Glengarry, Bob Ross and the razor’s edge of art competition

I just saw this and had to repost it: What if the Alec Baldwin character in the film Glengarry Glen Ross was the painter Bob Ross instead? What would he tell us about being a painter/artist?

Glengarry, Bob Ross.


– – – –

Okay, I’m just gonna use that same old brush, its working so well. Gonna tap that corner into a little bit of yellow ochre. Just tap the corner, I want very little paint.

What am I painting? Fuck you, that’s what I’m painting. You know why, mister? You drive to the store to get your paint supplies in a Hyundai, I drive an $80,000 BMW. That’s what I’m painting.

Painting is a man’s game. You can’t play the game, you can’t paint, go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in life: painting pretty trees. You know me, I always gotta put in a big, happy tree. You hear me, you fucking cocksuckers?

A-B-P. Always be painting. ALWAYS BE PAINTING. G-P-M-B.G, Get a clean paintbrush. P, Put some paint on that brush, M, Make some cute little clouds above some footy hills. B, Be sure to thoroughly clean your paint station afterwards. G, P, M, B!

You see this painting? This painting costs more than your car. You see pal, that’s why I’m who I am, and you’re nothing. You’re a nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good at sketching? Then turn your TV off and go sketch. This is The Joy of Painting, not Needledicks That Love Sketching.

You want to watch my show? Paint. Paint right now and do not stop until I have told you do so.

People tell me that my demeanor is “off-putting” and “alienating,” that I’m “abusive” and “scare away viewers.” You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksuckers?

You can’t take this, how are you gonna take the art critics? They’re wolves, vicious. “Bob Ross lacks technical sophistication.” “Bob Ross is basically just a landscape painter, and a mediocre one at that.” And that’s what they say about me. Bob Fucking Ross.

I can go out there with the materials you got. An easel from Michael’s. Some boutique paint from Etsy. I can go with that and make $15,000 tonight. In two hours. Can you? Can YOU? Go and do likewise. G-P-M-B.

Get mad, you sons of bitches. Get mad. You know what it takes to paint cozy log cabins that speak the softest parts of the human soul? It takes BRASS BALLS.

I like drinking a nice cup of hot coffee while I paint. You want coffee? Too bad. Coffee is for painters, not nothings like you. Put that coffee down, you think I’m fucking with you? I’m just kidding, you can have a cup too. It’ll be our little secret.

My poor sensitive artistic soul just shriveled up and bolted for the door! No wonder there are so many former artists, creative has-beens, and imaginative also-rans…… “Kids, put down your crayons and playdough now. Don’t waste your time being mediocre. You’re fired. You haven’t got the brass balls it will take to be real artists, so why bother doodling around, gazing at the clouds, and inventing fantastic new worlds? If you haven’t got the talent to sell it big time you are just crowding the market with failure. Go find something else to do……”

Actually, there is real competition trying to make a living as an artist, something my friend John Bauman reminded me of the other day. If the money spent on pottery is only so much, then you getting more of it may mean the rest of us have less to share out. The winner gets the car. Second place you get a set of steak knives…….

The question is whether I would ever be in line for the actual business you get and vice versa. Are we necessarily in direct competition? Is it like competing brands of dish detergent? Some are ‘new and improved’ and others are ‘floral scented’? There’s a budget version and ‘family size’ packaging? But despite the differences any version will actually do alright? Is it really true that one piece of pottery will ultimately do as well as the next? Is shopping for pottery like shopping for other commodities? Is the most important thing that a cup conveys liquid and a bowl shelters food? When we buy pots are those considerations alone at the top of our priorities? I’m not so sure….. We could be buying plastic cups at Walmart.

You see, the thing about art is that we tend to like what we like and not care for the rest. Unlike other goods, people don’t buy pottery because they need it (in the sense of needing dish detergent to run the dishes). Buying pottery is a lifestyle choice. We choose to be surrounded by what we understand as ‘The Beautiful’. And not everyone chooses the same way or sees the same values. It may turn out that two potters selling side by side would have entirely separate audiences. The work itself may be different enough that it could almost never appeal to the same people. Just because it looks like and functions as a mug isn’t necessarily proof that its something that every person in the market for a new handmade mug will be tempted to buy. That’s not how it works. We look beyond the function to make the match.

Then there may also be more personal reasons why customers buy these particular pots and not the others. There can be a history and friendship with the artist that leans in one direction and not the other. Customers with a home decorating agenda can also buy the stuff that goes with the rest of their house or matches their furniture. Pots are also decor. And that may simply mean my brown pots but not your bright red ones. Or collectors can buy the artists they have heard of but not really be interested in unknown artists. If it’s an investment some collectors will go with the best reputation, the highest status conferred. That may mean you but not me……

So it’s complicated. It may even turn out that we are actually in more competition with other commodities and experiences. If it’s a choice between a new mug and enough money to but a decent meal, if you are hungry enough it will probably be the food. Or at an art fair, you may be in the market for something new for your house or a gift for someone’s birthday, but it could be a painting or a pot, a scarf or a quilt, a sculpture or a birdhouse…… To some customers a pot will be no more attractive than a birdhouse. Either will do.

Buying our work is often like walking a razor’s edge. Customers can get sidetracked at the brush of the gentlest breeze. And what gets divided on one side and the other are often so dissimilar as to almost be alien. Walking that straight line from intention to your cash register is almost an epic tale of courageous dedication and commitment. Or complete intoxicated accident…….

Customers are looking for something more than just function, and yet we class these objects typically as generic cups, as generic bowls, as generic vases, etc. as if the form alone were enough to tell us what it is. But it occurs to me that the sheer variety of what we do and what we aim for is poorly contained by such simple words as ‘cup’, ‘bowl’ etc. It just seems that things get confused too easily by using too few words to distinguish what we are doing. Sure, its all pottery. Bowls are bowls and cups are cups. But those are functional definitions of material and of typology or use. Maybe we need more descriptive definitions that embrace aesthetic or technical details. We have those words, but it seems we neglect them in the comparative context of the broader field.

Mingei, Bauhaus, Folk, Funk, Slipware, and any number of other stylistic designations each have their own goals and sensibilities. A cup meeting the criteria of one style would mostly fail those of the others. They are almost irreconcilable, even with each doing an adequate job of conveying liquids….. Would a collector in the market for an Impressionist painting be satisfied with something Dada? Well, they are both painting, but they are not the same kinds of painting. Is figurative sculpture the same sort of thing as 3D geometric abstraction? If you like wood fired plates you may not accept a decorated Majolica one. Yes, they are both pottery. Yes, they may both be plates. But where it seems to count most, they are not the same kinds of thing. Are they?

What do Bob Ross and Pablo Picasso have to say?

We do have official competitions, juried shows, event prizes, purchase awards, and it’s true that if I get the blue ribbon it won’t go to someone else: But in what sense was I doing my thing as a competition with others? Did I see what they were working on in their studio and try to do them one better? Did I hire that kid to set off the firecrackers in their art fair booth? Is there anything I did that had me looking over my shoulder at what anyone else was actually doing? With envy? With contempt? Or possibly occasionally with admiration for the fine work being done? In the spirit of competitive attrition do we resent the artists that are as good as we think we are? Are we jealous of the work of artists that are thought to be better than us? Maybe we resent that the jury can’t appreciate what we are doing, that the audience likes other things, but are we seriously moved by a need to compete with these other artists? Are we moved to make the same sorts of things that their audience likes? Are we aiming at the same sorts of things, playing the same sort of creative game? Or do we simply make what we make and hope that we can educate enough people to see the value in what we are expressing? Uniquely expressing…..

“People can of course only speak for themselves and should not try to assign roles or goals for other potters……. As I get older I feel more and more strongly that each person must create a truth which is valid for themselves and which they can only hope will have meaning for others.”  – Warren MacKenzie, Studio Potter Vol5, No2 (Fall 1977) p.13

If we are in steady competition with anyone it is usually competition with ourselves. We like what we like. And as often as we also like what other artists are doing, maybe learn from them and try their tricks, we are still most often focused on ourselves. We are dedicated to making the stuff we like the best we can, and exploring the horizons as only we (or the select visionaries we call brothers and sisters) can see them. We are not often trying to make the same pot as the next guy, only better. Sometimes we copy, and occasionally it’s by accident, riffing on something we once saw and which we forgot was not of our own origin. We are usually doing different things. We are each running our own race, despite that we may be running it on what seems like the same track.

Its as if we were Olympic figure skaters: We step out onto the ice and give our best performance. And if we win the medal its not because we were competing with the other skaters but because we got the best out of ourselves. We did the best we could, maybe even better than we expected, and that is what we are aiming for.

There is a fundamental difference between how we look at what we are doing and how the outside world perceives us. The external judges stand outside and weigh our performance, measure how far we leapt, see how well things match the kitchen wall colors and the cabinets. But all those extrinsic criteria are only in the minds of those people. They may be looking for the latest in taupe. They may be looking for tight throwing and machine quality forms. They may be looking for floral motifs and decorative accents….. Even if the artist is aiming at the most broadly appealing art possible it still won’t be appreciated by everyone.

The things outside us that make it seem like a competition are a coincidence. They are generally not the things we are paying attention to when we are making our work. They are incidental. Extraneous. Possibly even irrelevant. Its like saying two mice are in a competition simply because you plunk them down at the ‘starting line’ and aim them at the ‘finish line’. One of them ‘wins’ and gets to nibble some cheese. How charming! How excellent!

The thing I have to remind myself is that culture never stands still: Things always change to benefit some at the expense of others. Always. Generations of new advocates rarely follow in the exact footsteps of their predecessors. So while it makes sense for me to defend pottery as form and function centered, there are other views with different priorities. The competition isn’t so much between the objects themselves as between the advocates and their values. One group spends time and effort (or their money) this way and the other spends it that way. The objects are simply the pawns of cultural imperialism and the shifts in taste: “Yay decoration!” “Boo utility!” “Yes to craftsmanship!” “Three cheers for expressiveness!” “Props for conceptual content!” “To hell with narrative!” “Stick that in your wood kiln and smoke it!” “Put a decal on it!” “Draw a bird on it!” “Stick your thumb through it!” “Slip trailing to the rescue!” “Brown is the new blue!” “Design trumps execution!” “What’s new in Fall colors!”……………….

Why would we ever think that a cup is just a cup? When is a handmade pot ever a generic thing? Maybe we need to be more subtle in how we discuss pottery……

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

2 Responses to Glengarry, Bob Ross and the razor’s edge of art competition

  1. Lets say we were talking about books. Broad categories like ‘cups’ and ‘bowls’ and ‘sculpture’ in ceramics might be fiction and non-fiction in literature. How many types of fiction are there? Historical fiction, mystery, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, etc….. We have different genres of both fiction and non-fiction, and the reader won’t likely pick up a romance if they were hunting for a hard-boiled detective yarn. They won’t pick up a comedy if they were in the mood for tragedy. They won’t pick up a space opera if they were looking for homespun stories set in colonial times.

    The point is that readers are not confused. They are educated about the differences and they know what sorts of things they like. Pottery customers often know what they like, but its harder to articulate. Not because the words don’t exist but because they are so rarely applied to pottery in that context. Potters themselves tend to overlook the differences in a familial wash of inclusiveness. We have Cup Shows, as if that were enough to distinguish what potters themselves are doing. We have Yunomi Invitationals, as if that description were enough to coordinate the awesome diversity under one roof.

    If I am looking for a new mug I can dismiss 95% of the mugs out there as not measuring up to my requirements. Not that this makes them ‘bad’, necessarily, but its as if I set foot in a book store looking for a new fantasy novel and I am confronted with the breadth of other genres that I have no current interest in. I may want to find a new author or one I am already familiar with, but my range is at least as narrow as ‘fantasy’. Who knows, I might be surprised by what I find. Not every author writing fantasy will appeal to me either, but I give them credit for upholding the ideals of the genre in some fashion…..

    Atmospheric pots appeal to me the most, generally, but not every potter firing that way makes pots I like, and not every pot by the potters I admire is equally good, in my personal estimation. But I might pick even a mediocre salt fired pot over a gorgeously flamboyant cone 04 decorated travesty. Ultimately, its what floats your boat. Cups are no more indiscriminately the same than fantasy is the same as detective stories.

    But its not as if the genres are necessarily hard and fast or exclusive. New genres are being invented every day. And there are cross overs. One of my favorite authors has a series that blends both fantasy elements (elves and undead psychic creatures) with noir style gumshoe detective capers (Check it out: Glen Cook’s Garrett Files). Some potters pots are equally blends of different genres. But the blend doesn’t invalidate the categories, it merely helps us understand what’s going on better.

    It just seems that we need to be more honest that the potters in the field are not all working on the same project, advancing the same goals. Every time I see a show that is dominated by highly decorated work I see the goalposts shifting away from more austere form oriented pots. And if that is the trend in contemporary ceramics, I have no problem with that. Lets just not pretend that these other pots can be judged side by side according to the same standards. Lets not pretend that they are lesser pots simply because they are undecorated. Even if we don’t like these other pots we should respect that some people do. Grouping them all together sometimes makes it seem as if the outcasts are simply failed versions of the ‘winners’. That’s not fair, and that’s not even accurate. We don’t judge romance novels by the standards of crime dramas, and we don’t judge crime dramas by the standards of romances. Do we?

    Isn’t it time we became more sophisticated in how we deal with pots? A cup is not just a cup…..

  2. Pingback: Does Pottery have genres? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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