Pottery, art, music, what have you, are all facing a future that has alarmed folks with a vested interest in what they might like to think of as ‘the status quo’, even the way things were ‘supposed to be’. The reality is that conditions have changed, and folks making a living from these sorts of creative activities are in new competition with practitioners who are less vested, perhaps have less experience and training, and do not aim in the same way at the same notions of quality.
According to mainstream public perception there isn’t necessarily an obvious difference in the work made by trained professionals and folks just starting out or experimenting, and this gets under the skin of folks trying to eek out a living doing something they have devoted large parts of their adult life to do. It is a condition that is encouraged by the fact that the entry point which gatekeepers once guarded so vigorously and forbiddingly is now often in the hands of the artists themselves. Think etsy. Think youtube. These days anyone with a wheel and a kiln in the basement can get their work out into the world. And they can do this far more easily than your grandma and grandpa ever could….. Any person with an internet connection, a bank account, and a UPS accessible street address now has a virtual store front from which to operate. Its as easy as that. Things have changed.
Which in my mind is actually a good thing! Parts, at least. I teach amateurs and hobbyists, and I am thrilled whenever one of them takes the plunge and offers their work up to the world to be appreciated. And I’m not under any illusions that it necessarily has the same high standards that serious professionals have mastered through years of toil and service to their craft.
But for me that’s not the point. The audience isn’t deciding what’s good, it merely decides what it likes, and there should be complete freedom to choose from any possible source to meet that demand. I’d hate to be the fascist who said that folks couldn’t like what they like or could only choose between the selections that some higher authority vetted and offered them. The reality of our situation is that there are no perfect solutions. Its a mixed bag. Every benefit of flooding the market with amateur work is a grain of sand in the undies of some professional. It often depends on where you stand for how you feel about the change….
Rocco Landesman notoriously confronted this issue when, as head of the National Endowment for the Arts, he opined that there was an oversupply of art and artists, and that while the demand for the arts is holding fairly steady, the number of practitioners had grown by leaps and bounds. That’s the new reality, and its easy to see how this has huge consequences for anyone trying to earn a living from their creative pursuit.
And of course there has been considerable backlash. Its not always clear what our options are. There are personal strategies and field wide agendas. Its easy to throw blame about: The ones diluting the market are at fault, or the ones holding the last vestiges of institutional privilege. But picking sides is probably missing the point rather than dealing with the situation itself. Amateurs won’t go away, and the reputation manufacturing Art Establishment is still clinging to its aura of authority with a clenched fist. Its a divided world, in a sense, and there are just more players looking to get their share of the same spoils…. Is there a way for everyone to make a go of it?
Some take it that its no longer as much about the art, the product, and more about the marketing, positioning one’s self in the marketplace, and engineering success through entrepreneurial nuos. Others see that its no longer strictly necessary, desirable, or even practical to design a lifestyle that is all in on the art making: Being part time is not a lesser version of being an artist. The need to be a professional in the sense of being a ‘full-time artist’ is diminishing and seems more illusory now than ever before. But every option I’ve seen discussed thus far serves relative needs at best. All our ‘good’ options seem to satisfy part of the dilemma at the expense of something else just as important. Or suit some but not others. Like I said, there seems to be no perfect solution…
Anyway, more and more professional artists are venting their frustrations, and it can be illuminating to listen to their ideas. These past few days I got to peer inside a number of minds wrestling with these issues. The first I’ll share is a podcast interview that Ben Carter conducted with the esteemed potters Doug Peltzman, Sunshine Cobb, and Jason Bige Burnett. The second rant was lifted from the blog of Classical Music composer Aaron Gervais. Click on the link below and listen to Ben’s interview. Its plenty more interesting than the mere snippets I excerpted.
Ben’s Interview: (minute 36:00)
JBB “I think the training is the most significant and most important factor really for being educated in your craft, if you’re wanting to really dive in and become, quote unquote, “successful”.”
SC “But also I think if you want to elevate the field in that way, if you want more people collecting pots, more people understanding how wonderful our handmade objects are. If we’re putting pots out in the world that are crap that’s not helping our industry at all. And coming into contact with so many collectors and people these days where a lot of that culture’s being lost because we haven’t created that new culture to pick up the slack in collecting and educating them about that and we need to lift up our field. Nothing makes me more crazy than when I see bad pots out in the world.”
JBB “Or when they’re pricing their pots the same as a professional in the field.”
DP “I feel like if this community grew any more I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I’ve been lucky enough that the work that I make goes out in the world and it doesn’t really come back, you know, I sell it. So when we talk about this idea of wanting to disperse handmade pottery to a wider net I’m suspicious of it a little bit, because I don’t think most of the world deserves our work, to be very honest. I just don’t know that they’ll appreciate it in the way that we do. And maybe that’s our bad on not educating them on the importance of it, but maybe that’s also a ‘careful what you wish for’ kind of thing…. If that does happen and there is all of a sudden this need for this stuff, how does that change the work? How does that change NCECA, and that community, and that smallness of it, that wonderful thing that we all love about it? That we all do kind of know each other, that there is this degree of separation: Will that be lost? Because, yeah, we do live in a disposable world and our work is counter to that…. I didn’t mention this but my whole childhood was spent on a skateboard, so for me to be this kind of outsider always, kind of running from the law, a potter, there’s a lot of analogous things there as far as we’re kind of this entity that’s separate from the larger society. And that’s one of the things I love about it.”
And now from Aaron Gervais:
“In certain respects, the situation in music parallels the restaurant business: industrial fast food still feeds the most restaurant-goers by far, especially when you look at growth in the developing world. But as in music, there has also been an explosion of culinary innovation. A coterie of haute cuisine chefs have captured the imagination of foodies, and a privileged minority of well-to-do connoisseurs now indulges in the finest array of culinary virtuosity the world has ever known.
In music, for some reason, we don’t follow this model. In music, there is no difference in pricing between “fast food” and “haute cuisine,” especially when it comes to recordings. An album of new classical compositions (or your preferred form of art music) still sells for the Taylor Swift price of $10–$15 per copy or $0.99 per track, which is the equivalent of trying to price molecular gastronomy to compete with a $5 value meal. There’s simply no way to not lose money doing this: the resources, talent, and expertise required to produce a top-notch album for an art music audience don’t make economic sense until you get to that $300-a-bottle price point. Perhaps then we should stop trying to compete with the musical equivalent of Bud Lite.
So what’s the alternative? We can compete on quality instead of price. That’s what the modernist chefs have done, after all. If you charge a three-figure price for your album, you might sell fewer copies, but the wider margin might make it possible to turn a profit. Who knows, you might even sell more copies than you would have otherwise if the price of your album becomes a mark of prestige in and of itself. Hey, it works for designer handbags… Either way, competing on quality gives you an important advantage: a shot at actually making money at the sub-mass-market level. Which is a good thing, because there is a lot of great music that might appeal to 20,000 people but not to 20 million.
In fact, if enough artists followed this path, we might be able to shift the collective thinking about the value of music in society, reclaiming some of the attention away from the disposable superstars. After all, this seems to be happening in the world of food, where haute cuisine chefs have attracted the interest of the general public and spawned a plethora of knock-on cultural effects: the rise of amateur food blogs, a renewed focus on quality ingredients, an invigorated culture of dinner parties—even the “fast casual” chains that are slowly chipping away at the burger-and-fries hegemony…. It would be great to have an alternative high-margin offering, one that better reflects the value of music and doesn’t encourage people to buy worthless junk destined to end up in desk drawers or landfills.”
Eh… yeah. Like I said, no easy answers…..
Food for thought, at least!
Make beauty real!