Plain and Simple

I had a really fascinating discussion with one of my students the other day, and one of the things that eventually came up was how ‘simple’ is not the same thing as ‘plain’. He had been talking to his wife about the direction of his pots and she brought up the distinction that some of his forms were so avant-garde that the Average Joe wouldn’t know what to make of them. She was suggesting the point that there is a reason for simplicity. If you want people to feel comfortable drinking from one of your mugs you should perhaps aim at something that says ‘mug’ to them. If you are aiming at ‘high art’ or some more sculptural entity you may not even care whether people drink from your vessels.

The difference for the potter is one of intention, and it plays out in the details of form. But the interesting thing is that on the receiving end it is also a psychological and cultural manifestation. An extremely ‘arty’ mug is not necessarily an object for mainstream ordinary activity. And why is that? Perhaps you will only be talking to the minority who get what you are doing. That seems worth remembering. A ‘mug’ is a socially defined object that has a place in cultural practice. In other words, a functional drinking vessel is something that people know how to use, and this has to coordinate with understanding the shape in just such a way. Some potters choose to flirt with a mug form that does not actually invite use. Does that make sense?

So the question for potters is “Why make mugs?” and “Who do you intend these objects for?” and you can see that the two ideas are related. The nature of simple pots is therefor an issue that often concerns potters: The more outlandish and complex our forms the less we will potentially be speaking to a broad grassroots audience. For some audiences it pays to lower the bar a bit. That’s what his wife was getting at. But what does ‘simple’ actually mean? Shouldn’t that be obvious?

(Get your diving gear on and prepare for bizarre deep sea wonders and alien landscapes as I go off the deep end once again!)

The point I followed up with is that ‘simple’ is perhaps not as simple as it sounds. For instance, its not an objective quality that all people would agree on. One person’s finding things simple is another person’s bafflement at complexity and obscurity. That sounds complicated…… It turns out that ‘simple’ is only simple when its understood to be simple. Gee, that helps a lot! πŸ˜‰

Let me approach this from a slightly different tangent. The transition between simple and complex is also hard to spot. We see it more clearly in the extremes, but so much of life happens somewhere in the middle where things are less obviously contestable or are more easily taken for granted. To be honest, we don’t think about it much. Our comfort zone doesn’t usually raise many red flags, but neither does it challenge us to look deeper. And that makes pinning down the ordinary idea of ‘simple’ anything but simple.

Determining simplicity usually has less to do with the details themselves and more with how we understand them. Like I said above, simplicity is often a measure of our ‘getting it’. We pin the labels where they make sense. Simplicity and complexity are what the mind sees rather than objective facts about the objective world. When we see simple things we are seeing the world as simple.

(We descend deeper and deeper, the glow of top-side fading as the murk closes in about us. The tour guide clicks on the beam of his high powered lantern and things start to take shape in the distance, darting forms among vast encrusted otherworldly sculptures……)

Anyone remember the duck/rabbit thought experiment?

Depending on how you are looking at what you are looking at it will either be a duck or a rabbit or both, but not simultaneously. What this tells us is not some mysterious quality of our mental states but what direction we are prepared to go in how we describe the image, for instance. Seeing it as one thing or the other means we are placing our actions within the context of a particular setting where we know what to do. We have nade sense of some psrt of the world and by that we mean that it connects up with these other ideas and things we can do.

Depending on how you are looking at what you are looking at it will either be a duck or a rabbit or both, but not ordinarily at the same time. What this tells us is not some mysterious quality of our mental states but what direction (under normal circumstances) we are prepared to go. Its a direction in how we describe the image, for instance. Seeing it as one thing or the other means we are placing our possible actions within the context of a particular setting. We are confirming that we know what to do. We have made sense of some part of the world, and by that we mean that it now connects up with these other ideas and things we can do. “The ears go over here, the eye just so, and the mouth like that.” Seeing the image as a duck/rabbit simply means we have a place for this kind of thing in some specific activity. What we call it is part of a web of activities, of which the language game forms a part.

Calling things ducks rather than rabbits, complex rather than simple, just means that we are prepared to talk about these features in this particular way and we have darn good reasons for doing so. There is often a cultural context that makes this seem ‘right’. But, whatever the good reasons we had it may turn out there are also at least potentially convincing reasons to look at things differently. That’s what makes the duck/rabbit image so provocative.

How does this relate to a discussion of simplicity and complexity? Well, calling things one or the other often involves the same sort of determination. No one is denying that it makes sense to call certain things simple and others complex, merely that there are pragmatic consequences of doing so. We are (for instance) engaged in a particular method of describing things, and it makes sense to keep that it mind.

Quick, which is more simple, a pile of a million grains of sand or a group of five grains of sand and two metal ball-bearings?

You can say it both ways and have justification. The justifications are not what we have a problem with, but the multiplicity of possible correct points of view. The divergence of opinions is what confuses us, perhaps. The concept seems to point in more than one direction at the same time.

Its like you are looking at a flower, and someone comes along and tells you that you haven’t really seen it unless you are looking through a high powered microscope. Or that old parable about different unsighted people groping an elephant and imagining what it is based on just the trunk (a snake), a leg (a tree), a tusk (a spear), an ear (a fan), or the tail (a rope) etc……


This all seems important because we tend to judge things relative to how interesting we find them, and the art world has had a thing or two to say about simplicity. Maybe not always simplicity per se, but plainness. The art world is far from objective, and its advocates often have very well defined agendas. Looking at the same object will get different responses in the sense that some may prefer ducks to rabbits, others rabbits to ducks. We tend to interpret the world according to the things we find most important. And ‘simplicity’ is on the out. Does that surprise anyone?

Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art. However much the writer might long to be, in his work, simple, honest, and straightforward, these virtues are no longer available to him. He discovers that in being simple, honest, and straightforward, nothing much happens: he speaks the speakable, whereas what we are looking for is the as-yet unspeakable, the as-yet unspoken.” Donald Barthelme

In the world of Great Art the ‘simple’ is often disqualified as the easy road. Its less deserving of our respect because it wasn’t ‘earned’ to the same extent. Notice the connection in Barthelme’s words between simplicity and the ‘already speakable and already spoken’……… This has serious consequences for potters.

As a potter I am aware of the discrimination much of the art world heaps on pottery. Pottery is the black sheep in part because of its more mainstream aspirations. The more we want ordinary people to use our pots the less thrilled the art world seems to be. The $500 (and therefor unusable) teabowl is ‘better art’ just because of its exclusivity, its lack of ordinariness. The price alone helps to make it extraordinary, and whole institutions are built up to protect and encourage this valuation. Scarcity and value go hand in hand. And this can be seen as a reflection of the relative simplicity demonstrated. What less ordinary thing can there be than the “as-yet unspeakable”, than the exemplary work of art?

‘Simple’ pots are not held in great esteem, but ‘snazzy’ more sculptural ones are, perhaps, shown at least a little respect. Simple is too… simple. The dust of all too many centuries has settled on these pots. Ordinary pottery is hidebound with tradition and, therefor, irredeemably plain. Most pots are simply ‘old-fashioned’ and in need of a thorough dusting if not an ardent sweep out the back door. Or, at least that seems to be the perspective from a certain lofty height.

The reputable art industry wants something more from its artists. They want them to try ‘harder’, be more challenging, offer the viewer a bit ‘more‘. As Barthelme says, “the as-yet unspoken”…… Just what are the rules for the as yet unspoken?

β€œTake some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.
“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”
“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter: “it’s very easy to take more than nothing.”
“Nobody asked your opinion,” said Alice.”

Potters and the high stakes art world are like Alice and the March Hare. Its easy to talk past one another when the common ground is shaky. How can you have ‘more’ when you don’t have any to start? How can you not (at least potentially) have ‘more’ when you don’t have any to start? The disagreement shows two different ways of observing the world. And if we look closely at our daily lives there are many instances where this bifurcation seems present between us and others: We use the same words, point to the same objects, but we don’t mean the same things by them. The different webs of our activities stretch out from them in incompatible directions.

In the same sense that we find ‘simple’ controversial the idea of the ‘plain’ is even more inflammatory. There are times when we want things to be plain. Yes. Clarity seems to warrant plainness rather than exciting complexity. That’s what my student’s wife was speaking to. We need to have that at times.

But not always. Where’s the fun in plain, boring, and dull? They are rarely the stuff dreams are made of. They are never the spice in life. Almost always when we call something “plain” we are casting aspersions. We almost always mean it in a derogatory sense. The difference between ‘plain’ and ‘simple’ is that plain things have already been whooped on. They are defeated. Plain is in the doghouse almost wherever you meet it. ‘Simple’ may not always be great, but the stigma against it is possibly less severe.

Pots aren’t just simple objects to the folks who don’t appreciate them, they are “plain old pottery”. Nothing special. End of story. And when the world has been defined in those negative terms what hope do potters have of reaching that audience? That’s a question many of us seem to ask. Our plainness stifles us.

Is it any wonder that there is this tension between keeping it simple and accessible and jazzing things up and making them interesting? As simple an object as a mug may be, it seems to inevitably point us at a certain schizophrenia. But that’s the plurality of the world talking to us. Our work is accessible in relation to how simple it is and yet not merely plain. How can we not be tormented by this seeming contradiction?

And yet, some potters are not confused. Or don’t care. They know what they want their pots to be and the audience can take it or leave it. The ideas of simple and complex, plain and exciting, are irrelevant to them because their work is focused on their own internal objectives. Their pots are situated in the world almost by accident, as curiosities rather than commodities…… They don’t need to be accessible because they are not aiming for a potential conversation and the common ground that facilitates this. They are pure expression rather than negotiation.

That’s a lot to consider…. What kind of artist are you? Do you care? The more this question matters to you the more these issues might be things you need to grapple with.

(The balast tanks blow and you begin the awkward ascent to the surface. You can come up for air now! Phew! The diving excursion is over, until the next time. Pop the gasket on your pressurized helmet, breathe deeply of the fresh air and take in the radiant sunlight. When you can, go back and meditate on the complexity of subsurface life. The CGPB Underwater Adventure Tour is ready to disembark.)

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

2 Responses to Plain and Simple

  1. Grace says:

    I’ve been chewing on this one for a bit. As someone who uses images of objects and animals on my pots to tell a story, I think about this idea of simple alot. What I’ve come up with is that there are categories in the word “simple”. Some simple work holds an ambiguity and depth that provokes a feeling and invites you to think more while other simple work are just that. I can tell the difference when I see it but I can’t always say why. I also don’t have good names for the different categories.

    • So much of how we observe the world fits what you just described: Easy to spot, hard to say why. That’s the issue with living on the inside of a way of life. We take so many things for granted and they become second nature. We don’t need to look any deeper because we have the feeling that these things are staring us in the face. They are obvious to us, at least. The “Why?” questions are often irrelevant to how we navigate our way around. There is no controversy that would call the ‘whys’ into question. We do, and that’s often enough……

      I’d be interested to hear what you can say about these different categories. I’m sure there are plenty of us that would relate to what you describe. It would be fascinating to see where the duck you are describing becomes another person’s rabbit, too. Our disagreement about the world is often more illuminating than our agreements. Tolerance and empathy depend on our willingness to step outside of ourselves.

      Tell us more if you get the chance! πŸ™‚

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