“To some extent, we’ve always had an admiration for extroversion in our culture. But the extrovert ideal really came to play at the turn of the 20th century when we had the rise of big business. Suddenly, people were flocking to the cities, and they were needing to prove themselves in big corporations, at job interviews and on sales calls. …
“We moved from what cultural historians call a culture of character to a culture of personality. During the culture of character, what was important was the good deeds that you performed when nobody was looking. Abraham Lincoln is the embodiment of the culture of character, and people celebrated him back then for being a man who did not offend by superiority. But at the turn of the century, when we moved into this culture of personality, suddenly what was admired was to be magnetic and charismatic.
“At the same time, we suddenly had the rise of movies and movie stars. Movie stars, of course, were the embodiment of what it meant to be a charismatic figure. So, part of people’s fascination with these movie stars was for what they could learn from them and bring with them to their own jobs.” Susan Cain from an NPR interview (for more insight please check out Susan’s book ‘Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking‘, pages 21 – 33)
The main difference between character and personality is that character is something to a large extent inwardly driven and personality is something outwardly directed. In other words, doing the right thing regardless of how others perceive it would be an issue of character, while doing what it takes to please other people would be an issue of personality. Being good versus being likable. You can be concerned with how you feel about yourself and you can worry about how others think of you. Its a difference between quality, and appearance or expression.
How does this translate to art? Well, I just discussed the idea of quality as a thing that reflects particular practices and conventions, and these can be personal or widely agreed upon. Quality isn’t independent of human culture and the ideals one lives with. So it must also be true that character conforms to these aspects of quality as well. In a sense, character aims at normative standards. The goal is a kind of conformity, even if the standards are purely one’s own. And you can see the ideals of character quite differently manifested across cultures and over time.
Personality, on the other hand, aims at making an impression and specifically what things make that person or thing unique. It values popularity because that’s where personality stands out.
People with good characters are all very well and nice. They are sincere and dependable. They are forthright and honest. They love their mothers. They tip generously. They don’t cheat at cards. They feed the neighbor’s cats. But without a good personality they can be dull as door knobs.
A good personality is the life of the party. It tells all the good jokes and puts people at ease. Being of good character doesn’t mean being exciting or engaging. Being good is not the same thing as being desirable. A good character is not necessary or even important for standing out from the crowd and being identifiable. Personality is why car companies use attractive models and famous people to advertise their cars. Its why potters put blue glazes on pots. When the aim is to make an impression, you look to personality.
So again, how exactly does this relate to art?
A good (character) pot is not the same thing as an exciting (personality) pot. A good mug holds enough liquid, keeps it warm, fits the hand nicely, isn’t too heavy to use, was put together with solid craftsmanship, and doesn’t break when you set it down. An exciting pot can be colorfully decorated, it can have outrageous shapes or surface embellishment, has all the memorable bells and whistles, and stands up as something with an identity, front and center.
There are plenty of people who are good actors, and we can admire their work. But the ones with personality are often the ones we pay attention to. You get to be a movie star more often by having the right personality. And that’s why actors are sometimes typecast: They have the right image for the parts they play. They can be hired based on their reputation or for bringing the right personality to the role rather than how good an actor they are. Some actors seem to play themselves, regardless of the role. And sometimes that’s just fine. But could we imagine Jim Carey playing Ghandi instead of Ben Kingsley? The mind boggles….
So you can also see that personality fits into the ideals of branding that I discussed in this other essay. With an emphasis on brand, artists try to make their work stand out as unique and identifiable. Its more about the impression created, that the work will be memorable and unmistakable, uniquely their own. Its why so may actors seem to think that smiling and looking gorgeous is what acting is all about. The ancient Greeks knew how important this was when they proclaimed Helen of Troy the face that launched a thousand ships. Subtlety and nuance be damned!
There is obviously a lot to admire about solid character, but we are not wrong to put personality on a pedestal at times. There truly is a lot to like about winning personalities. We love the work of icons because it does stand out. We collect their work if we can afford it, not because they are good pots (and they may be good pots) but because we want to own one of THEIR pieces. We want them because they are special. They have an aura of personality. There are plenty of equally good pots we don’t like and don’t want. Isn’t that true?
And as artists ourselves, we can aim at making good pots, but we can also aim at making specifically these pots with this particular personality. If we were just interested in making good pots the personality would be irrelevant. And if we are only interested in the personality we can sometimes forget about the issues of quality. We’d sometimes rather make this pot expressing these traits than worry whether it was any good. Sometimes we put personality first, and sometimes second. Its confusing, isn’t it?
What would it be like to truly put quality first? What would it be like to make the best pot possible, and let the personality take a backseat? Would we be concerned with Branding? Would we be playing the establishment art game that asks us to make coherent and consistent work? That’s a question, isn’t it?
So where am I going with this?
I think most decent potters try to make solid character work, they try to make good pots, but I sometimes get the impression that even artists I admire are sometimes more concerned with latching onto a personality than in making independently good pots. Its as if they’ve forgotten that quality is independent of style. I think you can do both. Most good artists do do both. But the pressures of branding have too often put one specific personality in the driver’s seat. Its the trap that focusing on personality can lead to.
I think that the more you can keep these two issue clear in your thoughts the less likely you will be committed to bending the knee to institutional branding. We almost accept by default that branding is either necessary or inevitable, but its not. If you sincerely want to make a good pot, that tells you nothing about what personality it might have. The personality is an open question. We can even fit the personality to the occasion (We don’t usually tell jokes at funerals, We don’t need to be the center of attention at our best friend’s wedding, and we don’t wear sexy lingerie to go shopping…..). The point is that we should not feel locked into one mode of expression, the creative version of ‘one size fits all’. There is power in realizing that. Or there should be.
So my hope is that this discussion is one more reason artists might have to stretch beyond limited signature styles and singular creative ‘voices’. It seems worth thinking about. If you want to make a good pot, it could be anything. Maybe that’s a freedom worth exploring. Right?