Art and Exhibition

Do you exhibit your art? Are you an ‘art’ exhibition-ist? Are you, in fact, an exhibitionist? Does exhibition live comfortably in your psyche, in your soul? Is putting yourself out there for public consumption nothing awkward, nothing against your normal persona, and possibly even something you enjoy? Do you like strutting your stuff and scrambling for your 15 minutes of fame? Is living in the limelight exactly where you need to be?

When you put it like that it becomes an interesting question.

We live in a world where extroversion is taken as the norm. Introverts are often seen as people with a problem. They like keeping to themselves more than is healthy and don’t fully embrace La Dolce Vita. They need to be ‘fixed’, as if something is broken inside them. An affliction. Introverts are often happiest when they are by themselves or with small groups of friends, their family, or partner. Crazy, right! Its not that they can’t be sociable on occasion, act casual in the midst of a social storm, but that doing so is not always agreeable to them or in their own best interest…… Surely we must save them from themselves?

So we have this default in our society that often misunderstands the introvert as somehow deficient, as somehow abnormal, as somehow anti-social. And the parallel to how society understands artists can quite easily be drawn. We expect artists to be exhibitionists. We think that if you are not putting your work out there with the abandon of extroversion you are somehow doing it wrong. Starving artists are almost a type of sociopath. They just don’t understand that lurking in the shadows makes them dangerous. They don’t understand that wearing the occasional lampshade at parties is proof that you belong to society……

If your ‘Exhibition Record’ doesn’t include things like “Danced partially naked at the Normal Bar in front of 150 strangers, February 12th, 1994”, “Got sloppy drunk and proposed marriage to five marginal acquaintances, June 23rd, 2007”, or “Sang the entire Oklahoma song list in the subway train on the way to work, November 3rd, 2012” somehow the word is that you are missing the point. Don’t let the highlight of your ‘Exhibition Record’ be tame things like “Smiled at a complete stranger as we crossed paths, September 27th, 1972”. Right? More is better. Ostentatious extroversion trumps milquetoast introversion the way the world plays out.

We tend to think that the ‘normal’ way of being an artist is that we get up on the commercial stage and flog our wares. We expect an artist to be this almost flamboyant purveyor of their own creativity. The good ones are always the eccentric ones. ‘Selling it’ means getting out there and putting on a show for the customers. The work doesn’t speak for itself (quite often), so we have to spin the stories, weave the yarns, and tell the tall tales to get our creative progeny successfully to market.

But don’t ask an introvert to do that naturally (or often well). Its a model built on extroversion and exhibitionism…… The values of the marketplace are the qualities of extroverts. That seems important to acknowledge.

Astonishingly, perhaps, not every artist is a natural extrovert. Being a professional artist simply means that for some of us there are competing values in our lives. And our occasional native introversion may be called on to bear the burden of sacrifice. You can’t sell work unless you put it out there, and there may be nothing more contradictory to staunch introverts than doing so. This seems worth pointing out. It seems worth thinking about.

Not that every artist is an introvert at heart, or that even the introverts among us are all as threatened by the seeming need for ‘professional extroversion’. I’m just pointing out that the environment of the selling arts is not based on or even nurturing to the psychological make-up of many folks who are artists. If we haven’t looked at the situation from this perspective we are likely missing something that is important.

Society operates on all sorts of defaults, and our expectations and understanding are often ruled by how these divisions are constituted. Maybe we need to investigate a bit deeper.

Take for instance the prejudice we seem to have concerning our inhibitions. To be inhibited means “unable to act in a relaxed and natural way because of self-consciousness or mental restraint.” Its a restraint of something that is assumed to be our natural state. Being “self-conscious” is somehow the wrong state of affairs. And inhibition is therefor something that is looked at as being unnatural. We expect ourselves to be fully free in exhibiting ourselves. Unselfconscious. Do you see where I’m going?

There is some confusion in our language about the ins and outs of our world, interior and exterior. ‘In-‘ and ‘ex-‘ divide the world, and as with other divisions we often seem to attach values to the way things fall out. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ are qualities assigned to things according to how we feel the world is supposed to be. And in a world dominated by the values of extroversion is it any wonder that the ‘in-‘ values take such a beating……? Does that make it ‘right’?

Here’s another way of looking at inhibition. In a sense inhibition aligns itself with the values of introverts. Being self conscious is the natural work of introverts. Its not an unnatural condition and its not the defeat of more objectively valued exhibition. Being self conscious is one of the things that everyday ordinary people justifiably do.

Of course I’m not suggesting that some inhibitions are not bad for even the least exhibitionistic of us. But then some forms of exhibition are not that great either. If there is a flaw in extreme exhibitionists you might say that they are not self-conscious enough. You simply cant judge a quality on the extremes only (and if that last statement isn’t sufficiently meta, I’ll have to try harder….). ‘Inhibition’ shouldn’t be a dirty word.

Inhibition means keeping it close, not getting carried away with things that are not integral. It means choosing the values that are specifically internal. It points to a direction that is inward. It places priority on the inherent qualities of our personality and experience. It means a focus on the realm on insight and imagination. ‘Inhibition’ has gotten as bad a rap as ‘introversion’ if not worse. It might be better if we thought of ‘integrity’ when we refer to ‘inhibition’.

And if we look at it this way is it any wonder so many natural introverts are drawn to making art? Don’t we often see art as being something intimate to the maker? Isn’t an activity that asks us to sit in often quiet solitary contemplation and investigation as the basis of practice a natural sanctuary for those with introverted inclinations? Isn’t an artist’s studio a refuge from the hurly burly of the outside world?

For instance, in today’s world we see art functioning as a way of discovering who we are as individuals. These are values that introverts seem especially inclined towards. We look inside and see how that manifests in the conditions of our world. We bring forth ideas and imagination to discover our own place in the world. We discover our path. And its because so many of us are drawn to the contemplative side of introversion that art is such a haven for our creativity. We discover who we are by uncovering the language of the things that move us. What things matter? How do I see the world?

But art wasn’t always like that. And people throughout history didn’t always face such existential confusion about their role in the world and their purpose. Creative expression wasn’t always something we do to figure out who we are, to write our own destiny. This seems as much an accident of history and culture as any other.

Take this brief history of Western art and craft.

(Thanks to Carole Epp for sharing this!)

The point being that until Michaelangelo made creativity a function of individual genius (exceptionality) and celebrity things were operating on a much less extroverted basis. Tradition ruled ‘art’ production, and the individual craftsman was more dedicated to expressing part of that culture. They expressed themselves as part of that culture. Artisans were the keepers of value, preservationists rather than gymnastic exponents of novelty. Expression was something internal to a culture. An impression of that culture, one might even say. Expression was defined by its internalism. Identity was also much more focused on belonging to the group than in standing apart from it. The individual as representing that culture rather than something uniquely risen up from it.

Times change. Only as creative expression took on the character of the unique and exceptional did art seem to break away from its substantial grounding in tradition. And looking at art as requiring this ample extroversion only pays deference to an historical cultural accident and not some objective necessity. The door to extroversion was thrust widely open as soon as we made celebrity part of the equation. And that seems worth thinking about……

Signature style, brand, selling the sizzle, reputation, celebrity… all these things have extrinsic value written boldly across them. And if the current world, the status quo, seems to value these things more is that a lesson we all need to respect and obey? Are there equally worthy requirements of intrinsic motivation that escape this set of values? And are they less precious, in and of themselves?

I sure hope not! But maybe we need to do a better job of figuring this out. Maybe we need to look at the problem a bit closer than we (perhaps) often do. Something to think about at least………

Peace all!

Happy potting!

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

2 Responses to Art and Exhibition

  1. From Brainpickings:

    “I do not understand why I seem able to make what people call art. For many long years I struggled to learn how to do it, and I don’t even know why I struggled. Then, in 1961, at the age of forty, it became clear to me that I was doing work I respected within my own strictest standards. Furthermore, I found this work respected by those whose understanding of art I valued. My first, instinctive reaction to this new situation was, if I’m an artist, being an artist isn’t so fancy because it’s just me. But now, thirteen years later, there seems to be more to it than that. It isn’t “just me.” A simplistic attitude toward the course of my life no longer serves.

    The “just me” reaction was, I think, an instinctive disavowal of the social role of the artist. A life-saving disavowal. I refused, and still refuse, the inflated definition of artists as special people with special prerogatives and special excuses. If artists embrace this view of themselves, they necessarily have to attend to its perpetuation. They have to live it out. Their time and energy are consumed for social purposes. Artists then make decisions in terms of a role defined by others, falling into their power and serving to illustrate their theories. The Renaissance focused this social attention on the artist’s individuality, and the focus persists today in a curious form that on the one hand inflates artists’ egoistic concept of themselves and on the other places them at the mercy of the social forces on which they become dependent. Artists can suffer terribly in this dilemma. It is taxing to think out and then maintain a view of one’s self that is realistic.


    The pressure to earn a living confronts a fickle public taste. Artists have to please whim to live on their art. They stand in fearful danger of looking to this taste to define their working decisions. Sometime during the course of their development, they have to forge a character subtle enough to nourish and protect and foster the growth of the part of themselves that makes art, and at the same time practical enough to deal with the world pragmatically. They have to maintain a position between care of themselves and care of their work in the world, just as they have to sustain the delicate tension between intuition and sensory information.

    This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that artists are, in this sense, special because they are intrinsically involved in a difficult balance not so blatantly precarious in other professions. The lawyer and the doctor practice their callings. The plumber and the carpenter know what they will be called upon to do. They do not have to spin their work out of themselves, discover its laws, and then present themselves turned inside out to the public gaze.


    The terms of the experience and the terms of the work itself are totally different. But if the work is successful — I cannot ever know whether it is or not — the experience becomes the work and, through the work, is accessible to others with its original force.

    For me, this process is mysterious. It’s like not knowing where you’re going but knowing how to get there.”

  2. Pingback: guest post: Art and Exhibition by Carter Gilles | Musing About Mud

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