Personality and character reflected in art

“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?

Tom White's mug collection, including pots by Gay Smith, Michael Hunt, Linda Christianson, Bruce Gholson, Sam Taylor, Barbara Knutson and Allison Severance

Tom White’s mug collection, including pots by Gay Smith, Michael Hunt, Linda Christianson, Bruce Gholson, Sam Taylor, Barbara Knutson and Allison Severance

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?

Peace all!

Happy potting!


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, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, Imagination, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Personality and character reflected in art

  1. Thank you for making me laugh out loud with the paragraph that ended with, “But without a good personality they can be dull as door knobs.” I agree that our pots have to have a certain balance of character and personality, and I think it’s hard to not rush toward the personality end when it seems like that’s the popular mark and you might get trampled if you stay in the character side. I think personality and character also relate to our world as artists in the way we market ourselves too. Particularly at shows, I think you have to have a certain balance of extrovert to be able to talk to customers, and yet a certain amount of character to be honest and engaged- a person with a lot of character always seems to be more engaging (when not like a door knob).

    • Thanks for the comment, Brenda!

      Glad you saw humor in that paragraph. It really is a balance we should strive for. And I’m glad you described this in extrovert/introvert terms as well. I do think the introvert aspect of making pots has a lot to do with the internal workings of our systems of value. Not exclusively, but it seems more readily found there. And I agree that the extrovert nature of doing public business definitely calls on aspects of personality in how we engage an audience, though as you point out a healthy dose of character can also be valuable.

      I hope that looking at our artistic practice in these terms helps shed light on the choices we make, and potentially gives us new options, or opens doors where we otherwise might not have recognized them.

      Thanks for being a part of the conversation!

      I also enjoyed your taking that article on “do what you love” to task on your blog. I absolutely loathe the point of view that the workplace environment defines us and always acts as a given. I think we need to act as human beings first, and nurture the values we have as living creatures before we get categorized into the tidy boxes of professional this or that. The amazing thing about being human is that we can find enjoyment in so many places. And its not wrong that we should aim ourselves in this way. I think its our human responsibility to find the things we enjoy doing, and employment is not excluded from that.

      An interesting fact of Psychology is that we don’t just do what we already like, but that doing a thing also often leads to our liking it. That’s just amazing! And that includes work situations. We find things to enjoy as we experience new things about the world. We grow and evolve. There may be no inherently unlikeable ‘jobs’ if people can learn to find the aspects that make it rewarding for them. Sometimes it can be as simple as believing in what you are doing, finding fulfillment in that, or even who you get to work alongside. Sometimes your co-workers can be all the positive incentive needed to make what you are doing enjoyable.

      A job description can only capture what one does, not how one feels about doing it. The jobs themselves don’t define whether they are liked or not. Sometimes a great sounding job with a bad boss or co-worker can be all it takes to ruin it. Shouldn’t we want to have rewarding and enjoyable employment? And isn’t it up to us to decide what that will be?

      That author just sounds like she thinks she has it all figured out and is willing to make that determination for the rest of us. She’s telling a group of people that they are not even entitled to dream of a better life. They won’t like what they are doing, so they’d better get used to it. How incomprehensibly wrong that is. How sad to live in her world…..

      Work isn’t an isolated fact about the universe, its a context. Perhaps it can be more challenging in some circumstances, and there can be conflicts with other aspects of our being, like doing things we already have negative opinions/beliefs about or ethical complications with. And maybe sometimes you don’t have a choice. Not every job will be nurturing to every person in the same ways. But we can always look for that nourishment.. We are not crazy to like doing what we do, and we are not crazy to aim ourselves at the things that we do like. That’s my take on it, at least…..

      Thanks for raising this issue on your blog. Happy potting!

      • Thanks for your notes on my blog post the other day. I agree that it is a human right and responsibility to enjoy what you do, whether that is in terms of “work” or otherwise. Your point about the psychological aspect of doing something (perhaps new) leading to learn that we enjoy that experience is a really good one. I always tell students and interns to experience as many jobs and fields they are interested in, because only by doing the things you think you may be interested in, or even those you are not, you will find what you truly enjoy doing.

        As a follow-up, your post here on personality vs. character stuck with me over the past few days and I just posted a blog post ( about a TED Radio Hour snippet that caught my ear with the concepts of charisma and leadership and how they, like personality and character, play parts in the world of art and how we “market” ourselves and our work.

        Thanks for the conversation!

        • That’s a really good point about having students and interns test out as many things as possible. The one bit of wisdom I carried with me to college was that people on average change careers 7 times throughout their lives. Not just jobs, but careers. That took the pressure off feeling like my employment had to define me. It also helped me recognize that we move through this world, and especially our employment, by discovering what we don’t like, and then moving on to different things. We don’t know in advance how we will feel about it, but we get to eliminate the ones that are not good fits by trial and error. Much like what you are advocating.

          I’ll read your blog post when I get a chance.

          Thank you for the conversation!

  2. John Bauman says:

    excellent post.

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  4. Joel Blum says:

    I’d like to think that by striving for quality craftsmanship each and everytime, quality becomes habitual and instinctive. I guess maybe the word “routine” might be appropriate.
    Its the shift from that of craftsman to artist that elivates those above so many.
    The problem often isn’t in the shift, but in the quality of the foundation. If the hand of the maker doesn’t know quality, it’ll be an uphill struggle to discover that make it an attribute of their own work.
    At the same time, giving personality and voice to work takes practice as well. There’s no easy road.
    Our heros are confident hands and creative storytellers.

    • Joel Blum says:

      Ps.. You are touching on something very significant in American culture that I think is getting short shrift.
      It’s this idea of not just “personality”, but “Rock Star” personality.
      Its a concept whose function is to continually raise the bar for excellence. Who’s standard are we raising the bar too? Well that’s entirely up to us, not the establishment. Admittably, it is a popularity contest, but that is what it is. We need more Rock Stars leading by example not less. More craftsmen putting their standards in the ring to be tested, not less. More thinkers pointing out, articulating, and sharing underlying concepts and ideas that propel our hands to reach towards standards. More makers sharing their journey and thereby giving the next generation to strive towards their visions, take risks, fail, and succeed, defiantly not less.
      On a micro level, my community would be very well served with just a handful of Rock Star personalities in the arts stirring the pot. Any community would be. The personalities are what lets us dream beyond who we see ourselves as who we want to be. It’s entertainment on an vibrant level and can get very engaging and cerebral.
      On the larger stage, we need the up and comings to learn to be the cheerleaders and entertainers. Our media isn’t served well in the long run by telling people to get off the tabletops and sit down.
      I believe that as important as it is to foster character in our work, (and ourselves) its also equally important to foster engaging dynamic personalities as well.
      Neglecting fostering this balance is a path of diminishing returns for everyone and the Arts and Crafts defiantly can’t afford that.

      • I would say that, yes, balance is the big issue. One problem I see is that the arts industry often gets driven primarily by big personalities to the exclusion of lesser known artists. Reputation ends up meaning more than quality. Its not always a level playing field. Sometimes just being in the right place at the right time gets you a hand up. Our success ends up being more about how we market ourselves than the work itself.

        I’m not saying this is how it always plays out, but it does often enough that it should possibly concern us.

        But its hard not to praise and be thrilled by the rock stars! I once shared an elevator with Don Reitz at NCECA back in the 90’s. That moment will live in my memory til the day I die. Its funny that I don’t have this rock star worshipful attitude toward Ron Meyers and Michael Simon. Maybe its because I know them both personally that they seem very human to me. Not that I’m not still in awe of them. Its just that my respect is flavored with friendship. Its hard to imagine people as down to earth as those guys being Rock stars….

        That being said, living in Athens has also had me rubbing elbows with genuine rock stars. My next door neighbor was the drummer for the Counting Crows, and I’ve had beers with Michael Stipe. Those guys are pretty much regular human beings too. No weirder than I am, I suppose…..

        It just seems like the idea of ‘Rock Stars’ is a glamour perpetrated on our intelligence. As much as we admire these people from a distance they are only human beings close up. The distortion of that distance is the unreal and unnatural part. Its even dangerous at times. You see the extremes that the really big timers have to go to to get some privacy.

        In the end, I’d just suggest a bit of caution in how deeply we buy into the marketing of personalities. As Julia Roberts says in this clip from the film Notting Hill, “The fame thing isn’t really real”

        Makes me cry every time….

    • Well put, Joel! No easy road, indeed.

      Keeping these separate in our minds does seem important to an extent. Sometimes it seems artists use personality as a substitute for quality while others see only quality without much personality. Both have their places I suppose, but I’d like to think that we can also keep our eyes on both things at the same time, and that the issue of quality does not predispose our work to only specific types of personality.

  5. Jess says:

    Broadly, you can equate the “character” artists to introverts and “personality” artists to extroverts. Think of a party scenario, the extroverts shine but hold no more special insight on the subject of conversation than the introvert. Both have valid points but who is most likely to be heard: “the personality/extrovert”.
    Then what of entertainment?…. and do we not, as artists, entertain? Unfortunately and fortunately, the flashy, up front, and immediate entertainment is noticed first. Come to think of it, I don’t hear the “personality” artist complain except for “too much attention and no time for work”. That is very little complaining compared to the generally-less noticed “character” artist. Maybe the art world does need more Rock Stars…. maybe a giant wooden Rock star at the gates of fame with a bunch of “character” artists inside? ( I can see that as an interesting performance piece) Hmmm. I think it is easy for “character” artists to be comfortable, as you said, with making solid work yet forgetful to enthusiastically present the work. Can the “character” artist rely on the art to explain itself? In this less art educated…. culture lacking America (maybe even world), I don’t think that is a reasonable expectation. From a maker’s stance, It is time for me to play ball with the personalities, stop reinventing the wheel, put on a wig and flash some work.

    Thanks for the post and look forward to more.

  6. This is delightful and super intelligent. This is one bright grounded young man:

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