You know the phrase, “A face only a mother could love”? Well, potters’ pots are sort of like that. And while it might be easy to assume that mothers only have the prejudice of kinship to their advantage, they also have a certain expertise that others don’t. Mothers, by virtue of their closeness, can see behind the surface stereotypes of beauty to something deeper. A deeper beauty. Its not so much that they are blinded by their love, although caring surely factors in, its that they have spent the time and effort necessary to be in a position where their child’s better virtues are revealed. Beauty isn’t subjectively in the eye of the beholder and its not universally objective. You have to find quality. Invent it, even. You need to be positioned to uncover it where it hides. You need to be aiming in the right direction to catch it, nurture it, or craft it.
Some beauty is obvious, but we can’t just be seduced by that facile ease. The world is filled with beauty that we have to work for, that we need to be educated about, that we need to live with before it gets fully revealed. To find difficult beauty we often need to be as a mother to her homely child.
So the difference about ‘potters’ pots’ is that they are not the easy pickings. They escape the general public’s estimation of beauty and quality. Their importance is not accessible on the surface so much as revealed primarily to those who know a thing or two about the nuances. Pots that are not potter’s pots can have a general appeal that makes them easy to grasp, people can ‘get it’ much more easily, in a sense like low hanging fruit. ‘Easy on the eye’ also means that which we don’t have to strive for or strain to ‘get’…….
One of the stubborn intellectual problems is that the difference between the lower fruit and the less easily attained can often seem to reflect an inherent difference in quality. The mother’s prejudice for her difficult love in the face of the glamorous children with straight teeth, golden hair, and freshly scrubbed cheeks. When we know the joys of subtle beauty isn’t it sometimes easy to resent the 1000 watt smiles and obvious preening? We can make the leap that the low hanging fruit isn’t just easier to grasp but is therefor of lesser quality. Blandly accessible. Tawdry. Trite. If ‘anything good is worth working for‘ then it seems that unless you are earnestly working for it you won’t find much of real value. You have to earn the good stuff. If you wanted to distinguish yourself, why would you ever aim low, take the easy road? The difficult victories, we often feel, outweigh the easy charms…..
But why would that be necessarily true? Why would a low hanging apple necessarily taste worse, be less nutritious, than ones at the top of the tree? Aren’t they just different apples? Well, if you have two people picking apples from a tree, and one picker just grabs the apples in easy reach while the other takes time to build a ladder, shimmy up the trunk, crawl out onto branches, you can see why the person who spends that much extra effort would want to justify it somehow. Doesn’t it make sense to think that we are not just getting the higher apples but we are getting the better ones? We have so much invested in the exclusivity of the top apples that if they truly are no better than the low hanging fruit aren’t we essentially wasting our efforts?
Maybe not. We have the idea that the more experience we’ve got the better we see. One real advantage to climbing higher is that we can see more things at once. Our point of view encompasses more. Its more perspicacious. But is it thereby more ‘true’? Are we seeing more objectively? Think of it as something like the view from a telescope or microscope: is what we see with their aid ‘more real’ than what we see without them? Shouldn’t we say that both are real, but views of different things? Different orders of things? They don’t give us a ‘more fundamental’ point of view or a ‘more essential’ understanding. We are shown different sides of reality at least as often as underlying truths are revealed.
If we are right to say that there often is more going on beneath the surface than is apparent to the naked eye, isn’t it also true that the eye captures reality just fine? On its own? For certain purposes? Isn’t it the purpose to which we put our understanding that, in fact, qualifies what we are trying to know? Neuroscientists may have to use things like fMRI machines to understand how the brain works, but when they are crossing the street outside they will be happy they left it in the office……
Much of our daily operations are conducted on the level of low hanging fruit, and there is good reason for it. A lot goes on in the ‘human scale’. Our little boats float best on the surface. We don’t always breathe well outside the comfort zone. We can and should respect that.
But you can also see this implied stratification of quality played out in the perceived difference between amateurs and professionals. Everyone starts out an amateur. We simply don’t know enough to know what things beyond the obvious count as quality. Some things seem credible at first glance. So as beginners and novices we start out on the ground, picking the things that make sense to us, the low hanging fruit. Its only as we gain experience that we learn to see things a bit different. Issues such as craftsmanship start to loom into focus. We look beyond the low hanging fruit and aim higher. We invest more effort into learning subtlety and we explore nuance. We climb the tree.
And the higher we go the more things are revealed to us. We simply see more of the tree. If beginners can only see the tree as it looks from the ground, professionals can see the tree from inside the branches. They know more. They know different things to care about. Does this new perspective simply replace what we already knew about reality as seen from the ground? Does it give a more ‘true’ picture of quality? Are we, in fact, aiming at something objective or comprehensive? Doesn’t training make us better perceivers of reality?
But why is the ‘professional point of view’ necessarily better? Well, we want to say that as a beginner you start out with essentially a poor understanding. As you continue, you improve. There is real progress. Some things do count as worse and some as better, and the farther you advance the clearer this difference becomes. Right? If we can honestly say that the more experience under our belts the better we typically get, then there must be a continuum of quality, and beginners stand on one end and professionals stand on the opposite.
That has to be true, right? Getting your car worked on by the teenager down the block is not the same as getting it worked on by a qualified professional mechanic. You’d hire a professional engineer to build a bridge, not just a random stranger. In almost every field quality is circumscribed by qualifications. Without the necessary qualifications the quality of work simply won’t measure up. And that has to be true of artists as well, right? Aren’t potters’ pots the cream of the crop, the best of the best? Can we say that without reservation?
Maybe not so fast. Art is simply different from most other fields in that it flourishes the greater the exploration. It thrives in the cracks and crevices. It relies on breaking new ground, not simply staying the course. Its greatest qualification is sometimes the rules that have been broken and not the ones adhered to. And if quality is often measured in part by aesthetics, what’s to say one person’s point of view is ‘better’ than other peoples’? If you are building a bridge there is such a thing as getting it right, but if you are making a bowl, as long as it holds food is there really another objective way of ‘getting it right’? Once you’ve got the basic craftsmanship down are we even treading the same aesthetic lines any more? Why is one bowl necessarily better and not just a different apple from the same or different trees? I like Fujis and you like Mackintoshes. An objectively bad apple usually has more to do with the bruises and worms than what kind of apple it is. Doesn’t that really sum it up in the end?
The thing to remember is that quite often expertise comes at a cost. The more we focus on the finer points, the more we refine our vision and our demands, the fewer things we end up looking at. Our interest becomes exclusive. Our field of vision narrows. We become ‘specialists’. Rather than broadening our vision expertise has the frequent effect of tunnel vision. We see deeper at the expense of seeing wider. And the assumption is that this is always better, objectively, rather than simply more useful for specific purposes. We understand it to be an objective improvement rather than an instrumental achievement. And the more we learn to walk with a microscope in our hands the more we seem convinced that our way of looking is better than the rest. We do see deeper. But the truth is often that we are only looking at smaller and smaller parts of the world. There is truth not only in other places we can’t see from our narrowed perspective, but truth resides in the breadth of perspective as well. We shouldn’t let expertise go to our heads. If quality matters, then so too does difference…..
I just had this very conversation with Scott Cooper this past week. He reminded me that musicians are in pretty much the same situation as potters. Probably all artists are. The more you know about music the more your interests will evolve. Melody, rhythm, and harmony are so easy, right? Everyone who knows anything can do those things. What are the further things that deeply experienced professional musicians care about? Tone, texture, timbre, phrasing, style, improvisation, dissonance?
Isn’t it true that the more experienced you are the farther your interests range from ‘the basics’? Harmony and melody are the low hanging fruit. How can you not get the basics of rhythm? But even if the really good musicians still use them when necessary, isn’t it true that they often aim for other more ‘sophisticated’ things? Isn’t it true that once they have mastered the basics that the desire for challenge occasionally moves them in different directions? Doesn’t their sensitivity to nuance sometimes point them to areas of expression that are often lost on the general public?
We listen, but we don’t always hear. It sometimes takes an experienced ear to discern all the subtlety and nuance of a performance. Like with eyes and potters’ pots.
So, I started thinking about this issue again after moping at my display in the mega-event I am currently selling my pots at. As usual in an event of this kind I was depressed seeing how few of my pots had sold compared to the work of folks who were not aiming as high up the tree as I am. It seems that my pots are just not that accessible. What does that mean? Were my pots ‘less good’ than the ones that sold? Do I make ‘bad’ pots? Were they better, but simply so many pearls cast before swine? Or were they just different, and the public likes what it likes and I like what I like? Surely the latter.
One of the things that makes three dimensional pots accessible to the general public is that there often is readable information on the surface. Folks in our culture are not as experienced in making quality judgments about shapes and profiles. Some things, yes, we do put emphasis on knowing what we like and develop a bit of three dimensional sophistication. Cars come in all shapes and sizes and we generally have strong visual preferences for what we like. The human form matters to us, and we generally have strong preferences for what we like and dislike. But other than that we almost always read our interest from the surface. We are so used to looking at the three dimensional world through its two dimensional appearance that shapes are often simply flattened out as imagery. We watch TV and stare at computer screens. We read magazines and picture books. We are clearly used to getting an inordinate amount of information directly from the surface. This stuff matters to us. It has to matter to us in today’s world.
But that unfortunately sometimes prejudices us in favor of the surface alone. We look at a three dimensional object and we want to see something recognizable on its surface. If it isn’t decorated we feel it lacking. We look at the pot and our eyes focus on the surface while often ignoring the form. We look, but we don’t always see. The form cancels out. As if the pot were a raw canvas and what mattered most was the decoration applied to it. We are more visually sophisticated about surfaces. The low hanging fruit. The accessible information that has the best chance of broad appeal. Not the difficult love, not the face only a mother could love….. We simply don’t always have time for that…..
It may still be troubling to think of in this way. If you are a professional artist you have a lot invested in the priority of the way you look at things. Was your education simply wasted, after all? Don’t you objectively do it better than the amateurs who merely pick the low hanging fruit? Can’t we make real claims about quality in art?
Well. I’ve got plenty to say about that too, but I’ve already written a decent essay on how quality plays out in art. If you are interested you can read that here:
The thing to remember is that if its art sometimes the important thing is not that its ‘better’ but that you like what you are doing. Caring about quality and standards only ever reflects what things interest YOU. If you are looking at the tree from the ground, how can you not care about the fruit that is staring you in the face? And also not care as much about the unreachable upper branches? If you are looking at the tree from its upper branches, how can the fruit within your grasp not matter more than the ones further down? And if you are still climbing, you may decide that the ones even higher matter more. But its all fruit, and making inferences about quality only reflects what we are interested in, our aim, rather than necessarily the things aimed at.
There may be nothing inherently wrong with the fruit from different parts of the tree. Lets not turn discrimination (the power to see differences and explore tastes) turn into discrimination (the judgment against things based on their difference). That seems important. We need to look without prejudice, if possible, or at least keep an open mind. And that can occasionally be difficult for ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ to reconcile themselves with (“Oh pride, don’t fail me now!”)…..
Make beauty real!