesn’t even matter. Which sounds kind of backwards to me. Its what I hate most about the art scene. Its why branding of artists is so offensive to me. But then, I’ll probably see any movie that has Matt Damon in it. Does that make me inconsistent? I suppose we just have to live with being inconsistent creatures, or I do at least…..

      That’s what it seems like to me this morning at 10:17. Tomorrow I may feel differently. Isn’t that grand!

  5. Pingback: Personality and character reflected in art | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  6. “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
    -Steve Jobs

  7. “…in the long run there results something for which it is worth the trouble of living on this earth as, for example, virtue, art, music, the dance, reason, the mind—something that transfigures, something delicate, mad, or divine…”
    –Friedrich Nietzsche

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