“Potters’ Pride” and the ‘A’ game

“The truly simple and adequate reasons for making pots disappear from view when any gimmick is worth a try as an indication of originality and any publicity is worth chasing as a means to fame. To do something in order to appear original, to adopt mannerisms and play the eccentric in order to appear to be an artist; to pursue fame as a conscious objective are all symptoms of a sickness and examples of actions taken for the wrong reasons. In saying that potters should have the courage to be potters, one is merely saying that they should have courage to do things for the right reasons.” – Harry Davis, ‘An historical review of art commerce and craftsmanship’ Studio Potter, vol 6 no 1, p. 11

John Britt and I have been running a discussion last week on his blog over at The Clay Club. His initial essay had some really intriguing ideas and I thought it worth my own two cents to reply. He generously posted it on the blog, and then replied to clarify some of the differences in what we were talking about. It was a good conversation! I wish more internet interaction was like it. If you don’t know John or his work, he’s an incredible advocate for potters and a generous supporter of anyone interested in making pots. I’m so glad he’s on our side!

Anyway, my final response to his final response got posted too, and it might make sense to read the thread of conversation from the beginning, but I’ll go ahead and simply post my conclusions here. Check out the other posts if you want the background. There are some good ideas between us 🙂  The question John asks essentially comes down to this:

“I always find that people want to call themselves “Artists”. This is strange to me. Why isn’t it enough to be a potter? or a painter or a sculptor? No …people want to be called Artists….. Maybe I am wrong but that is my impression. I ask, “What is wrong with being a potter? “

My response:


I think you nailed it when you described the differences between the small ‘a’ and capital ‘A’ artist, and I think that differentiation illuminates very much of what we are talking through. Your argument seems mostly directed against the prestigious ‘A’ type artist also being humble potter sorts, and I agree that potters are such second class citizens of the art world that very little we do could move that celebrity focused side of our culture. There are no true potter rock stars the way that there are maverick musicians, sculptors, painters, etc. Maybe Grayson Perry is helping to put a more ‘socially acceptable’ face on potters (even if its occasionally in drag).

When art gets promoted to the mainstream populace its generally not potters who receive the attention. The publicity machine of popularizing artists shies away from what potters do. No wonder potters have learned to keep grounded and humble! Whatever tiny prestige we garner is more to do with our own niche than any broad cultural context. If you ask a random sample of average Americans to name ten musicians, ten painters, and maybe a sculptor or two, my guess is that they would have no trouble. If you asked them to name even one potter who was famous you’d probably draw blanks. At most they might know the name of the local potter selling at the farmers market, the academic professing at the University, or the camp instructor who teaches their kids each summer. We simply don’t know potters the way we know painters, musicians, and any other participants in the celebrity art culture.

The only point I’d make is that this division between big ‘A’ and little ‘a’ is more about perception than it is either what we do, how we do it, why we do it, or what kinds of things get done. The big ‘A’ seems to intentionally operate in the spotlight while little ‘a’ potters and their ilk eek out meager incomes in craft fairs, farmers markets, clay oriented galleries, and home studio sales. The game was decided before we even picked up a lump of clay: Potters will only ever be the poor cousin of the accepted ‘A’ artist culture. Its not that we did anything wrong. Its not that our work isn’t good enough. Its not that what we do doesn’t add real value to the world. Rather, its just that the scale we operate in is often insufficiently grand enough to warrant pedestals in the capital ‘A’ art market. Its too hard for gallerists to pay rent in SoHo selling $42 mugs…….

“It is not news that the art world caters to the 1%. It’s obvious that the outrageous prices for contemporary art mean that—although anyone can look—only the very wealthy can afford it. That is not news. The ongoing gutting of the middle class has affected my view as well. It means that absolutely no one except the very rich are now being addressed in these shops: anyone else who once upon a time might have felt this work was within reach is quickly vanishing from the economic spectrum. That demographic of potential buyers and visitors simply doesn’t—or almost doesn’t—exist anymore. Visitors and spectators who aren’t super rich are merely window-shopping.” David Byrne, I don’t care about contemporary art anymore, Oct 7th 2014

When you say, “It isn’t just an object but an artifact. It is presented in many museums, countries, talked about over all media, etc. It points to meaning beyond itself and calls attention to huge culturally significant things“, I have to point out that not everything we call ‘A’ art does these things. What you describe seems more felicitous to Modern conceptually oriented art or simply who has the biggest reputation. Most historical paintings that are venerated as capital ‘A’ art are simply paintings of this or that. The Mona Lisa. They are acclaimed because of their craftsmanship, their beauty, who painted it, what departure it represents from contemporaneous painting craft, etc. What you are describing is how the art fits into cultural practices and the publicity engineered to put it there. And if cultural practices are what makes things art, then it simply matters how we treat them rather than what they are. What this suggests is that pots are not necessarily or inherently different from some of the things that get pointed to as ‘A’ art. If we but treated them differently they would then be ‘A’ art……

And if not all ‘A’ art “draws attention to huge culturally significant things”, some potters such as Kathy King, Grayson Perry, and probably at least one out of four newly minted pottery Graduate Students actually DO use pots as a kind of social commentary. Pots are just one vessel for potential meaning, a canvass that creativity can be exercised on. Art isn’t one thing and pottery something else. They are kindred media for the creatively inclined to put to use. They are the agnostic tools of our personal expression.

Pots are only immune to being called ‘A’ art if that’s what we believe. Only, you have to wonder who told us to believe that and why. If you look deeper you see the weight of social conventions and contingent and arbitrary cultural decisions. The machinery that promotes some things as ‘art’ and others as not-art is part of a very profitable industry. If things are run according to their financial self interest alone its easy to see that potters will never get a break….. Its an institutional pattern.

There is no reason potters can’t just call themselves ‘potters’. I’ve seen some prefer to call themselves ‘Ceramics artist’ or ‘Ceramicist’ too. It turns out there is a lot in a name. Potters are not ‘A’ artists in the sense that we’ve already been voted off that island. And as second class citizens of the art world maybe we need a ‘Potters Pride’ movement to help us restore credibility.

Its not wrong to be a potter, even if top notch galleries would laugh you out the door, even if many academic art departments would shoo you away or stash you in the basement somewhere, sell off the wheels for more hand building tables. Potters seem tolerated in the art world at best. Not respected or really appreciated. And its easy to get defensive and stick to feeling good about the things that DO make us different. There’s nothing wrong with us. If we are made to sit at the back of the bus, well, maybe we can achieve some solidarity with the rest that are also sitting there. If its the establishment ‘them’ against the outsider ‘us’, maybe we can make the ‘us’ thing stronger….. “Potters unite! There is no shame in being called a potter!”

That would be one response to the discrimination against potters. The view I take is that the discrimination is simply wrong and it is unjustified in any way that I’ve ever seen proposed to make sense of it. I’d rather fight the injustice than learn to live with it quietly in some vaguely protected corner of the world. Too may artists playing the ‘A’ game have a big head simply because folks have told them they are ‘special’. Most of them are not. The fortunes of publicity are no true measure of a person’s value.

Its an accident of history that potters are respected so poorly in our culture. If we were living in Japan many of us might be acclaimed National Living Treasures. I simply refuse to play the game that has potters starting out with a raw deal. That game is rigged, and potters can never come out on top the way its being played. They tell us “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” but I think we should know who is pulling the strings and why. If the Emperor is wearing no clothes I’d rather shout that out than act dumb and ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ as he passes by. If artists are special, then so too are potters. Some of us, at least……

So maybe I’ll end this with agreement that, yes, potters do need to stick up for themselves. There is no shame in calling ourselves potters. But maybe we can do more than that. Maybe we can earn a place at the Art table, even if that means upsetting a few people who don’t seem to want us there. If potters deserve respect we may simply have to fight for it. A broader understanding of art, less controlled by the ominous warnings and prescriptions of gatekeepers, only seems to point to a larger brotherhood and sisterhood of creativity. The ‘A’ artists are mostly a mythology of publicity agents. Some are geniuses, true. But how many geniuses are hidden in the dark corners of the world simply through lack of opportunity? Potters lack that opportunity through no fault of their own. I’d like to change that.

“Today the borders between art and everyday culture have completely disappeared. Today art can be appreciated with the same ease and enthusiasm that we apply to film, fashion, cartoons, and pornography. You don’t need a sophisticated theory. All you really need are your senses. Yet somehow the art world manages to maintain the illusion that their art possesses some magical quality that is somehow absent from all other forms of culture. This, ladies and gentlemen, is nonsense.”


Watch all six of these videos for a great take down of ‘A’ art culture and the contingent historical dimension only few in the establishment seems to want to talk about….. Here’s Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor, with a ‘final’ word:

“Money and celebrity has cast a shadow over the art world which is prohibiting ideas and debate from coming to the fore,” he said yesterday, adding that the current system of collectors, galleries, museums and art dealers colluding to maintain the value and status of artists quashed open debate on art. “I hope this is the start of something that breaks the system. At the moment it feels like the Paris salon of the 19th century, where bureaucrats and conservatives combined to stifle the field of work. It was the Impressionists who forced a new system, led by the artists themselves. It created modern art and a whole new way of looking at things. Lord knows we need that now more than anything. We need artists to work outside the establishment and start looking at the world in a different way – to start challenging preconceptions instead of reinforcing them.”

And this ‘final, final’ word in response to the David Byrne piece quoted above:

“I agree with you that contemporary art has a problem, and that problem is the obscene amount of money passing through a globalized and elite corner of the art world. As an active member of said art world, I was embarrassed by the crap that came out of art fair week in Miami last year. I felt the heavy burden of “how am I going to explain this shit” when Damien Hirst unloaded his idiotic dots onto the world. I put up with awful museum curation that is little more than asset enhancement for private art collections that will be unloaded at auction houses a few years later. And I watch oil barons stock private art museums in old dairy barns with the saddest laundry list of safe, contemporary works and wonder how someone spending so much money on so much art could learn so little from it. Yes, the world is fucked up, and the art world is a reflection of that.

But….. I am over hearing from people within jogging distance of the Chelsea galleries that the whole of contemporary art is over; that art is no longer emotionally or intellectually fulfilling; that art is too expensive even for millionaires. I’m done reading articles titled “Why Does So Much New Abstraction Look the Same?,” written by people who haven’t figured out that Manhattan has bridges and tunnels and a subway. And I’m tired of pretending that a global elite has a monopoly on the expression of “ideas and feelings,” when there are thousands of people working every day outside of that slipstream as proof otherwise.” Ric Kasini Kadour

Stand up and be counted, potters.


That’s all from me!

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

3 Responses to “Potters’ Pride” and the ‘A’ game

  1. From Hyperallergic:

    The following “correspondence” was sent to us anonymously, and we publish it here as an archival document indicating the state of collector/dealer relationships in the 21st century.

    [NAME REDACTED aka Collector]: HI!

    I am a SF-based collector and co-founder of the [REDACTED] startup. I’m really into cool digitals that you art world types consider “art” (LOL). My friends and I were doWNing some dank organic Humboldt edibles last month and decided to start a collection with .5% of the money ($20 million) we made after we went IPO. Holla, amirite?! 😀

    We really like the work of xxxx and we would like to buy some for the newly established Awesome iCollection™. Please let me know if you have something available, like asap! 🙂

    We have not officially launched our website but peep the beta version — it will give you the spirit of what we do and what we collect and how cool we are.

    [NAME REDACTED aka Dealer]: Thanks for the e-mail and the interest in the works by xxxx. Unfortunately we have no works to offer at this point, but promise to keep your interest in mind.

    I should mention that you’re possibly the first person I’ve ever encountered who has a string of 34 social media accounts at the conclusion of your email. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s FurNation and MyFreeImplants?

    Collector: Thank you very much for taking the time to reply, and not replying all (I think I accidentally cc’d my life coach on that last one, yikes, that’s gonna get judgey). I’d be totally happy to discuss further on the phone or meet in person at one of the 200 art fairs you’ll be doing this year. Will you be at the new ArtGoa? If so, I have a sweet place I can recommend, and if you need a hook up (HINT, hint) I got ya. Or will you be at Art Basel Burning Man? Meet us at the Playa! We are hella interested in the work of another of your artists too so pleeeease keep us in mind ($$$) for her upcoming show.

    Dealer: Before we proceed, we customarily ask our clients the following questions to determine if they’ll be a good fit with our capital-artistic praxis:

    Benjamin or Adorno?
    Venice or Kassel?
    Krauss or Buchloh?
    Cenek’s digital earth art or Beheshti’s spatial practice? (no Googling)
    Top five major museum boards you are members of (must have annual budget of over $200M)
    Portrait by Warhol, Katz, or Peyton?

    Collector: Who? Wha? You people are hilARious!

    Dealer: I am afraid that you have no sense of purpose, and a strange capitalization habit, and that we will not be able to make your “collection” a priority.

    In all fairness, I am an eager supporter of not wasting my time or the time of others — though I do like to waste the time of my employees by sending them on errands to launder our gallery dog’s clothes, hand-deliver organic flowers to clients, or literally wait for paint to dry, but that’s neither here nor there, which sounds like a Lawrence Weiner piece, which I’m mentioning only because your collection tells me you probably don’t know who that is.

    Regardless, I have looked at your “beta” site, and I find that the decisions you’ve made so far provide a context that is not the right one for our artists.

    It may be that the collection is set up as an investment fund or to give it the appearance of a Philips auction catalogue — if you don’t know what I mean, that’s considered an insult in my circles, and it tells a fairly sad story of what is generally sold today and what will no doubt sell for more tomorrow. Best of luck with building whatever kind of “collection” you wish, but we will be unable to contribute. I think there are some galleries in Santa Fe or Boston you might be better off trying to connect with.

    Collector: TL;DR! Haha, jk. Thanks for speaking my language — I’m feeling a connection. 😀 Well, in the spirit of keepin’ it real, I’ll admit that our collection shows that we’re n00bs, and buy everything via Instagram (who knew Oscar Murillos looks like shit in person!?!). We started collecting at this year’s Burning Man (did we hug there?), we never used art advisors (though I’ve slept with 3 #humblebrag), and I never studied art (I do have that Masterpieces of the SFMOMA book on my tablet though).

    I see this enterprise as a Generational Push (zing!). I buy works from artists that I can relate to because we share a common history (like Beyoncé), hence my focus on the “emerging scene.” I am myself in my early 30s (gettin’ up there!). I have never sold anything and I am not intending to — I focus on incubating the VCs that incubate other VCs, so, like, selling art is a snooze-fest in comparison, y’know? And auctions, like Facebook, are for old people. I prefer art fairs (for the prosecco on tap … YOLO!)

    In your email you mention the choices I have made, but I have to tell you that the art world is very difficult to break into for non-insiders, which I can relate to because I’m in tech, and pretentious gallerists like you (unlike really pretentious VCs — btw do you know if Fred Wilson is still giving art advice to teens or something?) refuse to sell to brahs like me because “we do not provide an appropriate context.” #Trending: “Dolla dolla bill y’all.” Have you heard of this phrase? Or do you pretend not to know it when you sell empty space as conceptual art in Miami?

    People don’t really tell me no.

    Well, here is some wisdom I’m going to recycle in my next TEDx talk, and it’s gonna go viral: By freezing me out via stale elitism you force me to only buy the works that I can access easily. This makes the volatility of prices a self-fulfilling prophecy (holllaa, Ayn Rand!). So, have fun with that.

    On my side, I will still try to support what you consider “mediocre” artists that fit into my “context,” hoping that one day your world of privilege will come to an end and I can erect my own domain of privilege that will shut you out just the same. Oh wait, I already have. (Been hacked lately?)

  2. What’s in a name? Does how we self identify affect other’s perception? To whom is ‘potter’ derogatory and to whom is ‘Artist’ praise? Check out this study.

    From NPR’s Shankar Vedantam:

    In recent years, social scientists have tried to find out whether important decisions are shaped by subtle biases. They’ve studied recruiters as they decide whom to hire. They’ve studied teachers, deciding which students to help at school. And they’ve studied doctors, figuring out what treatments to give patients. Now, researchers have trained their attention on a new group of influential people — state legislators.

    Christian Grose, a political scientist at the University of Southern California, and graduate student Matthew Mendez wanted to see if state legislators were equally responsive to their constituents. For part of their experiment, the researchers sent emails to 1,871 legislators in 14 states with large Latino populations, asking the politicians what kind of documentation they needed to vote. They randomly assigned legislators to get the emails, but some emails came from a man named Jacob Smith, and others came from a man named Santiago Rodriguez.

    “No one had really looked at sort of what underlies legislator behavior,” Grose says. “Is there the possibility that legislators’ own biases regarding race and ethnicity might rear their heads and that legislators might ignore Latino constituents more than white constituents?”

    NPR’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam dug into the study. Here are some highlights with some additional context.
    Interview Highlights

    On the study’s findings

    There was a difference, and the difference had a partisan tinge to it. Democrats responded about the same to both names, but Republicans were more likely to respond to the man with Anglo name rather than the Latino name. …

    Grose told me that he and Mendez decided to look a little bit deeper at the data and they found something very interesting. In many ways, the difference was less between Republicans and Democrats and more between some Republicans and other Republicans.

    The researchers analyzed whether the Republicans in these states sponsored or co-sponsored voter ID laws. Now these are laws that are designed to reduce voting fraud. Critics of these laws have said that they disenfranchise minorities and others who are trying to vote for Democrats. Grose said that there was very strong correlation between Republicans who had failed to respond to the Latino constituent, and the ones who sponsored such laws.

    “Republicans who support voter identification are different than those Republicans who did not support voter identification,” Grose says. “Among those Republicans who did support voter ID laws, the Latino constituent was very unlikely to receive a response from their elected official. The difference was almost 40 percentage points, which is just one of the largest gaps I have ever seen.”

    On how to interpret the study’s implications

    An implication of the study is that the same bias that caused legislators not to respond to a Latino constituent also drove them to sponsor voter ID laws … but let me put it into context in a couple ways. The first thing is, lots of legislators — both Republicans and Democrats — did not get back to either Jacob or Santiago. So if a legislator is unresponsive, it does not automatically mean that he or she is biased.

    Second, this research does not establish cause and effect when it comes to voter ID laws. It’s fair to say the Republicans who sponsored such bills seem to be biased when it comes to responding to the Latino name versus the Anglo name.

    But we don’t know if that bias is what prompted them to sponsor the voter ID laws. That might be an inference, that might be a correlation, but it’s not a proven fact.

  3. I’ve
    Really been enjoying your blog lately. Looking forward to future posts. Keep up the good work.

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