Questioning quality

Is it better to play to our strengths than to repair our deficiencies? Is it better to aim high and fail spectacularly than to play it safe and survive unscathed? Is a weak subject well articulated better than an amazing subject poorly articulated? Is it better to have great answers to bad questions or tentative answers to good questions? Are the questions sometimes more important than the answers?

What do we mean by ‘bad’? In pottery does ‘bad’ mean that it doesn’t function properly? That one particular aspects of its function is inadequate in some way? Or just that the whole thing doesn’t work? Is quality strictly an issue of design or craftsmanship? Is there a pure form that something is supposed to look like? An ideal way of functioning? Or can we see a cup differently? Can different artists mean a bowl in different ways? Are they aiming at the same thing differently or at different things?

But how do we know what others are aiming at? If they only appear to be shooting at a target we recognize we can make the same judgments as we do for ourselves (“Bad bowl!). But what if it only seems to be the same target? What if the ‘target’ was there incidentally but they were aiming at something entirely different? What if our target was not their target? What if the point was not to hit the target but to see how far over it you could shoot? Or how wide of the mark you could make it? Something acts as a ‘target’ only because you are actually aiming at it. What we accept as a target can also be taken as an obstacle. Right? One man’s trash is another man’s treasure?

Beginners never aim at the same things more experienced artists do. Is that a failure of craftsmanship or of intention? If its just a matter of education who is to say WE are aiming correctly? For everyone who disagrees there is someone who sees it one way and someone who sees it differently. And they’ve probably each had an education to prove it. There isn’t one set of facts and values that we all aspire to know better. Education isn’t a continuum on one scale of correctness, but a menu with different options. ‘Better’ means what we have learned, but does it mean more than that? Different teachers different learning?

Or is it an aesthetic concern? Is it bad because it doesn’t please you, the maker, or you the audience, good because it pleases? Or is it bad/good in some sort of objective aesthetic sense? Is ‘bad’ just your opinion, or is it something you and others can be objectively right and wrong about? Whose opinion would serve to verify the objective ‘badness’ or ‘goodness’ of it? Is there an ancient manuscript that names ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or are we continuously editing and rewriting that book day by day? Can we change our minds, even, and does that say anything about the nature of quality? Is it circumstantial? Provisional? Contingent? Historical? Accidental, even?

If a pitcher aims at something specific and achieves it precisely can it still be bad even though in this one respect it was entirely successful? “The spout was all that mattered”, for instance, “and I nailed it!”? Is authorial intent everything, or not even that important? Was Van Gogh good despite not getting credit during his lifetime? Or does it only matter in the eyes of posterity? Or is it cultural, and the French may love Jerry Lewis but Americans think he’s kind of, you know, silly? Every time we turn around there is some other standard…..

Are only functional pitchers ‘good’? Can some parts be good and others bad and it still add up to something in itself good, or bad? Or is it always a mixed bag depending on the quality of the ingredients? Can a thing be good or bad despite (independently of) the quality of the ingredients? Is made from scratch ‘better’ than store bought? In some cultures they eat insects. Is that food? Can it be ‘good’? What is the difference between them saying its good and us saying its not even food?

Can a ‘sculptural’ pitcher be a good pitcher, or is it even a ‘pitcher’ at all? Can we say a poorly functioning pitcher is *not* a bad pitcher but simply not a pitcher? How do you make that determination? Is the idea of quality circumspect or bold, a compromise or a virtue? Does it take a stand, and is that stand always justified? Do we sometimes just admit that “This is what I believe to be true”, and leave it at that? That our belief is ungrounded?

If two or more people disagree should we say that quality doesn’t exist, that its only an opinion in the mind of beholders? Is it relativistic? Or is it pluralistic, and different people have their own legitimate justifications for calling things ‘good’ and ‘bad’? Or that disagreement is not a denial of quality but an admission that there are multiple ways of approaching it? And that sometimes the differences are merely the unjustified staring places from where we act in the world? Is quality always grounded? How do we demonstrate its value?

Don’t just say ‘bad’. I have no idea what you mean by it. What does ‘bad’ mean to you that you are asking this question? That seems like a ‘good‘ question đŸ™‚ A question worth exploring. For the sake of better clarity. We can agree that clarity is a good thing, right? What else can we agree on? Does it matter that we agree? Does it matter at all? Why does anything matter? We behave as if it does, but why? What does our behavior have to do with it?

Is it better to assume quality or ask questions about it? Is it better to take our own opinions as absolute conviction or as a tentative exploration of one fractional corner of the multiplicity of lived human experience? Are we authorities for all possible human value? What special insight do we have? Hubris?

These questions seem to be clues, if not actually important. Good questions show you are thinking. To merely assume something denies that it ever was a question…… (Beware people who tell you they have the only truth and everyone who disagrees is wrong. Most absolute answers are simply the product of poor questions, or an absence of question at all……)

Things to think about!

Peace all!


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, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

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