Follow up to potters: How important is the instrumental argument?

Last post I argued that the arts making their case by instrumental means was actually counterproductive. If the value of art is that it does creativity and innovation well, not only does that displace the importance of art but it invites competing means to achieve those ends. If you read the original post my essay was a response to you may have been struck with the thought that arts advocates seem to put the cart before the horse: They want to argue that art is important because it leads to creativity rather than that creativity is important because it leads to the possibility of art in our lives…. Art is how we inscribe our will on the world. Its how we bring meaning to a meaningless Universe. Its what makes us human and expresses our humanity. Or, one of many important things that does so…..

Asking us to defend art as an instrument for some other ‘good’ simply seems like asking the wrong question. But potters probably know all about this sort of scenario. We are accused of making ‘merely functional’ work when you can get something from Walmart that is cheaper and functions just as well. If pottery is just about the utility of serving food, transporting liquids, displaying contents, and storing things, then not only do other materials and technologies do it as well, but oftentimes they do it better. If the point of pottery is its function as a traditional vessel, then clearly we are selling ourselves short. Cheap mass produced ceramics trump studio pottery on economic grounds, and plastic trumps ceramics on durability. If its just about function, why would we ever choose relatively expensive and breakable hand made pots?

So, potters have to argue their worth on other grounds. Handmade is itself a virtue. Supporting your local artisans is itself a virtue. Sophisticated and nuanced beauty is itself a virtue. Nurturing our own creative expression is itself a virtue. Perhaps even the tradition of pot making is itself a virtue….. These things don’t need to be defended: They are the things that justify our other actions and interests in the world. Place the horse in front of the cart….

When we are asked “Why handmade pottery?” we can’t simply answer that everyone needs a bowl to eat from and a cup to drink out of. Its not what makes us unique and its not why what we are doing is valuable. As potters we are attempting something more important than that. Isn’t it obvious?


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 advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Follow up to potters: How important is the instrumental argument?

  1. Lee Love says:

    This is from one of my artis’ts statements:

    The German philosopher Max Scheler called man Homo Faber, “Man the Maker.” Human beings are not content with only being consumers. We like to see some positive results from the life we live. Thinking of things with our minds and then making them with our hands is an essential way for humans to feel self-worth. Where functional pottery is concerned, the user of the work is as important to the ceramic craftsman as the musician is to the composer. Use is a way for people to become a part of the creative process. Pottery is a way to bring the basic elements of Nature: Air, Earth, Water and Fire, into our lives. Its use allows us to be present and appreciate beauty in a primal way.

    “We can make our minds so like still water that beings gather about us that they may see, it may be, their own images, and so live for a moment with a clearer, perhaps even with a fiercer life because of our quiet.” –W.B. Yeats

    • Nice Lee! That was well put! I especially like the analogy with users of pots being like the musicians in a orchestra rather than simply an audience. The fullness of life includes our participation in the songs being sung. We are more than witnesses: We are involved in the creation. We are complicit in how the world turns out through the choices we make, the things we nurture and encourage, and those we ignore and discard. It matters. And that’s why using a handmade pot is different from using a plastic or mass produced vessel. The world is constructed from the things we allow to flourish. And that is the power of our everyday capacity for art…..

      Thanks for chiming in!

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